Is China Heading For Its Own Arab Spring?
This is a continuation of a series of article regarding China’s “miracle.” To read the first part, click here.
Inflation has been and remains the single largest problem for the Chinese Government’s attempts to mollify the Chinese population. It is the one issue that can truly negate a rise in incomes or other economic growth: if inflation is 10%, a 10% raise doesn’t actually mean you’re better off.
Please recall that it was high food inflation that resulted in the general Chinese population joining college students in the infamous Tiananmen Square protests. And today, with nearly 40% of Chinese living off of $2 a day or less, any spike in inflation quickly results in people taking to the streets and protesting.
With that in mind, it’s critical to note that the wealth and power Chinese Government officials have accumulated has come primarily from a massive lending bubble at China’s banks…
From the beginning of 2009 to the end of June this year, Chinese banks have issued roughly 35 trillion yuan ($5.4 trillion) in new loans, equal to 73 percent of China's GDP in 2011. About two-thirds of these loans were made in 2009 and 2010, as part of Beijing's stimulus package. Unlike deficit-financed stimulus packages in the West, China's colossal stimulus package of 2009 was funded mainly by bank credit (at least 60 percent, to be exact), not government borrowing.
If you’re looking for the reason China’s economy continues to explode, look no further. To put this data into perspective, the above bank expansion would be the equivalent of US banks lending over $10 trillion into the US economy from 2009 onwards.
That is the equivalent of what China has done in the post-2008 Crash period.
Mind you, the above statistic is only for China’s official lending numbers (the ones Chinese banks official reveal). Indeed, China’s non-regulated financial system, also called its shadow banking system, has expanded to over $18 TRILLION, more than twice the size of China’s economy. Just last year (2012) the Chinese shadow banking system expanded by $1.3 trillion (that’s the equivalent of 20% of China’s GDP).
THIS is where China’s wealth and corruption and alleged economic “recovery” have come from: not real economic growth, but a massive credit fueled debt binge. And as anyone can tell you, there is a major consequence for this kind of financial expansion: INFLATION.
Now, the official China data pegs inflation at 2%. This, like China’s GDP, is an absurd measure. If inflation were indeed just 2%, the People’s Republic wouldn’t be facing widespread civil unrest over wages (on average there are 30 strikes or more per month in China).
Demands for wage arrears always spike in the weeks before the holiday as migrant workers, especially in construction, clamour for back pay. This year, with the rapid development of social media in China, the extent of the problem became very apparent with one online activist sometimes recording up to 100 protests a day. However, very few of these reports contained sufficient detail to be included on CLB’s strike map.
Of the 71 strikes and protests that we did include during the month of January, 38 were in the service sector and 26 were in manufacturing. Of the service sector strikes, 15 involved taxi and bus drivers protesting administrative charges and rampant unlicensed cars. There was also an upsurge in teachers’ strikes last month as middle school teachers protested pay reform measures introduced by local governments.
Most of the strikes and protests in factories meanwhile were related demands for pay increases. Continued improvements in the productivity and profitability of the manufacturing sector and indications that consumer prices are rising once again have pushed higher wage demands and also forced regional governments to increase the minimum wage. On 5 February, Guangdong announced it would increase the statutory minimum wage on 1 May to 1,550 yuan per month in the capital Guangzhou, and the following day, Shenzhen announced a 100 yuan increase in its minimum wage to 1,600 yuan per month to go into effect on 1 March.
There were two successful strikes for higher pay at Foxconn factories in January; in Jiangxi on 11 January and in Beijing on 22 January. Workers at Jiangxi Foxconn reportedly got a 500 yuan increase in basic pay to 2,200 yuan per month, prompting a strike for higher pay at another Taiwanese-owned electronics plant in the same city of Fengcheng almost immediately. Foxconn later announced that it would broaden the participation of ordinary workers in its enterprise trade union. However, this announcement was prompted by suggestions from the Fair Labor Association following its audit of the company’s Shenzhen and Chengdu facilities and does not seem to be the result of demands from the workers themselves.
One definite highlight of last month’s worker activism however was the strikes by sanitation workers in Guangzhou, which gained considerable public support and sympathy and eventually forced the city government to promise an increase in pay of around 400 yuan per month on average. However, this success was dampened somewhat when a few days later the government announced that the minimum wage in the city would be increased anyway.
So, let’s lay to rest the assumption that China’s inflation is just 2%. Remember that nearly 40% of China’s population lives off of les than $2 per day. And China’s per capita income as a whole is just $6,200 (roughly $17 per day if you count weekends as working days).
A South China Morning Post survey of some commonly bought grocery items found that a 500 gram loaf of bread that sells for HK$8.60 in Hong Kong and the equivalent of HK$9.93 in London, cost the equivalent of HK$13.52 in Beijing.
Similarly, a 250 gram bag of Starbucks coffee beans cost HK$80 in Hong Kong and HK$50 in London, but HK$105 in Beijing. Across the board, imported and foreign brand items were often more expensive in Beijing, although locally produced items, such as eggs, were cheaper.
Similar comparisons contrasting Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen, with those in New York, London and Hong Kong have increasingly become fodder for debate in recent years .
The latest annual cost of living survey by the compensation-consulting firm Mercer found Beijing and Shanghai to be pricier than New York and London. Shanghai was ranked 16th followed by Beijing at 17th, ahead of London (25th) and New York (32nd).
Ignore the “official” data. The massive expansion of the Chinese banking system has unleashed a much higher cost of living in China. And your average Chinese civilian, struggling to meet these increased costs, is going to be none to please to find that the very banking expansion that was supposed to grant him or her a higher quality of life has:
- Benefitted corrupt Government officials much more than the Chinese population
- Resulted in the very same increased cost of living that is eating up his or her paycheck.
This is precisely the formula that resulted in the Arab Spring in the Middle East: increased costs of living and a corrupt Government. Could China be heading for a similar development? It sure looks like it.
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