China's uneven coronavirus economic recovery stirs protest in Beijing

Some 200 people gathered outside the office of Youwin Education in Beijing demanding refunds after the company collapsed.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

A rare protest erupted in Beijing on Monday, with hundreds of parents taking to the streets of the capital to demand their money be returned after a private tutoring company collapsed in a sign of ongoing economic stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Some 200 people gathered outside the office of Youwin Education, where they briefly blocked a road in Beijing’s busy central business district and chanted “Return our money!”

“All our money is earned by hard toil. How can we accept such frauds?” said one angry mother, who spent more than 100,000 yuan (S$20,315) on prepaid courses for her middle schoolchild. “So many families have been fooled and entrapped! They must be punished,” she added.

Protests are uncommon in security-heavy Beijing, with unauthorised gatherings likely to lead to questioning by police and even arrest.

The protest took place about the same time as the National Bureau of Statistics released data showing economic growth accelerated in the third quarter, with the near simultaneous events displaying the uneven rebound of China’s economy from crippling lockdowns early in the year.

Youwin Education, which has hundreds of outlets nationwide, is the latest in a long list of Chinese private education institutions that closed shop in 2020.

The offline education and training sector has been one of the hardest hit by the virus, as lockdowns and social distancing forced many companies out of business.

No staff could be seen at Youwin Education’s office on Monday, with computer monitors and filing cabinets abandoned. Phone calls and emails to the company went unanswered.

While Monday’s economic data showed economic recovery was broadening in China – with third quarter gross domestic product (GDP) growth accelerating to 4.9 per cent from 3.2 per cent in the second quarter – the recovery is still tilted towards production instead of consumption.

Per capita consumer spending dropped 6.6 per cent in the first nine months of the year to 14,923 yuan (US$2,224), according to China’s statistics agency.

Consumer spending on food and housing increased between January and September, but spending on education and entertainment plunged 27.7 per cent in the same period, the statistics agency said.

Although China’s recovery from the coronavirus has been stronger than countries like the United States and India, there are inconsistencies in official data that have raised doubts about its reliability.

For instance, the statistics bureau said on Monday that national fixed-asset investment (FAI) rose 0.8 per cent year on year to 4.37 trillion yuan in the first nine months. But the agency said last year that FAI was 4.6 trillion yuan in the first nine months of 2019.

The agency said in footnote it had revised FAI data after an economic census in November 2019.

“We got the 0.8 per cent growth based on the revised data and a fully comparable base,” a spokeswoman from the statistics bureau said over the phone.

Read Also
China to buck global economic downturn in 2020 as coronavirus continues to drive down activity, says IMF
China to buck global economic downturn in 2020 as coronavirus continues to drive down activity, says IMF

Derek Scissors, chief economist of New York-based China Beige Book, said if the absolute value of FAI is correct for the first three quarters, then both investment and retail sales shrank noticeably in the third quarter year on year.

“GDP change would be close to a fall of 5 per cent, not growing 5 per cent.”

Either way, China’s economic recovery from the coronavirus appeared far from the minds of many of the protesters elbowing security guards on Guanghua Road on Monday.

At least one man was hauled away to a police van during the protest, but later released, and a heavy police presence remained in place late in the afternoon.

“We just want to raise the attention of the government and get our money back!” said one protester.

For the latest updates on the coronavirus, visit here.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.