At midday a fragrant dumpling soup sells briskly as a neatly
dressed man toes the sidewalk in this working class neighborhood of
Beijing. Liu Songmei is an unemployed farmer from Hunan province,
here to find work as a carpenter.
Mr. Liu, one of as many as 150 million out-of-work farmers in
China, finds a job about "every other week," he says, "but nothing
today." He makes 60 yuan a day ($7.25), and spends half of that on
a room shared with several others. "We have enough to eat, but we
aren't saving anything," he says.
After a strong '90s-era push by China's top echelon of reformers
to insert this huge but developing country into the fast lane of
the world's economy, including World Trade Organization membership
this year, a quiet but significant shift toward caution is under
way, with a wing of Communist Party brass reportedly worried about
the potential social pressures that wrenching and wholesale
structural changes to China's economy may bring.
China's WTO membership, for example, agreed to by the US Congress
last fall amid fanfare, may not take place this year, analysts say.
Yesterday, China's biggest annual political event, the National
People's Congress - 10 days of giant red flags fluttering in the
stiff March breezes, and Beijing streets choked with black
limousines - came to an end.
On the surface of the meeting, all appeared tranquil and even
uneventful. A new "Five Year Plan" for the economy was unveiled to
2,900 officials from the provinces. Business and trade on the
wealthy east coast and in Hong Kong remain dynamic. The nation's
growth rate has leveled off but is strong at about 7 percent,
Yet small signals under the surface suggest worry over the
mindsets of ordinary Chinese. There are, for example, restless
peasant and working classes - of which the recent crackdown on the
outlawed Falun Gong movement is part of the story. In the next five
years, economic ministers say, between 40-to-50 million of 800
million farmers will be laid off each year, as the country moves to
modern farming techniques. China signed off on a WTO agreement that
requires it to meet developed world standards on crucial farm
subsidies, but Chinese officials and many Western agriculture
experts now argue this standard must be eased: The developing-
country subsidy of 10 percent of output is about double that of the
There are concerns over laid- off workers from the industrial
sector, the fallout from a transition away from state-run
enterprises. In a press conference March 10, a high ranking
minister hinted that about 52 million industrial workers will lose
jobs over the next five years. Already, 10 million are officially
redundant, though the exact figure is hard to reckon. China has
some 145 million registered industrial workers. The government
classifies many of the laid-off as not employed but looking, and
not counted as jobless.
Authorities take as progress what they say is a slow but steady
public adjustment to a new economy. "Today, people can accept
that state-owned enterprises can go bankrupt," said State
Economic Trade minister Li Rongrong March 10. "Three years ago
people could never accept this."
Yet in a one-party state that next year begins a transition to
newly appointed leaders, including premier and president, some
officials are concerned about leaping into the unknown - even while
continuing to integrate into world markets.
"They are worried about instability, and they should be," says a
Western scholar working in Beijing with the unemployed. …