Thursday, April 2, 2009
The Implications of Mass Unemployment Amongst China's Migrant Workers for State Political Stability
Social unrest; it is a topic that is broached in nearly all newspaper articles and academic publications detailing mass unemployment among China's migrant laborers. Most feature roughly the same structure, beginning with an overview of the financial crisis’s effect on China, moving on to a few quotes from migrant workers on the jobs they have lost and the challenges they now face, and finishing up with a scintillating paragraph that ties the piece together and either explicitly or implicitly notes that the mass-layoffs may pose a systemic threat to the continued leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. While the Washington Post’s Ariana Cha and the New York Times’ Keith Bradsher are certainly not the only journalists utilizing this style, their recent pieces epitomize this approach to writing about the nongmingong: Ariana Cha's "As China's Jobless Numbers Mount, Protests Grow Bolder;" Keith Bradsher's "China's Unemployment Swells as Exports Falter."
One can’t blame Cha, Bradsher or any other journalist for composing their articles in this way. It’s what sells. Amongst both America’s masses and its elites, the idea that the CCP’s leadership is unsustainable, a belief largely inspired by the “end of history” mindset that Western liberalism will eventually spread across the globe, remains extremely sexy. But are these writers on to something? Do China’s unemployed migrant workers really threaten state political stability?
I don’t believe they do. Though social unrest is certainly a possible consequence of mass unemployment among China’s nongmingong, it isn't likely to manifest in any sort of systemic threat to the continued leadership of the CCP; at least not anytime soon. So why are so many people concerned about the potential for migrant laborers to engage in collective political violence? Are their worries completely unfounded?
It is easy to see why one may believe that China's migrant workers present a serious threat to state political stability. Prior to the fall of 2008, China’s floating population was already a potential source of social unrest. For years, the nongmingong have been mistreated and underpaid; this while their urban counterparts continually reaped the benefits of economic development. Some researchers, including myself, were already looking into the likelihood of China's migrant workers disrupting the status quo, engaging in collective political action aimed at bettering their condition. The advent of mass unemployment within the migrant worker class upped the ante, adding further hardship to the lives of the nongmingong and creating a general state of agitation that would seem conducive for various forms of social unrest. The multitude of protests that erupted in southern factory towns as factories closed in the lead-up to Chinese New Year seemed to offer a preview of things to come, lending further credence to the idea that migrant workers may now present a legitimate threat to state social stability.
Concern over the possible negative ramifications of unemployment within the migrant labor class has only been heightened by the dour tone employed by some of China's own officials when discussing the issue. A lengthy article recently published in “Outlook,” a weekly magazine produced by the state-run New China News Agency, identified 2009 as a potentially extremely challenging year, likely to feature a high tide of “mass incidents” (quntixing shijian) and the threat of large-scale protest movements composed of disaffected migrant workers and unemployed recent college graduates. (Outlook article; Chinese only)
There are several reasons, however, to doubt that such a mass movement will develop. Three of the most important were recently expounded by Han Dongfang, director of Hong Kong’s China Labor Bulletin: “first, they [China’s migrant laborers] are not together; second, they are not organized; and third, they are (busy) looking for jobs.” Han has a point. A disparately located, unorganized, generally occupied group of people hardly makes for a potential mass movement.
There are other reasons, as well, to question the idea that China’s migrant workers represent a major threat to state political stability. One lies in the fact that the lay-offs aren’t likely to create a widely felt sense of desperation among the nongmingong. As noted in a report recently released by China’s Bureau of Statistics, the vast majority of those who were laid-off still have land at home that they can farm. My own experience in a small Henan village over chun jie (Spring Festival/Chinese New Year) reinforces the survey’s findings. Laid-off migrant workers there weren't delighted to be jobless, but neither were they completely devastated. One young nongmingong's comment on the matter sums up the way most of China's migrant workers seem to be approaching their newfound unemployment: “job or no job, as long as I have land to farm there is no problem.”
For some, the reality that the economic crisis has led to far fewer job opportunities for migrant workers still hasn’t set in. “Sure, it was the direct cause of my being laid off, but there must be opportunities in other cities,” they think. This thought process may seem naïve, but it is entirely understandable when placed within the context of the typical nongmingong’s life. Migrant work is, by nature, both transitory and nomadic. The disappearance and reappearance of jobs is a part of the migrant worker’s reality; one that rarely has a conspicuous underlying logic. Those in the floating population who haven’t quite come to terms with the full effect of the economic crisis won’t be overly frustrated until they have traveled to several cities, exhausted their list of contacts, and find themselves still unable to locate a job. Only at that point will they realize that their inability to find employment isn’t due to a run of bad luck, but rather due to the breakdown of the global financial system. By then, months, maybe even years, will have passed, the economy will (according to projections by Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve) be on the upswing, and the Chinese government will have had ample time to react to the crisis.
Indeed, the Chinese government has already begun to respond to the issue of mass unemployment within the migrant labor class. Its method of doing so is the topic of our next post, so I won’t go into great detail here. I will, though, report that it seems to have struck the right chord with the nongmingong. My own research has yielded countless examples of migrant workers who find hope in Beijing’s attention to their plight. Hope, of course, is not necessarily eternal. Ultimately, the government will have to make good on its promises or face the prospect of millions of migrant workers who are not only jobless but also frustrated at the inability of their leaders to aid them. As long, however, as the nongmingong believe the government is doing its best to address their needs, they aren’t likely to engage in any form of collective political violence.
There are, without a doubt, reasons for the world at-large, and the Chinese central government in particular, to be concerned about the implications of large-scale migrant unemployment for state political stability. The likelihood of the nongmingong presenting a viable threat to the continued leadership of the CCP, however, is extremely minimal. There will be more “mass incidents” this year than last, social unrest in general will rise, and there is the distinct possibility that migrant workers may “piggy-back” onto other protests initiated by college students or other dissatisfied Chinese citizens. None of this bodes well for the Chinese government. Neither, though, does it equate to a political doomsday for the CCP.