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Why Unrest in Thailand Could be a Preview for China

Submitted by on May 18, 2010 One Comment

Chinese diplomats in Bangkok are no doubt extremely busy these days sending home reports of the ongoing turmoil roiling the streets of the Thai capital.  With Thai military forces now using live ammunition to disperse the so-called “Red Shirt” protestors, Chinese officials in Bangkok and Beijing must be wondering if what is happening in Thailand could also erupt in China.On the surface, there are many reasons for Chinese leaders to be concerned:

thailandConsider that the Red Shirts represent Thailand’s rural peasant population who have grown increasingly frustrated with political corruption and the government’s emphasis on urban development over agrarian reform.

Notice how the various factions in this turmoil are largely divided between elite urbanites (the so-called “Yellow Shirts”) and poorer peasants (“Red Shirts”).

The gap between the rich and poor in China is far more pronounced than it is in Thailand.   The measurement of such inequality is known as the “Gini Coefficient” and in China the figure is 46.9 whereas in Thailand it’s just 42.    The higher the Gini Coefficient, according to many experts, the greater the likelihood of social unrest.

The Hu-Wen administration speaks frequently on the need to rebalance the society and narrow the coastal-interior wealth gap.   Yet, even as China’s leaders pour more money into the countryside, their efforts may pale in comparison to the levels of frustration born from the real estate crisis that could become a critical flash point.  With land and housing prices now out of reach for a disturbingly large percentage of the population, the frustration of the masses can quickly morph into widespread anger against the urban elite who have benefitted from the property boom.

China’s wealth gap is now larger than at any time since the Communist Party came to power in 1949.  If the government wants to avoid the same kind of calamity that is currently taking place in Bangkok, it must do more to address official corruption, continue to reduce the peasant tax burden, and eliminate the perception that there are “Two Chinas: — one for the rich and one for everyone else.   The crisis in Thailand should be an unmistakable warning to China’s leaders that time is running out and the consequences of inaction could be severe.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal blog “China Real Time Report” posted a similar article today on Chinese perceptions of the unrest in Thailand.

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