Asia-Pacific, Economy & Trade, Financial Crisis, Headlines

CHINA: Only Business Occupies Shanghai

Antoaneta Becker

SHANGHAI, Nov 16 2011 (IPS) - As China’s financial centre and a pinnacle of domestic wealth, Shanghai could have been in the forefront of a home-grown movement against income disparity of the like sweeping New York’s Wall Street and London’s City.

Instead it remains a metaphor for China’s potential to become the new economic superpower and coin new rules. Its white-collar workers are often compared at home to an “ant tribe” which pulls in long hours of work, obediently creates more value for the Chinese economy and cares little about social justice.

Asked if an ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement could develop in Shanghai, financial broker Zhao Hui seemed perplexed: “Why? Bankers are not the most hated people in China. Corrupt officials and state companies tycoons are those that have the most money and need fear people’s anger.”

Yang Jianlong, professor at Shanghai Normal University who studies Shanghai’s “trade port” culture, says the city is steeped in a mercantile tradition of entrepreneurship and will not rally behind a populist movement like ‘Occupy Wall Street’.

“Shanghai people do not bow much to authority but their money-making mentality is too strong,” he tells IPS. “They will protest against a commercial project they think will harm the environment but the city is not likely to become a centre for political activism.”

Instead, the street movements of New York and London have found bigger resonance with the residents of inland Chinese provinces like Henan historically regarded as hotbeds for peasant rebellions. People there have staged short-lived symbolic protests in support of their “ideological brothers in the West” in the fight against capitalism.

Chinese intellectuals have been divided in their views on the waves of populist movements that have swept the U.S., Europe and the Middle East since spring.

The new leftists who hold that egalitarian China under Mao Zedong’s rule (1949-1976) was a better realisation of the socialist ideal than the current money-spinning and greedy China unleashed by Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms in the last 30 years, have been cheering for the street movements around the world.

But the liberal left has been circumspect. For many old enough to remember the political surges of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the street clashes resemble the radical campaigns of young communist China that pitched children against their parents and students against their teachers.

While the radicalised youth, the Red Guards, were battling in the streets, the real political battles were happening in the political corridors of Zhongnanhai, headquarters of the communist leadership. Chairman Mao used the campaigns to squash opposition to his rule and consolidate the party’s grip over the intelligentsia.

With the quick speed of developments across the globe, Chinese analysts have been reluctant to pronounce a verdict on populist movements, but some have warned that these may be hijacked by powerful interest groups.

In a lengthy article on the Arab spring published this month in the China Times, Middle East expert Ma Xiaolin took a swipe at the “limitations and the superficial character” of Arab movements, which have made them easy prey for western forces to manipulate. The final result – the triumph of Islamic parties across the board – may have been unplanned by the powers of the day but very logical, he said.

“This is how a colourless movement geared at empowering people and pursuing social justice became a colour revolution,” Ma concluded.

For China – currently marking the 10th anniversary of its entry into the World Trade Organisation – and which spent a painful decade adjusting to free trade and learning the rules of globalisation, the growing momentum of populist movements making countries look inwards is somewhat scary.

Having accepted that interdependence is an unavoidable price to pay for economic growth, China is now beginning to contemplate the economic and political fallout of populist movements that may reverse that trend.

Xu Xiaonian, professor with the China Europe International Business School, criticised U.S. President Barack Obama’s support for the populist movements as a “pre-election ploy”. “This is a clumsy gesture of a politician aiming to please voters,” Xu said in a recent speech. “This type of response cannot resolve the real problems of the day.”

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