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A cold wind in Beijing

Observations on recession

The Year of the Ox has dawned. It's meant to make you stronger and, at the party thrown by the All-Party Parliamentary China Group in the House of Commons, China's deft ambassador, Fu Ying, expressed the hope that it would bring a return of the bull market. That looks like a forlorn hope right now: China's latest economic figures, smoothly manipulated to bury the bad news, signal trouble ahead.

China presents its economic statistics with "Chinese characteristics". This past quarter the country posted 6.8 per cent growth, half the double-digit trend of recent decades and already worrying - but the truth is darker still. As the economics guru Nouriel Roubini points out, China publishes its quarterly GDP figure on a year-over-year basis, unlike the United States and most other countries, which publish their GDP growth figures on a quarter-on-quarter, annualised basis. When growth is slowing sharply, quarter-on-quarter growth may be negative, but the year-over-year figure looks positive. Converting the 6.8 per cent into the more standard annualised figure, according to Roubini, gives a truer picture of the Chinese position as close to zero. That bull might be a little shy of reappearing.

That this spells trouble is no secret in Beijing. The Year of the Ox is also a year of resonant anniversaries in China, many of them unmentionable in official circles. In March, there's the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight into exile and the 20th anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Lhasa. It will also be a year since the biggest wave of protest across all the Tibetan territories. Spring will bring the 90th anniversary of the 4 May movement, under whose banner patriotic students and intellectuals, outraged that German concessions in China had been given to Japan at Versailles, marched to demand political and cultural modernisation. On 4 June, the 20th anniversary of the crushing of the student occupation of Tiananmen Square will be marked, and 1 October will be the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. In December will come the anniversary - all but forgotten in China and abroad - of the crushing of the Democracy Wall in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping turned his back on what the dissident Wei Jingsheng resonantly called the "Fifth Modernisation": democracy.

To add to the giddy total, China has just celebrated 18 December 1978, the 30th anniversary of the beginning of Deng's economic reforms, which launched three decades of industrialisation and double-digit growth. When Deng turned his back on political modernisation in 1979, and again in 1989, he locked China into a political pact that committed the government to delivering rising living standards at the price of continued one-party rule. It's a pact that has held, more or less, until now, and that recession threatens to undo.

The price of the pact has been high: growth at the cost of environmental depredation, a press that is increasingly professional but ever more frustrated, endemic corruption, a middle class flexing its muscles and a ruling group that puts its own interests above those of the nation. While people were feeling more tolerated, but it was always fragile.

The students and intellectuals who marched in May 1919 articulated the beginning of China's search for a modern political form in the post-imperial era. Nearly a century later, the question repeatedly posed on the streets of Beijing remains unanswered: to whom does the state belong? Does it belong to the people, or to the emperor?

On 22 January, in a court in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, three people were sentenced in a case that has convulsed China and which illuminates the problems that derive from Deng's rejection of political reform. It was a characteristic trial: short, secret and with harsh sentences designed to shut down discussion of the affair of the poisoning of 300,000 children with milk adulterated with melamine. Six infants died and tens of thousands have been left with kidney damage. Embedded in the case are all the contradictions of today's China - rapid growth, a lack of political accountability, a poorly a civil society regarded with suspicion by its own government.

The guilty company, Sanlu, was a joint venture with the New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra. Three directors of Sanlu, all Chinese, were tried. (The New Zealand directors quietly faded out.) Tian Wenhua, Sanlu's former chairwoman and general manager, was sentenced to life and two other defendants were given death sentences. But the real scandal is the suppression of the story by government authorities to avoid embarrassment in the run-up to the Olympics. Parents were paid to stay quiet, newspapers were threatened, health authorities were silent and inspectors continued to wave Sanlu's samples through.

Even now, parents who are trying to bring cases against the authorities are being threatened, their lawyers intimidated and their cases refused. Wei Jingsheng's perception that economic modernisation without political reform is a cul-de-sac has never looked more prescient.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.