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China’s Labour Unrest And Anti-Government Protests: Should Xi Worry?

The twin effects of American trade war and domestic economic slowdown have begun to create a churn in the Chinese society. There were 1795 strikes all over China last year, but the strikes by truck and crane workers is important because they represent key logistic and infrastructure links in the engine that drives the gargantuan economy. Their strikes were called, mobilised and coordinated on WeChat, the multi-purpose messaging and social media app created by Chinese multinational Tencent.

“Given that all information on Wechat is vetted for any anti-government content, it suggests that someone in the system chose not to disrupt this communication,” says Jayadeva Ranade of the New Delhi-based Centre for China Analysis & Strategy. Ranade believes that for a number of reasons, President Xi Jinping is facing domestic opposition from a range of quarters.

The unrest by demobilised soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army may have rattled the government the most. This took place in October 2018 and seems to have been triggered by resentment over non-payment of dues and no recognition of their years of service.

“The government quickly moved to set up a Ministry of Veterans Affairs to address their grievances, including requiring government-owned factories and businesses to hire ex-servicemen,” notes Ranade. Other China watchers in India also picked up exhortations by government agencies to the ex-servicemen that the authorities were doing their best to mitigate their problems.

How effective these measures were is hard to say. At a time of economic slowdown, job fairs to recruit ex-servicemen don’t appear to have been very successful. Reports in the Chinese language press also indicated official anger over how “disciplined soldiers had violated government and party norms” by demonstrating in public. Some arrests also appear to have taken place and the crackdown is widening to include students.

According to a report datelined December 28, 2018 in the Hong Kong based South China Morning Post, students of the Marxist Society of Peking University who had organised a meeting to mark Mao Zedong’s 150th birth anniversary found their managing committee had been replaced by another run by “campus bureaucrats”.

Demonstrations by the students were broken up, the chairman of the society arrested and the students warned about their conduct. It seems the crackdown was part of a broader effort to stem grassroots campaigns by labour activists and young Marxist graduates against rampant corruption, poor safeguards for workers and the widening wealth gap.

The anti-government sentiment appears to have gathered steam after the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, abolished the two five-year-term limits on Xi Jinping’s presidency last March. The families of many Communist Party veterans who lived through the traumas of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution fear a return of those traumatic days if Xi continues as president with no term limits.

While Xi remains strong for now, it’s crucial to note that 13000 PLA officers are serving jail terms or are on the streets for corruption. Many party cadres have also lost out for the same reason. The party’s loyalty to Xi may not be as solid as it seems. In the long run, Xi’s crackdown on corruption may turn out to be his Achilles heel.


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