China faces up to growing
By Paul Mooney
Government officials were shocked when a traffic
incident erupted into pitched street battles between
majority Han Chinese and
ethic Muslims in a small village in Henan, an
impoverished province in east-central China. The
government put the number of people killed at seven,
with 42 injured. The New York Times, quoting unnamed
local sources, said that some 148 people were killed in
the disturbance, including 18 policemen.
The incident was just the latest in a
string of protests that have taken place in recent weeks
around China, and that have deeply worried central
In October, as many as
50,000 demonstrators lined up in front of government
offices in a small town in Sichuan province and set a
police van on fire to protest the beating of a migrant
worker, allegedly by a government official. Ten days
later, in Hanyuan county, also in Sichuan, an estimated
100,000 farmers stormed a government building and
battled police over land lost to a dam project and what
they called inadequate compensation. Order was not
restored until martial law was declared and paramilitary
forces were scrambled to the scene.
29, hundreds of heavily equipped security forces imposed
a curfew on university campuses in Inner Mongolia after
a planned concert by a popular Mongolian rock band was
canceled, according to the Southern Mongolian Human
Rights Information Center in New York.
security guards this month stopped Uighur Muslims in
Guangzhou selling fried mutton from a street mall,
fighting erupted between riot police and angry Uighurs,
leaving several people injured,
Despite 25 years
of economic growth that has made China the envy of its
neighbors, income disparities are growing and corruption
is spiraling, resulting in mounting anger and a sharp
rise in the number of disturbances around the country.
Outlook Weekly, a Communist Party mouthpiece,
reported recently that China experienced more than
58,000 major incidents of social unrest in 2003 - up 15%
from a year earlier - with more than 3 million people
taking part in the protests.
of the scope of the problem is China's Petition Office,
which hears public grievances, and which was inundated
with more than 10 million petitions last year. According
to the Southern Weekly, just two out of every 1,000
cases were resolved. While legal experts argue that the
Petition Office should be replaced by rule of law,
others are concerned that the dismantling of the system
could exacerbate the situation by blocking the release
of pent-up anger.
Making matters worse for the
government, China's "new media" appear to be reaching a
critical mass. While news of unrest is usually blacked
out of the Chinese media, word is now spreading quickly
via the widespread use of modern communications,
including mobile phones, faxes, instant messages and the
Internet, reaching Chinese nationwide. Activists in
China have also become more adept at communicating with
the foreign media. Within the past year, for example,
dissatisfied Chinese citizens have begun to contact
foreign journalists directly using mobile phones, short
messages, faxes and e-mail.
professor of Asian studies and anthropology at the
University of Hawaii, said its difficult to tell whether
the string of recent disturbances represents an increase
in unrest or whether we're beginning to learn about more
"I think the real new dimension
is that activists on the streets and across the country
are communicating with each other, and this didn't
happen before," said Gladney. "Really, what's different
now is the transregional coordination and awareness,
rather than an increase" in unrest.
And, Gladney told Asia Times
Online, bottling up these channels of communication won't
be as easy. "This is clearly of concern to the
leadership, but I'm not sure the government can prevent
it," he said. "We're dealing with the cell-phone
generation where people are in communication more than
before. You can't turn back the clock on that."
Enver Can, vice president of the World Uyghur
Congress based in Germany, agreed. "The communist
government ultimately will not be able to change the
tide of globalization and keep its people immune from
the free flow of information," said Can. "The Chinese
Communist Party will misjudge the situation if it still
believes that its key weapon is the control of
ethnic Uighur from Xinjiang, told
Asia Times online the situation is spinning out of control.
"I have expected such disturbances for years," he said,
adding that the government has up until now maintained
stability through a "hardline" policy. Can said the
rising gap between the new rich and poor, regional
economic disparities, the crackdown against minorities
and religious groups and the migrant-worker problem all
spell continued trouble for the Communist
"I would say that the government will face
more and more unrest in the coming years," he predicted.
"The string of recent protests might very well be the
beginning of nationwide civil unrest."
"This is not a big threat to the
party's control," countered Ren Wanding, a veteran
political dissident who spent 11 years in prison for his
activities. "China is an autocratic state and it is
very strong," he told Asia Times
Bernstein, professor of political
science at Columbia University, said the countryside
is under-policed and the situation could become
serious "under certain conditions". However, he explained
to Asia Times Online that these "conditions" do not
yet seem to be present and that the People's Armed
Police force is large enough to deal with the problem.
"I would think a country the size of China could
tolerate widespread but localized unrest," said
More important, said Bernstein, is
the lack of leadership and organization, which means a
"united front of the aggrieved is not likely to be
formed ... For any social movement, one really needs
leadership, whether generated from within the group or
outside," he said. "I don't see any evidence that
intellectuals are interested - many sympathize, but many
despise the peasants."
Bernstein also argued
that urban-rural tensions work against laborers and
peasants uniting, and that the government has made
efforts to keep the two groups separated.
"counter-hegemony" that scholars say is essential for
radical change "is simply not present", Bernstein said.
"If there's going to be regime change, there has to be a
viable established opposition, either legal or illegal,"
he said. "There is none in China."
believes that China is not yet in danger of falling into
chaos. "I think we're a ways from that," he said. "You
need multiple, large-scale events across the country."
Gladney, an expert on China's Muslim community,
said the recent Muslim disturbances in Henan and
Guangdong showed no sign of coordination or links with
fellow believers in other parts of the country, although
there were unconfirmed rumors of truckloads of Muslims
from outside Henan being stopped by police on their way
to the site of the violence.
"The key to
dissatisfaction itself is never enough to produce a
revolution or regime change," said Bernstein. "The
regime has to be weakened in a truly significant way,
and I don't see that."
Chinese and foreign
experts said that for the most part, farmers and workers
don't have a problem with the central government but
with local officials. Bernstein said protesters do not
attack the regime itself, but are "rebelling in the name
of the center".
"The center sides with the
peasants over issues such as the financial burdens, so
the villagers are angry at local governments and hope
that the center will come and help them," he said.
Gladney said a lot of the anger is directed
against mid-level local officials, and that Muslim
violence generally has more to do with local issues of
ethnic and social class conflict, and less to do with
radical Islam or separatism.
"It's clear that
these are not anti-state protests - and certainly not
made by radical Islamists," said Gladney. "They're not
national issues, but local ones. They're protests to the
state, and not against the state."
government has reinforced its role as savior by using
what some have called a "fire brigade" approach, or
buy-off strategies. In one recent example, some 7,000
striking textile workers in Xianyang, a city in Shaanxi
province, called off a seven-week strike after
authorities made some concessions. While the strike
leaders were picked off one by one, the rest of the
strikers soon returned to the factory floor. Bernstein
said, however, that this confidence may ultimately erode
"if the center can't deliver."
that one should not underestimate the capacity of the
government to reform, and he cited several
accomplishments over the past two years: abolishing
unfair fees, eliminating the grain tax, offering support
for rural education, and raising grain prices - all
moves, he said, that have lightened the peasants'
Sources said the government is split on
how best to deal with the situation, with some senior
officials proposing beefing up police forces and using
strong-arm tactics, while others argue for reform and
"It would be better for the Communist
Party to tell the truth, and to try to regain the
confidence of the people by introducing democratic
reforms," said Uyghur activist Enver Can. "If the party
does not face the reality, and delays introducing
radical reforms, no one can guarantee that the people
will continue to be as docile as they used to be.
"I think the greatest threat to the Chinese
government is its own policy of suppression against its
own people," he continued. "If a government does not
serve its own people, it loses legitimacy."
Paul Mooney is a veteran freelance
correspondent based in Beijing.
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