THE ECONOMY CONTINUES along its glide path to slower growth. Last year’s GDP growth target of ‘about 7%’ has been replaced by 6.5%-7% for this year. Announcing this to the National People’s Congress (NPC), Prime Minister Li Keqiang warned that the rebalancing of the economy towards consumption-driven growth faced challenges and tough times ahead.
One of those will be keeping unemployment ‘within 4%’ – of a workforce of more than 800 million that has been adding 12 million jobs a year for the past five years and faces an unusually high number of 15 million new graduates joining the workforce this year. A detailed reading of the 13th Five-Year Plan, the economic development blueprint to 2020 due to be approved by the NPC, will provide some insight into how that will be done.
The official unemployment rate was 4.05% in the second half of last year.
Like any economy deindustrialising, China has to bear a heavy burden of workers left without jobs or the skills to get new ones. At least 3 million jobs, or 30% of the workforce, could go from heavy industry as a result of cutting surplus production capacity. The bulk of those redundancies will fall on the coal and steel industry. Human resources minister Yin Weimin says that 1.8 million jobs in those industries, an estimated 10-15% of the workforce, are at risk.
With that comes the possibility of social unrest and thus a threat to Party rule based on the premise of delivering ever higher living standards. The number of strikes and protests by workers, at more than 2,700 last year, was more than double 2014’s number, according to the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based civic group.
The response has been carrot and stick — a crackdown on labour activists and non-governmental organization to snuff out any political nexus forming and financial measures such as the 100 billion yuan ($15.3 billion) to be given to local authorities ‘solve the problem of worker placement’ under the umbrella an industrial enterprise restructuring fund.
The stick, though its use is well practiced, is not without hazard. Overzealous suppression of labour unrest could cause the Party itself to become a target of worker anger, and especially in provinces such as Guangdong, where local officials have traditionally held a relatively tolerant attitude towards labour relations but where several labour activists were arrested in January and put on trial as ‘foreign subversives’.
The only officially sanctioned trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), has recently reformed itself to stress its role as an instrument of Party and government and to straighten its top-down control over its local unions. This could have the unintended consequence of turning disgruntled workers more towards unofficial channels.
So far, though, labour disputes are overwhelmingly economic, not political, and a Party leadership that puts a premium on maintaining stability will want to keep it that way.
There are risks in the carrot, too. Local governments already have a debt time bomb ticking quietly under them. For all the help they will get from Beijing, they will face immense fiscal pressure as growth slows to pay for dealing with shuttered mines and mills and factories and workers demanding unpaid wages (a chronic problem, particularly in the construction industry), redundancy pay and social security.
The pressures will be particularly acute in those areas where heavy industry is concentrated, notably the rust-belt of the northeast, in the export factories in the Pearl River delta, and where the reforms of state-owned enterprises bite hardest, particularly the proposed rationalization of ‘zombie’ companies hitherto kept afloat by local governments seeking to avoid job losses.
If more and more workers see the Party failing to look after their interests, the overarching risk is that their acceptance of the social compact that underpins the Party’ monopoly on political power will erode, which is what the Party is most set on avoiding.
This Bystander recalls a far more drastic set of state-sector reforms and sharply decelerating growth in the late 1990s. If there is a ray of hope for the top leadership, it is that the Party got through that when it had fewer carrots and less sophisticated capabilities with its sticks.