June 3, 2009 / 8:03 AM / 10 years ago

China protest shifts with economic backdrop post-'89

BEIJING (Reuters) - Twenty years after the crackdown on pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, China’s economy has developed to the point that similar protests on the same scale are highly unlikely today.

The students and workers at the core of that June 4, 1989 movement faced problems from rampant inflation to the dismantling of a centralized system of job appointments. But people today generally enjoy much better living standards across the board.

Gross domestic product per capita has shot up nine-fold to an estimated $3,600 this year from $400 in 1989, according to the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook.

With that increased affluence, many of the students, professionals and other groups who would be the most likely potential source of organized challenges to the Communist Party rule are generally more occupied with making a living and getting ahead than with political change.

“As long as people are generally getting better off, I think the overwhelming majority will not have the willingness or the incentive to push so far as to risk taking on the system,” said Andrew Gilholm, senior Northeast Asia analyst with consultancy Control Risks.

“The costs and the risks of trying to do that are still very high.”

Not that Beijing does not face other challenges.


The country’s double-digit economic growth over much of the last two decades has brought with it a yawning gap between the “haves,” concentrated in the cities, and the “have-nots” scattered throughout the countryside.

City dwellers now earn, on average, more than three times that of rural residents, helping prompt a shift in discontent and protest to the country’s villages.

China logged more than 80,000 “mass incidents” in 2007, according to government researchers, many of them small protests sparked by anger over corruption by local officials, illegal confiscation of land and other injustices.

Those pockets of unrest are unlikely to coalesce into anything broader because even the poor are benefiting from economic growth, said Shujie Yao, an economics professor at the University of Nottingham and head of its School of Contemporary Chinese Studies.

“The cake is getting bigger and the rich are getting a bigger slice ... but it’s not the case that the poor are getting nothing,” Yao said.

The key distinction to make is between localized instability and real, systemic instability, said Gilholm.

“At least for now, the government is doing a pretty good job of keeping that discontent directed at the local and the specific rather than the national and the systemic,” he said.

Even the global financial crisis, which has prompted waves of layoffs at export-oriented factories and created a bleak employment outlook for the 6.1 million university students set to graduate this summer, is unlikely to increase the potential for unrest by much — at least for now.


With the economy expected to grow by roughly 7 to 8 percent this year, China is much better off than many other countries.

“The problem is not to the point that people are desperate,” said Yao, adding university graduates simply have to adjust their expectations as to what kinds of jobs they will be able to find.

While any significant deterioration in the economic outlook or a serious bout of inflation could change the situation, signs now are that the global financial crisis may even have helped Beijing in its message that China should not copy Western models of governance, Gilholm said.

Since the start of the crisis, officials have routinely blamed the West for being irresponsible and espoused the benefits of China’s own system.

“I think that’s given a lot of teeth to the argument that they’ve been trying to construct for a long time, that there’s a Chinese way of doing things, rejecting copying the West,” Gilholm said.

(Reporting by Jason Subler; Editing by Nick Macfie)

For a graphic on China's growth over the past three decades, click on: here

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