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.

48 comments:

Ray Deng said...

Oh, man, I agree COMPLETELY.

If there's any potential for social unrest, it would not be in China's floating population, but in the number of unemployed college graduates. They are many.

They not only have more human capital than migrant workers to organize, proliferate and unite into a massive body of political threat, but they also seem to have more of a reason to do so: the financial crisis seems to have forced the Chinese government to break the promise of employment upon graduation.

Ryan Tepperman said...

Exceedingly interesting argument. I've never heard anyone make the case that unemployed migrant workers won't be a cause of great instability in the short-term, but it does seem quite plausible.

I've got two points on this topic. First, let us assume that while at present, most migrant workers believe they can find new work, the difficulty of finding any will leave them disillusioned in three to six months with their situation (seems a plausible number given what I've heard about saving rates among the nongmingong and the unemployment situation). At this point in time, the economic situation will still be bad globally--and probably deteriorating. Wouldn't this result in large numbers of unemployed workers becoming susceptible to those who advocate radical change?

Second point along these lines is that I wonder to what degree the sheer size of the Chinese migrant population plays a factor. If just 5 million of the 140 million living outside their local township are greatly disatisfied with their situation, and one of every say, one thousand people has the latent ability to mobilize people to their cause, that seems like enough people to start a movement against the PRC. I guess what I mean is, how do we take into account the law of averages, when dealing with a country the size of China? With so many people involved, dosen't this make it more likely that despite the high probability against it, enough nongmingong will: concentrate in one location, organize themselves, and have the purpose of protesting the failures of government? (other means of redressing their grievances being unavailable)

One last question: is there enough farmland for the migrant workers to make a living off of it? And what happens if there is another drought, or if the effects of the one recently reported were underestimated?

Robert D. O'Brien said...

Thanks Ryan for your thoughtful and extremely insightful questions. Let me tackle them one-by-one.

I think you and I have similar thoughts on what the situation may look like three to six months from now. Indeed, I advanced an argument similar to yours in a comment on Dr. Victor Shih's Blog - "Elite Chinese Politics and Political Economy:" (http://chinesepolitics.blogspot.com/2009_02_01_archive.html)

Unless the government acts quickly to aid the country's migrant workers, those who remain unemployed (11 million in urban areas, millions more in rural areas) are likely to grow increasingly disillusioned with the system. Where we differ is on the idea of a person who advocates radical change organizing them and igniting social unrest. There is no evidence that such a person or persons exists. Moreover, I would be surprised if anybody heeded his or her call unless they thought the prospects for success were decent, which they are not. If such a movement does erupt, I expect it to be small, localized, and probably started by other disaffected groups, such as recent college graduates who can't obtain employment.

You asked how we account for the law of probability when dealing with issues in China. I think that this is a question that many studying China wrestle with regularly. My own personal opinion is that it is not necessarily the number of people involved in a movement here that is important. Rather, it is the stage for their movement as well as their "rank" in society that really matters. Tiananmen Square was so powerful because of the historical significance of the protest's location, the square's proximity to the seat of government, and the fact that many of the participants were students from China's elites universities who had some supporters within the government (Zhao Ziyang being the most notable). For the migrant workers to make their voices heard, they would need an absolutely gigantic show of solidarity as well as a voice among the powers that be. Currently, neither seem likely.

Your final question was on farmland. Specifically, whether or not the migrant workers have enough farmland to guarantee subsistence. The simple answer is "I don't know." Through conversations and my own trips to the countryside, I have been told that those returning home shouldn't have any trouble surviving, but won't be able to enjoy all of the "luxuries" (be it soda or cell phones) that they have had in recent years. I am sure, however, that this is not the case everywhere. As you noted, North China suffered its worst drought in 50 years this last winter, possibly making it much more difficult for people to grow and sell their crops. I've talked to some people from affected areas who noted that they were able to use reserves from deep wells to combat the aridity, but, again, I'm sure there were those who weren't so lucky.

Let me know if you have any further questions.

Robert

Ryan Tepperman said...

I hadn't really thought of the stage or prestige the leaders of an anti-government movement would need--good of you to bring it up. And thanks for the update about how some of the farmers were handling the famine--although I keep hearing about how environmentally degraded the water is, to the point that I have to wonder how safe their deep well reserves are.

As to the rest, I know there dosen't seem to be any person or persons advocating radical change and organizing people and inciting social unrest-- I probably should have been clearer, but this is what I was asking about with my question of the laws of probability and China. With so many people adversely affected, is it not likely that some of these people will have the leadership, organizational capabilities, and motivation necessary to create such a movement--and that there will be enough of them to do so, given the statistics involved?

And I know organizing disparate groups in resistance to the status quo has long been a problem in China, but with advances in the transportation networks and communications technology, isn't it now substantially easier than was the case at Tiananmen in 1989? Just spitballing here.

Something else I forgot to ask about in my last post: I've been trying to figure out why, if the Chinese economy is slowing down, and the government should be preparing for greater dissent, Chinese foreign policy seems to have become particularly active over the past four months or so, with state owned-companies buying large stakes in Western companies, deploying a new patrol to Somalia, etc. Were these actions taken by disparate sections of the government, pursuing their own individual interests? Or were they part of a larger strategy by the PRC leadership? Either possibility seems somewhat odd to me. Any light you can shed on this subject?

Ryan

Anthony Circharo said...

http://english.people.com.cn/90001/90776/90882/6634775.html

"More than 20 construction workers occupied a 17-floor block of flats, demanding their wages, in Beijing on Friday."

People's Daily doesn't say if they are migrant workers...but given that they are employed in the construction industry, it's a good chance that they are migrants.

Ryan said...

Hi. I came very late to this blog (through Ray Deng incidentally). Great topic.

I can't help but think that it is all a bit loose though. For starters- this whole "government" argument (such as the interplay between yourself and Ryan in the comments) is a tad simplistic. The local government is not the central government, and neither is it treated /viewed as such by migrant workers (on the whole- yes, we all know that you can't speak unilaterally for such a disparate group). This explains much of the theoretical tension between ideas in your piece. Sun Liping writes very well on this topic.

Secondly-who actually does make the case that migrant workers will be a cause of great instability? Your initial strawman argument seems a bit off. For starters

"For years, the nongmingong have been mistreated and underpaid; this while their urban counterparts continually reaped the benefits of economic development."
Err, mistreated and underpaid compared to who? Compared to urbanites, yes (although let's not forget the effects of the xiagang program on said urban areas). But, as you rightly note elsewhere on this blog, nongmingong are the rockstars of their villages, and THAT is their comparison point, not urbanites. Now, if you were to make an argument that rural people in general get screwed...

"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 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."

Who organises these protests? Where is your research saying that the ORGANISERS are nongmingong ? (not saying it doesn't exist, although if you have some, publish it quick smart, it would be pretty hot). Where are the incidents where nongmingong protests have upscaled?

Nongmingong are fertile fuel for small scale protests yes. But anything bigger- are you serious? Where is the evidence?

Finally, in regards to Ray's point on college grads- yeah, there are a lot of them. But mainly in the city, where the (central) government is pretty good at keeping a lid on things. It is when they go home to the country side that the trouble might start...

Anyway, great blog. Hope to read more stuff on it, or more stuff by you on the topic, in the future.

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