Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 30 November 2022


Banana Peels for Xi Jinping

A black and white photograph showing the backs of people in a crowd. They hold up white pieces of paper.
Credit...Mark R. Cristino/EPA, via Shutterstock
A black and white photograph showing the backs of people in a crowd. They hold up white pieces of paper.

Opinion Columnist

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There’s a Soviet joke that has long circulated in China, about a man who is arrested for protesting in Moscow’s Red Square by holding up a blank sheet of paper.

“How can you arrest me?” the man objects in one version. “I didn’t say anything.”

“Everybody knows,” the police officer answers, “what you mean to say.”

That old joke was inspiration for some of the white sheets of paper protesters displayed in recent days in China. Everybody in the country knew what the protesters were trying to express but feared saying.

And when everybody can mentally fill in a blank sheet of paper with the frustration and anger that so many ordinary Chinese feel, that’s a challenge that the de facto emperor, Xi Jinping, cannot suppress as easily as he can arrest individual protesters. Xi has meticulously cultivated a personality cult around himself as the kindly “Uncle Xi” — whose slogan could be “Make China Great Again” — but in the major cities it’s now obvious that he’s regarded by many as an obstinate, ruthless and not terribly effective dictator.

So where will these protests lead?

For all the talk about these demonstrations being an echo of the Tiananmen movement in 1989, they’re really not so far. The 1989 demonstrations unfolded in more than 300 cities around China, brought more than a million people to the center of Beijing, blockaded entrances to the Zhongnanhai leadership compound and benefited from a paralyzing power struggle in the Chinese leadership that delayed a crackdown. In contrast, the Xi regime is already dragging off protesters and searching people on subways for contraband, such as the Instagram app on their cellphones.

To challenge the national government in China today is to invite imprisonment — a man was detained in Shanghai for carrying flowers and making veiled comments — so it’s difficult to see how open resistance can be sustained. Historically in China, mass protests have arisen not when conditions were most intolerable (like the famine from 1959 to 1962) but when people thought they could get away with them, such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, the April 5 incident of 1976, the Democracy Wall easing of 1978-79, the student protests of 1986 and Tiananmen in 1989.

Then again, I was Beijing bureau chief of The Times in 1989, and most people thought a major protest that year was impossible — until it happened. Human courage is contagious as well as unpredictable.

So run from anyone who predicts confidently where China is headed. One of the few continuities in China over the last 150 years has been periodic and unexpected discontinuity.

Yet whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, something important may have changed.

“It is so significant, for it’s a decisive breach of the ‘Big Silence,’” said Xiao Qiang, the founder and editor of China Digital Times. “It’s now public knowledge that the emperor isn’t wearing clothes.”

Xi may be able to reimpose the “Big Silence,” Xiao acknowledged, but, he added, “It’s still a different China.”

That’s partly because while there have been many protests around the country, they typically have been localized ones about labor disputes, land seizures or pollution. In contrast, China’s zero-Covid policy is synonymous with Xi. He owns it. The Chinese who denounce Covid lockdowns know that they are criticizing Xi.

Xi has painted himself into a corner, and it will be costly for him to ease up on his hated Covid policy.

This is a problem of Xi’s own making. He refused to import highly effective mRNA vaccines, and China’s effort to vaccinate older people has been anemic. Only 40 percent of Chinese over 80 have received a booster, so a relaxation of Covid rules could lead to Covid-19 killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Meanwhile, the current zero-Covid policy has devastated the economy and antagonized the population. It seems unsustainable.

“People have lost hope,” confided a Chinese friend who is the child of a leader yet now mocks the Communist Party, adding that Beijing “feels quiet and dead.” From business owners to taxi drivers, Chinese citizens are struggling with constant Covid tests and lockdowns — and then on television they see throngs of fans unmasked at World Cup games in Qatar, enjoying a normal life.

The death Wednesday of Jiang Zemin, a former Communist Party leader, complicates the picture. Jiang expanded economic reforms and offered a very limited vision of political reform (for example, he opened up access to the New York Times website in China in 2001; it was blocked in 2012 under a successor). And deaths of past leaders, including Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang, became ways for Chinese to protest by nominally engaging in mourning.

A hallmark of Chinese protest is that when even the mildest criticisms are banned, people turn to satire and sarcasm — which amount to mockery of Chinese propaganda.

Gene Sharp, an American scholar who literally wrote the manual for toppling dictators, used to say that one of the biggest threats to tyrants was humor. Autocrats could survive earnest calls for free expression, but they deflated when they were laughed at.

I wonder if that will be the unclothed emperor’s challenge ahead, even if he restores the Big Silence.

Chinese university students have been singing the national anthem because it includes these words (written before the 1949 Communist revolution): “Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves … The Chinese nation faces its greatest danger.”

It would be awkward to arrest young people for singing the national anthem, but — like that blank paper — everyone knows what it signifies. That may be intolerable for Xi.

“You get three or five people together and sing the national anthem, and you’ll be arrested,” predicted a veteran Chinese journalist who also covered Tiananmen.

When police officers show up, protesters have sometimes switched to chanting satirical slogans in favor of the zero-Covid policy, like, “We want Covid tests!”

When Beijing protesters were criticized for being pawns of foreign forces, one didn’t miss a beat as he worked the crowd. “By foreign forces,” he asked, “are you referring to Marx and Engels?”

Chinese netizens these days discuss “banana peels” (xiang jiao pi) and “shrimp moss” (xia tai). Why? Because the former has the same initials as Xi Jinping. And “shrimp moss” sounds like the Chinese for “step down.”

A dictator’s dilemma: How do you arrest people for posting about banana peels without adding to the ridicule that undermines your rule?


La causa nascosta dietro le proteste in Cina

Dietro le proteste di questi giorni in Cina, oltre all’esasperazione per i lockdown e quarantene da pandemia, c’è una causa più antica: la disoccupazione giovanile alta e crescente. In particolare fra i laureati.

È un dato in contrasto con l’immagine che abbiamo del colosso asiatico come di una «success story», un miracolo economico.

Nel successo innegabile non tutto risplende, e le statistiche ufficiali di Pechino lo ammettono: sono i dati del governo a indicare una percentuale del 18% di disoccupati nella fascia di età fra i 16 e i 24 anni.

Nell’estate 2023 il sistema universitario sfornerà altri 12 milioni di laureati. Molti di loro non troveranno un lavoro, o aspetteranno anni prima di collocarsi, e spesso a livelli retributivi inferiori alle attese (loro e dei genitori), nonché dei sacrifici compiuti.

Il dramma della disoccupazione giovanile è accentuato dal rallentamento della crescita economica, a cui contribuiscono la politica «zero Covid» e la guerra in Ucraina con il corollario di tensioni geopolitiche Est-Ovest.

Però l’alto tasso di giovani senza lavoro è un fenomeno ben più antico, esisteva prima della pandemia e della guerra.

La durezza della selezione meritocratica cinese a scuola affonda le radici nella cultura confuciana. Oggi ha anche una giustificazione attuale e stringente: il mercato del lavoro non è facile per le nuove generazioni. Vista da lontano, al termine di trent’anni di crescita che hanno migliorato in modo spettacolare il benessere della popolazione, la Cina può sembrare agli occidentali un paese generoso di opportunità per i giovani. In realtà, soprattutto dopo un rallentamento della crescita nel 2008 (conseguenza della crisi americana che frenò le esportazioni), il fenomeno della disoccupazione o sottoccupazione giovanile è diventato una costante anche nel paesaggio cinese.

Già nel 2012 la percentuale dei giovani laureati sotto i 26 anni di età senza un lavoro era molto alta, il 16%, cioè il doppio che negli Stati Uniti. In Cina soffrono meno della disoccupazione quei giovani che hanno studiato poco: il tasso di disoccupazione scende all’8% per quelli che hanno solo il diploma liceale e al 4% per chi ha fatto solo la scuola elementare.

Questo aiuta a capire l’insistenza con cui Xi Jinping punta a trasformare la Cina in un’economia ad alta tecnologia, qualificandola in settori avanzati, e ridimensionando gradualmente il suo ruolo di «fabbrica del pianeta» che si fondava sullo sfruttamento di manodopera a basso costo: oggi ha un problema di disoccupazione intellettuale, più che di disoccupazione operaia o contadina.

Il paradosso è che la sovrabbondanza di giovani laureati tra i Millennial o nelle generazioni X e Z nasce da una scelta fatta proprio per impedire la protesta giovanile.

Nel 1997 ci fu una crisi asiatica, che cominciò dai Paesi del sud-est come Indonesia e Thailandia: colpiti da crolli di Borsa, fughe di capitali, costretti a svalutare le loro monete. La Cina riuscì a limitare i danni grazie al dirigismo statale, al controllo pubblico sull’economia, alle restrizioni nei movimenti di capitali. Però ebbe una caduta delle esportazioni. E soprattutto, vide diversi governi del sud-est asiatico traballare sotto l’urto delle proteste di piazza.

In Indonesia furono gli studenti ad animare una rivolta che portò alla caduta del presidente Suharto. Circolava a Pechino il timore che la Cina diventasse «la prossima Indonesia». Nel 1999 i dirigenti comunisti decisero di spalancare gli accessi all’università per i giovani, in modo da «parcheggiarli» negli atenei evitando che dopo il diploma liceale andassero ad affollare i ranghi dei disoccupati.

Nel 1999 le iscrizioni all’università aumentarono del 40% di colpo. In un biennio, dal 1998 al 2000, ci fu un raddoppio: da un milione a due milioni di universitari. Al termine di un decennio erano saliti a sette milioni.

Le scelte fatte allora hanno portato – come effetto collaterale indesiderato – a una perdita di valore di molte lauree. Facilitando l’accesso all’università, si è generata una selezione allo stadio successivo: tra i pochi in grado di accedere alle università di élite, e i molti che ripiegano verso gli atenei di serie B e C. La selezione meritocratica si riaffaccia in nuove forme.

Non basta più passare il difficilissimo esame gaokao che apre le porte all’università; bisogna superarlo con risultati strepitosi, fenomenali, per ambire alle università di élite. I tre quarti dei promossi al gaokao invece finiscono in università di livello medio-basso, le cui lauree non garantiscono un lavoro, tanto meno un posto qualificato e ben pagato.

Più di un quarto dei neolaureati cinesi, un anno dopo aver concluso gli studi sono ancora senza lavoro. Comincia per loro il calvario delle Job Fair di stile americano, quelle fiere del lavoro dove le aziende affittano degli spazi espositivi per pubblicizzarsi e intervistare i potenziali candidati all’assunzione. Le aziende più grandi, solide e rinomate, spesso evitano quelle fiere, dove pullulano opportunità illusorie o truffaldine: per esempio lavori nel settore delle vendite immobiliari, senza stipendio fisso, remunerati solo con una commissione sulle vendite; idem per i piazzisti di prodotti finanziari.

Un esercito di giovani neolaureati finiscono per accettare di tutto, lavoretti precari e senza un futuro, affollando i cosidetti «formicai»: caseggiati popolari costruiti in fretta e furia nelle squallide periferie delle megalopoli come Pechino e Shanghai.

È stata coniata l’espressione «tribù di formiche», per designare questa fascia povera e insicura di giovani. Nella «tribù di formiche», il livello di reddito e le condizioni di vita non sono molto migliori rispetto a quelle del popolo migrante, contadini che affluiscono dalle campagne per lavorare in fabbrica.

I neolaureati poveri sentono il peso di una doppia delusione: la propria, e quella dei genitori, che hanno creduto in un futuro radioso dopo la promozione al gaokao. Le diseguaglianze che affliggono la società cinese sono ben visibili quando dopo la laurea iniziano i colloqui d’assunzione: i figli dei ricchi, i raccomandati della nomenclatura comunista, hanno corsie preferenziali.


Fed Chair Powell should make it clear: More rate hikes are needed

Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell on Nov. 2. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)
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The Federal Reserve was created to be mostly independent of politics so that it could make difficult — and sometimes unpopular — decisions for the health of the U.S. economy. This is one of those moments for Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell and his colleagues; their challenge is to do what is necessary to tame the inflation threat, even if it has political consequences and causes a recession.

Mr. Powell has rightly pointed out that the risks of not doing enough to stop inflation are far worse than overdoing it on the rate hikes. He should reiterate that message again as he speaks Wednesday at the Brookings Institution.

Inflation remains stubbornly high. While there are early signs that it has peaked, it is too early to say the danger is over. The most closely watched inflation gauge — the consumer price index — was up 7.7 percent in October. That’s down from the peak of 9.1 percent in June, but it remains substantially above the Fed’s 2 percent target. It’s encouraging that prices are finally moderating, and in some cases falling, for many items that skyrocketed during the pandemic or because of the war in Ukraine. They include used cars, airfares, chicken and gas. But many factors could send energy prices shooting up again, and the rise in services inflation in recent months could be even harder to stop.

Politicians, especially on the left, are demanding that Mr. Powell stop raising interest rates. They fear a spike in layoffs if the Fed takes interest rates even higher in an effort to curb consumer spending. Wall Street reinforces that call, sending stocks higher every time there’s a hint that rate hikes are soon to cease.

Editorial | To beat inflation, the Fed might have to trigger a recession

No one wants a recession. Many families and business owners still carry the scars of mass layoffs from the Great Recession and the pandemic. But the longer inflation stays high, the harder it will be to get it back under control, necessitating even more layoffs and pain. Already, many daily necessities are becoming unaffordable for lower-income Americans. If inflation doesn’t come down soon, it will hamper growth and job prospects for years to come.

History shows that inflation often comes as a series of shocks. Taming it is not just a one-off battle. “Keeping inflation low over the coming years will be as important as the initial job of bringing it down to target,” Ben May of Oxford Economics said in a note this week.

Fed leaders have signaled in recent weeks that they would like to slow the pace of rate hikes. Interest rates started the year at basically zero and are now near 4 percent. At the Fed’s December meeting, central bankers will likely endorse a half-point increase, and they have opened the door to smaller quarter-point increases next year. But easing up — a little — on rate hikes is not the same as stopping them altogether.

Editorial | Congress and Biden have to help the Fed fight inflation

The United States is not in a recession now. Many economic barometers still look strong, especially employment. This is a moment for the Fed to be decisive: More rate hikes are needed to subdue inflation.