China plans tighter control to counter social unrest over coronavirus

People walk on a footbridge near Beijing Railway Station on April 2, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - The Chinese government is ramping up efforts to curb emerging social unrest in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak as the country faces an economic downturn that could leave millions of people unemployed.

The ruling Communist Party has formed a task force of law enforcement officials to "defend political security" and "resolve conflicts related to the coronavirus outbreak", according to a report from the official Xinhua News Agency.

Mr Guo Shengkun, a member of the party's Politburo who heads the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the CPC Central Committee, convened the group's first gathering on Tuesday (April 21).

Setting up the team was a "strategic move to highlight the political and institutional advantages of the rule of China", Mr Guo told the officials. "We will guard against and crack down on activities that endanger state political security in accordance with the law," he said.

As China's virus outbreak comes under control, its leaders now have to deal with frustration over the economic fallout from the government's decision to shut down large swathes of the country for weeks. Unemployment surged to a record high in February and more pain lies ahead as the nation's biggest trading partners face recessions of their own.

Tuesday's meeting was attended by some of the most prominent officials in China's security forces, including Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi and Minister of State Security Chen Wenqing, signalling the importance the government has placed on the initiative.

Early in the crisis, President Xi Jinping warned that the virus posed a threat to "social stability", and since then he's seen tensions flare both within the country and with other nations.

Earlier this month, dozens of shop owners protested in Wuhan - the city hardest hit by the virus - to demand a cut in rent, and people clashed violently on the border of the larger Hubei region when its quarantine was lifted last month.

Taking steps

A sudden spike in unemployment that might fill the streets with disgruntled workers has been a recurrent fear for the Communist Party, which has outlasted its Russian counterpart in part by consistently hitting its economic growth targets.

In the late 1990s, when Premier Zhu Rongji carried out a sweeping reform of state-owned enterprises that resulted in an estimated two million job cuts, sacked workers staged protests around the country.

The country's top leaders have already taken steps to protect jobs for vulnerable groups. The State Council said on Tuesday that those living in poverty will be given priority when hiring for major national construction projects, and salaries will account for a higher percentage of funding for these projects, according to Xinhua.

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China's top leaders have also softened their tone on the importance of reaching specific growth targets this year, saying at their latest Politburo meeting that the nation is facing "unprecedented" economic difficulty.

At the new task force's meeting, officials vowed to keep a close eye on potential problems, citing the resumption of work and people's livelihoods as areas where these may emerge.

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