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Unemployment and the Spark of the Revolution

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

You will excuse me for writing two serious posts in a row. It’s been ages we don’t do anything on the Crisis, and these days there’s been a series of articles on the subject that I couldn’t just let pass.

Two of them have to do with the growth projections for 2009. Yawn. We’ve been seeing new projections and discussions thereof almost every week, and after the holidays break it looks like here it is all over again. It is mostly fruitless, because there’s not enough new information between one projection and the next, and so most of the times the changes reflect the mood of the expert more than anything else.

It was however interesting to read this PD article Sunday where one CPC “renowned economist” worried that “China is likely to lose 3.9 million jobs in 2009″ if GDP growth slows to 8 percent. Well, he need not worry anymore, according to other top CPC officials quoted here the very next day, “China Risks Missing 8% Growth Target”, which will be “extremely arduous” to achieve. They are starting to change their tune, again.

And this brings us to a more interesting subject which, although it is as difficult to predict, at least it is more telling than the empty statistical artifice of GDP. I am speaking of Unemployment.

There has been two contradicting articles over the weekend, by Wang Tao from UBS and by Victor Shih. They hold different positions as to what will be the unemployment figures in 2009 and what will be their social impact. In any case, it is worth noting that both of them, with their 15 Million (Tao) and 35-50 Million (Victor) figures, are way above any calculation by the “renowned economist” of the People’s Daily, who gives 1 Million for every % of GDP lost.

Needless to say, I am with the relatively pessimistic predictions of Victor on this issue. Partly because I deeply distrust socio-economic projections issued by banks (you can hardly blame me on that). But mostly because the arguments that Victor puts forward are more solid than Tao’s. Based on his deeper knowledge of Chinese politics,  Victor goes on to analyze the possible consequences of his prediction in a worse-case scenario.

Noting that, even if the government has the capacity (as he calculated here) to subsidize the unemployed families for an extended period,

the current wave of layoffs affects a young and vibrant cohort most capable of carrying violent collective action against the state. Without any systematic triggers, we at least will see a spike in localized riots which necessitate the mobilization of People’s Armed Police (PAP) units all over China. The central government would also be compelled to (and they are doing so already) roll out generous unemployment benefits for migrant workers and college graduates (to the tune of 300-400 billion RMB). If a systematic trigger occurs and instability spreads to a sizable city, we will see the large scale mobilization of both PAP and army units and possibly substantial bloodshed. In most scenarios, the CCP regime would still survive a large scale, cross regional rebellion. However, “overall investor confidence” will be lost.

What is the “systematic trigger” which I refer to? I don’t know exactly what it would be. However, if we look back in history, it can be a wide range of events, including the death of a popular leader, a serious natural disaster, the spread of a deathly infectious disease, a small student demonstration turned violent, religious groups…

This idea of the “trigger” (I called it the “Spark” on my previous post) is right on. It is exactly the element that is missing and the one that will make all the difference: when we have social tension to get the people in action, and intellectuals to draft the road map, the mix is an unstable equilibrium waiting to get in contact with a spark. Of course, Victor doesn’t know what exactly this spark would be, and neither do I because its own nature makes it unpredictable. But I would add to his hypothesis one of my own:

The emergence of a massive wave of protest on the internet that extends to all the forums and BBS simultaneously, with new sites being created faster than the government can block the old, which could create a cascade effect that would force the government to commit its worst mistake: close down the internet altogether. This would add to the protesters millions of online game addicts released from their cybercafes, constituting a serious army of instability.

Check out today’s post by Imagethief on the subject, showing with 2 nice graphs that we have an unprecedented situation in China. Also,  yesterday Jeremiah of the Granite Studio did an interesting comparison of the present situation and the one in 1919 during the May 4th movement. In those times, there was a clear “trigger”: the humiliating treatment of China by the Western powers in the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, including the unforgivable transfer of territories to Japan.

One last note for the optimists: this weekend I learnt of a reputable economics professor living in Shanghai who recently bought 3 months advance of canned food to store in case the situation gets rapidly unmanageable. In a city like Shanghai, if the logistic networks are disrupted we can run out of food in a matter of days. I am still not quite there myself, but I must admit that, since I heard this, the idea hasn’t quite left my head and I tend to go more generous on every visit to Lawson’s.

UPDATE: Oops, I completely missed this one. All Roads has been doing the same comparison and drawing his own conclusions. You can see it here.

Is the Crisis really hitting China?

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

One of the advantages of Crisis Watching in China is that there’s such a large community of observers dedicated to this country that you are never short of ideas. The downside is that with so many voices it is difficult to make sense of the whole thing. To the question in the title, for example, depending where you look you can find today the whole range of answers: yes, no, badly, take it easy!

What is most remarkable is how fast opinion is shifting towards the Yes side, when only 2 months ago most people still believed China’s system was immune to Financial Crises.

Especially interesting is the story of the closing factories on the Pearl River Delta, which has captured the imagination of western media in the past few days. Fortunately we have some sensible China bloggers to shed light on this mess. The guys at All Roads and the Law Blog are the first to question the significance of the events.

Factories are closing sure enough, and this picture I stole from the bbc website is not an evil western media setup. But take a closer look: do you see any difference between this “workshop” and any random car parking? Do you see any traces of heavy fixed equipment, hoisting devices, utilities? anything looking like proper working lights for the operators? It looks exactly like what it is, a precarious facility quickly improvised to catch some coming contract and quick to disappear the minute things start to look bad. It is probably in places like these that they put together the fakes sold at Qipulu.

So it is mostly the fat of the economy that is being lost for the moment. Business which probably would end up closing anyway in a normal economic system that didn’t have as many holes as the Chinese. The bread and meat of the economy are still producing, and doing quite well given the circumstances. The disappearing of these companies will make things easier for the ones remaining, eliminating the pressure of their (sometimes unfair) competition. It’s part of the good effects of a downcycle, really overdue in an economy that’s been racing nonstop for the last 30 years.

So from my point of view the Crisis has still not hit China in any significant way. The international economic slowdown is definitely starting to show, but for the moment we are still riding it better than most of the Western economies.The Wall is holding strong.

Now, what Crisis really means is what by now is in everybody’s mind. The New Republic calls it Crash and Burn. But many observers around the world got excited about the recent protests in the Delta, and failed to realize that those protests are essentially no different from the many other Crack and Burns that happen daily in China. If it is not a taxi strike, it is a drowned kid or citizens unhappy with relocations.  Each of them for their own reason, and usually with no intention to question the role of the central government, but rather trying to call its attention to help against local injustice.

Crack and Burn we have had for years, and it didn’t do much to unstabilize the system, because it was never meant to anyway.

But here is a method to estimate what might happen if some day the Crisis really hits China:

  1. Google “Riots China”
  2. Collect the first different 50 results
  3. Add up the number of people violently protesting in those results
  4. Add the thousands of people that are going to lose (or not find) jobs in the year to come.
  5. To that reactive core you can add hundreds of millions of unhappy peasants, too isolated to organize protests on their own, but happy to ride along if there is any serious movement.
  6. Now all those millions of chinese  put them together at the same time to protest against the same problem. Typically inflation, unemployment, corruption, injustice or inequality.

When there is a critical mass of unemployed and discontent rioting in a particular region, this could spark the chain reaction and spread to the whole country like gunpowder.

Looking at the economy today, I think we are still far from that situation. On the other hand, I also think that, if it ever happens, it will happen so suddenly that none of us will even smell it coming.