Challenges in China, Opportunities for the Philippines

Growing up in Manila and having had my schooling in PUP and UP

, seeing people led by left-leaning groups protesting on the streets of Mendiola or along Recto Avenue was a common sight. So frequent that many folks in Manila just got used to it and passionate calls from their leaders and followers to “ang masa, ngayon ay lumalaban!”  (the masses are now becoming assertive!) and “tara na, sumama na kayo” (come on, join us!) would just be tactfully replied by a simple smile and the folksy reply “sige lang, salamat” (ok, thanks) . Others are not so sympathetic though. For some, these rallies just makes the traffic worse and nothing but a nuisance made by “tambay aktibistas” (unemployed activists). For some rabid anti-leftists, these rallies are just mere exercise for the Left’s over-all goal to overthrow the government.

In Mainland China, these frequent protests and rallies are something that I have not seen for the longest time. Yes, there were protest actions especially in the restive provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet over ethnic-political matters, but over-all the Mainland has not been beset by protests and rallies since the infamous Tiananmen Square incident in 1989.  But when thousands of workers in the prosperous province of Guangdong protested and clashed with policemen last week over demands for better pay, things seems to have going to a different direction enough to send some shivers to the Beijing government. A spike of labor activism especially since 2010 and this year have been happening in the Mainland. This comes at a time when China’s zooming economy slowed down after 30 years of unprecedented growth and development. In fact, last year 127,000 mass incidents and protests occurred in the Mainland. (Whoa! That’s way beyond the number of rallies Bayan, Akbayan, Sanlakas, PLM, KPD, PM, and other left-leaning groups launched last year). One striking example of this labor unrest in China was when workers in Toyota China and Honda China protested and demanded for wage increase but not without affecting these companies production output.  Many foreign companies are now moving away from China and going to countries that can provide them the same opportunities provided by China in the past 30 years.

Inflation in the Mainland is increasing and it has caused inconvenience both on the part of the workers and their employers. Wage earners are demanding higher salary to cope up with the increasing cost of living. On the other hand, businessmen and employers are having a tough time adjusting on the new situation since most of them are still caught at a paradigm when labor was abundant and cheap and the economy zooming.   Clearly, while many Chinese are becoming wealthy, and the middle class increasing, the huge numbers of being left behind are starting to voice and act on their social discontent.

This situation in Mainland China reminds me of a particular juncture in the United States’ economic history. During the post-Reconstruction United States (late 1800s) economic growth spiked and it made the rich, richer, increased the numbers of the middle-class, but at the same time left hundreds and thousands of workers living on meager salary, over-worked and under-paid. American policy makers at that time, allowed the rise of labor unions to provide an outlet for the restive workers. In addition, religious freedom in the United States had also played a crucial role in mitigating labor unrest during the post-Reconstruction era. The charity works of religious organizations such as the YMCA had provided relief and comfort to the downtrodden workers and made them to do away with radicalism.

Unfortunately, given China’s political system, independent labor unions are being banned as it worries the Beijing government that once they allow the rise of labor unions, these labor unions would solidify with other labor unions and challenge the government. Workers can only turn to the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions whose concern for the workers comes second only to its function to pursue the interest of the government and the ruling party. Hence, without an efficient means to address workers grievances, laborers are left but to take on the streets to advance their interest.

The way I see it, the Beijing government is keenly aware of this situation. None other than PM Wen Jiabao admonished his government to learn to change the way it governs on this changing times if it wants to truly build a harmonious society as envisioned by Pres. Hu Jintao. PM Wen’s idea spurred a passionate debate within and among the mandarins, in the same intensity when Chairman Deng proposed for 改革开放 gaige kaifang (reform and opening) more than 30 years ago. And while China is trying to chart its ways on this challenging times, it would do well if our Philippine economic managers can lure China-based and China-intended businesses and investments away from China and towards our home country. Then, perhaps, if there would be more jobs to make Filipinos busy, there would be fewer rallies in Mendiola.

Image Credit: chinadigitaltimes.net

J. Sun E.

Sun, a Filipino based in China, writes PH.CN on ProPinoy, a weekly column on Philippines-China relations, politics, history, and current events. He studied Political Science, History, and Foreign Languages in Philippines and China. Follow him on Twitter @phdotcn