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China's homegrown populism to test Xi Jinping

First Britain, then the United States. Now, could China be facing a populist backlash of its own? A growing anti-establishment movement will test the nation's leadership ahead of the 19th Party Congress in late 2017, set to be one of the year's biggest political events.

In church praising, religion
Yasuyoshi Chiba | AFP | Getty Images

The Congress is essentially a three-week long meeting in which the ruling Communist Party selects and announce the country's next leaders. President Xi Jinping is widely expected to be given a second term but his ability to manage rising socio-economic pressures will be a major theme in the lead-up to the Congress, Nicholas Consonery, senior Asia-Pacific director at FTI Consulting, told CNBC.

Although the world's number two economy doesn't hold free elections, citizens are ensuring their voices are heard in other ways. Cynicism with Beijing's economy-first policies has created a new political movement known as the New Left, or neo-Maoism, that supports the egalitarian ideas preached by dictator Mao Zedong.


"This is a story happening across Asia, but China is a big part of it." -Nicholas Consonery, senior Asia-Pacific director, FTI Consulting

"The New Left is characterized by an emphasis on the state power to redress the problems of injustice and other negative effects of privatization, marketization and globalization. It argues for more emphasis on economic justice, not just economic growth at any price," explained Chinese academic Li He in a 2008 paper.

As such, China hasn't remained totally immune to the pronounced anti-establishment wave, a key political leitmotif of 2016 that's upended political consensus across the globe.

"We tend to see China as a country that has benefited enormously from globalization," Consonery said. Still, "what we see today, in an environment of widening socioeconomic inequality, is a lot of skepticism within China about orientation towards free trade and open markets."

Some economists expect China to overtake the U.S. as the world's largest economy within a matter of years, and its poverty ratio—defined by the World Bank as people living on less than $2 per day—among its near 1.4 billion population has fallen steeply over the last three decades. Yet according to nonprofit advocacy group The Borgen Project, at least 82 million Chinese still live below the poverty line, while millions more subsist on an annual income of less than $400.


In other countries, a similar tableau of problems have reverberated at the ballot box. In Europe and the U.S., complaints that globalization and open immigration have widened socio-economic inequality resulted in a nationalist-tinged backlash that led to the U.K.'s historic Brexit vote and the ascendancy of president-elect Donald Trump. In South Korea, voters sick of crony capitalism and political scandals are warming up to a politician who likens himself to U.S. independent politician Bernie Sanders.

China under pressure

China's New Left movement's origin dates back to the early 2000s, when intellectuals became concerned about economic inequalities resulting from the government's market-oriented reform. "The New Left was shocked by how polarized society had become, and decided to defend the interests of the poor," He noted.

The group remains underground but while the size of its supporter base is hard to come by, experts say New Leftism is enormously popular among students, ordinary peasants and workers.

Indeed, more people are questioning the benefits of the government's pro-growth programs over the past decade, said Consonery. And as backlash spreads, Xi's administration appears to be listening.

Beijing is trying to be responsive to socioeconomic pressures that have resulted from rapid economic growth, so hence we're seeing a crackdown on environmental degradation and increased concern about asset bubbles in the aftermath of government stimulus, Consonery noted.

"This is a story happening across Asia, but China is a big part of it."

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