There’s nothing like a few revolutions to focus the mind. The lesson the world’s smartest authoritarians are drawing from Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution and its neighborhood copycats is simple: It’s all about jobs.
“The leadership in China is always worried about how do you stay ahead of the growth to create enough jobs,” says Dominic Barton, the global managing director of consulting firm McKinsey, who has lived in Asia for much of the past decade. “They have to create over 30 million jobs a year. … They know that if they don’t and there are disruptions and the people don’t have jobs, there will be revolution.”
To illustrate how focused China’s Communist rulers are on jobs, Barton described work he had done helping the Chinese government structure its economic stimulus in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The Chinese authorities came to him with a very specific question: What sort of discount should you put on TVs in Tier 3 cities? “It was a very focused question. And the reason was, they were trying to create consumer demand in a very sophisticated manner.”
The mandarins wanted McKinsey’s advice on how exactly to implement their TV stimulus program: Should the price of televisions be cut by 25 per cent, or should consumers be required to pay the full price, then apply to their mayor for their 25-per-cent rebate? Barton says that once he understood how precise the request was, he “did the McKinsey thing” of talking about how important it was to make sure the project worked and had an impact. One Chinese official wasn’t impressed by his spiel, Barton recalls: “He says, ‘I think we have a different definition of impact than you … If this doesn’t work, we are going to have probably 12 million people that won’t have jobs. And you should know that all of the revolutions in our 5,000-year history have occurred in the countryside.”’
The Middle East’s remaining autocrats are swiftly learning the Chinese lesson, as illustrated vividly by Saudi Arabia’s new $36-billion (U.S.) stimulus program, which includes a 15-per-cent pay increase for public sector workers. As Jack Welch, the former chief executive of GE, described it this week, “In this recession, China did incredible things,” adding that “it is a little bit like what the Saudis are trying to do now to keep everyone happy.”