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China plagued by rising social unrest
By Qiu Xin

HONG KONG - China has witnessed rising social unrest, mostly involving peaceful demonstrations stemming from anger over unfair government policies and illegal actions. Recent protests have been sparked by the near-fatal beating of a migrant worker, an illegal hike in taxi fees and low wages in an electronics plant - to name a few. These are but the tip of the iceberg in the nation of 1.3 billion people where the wealth gap is widening, corruption is widespread and the rule of law is far from entrenched. For those who know their Chinese history, this raises the specter of devastating peasant and other revolts over the ages, sometimes cataclysms that have toppled regimes.

In some cases, the situations even deteriorate into violent conflicts between protesters and police in a nation historically alarmed by mass protests that could threaten the regime's "mandate of heaven". These protests, just the tip of the iceberg, have sent shock waves through the highest echelons in Beijing, and the leadership now is grappling with the best means to curb - and defuse - the widespread simmering public outrage.

According to an informed source, Zhongnanhai - Beijing's government compound and the Middle Kingdom's power center - remains divided on strategy and tactics for dealing with social unrest. Some propose reinforcing the police force in order to brace for a deterioration in the social order, while others argue that to achieve a fundamental solution, the authorities must improve their governance and truly listen to the voices of the masses.

In China, groups that want to hold demonstrations must submit applications to local authorities, as they do in many other countries that emphasize the public's right of peaceful protest; peaceful public protest is one of the basic human rights in China's constitution, but the people must get an official "go-ahead" before taking to the streets.

In recent years, news about mass demonstrations has been hitting the headlines.

In the latest incident on October 18, 40,000-50,000 demonstrators gathered before the local government offices in the Wanzhou district of southwestern China's Chongqing municipality, protesting the reported near-fatal beating by an official of a migrant worker.

Less than two week earlier, some 3,000 workers in an electronics plant went on strike to protest low wages in in Shenzhen, China's well-off special economic zone adjacent to Hong Kong. The strike was unusual in itself, since China bans virtually all strikes, and trade unions must be approved and governed by the Communist Party. This resulted in severe traffic jams for four hours in downtown Shenzhen. In late July, taxi drivers in northern China's Yinchuan city, the capital of the Ningxia Autonomous Region, also took to the streets, protesting steep charges that discouraged customers. The fees eventually forced all taxis out of business.

In past few years, shangfang (petition), a unique channel in China for lodging complaints with higher authorities and seeking justice, has been soaring. According to a report by Taiwan's Central News Agency, the Supreme People's Court in Beijing alone received more than 120,000 petitioners in 2003. The report estimated that the number of petitioners Beijing's central or ministerial departments received last year might easily surpass the population of a medium-sized European country. Other statistics show that from July 1 and August 20, 2003, more than 20,000 people lodged complaints with the municipal Communist Party committee in Beijing, and another 10,000 protesters sought redress from the party's top watchdog group, the Central Committee of Discipline Inspection. In the same period, more than 200,000 supplicants from all corners of the Middle Kingdom flocked to the capital for justice.

Finally, the central government seems to have realized the magnitude of the rising mass indignation and and is trying to find a way out.

Some propose reinforcing the police force, since in most cases the police were far outnumbered by the demonstrators. A news report by the party's official China Central Television (CCTV) revealed on October 17 that Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang had said the police force should be strengthened to cope with the fast-changing and deteriorating situation. As early as mid-May, Zhou had issued orders nationwide calling for police buildup, exercises and drills to improve capacity for dealing with large demonstrations that could turn violent.

Other officials think otherwise. They regard the proposal to strengthen police and paramilitary preparedness as a trick by the public-security sector to exert pressure on the central government for more funding. For these officials, the only feasible and reasonable solution is to improve the Communist Party's governance and listen to the voices of the masses. In fact, there is much room for improvement in governance on the part of local governments. In the case of Wanzhou (where a migrant worker was nearly beaten to death by authorities), the locals have been plagued by high unemployment and steep property prices, while officials appear to stand back and do nothing. The Yinchuan incident - the strike that paralyzed taxi service - was triggered by steep and officially unauthorized charges levied on taxi drivers.

The officials who stress listening to people rather than bolstering the police say officials at all levels should take the traditional principle "serve the people" to heart and follow the party-plenum directives on discipline, democracy, transparency and accountability. At the plenum that closed last month, the party chief and the nation's president, Hu Jintao, emphasized that the Communist Party as the ruling party should try to improve its governance and keep the interests of the people - not the cadres - uppermost in all their efforts.

In official parlance, communist officials and cadres should serve the people as genuine public servants and put the people's interests before their own. In reality, however, they often turn out to be ruling the masses with iron fists, rendering the relationship between the rulers and the ruled much tense. For the people in many parts of China, officials are neither respected nor considered public servants, but rather as self-serving fat cats. In view of this widespread situation of official malfeasance and public distrust, the Communist Party has been vowing to improve the relationship between officials and the masses and to curb and defuse rising unrest.

The pro-people (as opposed to pro-police) faction also says authorities should increase their communication with the grassroots. Better mutual understanding reduces conflicts and paves the way for a more harmonious society, they argue, and both sides must make an effort.

Still, the most important factor against reinforcing the police sector is that China remains one of the few "tyranny countries" for many people. According to Beijing's official statistics, the country now boasts 1.7 million police officers, 1 million semi-military (or paramilitary) police and 2 million armed forces. Further reinforcing the police could discredit Beijing's efforts to achieve what it calls China's "peaceful rise".

The public focus will be on how the current leadership strikes a balance between the two options, as China analysts say careful analysis of the situation must take into consideration different views, precluding a winner-take-all scenario.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Oct 29, 2004
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