Serf's Up: Class Warfare in "Socialist" China

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/10/2008 02:43:00 AM
Our resourceful friend the China Economist found a very interesting research op-ed from Arvind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute of Economics on the ever-dwindling share of returns to Chinese labor. Here is the key excerpt:
A silent revolution has been taking place in China. Somehow, without anyone noticing, the capitalists have upended the People's Republic. Over the past few years, they have effected a significant redistribution of income away from workers. This might well be the mother of all redistributions.

Normally, in most countries, the distribution of income between labor and capital changes not at all or very slowly. For example, in the United States, the share of the economic pie going to workers has been, with some small exceptions, roughly stable in the postwar period. In China itself, this share was roughly stable for over 25 years since the Chinese economy took an outward turn in 1978.

But recently there have been tectonic shifts. Between 2002 and 2005, according to Berkeley economists, Chong-En Bai, Chang-Tai Hsieh, and Yingyi Qian, the share of the economic output going to workers decreased by about 8 percentage points, from about 50 percent of GDP to 42 percent of GDP. Which means that China—yes, the People's Republic—now has perhaps the lowest labor share of any major country in the world.
Why is this happening? It sure doesn't seem like the socialism I read about in the frickin' Communist Manifesto. Isn't the operative concept "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need? TIME provides an oft-repeated piece of anecdotal evidence: Local governments keen on accumulating revenue frequently have teamed up with land developers in kicking poor farmers of their land without compensation. The picture here is of an involuntarily razed house to make room for some developer's tourist trap. "Property rights" remains a bourgeois affectation in China. Land grabbers and their accomplices have taken away property from poor farmers as easily as taking candy from a baby. Sad but true. Will changes promulgated by the Communist Party to curb such abuses work? As long as the incentives for land grabbing remain more attractive than the punishments for doing so, don't count on it:

Such violent confrontations are increasingly common in China, where decades of frantic growth have generated an equally frantic desire to cash in by developers, often aided or partnered by corrupt local government officials. But the Zhuhai case is different in one critical respect: after their claims were twice denied by the courts, the villagers issued a proclamation rejecting the land seizures as illegal and asserting their rights over ancestral plots for them and succeeding generations — rights they said they were prepared to "defend to the death."

China's farmers can work their land through 30-year, renewable leases, but they cannot buy or sell it (all land belongs to the state). Regulations do exist governing expropriation, but they are often not followed. Many farmers are increasingly angry with this — particularly when they believe that the land their families have tilled, often for generations, has been taken away without regard for the law. The declaration by the Zhuhai villagers is the latest in a series of such actions that now involve tens of thousands of farmers all over China. While it is too early to describe this as an organized national movement, there's little doubt that such manifestos — which often use similar vocabulary and phrasing — are part of a new effort by activists and farmers to focus the government's attention on the country's 700 million peasants and the restricted claim they have on the land they work. "This is just the beginning," says a Beijing-based rural-rights activist who says he is one of the main organizers behind the drive to give farmers full legal ownership of their land. "You'll see [many] declarations like these coming out before the Olympics."

Yu Jianrong, a director of the Institute of Rural Development at Beijing's most prestigious think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, or CASS, acknowledges that the recent assertions of rights over land by peasants are potentially transformational. "They're not widespread now but they could become symbolic ... of peasants ceasing to depend on the law and instead depending on 'natural law.'" Journalist and author Chen Guidi is more blunt: "If word of these declarations starts to spread to peasants around the countryside, it could become uncontrollable." Chen, with his wife Wu Chuntao, is the author of Will the Boat Sink the Water? — a widely praised investigation into conditions in rural China.

BTW, the book Will the Boat Sink the Water? looks like a very interesting read for those of you interested in China's growing polarization. I will try and take it out from the library soon. Some "worker's paradise," that China.