Sun, 10 Dec 2023

Beijing [China], March 28 (ANI): Three months after the reversal of its zero-Covid mandate, China appears to be grappling with the economic and social fallout of the sudden change in its policy.

Chinese government's portrayal of a rebound in economic activities appears to be in contrast with reports of widespread dissatisfaction among various sections of society. A crucial aspect of it is the rising resentment among common workers on issues of pay and other benefits. While it may be partly attributed to the faulty implementation of policies by various institutions, observers also view it as a long-term outcome of Beijing's conscious pivot away from public welfare policies.

The last few months have witnessed a considerable uptick in workers' protests in various parts of the country. The latest one has been reported from Jiangxi province where a group of teachers protested in Leping city on March 23 against low wages and other benefits. The teachers protesting in front of the Leping Middle School expressed their dissatisfaction on the issue of the large gap between teachers' salary vis a vis public servants. They were seen accusing the provincial government of ill-treating them for many years. The protestors holding banners with slogans and demands also resolved to fight for their legal rights at par with those of public servants.

Although national legislation stipulates that teachers' remuneration must be at least as much as that of public servants, the income gap between the two groups has grown not only in salaries but also in other benefits. The protests remind of a similar one in Jianyang in the Sichuan province in 2019 when public school teachers protested to demand better pay and other benefits. Hundreds of teachers had contended that they were paid much less than other public servants in the region.

The recent protests by teachers come on the heels of those seen in Wuhan in February 2023. Here, thousands of retirees had gathered for two days in Zhongshan park to confront local officials and the police to demand the repeal of cuts in government-provided medical insurance for seniors. As a result of the restructuring of the national health insurance system, local governments have reduced the amount of money deposited into personal accounts.

In some videos circulating online in January 2023, retirees from Guangzhou were also seen staging a similar protest to protest the reduction in government contributions towards their health insurance.

Notably, the wave of protests is not limited to teachers or public workers. After the abrupt end of the "zero Covid" regime, the vast system deployed for virus surveillance and testing collapsed, resulting in the sudden unemployment of various workers. Now, the public authorities have to confront anguished pandemic-control workers who are demanding wages and jobs. In January 2023, hundreds of protesting Covid workers in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing were seen hurling objects at police officers in riot gear. The workers said to be involved in a pay dispute with a Covid test kit manufacturer were seen kicking and tossing boxes of rapid antigen tests onto the ground. In the eastern city of Hangzhou, several workers reportedly climbed the roof of a test kit factory while threatening to jump in protest against non-payment of benefits. The protests were widely blamed on the sudden U-turn on Covid policy by the country without serious planning and coordination.

The protests also expose the growing strain on the finances of China's local governments. The "zero Covid" policies followed by the country for over three years are reported to have burdened those localities with additional costs as revenues dried up. The crisis of finances at the local level is also reflected in the problems faced by regional banks and financial institutions. Last year, the country had seen protests by many depositors who had lost their savings with the small local banks and other institutions. Over time, social frictions may rise further with a slowdown in economic growth and an ageing population. Overall, the developments paint a picture of a growing but increasingly unequal economic society in China. When the country is already among the most unequal ones, the need is to be more responsive towards the vulnerable public lacking a real political voice. (ANI)

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