In this season of political campaigns, the Republican and Democratic candidates have been pointing their fingers at China as one of the chief causes of America’s economic malaise. At the same time, China is struggling through its own leadership transition, while facing the daunting problems of economic slowdown, intraparty division, public discontent, a highly charged territorial dispute with Japan and serious misgivings over US policies.
On the last Friday in September, after considerable delay, the Chinese Communist Party announced that its Eighteenth Congress would be held on November 8 to approve a predetermined slate of new party leaders. Agreement on the slate is of utmost importance, because the new leaders will most likely run the country for the next two five-year terms. Normally, at this point the members of the CCP Politburo’s Standing Committee—the highest decision-making body in the country—would already be agreed upon, but this is the first time in the CCP’s history that its top leaders are not being picked by either Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping. Without an arbiter of such stature, different factions within the party continue to squabble over the distribution of power. The most serious challenge to the status quo has been mounted by Bo Xilai, the former party chief of Chongqing (population 32 million), who lobbied openly for a seat on the Standing Committee.
Bo offered his “Chongqing Model” as the formula to address public anger over official corruption and wealth polarization, which is threatening China’s stability. In Chongqing, Bo had imprisoned thousands of corrupt officials and dispensed benefits to the poor and the elderly. An integral part of his program was “attacking dark corrupt forces and singing red songs,” in an effort designed to bring China back to the glory days of the founding of the People’s Republic. Ultimately, Bo was challenging the party to return to Mao’s socialist ways by studying his teachings, lest it be overthrown by a crisis of legitimacy.
While many believed Bo to be a demagogue and as corrupt as other officials, his supporters in the party and in the country’s intellectual circles argued that he was the only top leader who recognized the urgency of the national crisis and was doing something about it. Even liberal reformers who might otherwise have been suspicious of Bo used his challenge to the establishment as an opportunity to push through their own reform agenda, such as the establishment of a national social security system for the elderly. After all, Bo was responding to heightened public anger over the CCP’s abuses, echoing the sentiments of ordinary citizens tired of officials enriching themselves through their control of industries, of officials’ relatives making millions through their connections and showing off with their Ferraris, of the misappropriated billions spirited out of the country to the United States, Australia and Canada through offshore bank accounts.
The frustration of the common people has manifested itself in a dramatic increase in massive demonstrations, in a country that normally has zero tolerance for public displays of disaffection. In the early 1990s, there were 8,700 such “mass incidents.” Their number grew to more than 87,000 in 2005 and an estimated 180,000 in 2010. These demonstrations have also become more daring. In late 2011, residents of Wukan, in Guangdong Province, kicked out brutish local officials and “occupied” their village for two weeks. This summer in Qidong, near Shanghai, thousands of citizens angry at the bribetaking that allowed the construction of a toxic waste pipeline stormed city hall, overturning cars, beating up police officers and humiliating the mayor by stripping off his shirt.
It’s clear that reforms are critical for maintaining China’s stability. Even outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao said, “We must press ahead with both economic reform and political structural reform.” Without it, he feared, the country risked another “historical tragedy” like the Cultural Revolution. (The party’s sensitivity to public anger was evident when The New York Times ran a major front-page story in late October exposing corruption among Wen’s relatives. Within hours of its posting, the Chinese government blocked access to the paper’s Chinese- and English language websites.) Yet party leaders seemed more concerned by Bo’s challenge to their power. Just minutes before the date of the Eighteenth Party Congress was announced, the public was informed that Bo had been expelled from the CCP on charges of taking bribes, womanizing and covering up his wife’s murder of a British national. By tying Bo to a sordid scandal, the party bosses hoped to immunize themselves against his criticism, while killing off attempts to defend him. The party has also issued orders requiring all military leaders to publicly pledge their loyalty to the CCP and to party chairman Hu Jintao.
Though Bo is now in detention and under criminal investigation, the problems he spoke out about remain. If anything, the people have become even more disillusioned. China has seen a steady slowdown in economic growth over the past year; meanwhile, the prospect of a clash with Japan lingers, and the country’s wobbly relationship with Washington has come under increased strain during the US election season.
American policy toward China is conflicted, with economic ties pulling in one direction and national security concerns in the other. As a candidate, Barack Obama announced plans for a comprehensive US-China relationship. But once in office, his administration—then struggling to address the Great Recession—assumed a rather deferential attitude. After all, in recent years China has been the largest foreign creditor of the US Treasury and one of America’s primary trade partners. In the first year of his presidency, Obama avoided a potential dispute with Beijing over Tibet by declining to meet with the Dalai Lama. The next year, the two had a private meeting without press coverage, and His Holiness had to leave the White House through the back door.
On the other hand, wary of China’s growing military presence in Asia, the administration began reformulating US alliances with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and India, even stationing Marines in Australia to counter Beijing’s rising power [see Michael T. Klare, “Obama’s China Syndrome ,” December 12, 2011]. But those efforts have been piecemeal and erratic, and American policy on China continues to drift from one crisis to the next. Washington remains distracted and overextended as it slowly winds down the second of two costly wars, pursues its confrontation with Iran and struggles to address continuing conflicts in the Arab world, especially in Syria.
During the presidential campaign, however, the candidates went on the attack, dispensing with all of the niceties. Both Romney and Obama are wooing blue-collar voters in the key battleground state of Ohio by attacking China, which makes for an easy target. Both have been repeating sound bites familiar to the American people, accusing China of currency manipulation and unfair trade practices. And both promise to be tougher on China than their opponent. Yet Romney is the former CEO of Bain Capital, which has raked in huge profits for its shareholders by outsourcing jobs to China. And Obama waited until two months before this year’s election to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization charging China with violating the fair trade agreement.
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If Obama is really interested in fair trade, he would be citing China’s appalling labor practices. Chinese workers toil under sweatshop conditions, with no right to strike or any meaningful union representation. Even so, thousands of workers go on strike each month demanding unpaid back wages. The government routinely puts down such unrest and imprisons the leaders.
Foxconn, which manufactures smartphones, iPads and similar products for US companies, is the largest private employer in China, with 1.2 million workers. It also has the worst record of labor abuse. The management imposes militaristic discipline and routinely inflicts physical and mental punishment, including criticism sessions at the end of the workday to humiliate “unproductive” employees—a practice reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. The torment of shame and isolation has driven dozens to commit suicide since 2009. Recently, a major riot broke out at Foxconn’s Taiyuan plant: employees vandalized the facilities and beat up security guards. To quell the riot, 5,000 military police had to be called in. Yet another riot has broken out at the time of this writing. This systematic suppression and devaluation of labor is both the source of China’s economic miracle and an unfair trade practice against the United States. Yet neither presidential candidate raises this issue when addressing battered American industrial workers.
Major demonstrations are occurring in China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu Islands off the Taiwanese coast. Both nations—as well as Taiwan—claim the islands, which have been controlled since 1972 by Japan (where they are known as the Senkaku Islands). In China, Japanese businesses have been burned and looted by protesters. As the conflict escalated, both sides sent warships to the region, and in September the United States agreed with Japan to deploy an advanced missile-defense radar on Japanese territory. Japan’s military is also receiving amphibious assault training from the US Marine Corps.
Complex, emotionally charged disputes like this one need unbiased international mediation and patient bilateral negotiations to be resolved. American meddling only courts the wrath of the Chinese public, which was expressed in a mob attack on Ambassador Gary Locke’s car in Beijing on September 18.
Ironically, the nationalistic outburst in China is also turning against the leadership in Beijing. As anti-Japanese sentiment rose, people became increasingly critical of the government’s “timid” handling of the dispute. Some have been using this opportunity to vent their anger toward the CCP. On the same day that Locke’s car was attacked, massive anti-Japanese marches and demonstrations were held in fifty cities across China. While most participants aimed their rage at Japan, some carried Mao’s portrait, shouting, “Chairman Mao, please come back, we miss you!”—implying that only Mao could lead the country to victory against Japan, as he had done in the 1940s. Other signs saying “Only Chairman Mao’s thought can save China” weren’t that different from the slogans promoted by Bo Xilai. On September 15, when the demonstrations started spreading across the country, a photo of a group of demonstrators holding an enormous red banner proclaiming “Diaoyu Islands belong to China, Bo Xilai belongs to the people” appeared on the Internet (and was quickly taken down). There is no doubt that public anger has turned inward, as indicated by the message in one sign: “Get rid of traitors at home, fight for sovereignty abroad!”
Chinese leaders now feel that it would be counterproductive to suppress the public anger against Japan. They might even be tempted to attack “foreign enemies” in order to steer attention away from domestic troubles. The CCP is experiencing unprecedented internal quarrels, making the future of the new leadership more uncertain than ever before. In such an unsettled climate, the use of China as a punching bag by US politicians will only heighten tensions, and could lead to actions that both sides will regret.
In another look at foreign affairs this week, Kathie Klarreich and Linda Polman reveal  how the international relief effort after the 2010 earthquake excluded Haitians from their own recovery.