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The Deal

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James Reynolds | 08:56 UK time, Tuesday, 25 November 2008

You won't find it written down anywhere. The government would deny that it exists. But it's one of the first things that you learn about when you get to China. Everyone here understands it. And it helps to explain why the Communist Party has been able to stay in power.

It's The Deal - sometimes known as The Bargain or the Pact.

The Deal is an unspoken agreement between the Chinese government and its people. It was reached in the aftermath of the crushing of the Tiananmen Square student protests in 1989. It goes like this: the people leave the politics to the government; in return the government makes the people rich.

A crude way of looking at it is that the Communist Party has simply bought off its people with money and jobs. But there's more to it than that. For more than a century, until the late 1970s, China lived in almost constant chaos: a collapsing empire, foreign invasion and occupation, civil war, famine (any Chinese person over 35 can still remember some of those years). Many people here want a break from the anarchy they once knew. So, a more accurate way of seeing The Deal is this: everyone has agreed to leave behind years of chaos by focusing all of their efforts on the economy. Getting rich feels better than being hungry and anarchic.

For years, The Deal has governed how life works in China. Today's students haven't protested like their predecessors a generation ago partly because there have always been enough jobs for them when they graduate (and partly because they know that demonstrations end badly). Workers and farmers haven't risen up in mass revolt because the Party's given them the chance to escape from poverty. In other words, if you keep quiet and put your faith in the system, you can get a good life.

In recent years, there have been thousands of small-scale protests. But these demonstrations (or "incidents" as the government calls them) have been about localised issues (eg officials in a certain village have stolen money, or migrant workers on a specific project haven't been paid). Until now, there's been no one single issue for people to protest about.

Migrant workers rest on a Beijing street on Sunday Febuary 27, 2000. China Daily newspaper reported that last year only 22 million out of the 70 million unemployed rural laborers who went to cities found work. Chinese leaders worried that frequent protestBut now, the world's financial crisis has hit China. As I wrote last week, many Chinese companies which export goods to the West have had to shut down. Migrant workers who left their villages to get jobs are now having to go back home to nothing. We've been getting word of more and more protests in different parts of the country. The government admits that the unemployment situation is "grim."

If hundreds of millions of farmers and migrant workers no longer feel that the government can give them a better life, the government runs into trouble.

Here's the thought that may keep China's leaders awake at night: No Jobs, No Deal.


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