The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Labor Unrest Spreads in Slumping China

The most important unrest in today’s world may not be on Tahrir Square or even in Syria.  A growing wave of strikes across China may ultimately say more about where the world is headed than anything in the Middle East.

As this piece from the Financial Times reports, export orders are declining and factories across China are cutting back on hours and employment.  Workers who are just getting by with overtime cannot live on their regular hourly wage; unrest is reported up and down the coastal zone.

What is going on in China matters for better or for worse much more than anything that is happening in Egypt.  Unfortunately most daily papers don’t do enough to make events in that vast and explosive country clear to American readers.  Mead advice: watch this as closely as you can.  We have no way of knowing when or how China will pass into a new and likely more tumultuous period in its history, but pass it will, and whether you are an investor, a policy maker, or an interested observer of the contemporary world, you will want to be of the first rather than one of the last to understand how things are shaking out.

Published on November 24, 2011 9:54 am
  • Some Sock Puppet

    I know this is simplistic, but they’ve been [taking advantage of] the US as hard as they can in every way shape and form. It’s coming back to bite them in the [end].

    I fully expect a nationalistic war to distract the populace.

  • ms

    When we visited China a few years ago I was struck by the great poverty of the people in what was supposed to be a rich nation. It seemed to me that in an electronic age when the government cannot hide from the people the fact that people in other rich nations are a whole lot better off than Chinese people, there was sure to be trouble in the future. It looks like that future is here. The demographic problems stemming from the one child policy sure aren’t going to help the situation either.

  • Luke Lea

    China is a black box. WRM seems to think the big “Game” as he calls it lies to the south and southeast. Me thinks it lies north and northwest. Hope we don’t find out who’s right anytime soon.

  • P. Ami

    The South and Southeast have powerful political bosses and lots of wealth because of Hong Kong, GuanDong and the many decades of manufacture that occurred there. GuanDong is, of course, Canton and I think there is a reason the word cantonment is built on our word for that region. It is a historically wealthy part of region and far enough from the central government to feel rather independent. There are many ways by which China may split. To the Southwest there is resentment over the Sichuan earthquake. Tibet has a million soldiers to keep it under control. In the Northwest there is XinJiang and the Uigurs there may not go so quietly, especially if they continue to gain traction with other Turkic people and Muslims in central Asia. Russia and China have a traditional rivalry over Mongolia and China has been colonizing right on Russia’s back paw for for decades. Northwest Pakistan is starting draw Beijing’s eye and there are American thinkers who would welcome the US letting China deal with that headache for a while.

    While the one-child policy causes that gender imbalance, the bigger issue is the huge population, 80% of which still lives in the backwaters of a developing country. They have seen the growth of the east while their central government has withdrawn their support of healthcare and other subsidies. Those that are escaping these withering villages are now finding less work. Meanwhile migrant labor, primarily men are likely to have never experienced any sexual relationship ever. They work, they drink, they migrate, they try and send home money and have none to satisfy other needs. Prostitution is a huge release valve for their overpopulated villages. I have heard that there are more geniuses in China then there are Americans listed in our last census. While I have some doubts over this, I do think there are more disenfranchised Chinese then there are Americans, Europeans, Canadians, and Australians combined. I lived in China for 2 years in the middle of last decade and thought there were plenty of areas where China’s growth only superficially glossed over deep divisions and resentments. We certainly live in interesting times.