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Thailand Turmoil Resonates in China

Posted by Author on May 20, 2010

Andrew Browne, via The Wall Street Journal –

Television images of bloody class warfare engulfing downtown Bangkok must make for uncomfortable viewing in Zhongnanhai, Beijing’s leadership compound.

Chinese society is no less polarized between rich and poor than Thailand’s. In Beijing, as in Bangkok, the elites flaunt their newly acquired wealth with flashy cars and designer fashions, and stark social inequalities have stoked public anger against power and privilege.

When a rich and well-connected young Thai man deliberately rammed his Mercedes into a crowd of Bangkok bus commuters a few years ago, killing one woman, simmering social tensions burst into the open. A similar tragedy in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, when a wealthy drag car racer knocked over and killed a young man from humble origins, became a parable for social injustice in China.

According to World Bank calculations, the rich-poor gap as measured by the so-called Gini Index is about the same in both countries, making them among the most unequal societies on earth.

The frustrations that drive Thailand’s Red Shirt protesters, mainly poor farmers and urban workers backed by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, also resonate in China.

What must be shocking to China’s leaders is the way the social order in Thailand seems to be so quickly unraveling in the face of challenges that they recognize all too well.

Modern Chinese history has been tumultuous, filled with civil war, colonial invasion, revolution and social upheaval.

By contrast, Thailand has enjoyed relative peace and tranquility. It avoided European colonial rule, and found stability by clinging to tradition. The monarchy has been a strong unifying force, along with Buddhism. Thai society is hierarchical, a pyramid whose apex is the royal family and an inner circle around the court.

The urban elite in Bangkok once counted on rural Thais to know their place in a traditional society. No longer.

So could China go the same way as Thailand? That’s certainly the nightmare that keeps Chinese leaders awake at night, although the Chinese state is unlikely to fracture so easily.

Even though the percentage of the Chinese population living in poverty is much higher than in Thailand, rural Chinese have largely benefited from economic growth. That’s been a big factor underpinning social stability in China. Like Thaksin when he was in power, President Hu Jintao has been wooing the rural populations with a program of expanded healthcare coverage and fiscal giveaways.

Of course, in China the Communist Party brooks no political challenge.
As Chinese leaders survey the color revolutions in countries of the former Soviet Union, and now the Red Shirt rebellion in Thailand, the lesson they take away is that nothing must be allowed to compromise the Party’s monopoly on power. In response to challenges great or small, the Party must clamp down hard.

Still, a series of violent events in China over the past several weeks suggest that social tensions could yet play out in shocking and unpredictable ways. A number of school attacks that have left more than 20 adults and children dead have led even Premier Wen Jiabao to publicly fret about the hidden dangers of an increasingly divided society.

An editorial in the Economic Observer also reflected a growing sense of angst. “Thailand is facing a similar challenge to many Asian countries today: how to bridge the rift between urban and rural, upper and lower levels, the elite and grass-roots,” it said.

The Wall Street Journal

One Response to “Thailand Turmoil Resonates in China”

  1. James Poulter said

    Very interesting. Thank you.

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