BEIJING — The signs of discontent are small but unnerving in an authoritarian country where public demonstrations are not permitted.
Laid-off toy company workers smash windows and computers and overturn police cars in Guangdong province. Employees of a liquor company in Harbin travel to their company's Beijing headquarters to demand back wages. Taxi drivers, as many as 20,000 of them, scuffle with police in protests that have spread into seven provinces.
Even the police have gotten into the act. Auxiliary officers surrounded a Communist Party office last week in Hunan province to demand higher wages, said the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.
As China's economy hits the skids, such protests have been sporadic and usually involved fewer than 100 people. But in recent weeks, they have cropped up across the country like brush fires.
"Definitely, this is the most serious problem we have seen since 1989," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor of sociology at People's University in Beijing. "You have millions of college students who can't find jobs. . . . You have migrant workers who have lost their jobs at factories and don't have land to go back to."
It is counterintuitive that a global financial crisis that started with the excesses of Wall Street should be undermining the Chinese Communist Party. But academics such as Zhou believe that the economic crisis could present the leadership with its biggest political challenge since the student protests at Tiananmen Square nearly two decades ago.
To a large extent, China's fiscal problems pale next to those of the United States. The unemployment rate is not expected to top 4.5%, compared with the current 6.5% in the U.S. Although the World Bank recently slashed China's growth forecast for next year to 7.5% from more than 9%, even the lower figure keeps it at the top of the pack.
The problem is that ordinary growth might not be enough for a system that's been sustained by double-digit gains over the last five years. New York University economist Nouriel Roubini predicted last month in a widely quoted newsletter that without 9% to 10% growth, China is headed for a "hard landing."
Security in growth
It is the conventional wisdom that Communist Party rule has survived into the 21st century because of the nation's extraordinary economic growth. China watchers often speak of an implicit bargain between the people and the party: Give up demands for democracy and free speech and we'll make you rich.
"I think the leaders are scared stiff," said Susan Shirk, a professor at UC San Diego. "Certainly the Chinese Communist Party leadership believes there is a connection between economic growth, social stability and the survival of one-party rule."
Even members of the intelligentsia have become more vocal, demanding political change in a petition released this week that was modeled after the 1977 one that challenged the Soviet Union's domination of Czechoslovakia. "In the world, authoritarian systems are approaching the dusk of their endings," says the document, signed by more than 300 prominent people.
What makes the government especially vulnerable is that the people hurting financially have few legitimate outlets to air grievances. Unable to vote out their leaders, strike or collect compensation from the courts, they protest. And when the police wade in, things can quickly turn violent.
That's what happened Nov. 25 after 1,000 workers were laid off from the Kai Da toy factory in Dongguan, a southeastern city often called the real-life Santa's workshop because of the toys manufactured there.
As one former worker, a 36-year-old mechanic who agreed to be quoted by his surname, Zhong, describes it: A group of workers was in discussions with management about termination pay when a dispute broke out. "We saw the police beating five workers with sticks, several of them unconscious. . . . Then many workers rushed out and surrounded them. Later there were thousands of people there. They smashed police cars, doors and computers."
The economic downturn is hitting hardest in places like Dongguan, where factories once churned out toys, shoes and clothing to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demand of American consumers. Now demand has plunged because of the U.S. recession and the scandals over tainted foods and dangerous toys produced in China.
The Chinese government reported Wednesday that last month, for the first time in seven years, exports declined. In the toy industry alone, figures from the General Administration of Customs showed that half of the 3,631 companies had gone under this year.
Almost all of the workers who are losing their jobs are migrants who may not have any place to return to.
Zhong and his wife, who is seven months pregnant, came from an area in Sichuan province that suffered heavy damage during the May earthquake. "We are just wandering around now looking for work," Zhong said.
Fears of instability