May 26, 2020

Event Coverage Highlight

Tiff Roberts Discusses China’s Uncertain Future in the Wake of COVID-19

by Chad Bouchard

Scroll to the bottom of this article to watch a playlist of video clips from the discussion.

During the OPC’s first post-quarantine event online last week, author and club member Dexter “Tiff” Roberts said during a Zoom discussion that fallout from China’s COVID-19 outbreak will likely threaten the country’s ability to transform its economy and worsen an already precarious rural-urban divide.

On April 23, Roberts discussed how the pandemic might shape the country’s future, as well as a host of issues raised in his new book “The Myth of Chinese Capitalism,” which was published on March 10 just as the U.S. was starting its lockdown. 

He said China is undergoing its biggest economic transition in decades, from a global manufacturing powerhouse that relies on cheap labor from hundreds of millions of people in rural areas, to a service-driven economy driven by domestic consumption. 

“The future of their success in making this transition is really up in the air. They will not be able to do it unless they overcome the wealth gap,” he said, “and find a way to better integrate migrants and their relatives in rural China, which together is about half of China’s population, into the economy. Otherwise they will not successfully make this transition.”

Roberts spent 23 years in Beijing for BusinessWeek magazine and Bloomberg. OPC Past President William J. Holstein, himself a former China correspondent, moderated the event. He asked if the government’s handling of COVID-19 could threaten the legitimacy of the Communist Party in the eyes of migrant workers. 

Roberts said with fewer manufacturing jobs, and high-risk, low paying service jobs like motorcycle couriers taking their place, rural workers could lose confidence in the party’s promises of prosperity across all of Chinese society. He said COVID-19 has the potential to fray the party’s relationship with migrant workers even more.      

“It does seem as if there’s a bit of a sense of normalcy returning to urban China right now. People are starting to go back to work, or they’re white collar workers and they’re working from home, but this has not been the case at all with the migrant workers.”

Roberts said researchers at Stanford recently found that after only one month of COVID-19 restrictions, China’s economy lost around $100 billion in wages for rural migrant workers alone. UBS has estimated that up to 80 million people in manufacturing, construction and services had lost their jobs or were unable to work at the end of March because of COVID-19. Roberts said that compares to around 20 million people who were out of work after the 2008 global financial crisis. 

Holstein asked if China might use the coronavirus outbreaks to expand control and restrictions over citizens, which has been increasing over the last several years with moves such as its hard line against the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, along with social rating and monitoring systems.

“This [pandemic] is very fortuitous for the Chinese because this monitoring is exactly what needs to be done in a crisis like this,” he said. “I am worried about how they’re using this as an opportunity to try to beef up all that capability that they already had, and I do worry that we’ll see it used in ways a lot less pleasant going forward.”

Several China hands attended the online session and asked questions, including author Dori Jones Yang, Jamie FlorCruz of CNN, Bill Rukeyser of Money and Fortune magazines, and China-based radio correspondent and filmmaker Jocelyn Ford.

You can purchase a copy of Roberts’ book here >>