Protest in China

Carrefour protest in Beijing

China has witnessed a visible increase over the past ten years in the number of protests, demonstrations, and riots over a variety of issues. Areas of social problems that have stimulated collective protests include factory conditions, non-payment of wages, factory closures, environmental problems (both large and small), and land and property takeovers by developers and the state.

It isn’t surprising that social conditions in China have given rise to causes of protest. Rapid growth has stimulated large movements of people and migrant workers, development has created massive environmental problems for localities, and opportunities for development have created conflicts between developers and local people over land and property rights. Following the terrible earthquake in Sichuan and the collapse of many buildings and schools with tragic loss of life, there was a wave of angry protests by parents against corrupt building practices. So there are plenty of possible causes for protest in China today.

What is more surprising, though, is that the state has not been successful so far in muzzling protest, or in keeping news of local protests from reaching the international public.

We might say that the presence of protest in a society is actually a sign of rough and ready democracy as well: it indicates that public opinion is important and can be mobilized, it suggests that the state is unwilling to use the most repressive means available to crush protest, and it suggests that the state can be affected by public protest. So the rising frequency of protest in China might be seen as evidence of a growing importance of the sphere of civil society within Chinese politics.

YouTube provides a surprisingly wide window on protests in China today. It’s worth viewing a sampling of clips from YouTube that surface when one searches for Chinese protest:

Unemployment for migrant workers

Labor protest in Shanghai

Shoe worker protest over back wages

Environmental protest in Xiamen

Protest about water pollution in Xiamen

Parents protesting children’s death in Sichuan

Will the sociology of the future be able to use the contents of YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook as an important empirical indicator of social change in societies such as China, Malaysia, or Russia?

Rising income inequality in China

Allan Wheatley writes an important article in Reuters this week about the situation of rising income inequalities in China as part and parcel of the booming economic growth the country has witness for the past two decades. Several key facts emerge from the piece: While spectacular affluence is emerging at the top end of China’s economic hierarchy, 204 million people lived on less than $1.25 per day in 2005. China’s Gini coefficient of income inequality rose from 40.7 in 1993 to 47.4 in 2004, according to an Asian Development Bank report — a remarkably steep and rapid rise. (This compares to a Gini coefficient of income inequality in India of only 36.2.) And inequalities of income between urban and rural people continue to rise. Wheatley indicates that some experts believe that this phenomenon is the result of both rapid economic growth and a set of policies by the Chinese government that favor efficiency over equity. And some experts believe that these rising inequalities are a significant source of risk for social stability in future decades.

Wheatley bases most of his article on the recent work of the World Bank’s chief economist, Justin Yifu Lin, formerly a leading professor at Peking University. Lin and colleagues have published a collection of papers titled China’s Dilemma, which attempts to identify the economic policies that have resulted in this sustained rise in income inequality. (The volume was co-published by Australian National University and Asian Pacific Press and the table of contents is available online.) As Wheatley summarizes the findings, the Chinese government’s policies concerning economic growth have favored “efficiency” and corporations over “equity” and workers. And Lin argues that state policies actually protect and subsidize corporations, resulting in a massive transfer of wealth and income to the most affluent.

All of this suggests to me the importance of returning to some of the important discussions of poverty and growth that were so dynamic in the 1970s. Development theorists such as Hollis Chenery (Redistribution with Growth) and Irma Adelman (Economic growth and social equity in developing countries) gave careful analysis to the institutional context of economic growth, and put forward a strong argument for the idea that poverty alleviation needs to be built into the growth strategy from the beginning. Both focused their attention on the institutions through which income is generated — largely property holdings in land for peasants — and argued that redistribution of property entitlements needed to be a structural feature of equitable economic growth.

It was neglect, not factual or policy weakness, that led to the eclipsing of this line of thought in development circles and World Bank thinking. The Washington Consensus essentially put aside the idea that there are alternative pathways of economic growth, some of which are more favorable to equity than others.

China’s current theory of economic development seems closer to neo-liberal orthodoxy than it does to a progressive “poor-first” policy mix that would have the most sustained impact on China’s poor.

(There is more discussion of the poverty-first approach to development thinking in an unpublished paper on my research site, Putting the Poor First.)

Trust and corruption

The recent collapse of a major skyscraper crane in New York City last month led to a surprising result: the arrest of the city’s chief crane inspector on charges of bribery. (See the New York Times story here.) (The story indicates that the facts surrounding the charges are unrelated to this particular crane collapse.) Several weeks earlier, a Congressional committee heard testimony from three F.A.A. inspectors to the effect that the agency had permitted Southwest Airlines to fly uninspected planes (story), and some attributed this lapse to too cozy a relationship between the F.A.A. and the airline industry:

The F.A.A.’s watchdog role, to many Democrats in Congress who now oversee airline regulators, grew toothless. “We had drifted a little bit too much toward the over-closeness and coziness between regulator and regulated,” said H. Clayton Foushee Jr., a former F.A.A. official who led a recent inquiry by Mr. Oberstar’s committee. (story)

The basic systems of a complex society depend upon the good-faith commitment of providers to give top priority to safety, health, and quality, but they also depend upon regulation, inspection, and certification. Caveat emptor doesn’t work when it comes to airline travel or working in a skyscraper; we simply have to trust that the airliner or the building is built and maintained to a high level of safety standards. The food we eat, the restaurants we patronize, the airlines and railroads we travel on, and the buildings we live and work in (and send our children to) provide complex products for our use that we can’t independently evaluate. Instead, we are obliged to trust the providers — the builders, the airline companies and their pilots and mechanics, the restaurant operators — and the regulatory and inspection regimes that are intended to provide an assurance of quality, safety, and health.

And yet there are two imperatives that work against public health and safety in most modern societies: the private incentive that the provider has to cut corners, and the perennial temptation of corruption that is inherent within a regulatory process. On the providers’ side, there is a constant business incentive to lower costs by substituting inferior ingredients or materials, to tolerate less-than-sanitary conditions in the back-of-restaurant areas, or to skimp on necessary maintenance of inherently dangerous systems. And on the regulatory side, there is the omnipresent possibility of collusion between inspectors and providers. Inspectors have it in their power to impose costs or savings on providers; so the provider has an economic interest in making payments to inspectors to save themselves these costs. (See Robert Klitgaard’s fascinating book, Controlling Corruption, for a political scientist’s analysis of this problem.)

In a purely laissez-faire environment we would expect there to be recurring instances of health and safety disasters in food production, building construction, transportation, and the healthcare system; this seems to be the logical result of a purely cost- and profit-driven system of production. (This seems to be what lies at the heart of the Chinese pet food and toy product scandals of several months ago, and it was at the heart of the food industries chronicled by Upton Sinclair a century ago in this country.)

But an inadequate system of regulation and enforcement seems equally likely to lead to health and safety crises for society, if inspection regimes are inadequate or if inspectors are corrupt. The two stories about inspection mentioned above point to different ways in which a regulatory system can go wrong: individual inspectors can be corrupted, or honest inspectors can be improperly managed by their regulatory organization. And, of course, there is a third possibility as well: the regulatory system may be fully honest and well-managed but wholly insufficient to the task presented to it in terms of the resources and personnel devoted to the regulatory task.

These two tendencies appear to be resulting in major social problems in China today. There is little confidence in the Chinese public in building standards in even the major civil engineering projects that the country has undertaken in the past ten years (CNN story, BBC story), there is widespread concern about corruption in many aspects of ordinary life, and there is growing concern among consumers about the safety of the system of food production, public water sources, and pharmaceuticals (story). (The anger and anguish expressed by parents whose children were lost in collapsed schools in Sichuan appear to derive from these kinds of mistrust.) So one of China’s major challenges for the coming years is to create credible, effective, and trusted regulatory regimes for the areas of public life that most directly affect health and safety.

But the stories mentioned above don’t have to do with China, or India, or Brazil; they have to do with the United States. We have lived through a period of determined deregulation since 1980, and have been subjected to a political ideology that minimized and demeaned the role of government in protecting the health and safety of the public — in banking no less than air safety. It seems very pressing for us now to ask ourselves: how effective are the systems of regulation and inspection that we have in our key industries — food, pharmaceuticals, hospitals, transportation, and construction? How much confidence can we have in the basis health and safety features of these fundamental social goods? And what sorts of institutional reforms do we need to undertake?

Retreat of the Elephants

Mark Elvin’s title, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, is brilliantly chosen to epitomize his subject: the human causes of longterm environmental change in China over a four-thousand year period of history. How many of us would have guessed that elephants once ranged across almost all of China, as far to the northeast as what is now Beijing? And what was the cause of this great retreat? It was the relentless spread of agriculture and human settlement.

In other words, human activity changed the physical environment of China in such a profound way as to refigure the range and habitat of the elephant. “Chinese farmers and elephants do not mix.” This story provides an expressive metaphor for the larger interpretation of environmental history that Elvin offers: that environmental history is as much a subject of social history as it is a chronology of physical and natural changes. Human beings transform their environments — often profoundly and at great cost.

This is now a familiar story, when we consider the anthropogenic influences on global warming in the past fifty years. What Elvin’s book demonstrates is that human activity is an integral part of the story in the long sweep of history as well. Nowhere is this fact more evident than in Elvin’s treatment of the perennial problem of water management in China. Seawalls, canals, dikes, drainage, irrigation, desalinization, and reservoirs were all a part of China’s centuries-long efforts at water control. And each of these measures had effects that refigured the next period in the water system — the course of a river, the degree of silting of a harbor, the diminishment of a lake as a result of encroachment. (Peter Perdue’sExhausting the Earth: State and Peasant in Hunan tells a similar story about the fortunes of Hunan’s Dongting Lake.) The waterscape of late Imperial China was very much a moving picture as human activity, deliberate policy interventions, technology innovations, and hydrology and climate interacted. There is a particular drama in seeing a centuries-long history of magistrates attempting to control the hydrology of the great rivers and deltas of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, to counteract silting and flooding and the massive problems that these processes entailed. Here the local officials made their best efforts to absorb the history of past interventions and their effects in order to design new systems that would obviate silting and flooding. This required planning and scientific-technical reasoning (137); it required large financial resources; and, most importantly, it required the mobilization of vast amounts of human labor to build dikes and polders. But always, in the end, the water prevailed.

Elvin’s history is fascinating in a number of ways. He is an innovative writer of history, bringing new materials and new topics into Chinese historical research. His interweaving of agriculture, population growth, technology, and environmental change is masterful. He combines economic history, cultural history, and natural history in ways that bring continual new flashes of insight. He makes innovative use of literature and poetry to try to get some inklings into the attitudes and values that Chinese people brought to the environment. And he returns frequently to the dialectic of population growth and resource use — a rising tempo of change that imposes more and more pressure on the natural environment.

(See The High-Level Equilibrium Trap for a discussion of one of Elvin’s earlier and highly influential ideas — the idea that Chinese agriculture had reached a stage of development by the late imperial period in which technique had been refined to the maximum possible within traditional technologies, and population had increased to the point where the agricultural system was only marginally able to feed the population. This is what he refers to as a “high-level equilibrium trap.” He returns to something rather similar to this idea in Retreat of the Elephants by offering a theory of environmental exhaustion (“Concluding Remarks”): a measure of the degree to which population increase and economic growth have placed greater and greater pressure on non-renewable resources.)

China’s cultural revolution

What is involved in understanding China’s Cultural Revolution?

The question comes to mind for several reasons — but most vividly because of a recent interview in France in the le nouvel Observateur with Song Yongyi. Song’s personal itinerary is historic — he was a “rebel Red Guard” in 1967, a political prisoner in China from 1970 to 1976, a librarian at Dickinson College in 1998, and a prisoner in China again in 1999 for six months for the “crime” of collecting documents about the Cultural Revolution. (See his website at California State University at Los Angeles.) Song is in the middle of creating a large database on the events of the Cultural Revolution, including especially an effort to document the killings and massacres that occurred during this period. Song estimates, for example, that more than 50,000 people were killed during the purge of the Mongolian Communist Party alone, and he attributes to an internal party document a figure of 1.72 million deaths during the period of the Cultural Revolution.

The question is interesting for UnderstandingSociety because it has to do with historical knowledge and understanding. A vast amount has been written about the Cultural Revolution — by western scholars and by Chinese people who participated in the CR or were victims of its violence. We have both first-hand stories and careful academic scholarship that document many aspects of this period of China’s recent history. So in one sense, we are in a position to know a lot about this period of China’s history. And China scholars have asked the “why” question as well — why did it take place? For example, Roderick MacFarquhar’s multivolume history of the period, culminating in Mao’s Last Revolution, goes into great detail about the politics that surrounded the CR. Also of great interest is Joseph Esherick, Paul Pickowicz, and Andrew Walder’s recent edited volume, China’s Cultural Revolution As History.

We might want to say, then, that the history of the Cultural Revolution has been written.

But as Song Yongyi demonstrates, this would be incorrect, in two ways. First, the scope of the violence and the ways in which it was perpetrated — the military and political institutions that were involved deeply in the transmission of the violence across China — these factual aspects of the period of 1966-76 are still only partially known. And there is reason to believe that the remaining areas of ignorance are likely to substantially change our interpretation of the events. In brief, it seems likely that the scope of violence and killings is substantially greater than what historians currently believe, and the degree of deliberate political control of the instruments of disorder is greater as well. So the simple factual question, what happened?, is still to be answered in many important areas. More would be known if the authorities were to make the official archives available to scholars; but this has been a highly sensitive and secretive subject since 1989.

Even more important than the factual story, though, is the explanatory story. We don’t yet have a good understanding of why this period of upheaval took place; what the social and political causes were, what the institutions were that facilitated or hindered the spread of disorder, and how these events aided or impeded the political agendas of powerful figures and factions in China. (When you visit the summer palace and Buddhist temples in Chengdu, for example, the guides tell you that these structures survived the destruction of the Red Guards because Deng Xiaopeng maintained control of the military in this region and gave orders to protect these historical structures.)

So the history of the Cultural Revolution still remains to be written. And this fact presents us with a very real question of historical epistemology: how much can we ultimately know about a vast and important event, for which there are voluminous archival sources and surviving witnesses? Can we hope to come to a “final” and approximately true interpretation of these events? And can we learn something important about social movements and political institutions from this history?

Rights and violence in China

There is a pretty vibrant conversation going on internationally and in China about the role that individual rights should play in Chinese society. (There was an interesting conference on this subject at the University of Michigan early in February.) Some theorists object to the idea of formulating China’s issues of state-society relations in terms of individual rights. They object that the theory of individual rights is an expression of liberal or neo-liberal morality, and that this theory doesn’t give enough expression for the value of the society as a whole.

Other social scientists document the fact that there are a variety of increasingly visible groups in China who are formulating their claims in terms of rights: peasants in terms of their rights of land use, workers in terms of their labor rights, urban homeowners in terms of incursions against their homes by land developers, and city dwellers in terms of their rights against environmental harms. In each case the groups consist of people who have a deep and shared interest in something — access to land, working conditions that are safe and compensated, immunity from environmental toxins, security of their homes; these interests are threatened by powerful interests in Chinese society; and people in these groups want to have the freedom to struggle for their rights, and they want the state to have a system of law that protects them against violence when they do so. (Kevin O’Brien documents some of these social movements in Rightful Resistance in Rural China.)

So what is involved in advocating for “legality” and “individual rights” for China’s future? Most basically, rights have to do with protection against repression and violence. The core rights that Western political theorists such as John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, or John Locke articulate are rights like these: freedom of association, freedom of action, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and the right to security of property. Karl Marx criticized these rights as “bourgeois rights”, and some post-modern theorists today denigrate these rights as a vestige of liberalism.

But I want to assert that these rights are actually fundamental to a decent society — and that this is true for China’s future as well. Moreover, I want to assert that each of these rights is a reply to the threat of violence and coercion. Take the rights of expression and association: when a group of people share an interest — let’s say, an interest in struggling against a company that is dumping toxic chemicals into a nearby river — they can only actualize their collective interests if they are able to express their views and to call upon others to come together in voluntary associations to work against this environmental behavior. The situation in China today is harshly contrary to this ideal: citizens have to be extremely cautious about public expression of protest, and they are vulnerable to violent attack if they organize to pressure companies or local government to change their behavior.

The use of private security companies on behalf companies, land developers, and other powerful interests in China is well documented — as it was in the labor struggles of major industries in the United States from the 1880s to the 1930s. And these companies are pretty much unconstrained by legal institutions in their use of violence and gangs of thugs to intimidate and attack farmers, workers, or city dwellers. It’s worth visiting some of the web sites that document some of this violence — for example, this report about thugs attacking homeowners in Chaoyang. Similar reports can be unearthed in the context of rural conflicts over land development and conflicts between factory owners and migrant workers.

So this brings us to “legality.” What is the most important feature of the rule of law? It is to preserve the simple, fundamental rights of citizens: rights of personal security, rights of property, rights of expression. Why, in the photos included in the web site above involving an organized attack by security thugs against innocent Chaoyang residents — why are there no police in the scene making arrests of these thugs? And what does it say to other people with grievances? What it says is simple — the state will tolerate the use of force against you by powerful agents in society. And what this expresses is repression.

It is also true that the state itself is often the author of repression against its own citizens for actions that would be entirely legitimate within almost any definition of core individual right: blogging, speaking, attempting to organize migrant poor people. When the state uses its power to arrest and imprison people who speak, write, and organize — it is profoundly contradicting the core rights that every citizen needs to have.

It should also be said that these legal rights cannot be separated from the idea of democracy. Democracy most fundamentally requires that people be able to advocate for the social policies that they prefer. Social outcomes should be the result of a process that permits all citizens to organize and express their interests and preferences — that is the basic axiom of democracy. What this democratic value makes impossible is the idea that the state has a superior game plan — one that cannot brook interference by the citizens — and that it is legitimate for the state to repress and intimidate the citizens in their efforts to influence the state’s choices. A legally, constitutionally entrenched set of individual civil and political rights takes the final authority of deciding the future direction of society out of the hands of the state.

Give Chinese people democratic rights and they can make some real progress on China’s social ills — unsafe working conditions, abuse of peasants, confiscation of homeowners’ property, the creation of new environmental disasters. Deprive them of democratic rights, and the power of the state and powerful private interests can create continuing social horrors — famine, permanent exploitation of workers, environmental catastrophes, development projects that displace millions of people, and so on. The authoritarian state and the the thugocracy of powerful private interests combine to repress the people.

So let’s not fall for the post-modern jargon, the equation of liberal democratic values with neo-conservative politics or worse, and let’s advocate strongly for a Chinese society that incorporates strong legal protections for individual rights and liberties.

Labor abuses in Chinese factories

Today’s New York Times has an important article about the conditions of workers in many of the factories in China devoted to manufacturing goods for export to the United States and other countries (In Chinese Factories, 1/5/08). The reportage is eye-opening but not surprising. Times reporters have documented excessive hours of work, pay that is lower than what Chinese law requires, working conditions that are chronically unsafe, and persistent exposure to the very dangerous chemicals that American toy consumers have been so concerned about. One of the authorities quoted in the article is Professor Anita Chan from the Australian National University, and Professor Chan has been documenting these conditions for years. Her book, China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy (Asia and the Pacific), is a detailed and factual examination of some of these conditions. She documents the fact that the most vulnerable groups of workers — in the range of tens of millions! — are the internal migrants of China, who have left their home regions in search of jobs. Very significantly, Professor Chan bases some of her fact-finding on the slowly emerging field of local investigative journalism in China.

Why do these abuses occur? For several related reasons. First, the motive of generating profits in the context of a rapidly growing economy. Since China’s industrial economy was reformed in the 1990s, permiting private ownership of factories and enterprises, there have been strong incentives to be successful in business and to become rich. There is tremendous demand for low-cost Chinese-manufactured goods, and great fortunes are being made in consumer electronics, toys, clothing, and dozens of other sectors. But the profit motive leads factory owners and managers to strive hard to keep wages and factory expenses as low as possible; and the vast population of poor rural people in China who are available for unskilled factory work makes the bargaining position of the factory owner very strong. (Chan documents some of the forms of coercion and intimidation that are used in some Chinese factories to keep workers on the job and to prevent them from leaving or resisting.) And, as the Times story points out, the American purchasers are insistent about cost-cutting and price-cutting on the finished goods. So the result is — a chronic competitive “race to the bottom” in which each factory tries to produce at the require level of quality with the absolutely lowest level of cost; and this means continuous pressure on working conditions, health and safety conditions, and environmental effects.

So part of the story has to do with the economic incentives and advantages that factory owners have relative to a large working population that has few alternatives. But this part of the story is familiar from other economies as they have developed through intensive industrialization. It has been learned elsewhere in the world that the imperatives of profitability by themselves almost mandate the abuse of labor; so government regulation and inspection are a necessary part of a manufacturing system if it is to succeed in treating all the population fairly and humanely. We might have imagined that the Chinese government would have been prepared to provide the regulatory environment that was necessary to protect the best interests of farmers and workers; it is, after all, governed by the party of farmers and workers. However, this is not the case. China has been so concerned to support economic growth that it has been very slow to implement effective regulatory systems to protect labor and the environment. Moreover, the balance of power between factory owners and local officials seems to be tilted towards the owners; other Times reporting has documented the fact that local officials cannot impose their will upon the owners. And, of course, there is ample opportunity for corrupt collusion between owners and officials.

This failure to regulate has been evident in other areas besides labor; the Chinese government has shown itself to be unwilling or unable to enact effective environmental regulations or to establish an effective regime of inspection and regulation for foods, drugs, and other potentially harmful products. It appears that middle-class Chinese consumers themselves are now expressing anxiety about the absence of this kind of regulation within their food and drug system.

So what other avenues exist for improving the conditions of workers in China?

There are three possibilities — all mutually compatible. First, workers themselves can protect their interests in fair wages, safe working conditions, and limited hours of work — if they are permitted to organize in unions. Woody Guthrie had it right: as individuals, workers are weak, but together they are strong. It seems inescapable that a major part of the problem is the enormous imbalance that exists between the powers associated with ownership and management, and those assigned to workers and their organizations. So a more just China will need to permit the development of real independent labor unions that work hard for the interests of their members.

Second, labor mobility can improve the conditions of labor everywhere. It is not an accident that some of the worst abuses documented by Professor Chan have to do with the forms of coercion that factory owners use to keep workers in their factories. If workers can vote with their feet, then we would expect that they will migrate to factories and other employers who offer better conditions of work and pay. And this will force employers to bid for qualified labor on the basis of improved working conditions.

And finally, there is obviously a role for consumers and companies in North America and Europe in all of this. North American consumers benefit from the low manufacturing costs currently available in China; but these low costs are unavoidably associated with the labor abuses we see today. We have a model for how international companies can take responsibility for the conditions of labor and environmental behavior, in the form of the Fair Labor struggles of the 1990s on university campuses in the United States. Large apparel manufacturers took on the responsibility of subjecting their suppliers to standards of conduct, and they subscribed to third-party organizations that undertook to “audit” the level of compliance with these standards by the supply chain. (Visit the Fair Labor website for an example of such an organization.) As the Times story observes, this is a tricky business, given the substantial degree of sub-contracting that occurs in the manufacturing process in China. But it can have a measurable effect.

China is plainly destined to be a major economic and political power in the coming fifty years. But to succeed in creating a society in which everyone has a continuing stake in a good quality of life and a fair deal from society, it will have to solve the problems of regulation of labor, health, and environment. And this will mean a degree of redistribution of China’s wealth and power towards its poorest people.

Inequalities in China

China’s Communist Revolution was founded upon the idea of equality. It was a basic principle of the early Communist Party that inequalities ought to be eradicated and the power and privilege of elite groups should be dismantled. Today in China the situation is very different. Farmers and rural people no longer have the support of the central state in their grievances against powerful forces — land developers, factory owners, power companies. And inequalities have increased dramatically in China — inequalities between the rural population and the city population, between manual workers and professionals, between eastern-coastal regions and western regions. Small numbers of elites are able to capture wealth-creating opportunities; the separation between wealthy and poor widens; and often the political power of office permits self-aggrandizement within China’s burgeoning economy. The situation of small farmers and of internal migrant factory workers is particularly bad, by all accounts.

Paradoxically, these facts about widening inequalities serve to point out something surprising: the sometimes narrow limits to the power of central state and party institutions. Regional and local officials are often able to undertake actions and policies that are directly harmful to poor people and directly contrary to central policies — and the central government is unable to reign them in. There are some deliberate policy efforts from the central state to improve the conditions of rural people — as a class and as a region of disadvantaged population. But those policies have often had little effect; the benefits that were intended to redress inequalities wind up in the hands of more elite actors.

So how do Chinese people think about these facts — facts that are even more visible to them than to us outsiders? Recent research seems to point out a generational difference with regards to the “sense of justice” that Chinese people bring to their perceptions of the society. Older people appear to have shaped a set of ideas about social justice under the Mao years that lead them to judge today’s visible inequalities very unfavorably. Younger people seem to be more accepting of inequalities — if they are earned! What is most morally offensive to younger people seems to be the fact that privilege of position allows some people to do much better than others. Whether this is a function of corruption, cronyism, or the use of state and party power for personal gain — younger people seem to be very offended at these sorts of inequalities. (C. K. Lee’s pathbreaking work on the sociology of law and justice makes these points starkly; see some of her related work in Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt.)

What should we think about China’s social future if these sorts of inequalities continue to widen?  Several points are worth considering.  First, persistent deprivation and inequality is certainly a contributing cause of social contention.  So China’s current inability to redress these inequalities probably suggests a continuation of the pattern of social protest in China.  (Tens of thousands of incidents of collective protest and resistance take place every year in China — and the rate appears to be rising.)  Second, the fact that China’s state institutions haven’t been able to regulate the local mechanisms of abuse of poor people (through property confiscations, for example) also suggests the likelihood of rising social contention.  Confiscations are a leading cause of protest.  And third, a set of meaningful reforms in legal protections for all members of society, including secure property rights for farmers and labor rights for workers, would surely create an environment that is more acceptable to the younger people who are accepting of inequalities if they have arisen through processes that are procedurally fair and legitimate.  So a more “liberal” future for China, in which economic activity is regulated by a fair system of law, and a set of opportunities are available to make something like a level playing field, would appear to be the most sustainable course for China’s leaders to attempt to achieve.