Nov 16, 2012 07:13 PM

The Internet is Vital to Future Reforms


Since reform and opening up started 34 years ago, China has experienced astonishing economic growth accompanied by gradually improving public governance. However, the recent rise of the Internet as an outlet of public opinion has magnified an increasingly pressing array of social issues.

On September 15 and 16, under the banner of patriotism stirred by the Diaoyu Islands incident, anti-Japanese protests were held across the country.  Both domestic and international observers were stunned as the protests turned violent and large-scale destruction and vandalism of Japanese cars and Japanese-funded shopping malls spread in many cities.

Police statements and eyewitness accounts revealed that the protests began with peaceful marches by students waving banners and shouting slogans. Later, as the students dispersed, the protests were taken over by society's "idle class," those with no steady or fixed employment, many of whom carried makeshift weapons. This is when the violence began to start. 

As the suspects have appeared in court, it has become clear that the perpetrators were largely second generation rural migrants or second generation urban poor. These are groups that lie on the poverty line and struggle for recognition in society.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, while 81.8 percent of migrant workers are under the age of 40 and 88.4 percent are educated at a junior high school level and above, less than 1 percent buy property in the cities where they work.

An investigation by a professor at Tsinghua University, Guo Yuhua, revealed that among the new generation of migrant workers, 58.4 percent plan to stay in the city and 48.7 percent consider themselves urban workers rather than rural peasants. And 85.7 percent are Internet users, but their average annual savings is less than 10,000 yuan, almost 40 percent less than the previous generation.

This second generation of rural migrants longs to truly assimilate into urban life, but they are being shut out, leaving them to feel trapped between the city and the countryside. Their increasing struggle to get by in the cities only serves to intensify the sense that they have been deprived of their rights.  Their rootless social status has made them more susceptible to a desire to overthrow the existing social order. Crucially they know how to use the Internet to release the frustration of their daily lives and to voice their demands.

In the early days of reform, the reinstatement of the gaokao college entrance exam and the abolishment of political background checks gave political outcasts of previous generations a chance to break free and turn a new leaf. Agricultural reforms and the emergence of privately owned business models paved the way for the grassroots social classes to vastly improve their quality of life.

However, since the late 1990s, the gains of reform and modernization have accumulated among the special interest groups of government officials and corporate leaders. The upward mobility of the common people has become increasingly obstructed.

Today it is very difficult for young people to become a civil servant or a functionary at an institutional organization unless they have particular family connections. Even if you succeed in attending university, education may not necessarily alter your fate. In any case, many poor households are unable to support their children's education all the way up to university.

In particular, second generation rural migrants and urban poor are the archetypical cases of disadvantaged groups that no longer benefit from state protection of a planned economy, but are at the same time are unable to fully assimilate into the market economy. They are society's restless groups, the ones most likely to cause social unrest.

The tensions in today's society are not new but have brewed over decades of uneven growth. In the early 1990s, Deng Xiaoping voiced concern over the growing wealth gap, admitting that "if we continue to develop in this manner, it will undoubtedly cause problems." Almost 20 years later and China's income inequality has continued to grow, now surpassing many Western capitalist nations.

Observers around the world now fear that the riots are an omen of what's to come from the volcano of China's lower class. There is no doubt that those responsible for violence must be held accountable to the law. But at the same time government and society must reflect on the plight of such disadvantaged social groups and step in to resolve their pressing education, employment and social welfare needs. The investment will be well worth it and far less than what it will cost to keep the lid on social unrest.

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