October 01, 2005

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The Chinese are revolting

The Economist writes about the growing number of "mass incidents" in China (no sub. req'd.). The article charts the explosion (pardon the pun) in riots and unrest in recent times on the back of growing wealth. It supports the thesis that as people have more personal possessions to defend, they will demand a greater say in how their lives are governed. The article is so good (dare I use the words must read? Yes, I dare) I've reproduce the whole thing below the jump, with some key parts highlighted:

THE Chinese government is getting increasingly twitchy about what officials say is a rapid growth in the number and scale of public protests. In its latest bid to quash them, this week it announced a sweeping ban on internet material that incites “illegal demonstrations”. Does China face serious instability? Probably not, for now at least. But in the longer term there are reasons to worry.

Quashing unrest has ever been a priority for the Communist Party. But over the past year or so it has put even more emphasis on tackling “mass incidents” as it calls the protests. These include a wide range of activity, from quiet sit-ins by a handful of people to all-in riots involving thousands. Almost always, they are sparked by local grievances, rather than antipathy to the party's rule. Yet China's most senior police official, Zhou Yongkang, has said that “actively preventing and properly handling” mass incidents was the main task for his Ministry of Public Security this year.

According to Mr Zhou, there were some 74,000 protests last year, involving more than 3.7m people; up from 10,000 in 1994 and 58,000 in 2003. Sun Liping, a Chinese academic, has calculated that demonstrations involving more than 100 people occurred in 337 cities and 1,955 counties in the first 10 months of last year. This amounted to between 120 and 250 such protests daily in urban areas, and 90 to 160 in villages. These figures are likely to be conservative. Chinese officials often try to cover up disturbances in their areas to avoid trouble with their superiors.

Under Mr Zhou's orders, police forces around the country this year have been merging existing anti-riot and counter-terrorist units into new “special police” tasked with responding rapidly to any mass protests that turn “highly confrontational”. Police officials say the existing units were too sluggish, too poorly trained and ill-coordinated to handle the upsurge in disturbances. The special police are to form small “assault squads” to tackle incidents involving violence or terrorism.

Only a few years ago, news of specific incidents seldom filtered out to foreign journalists. Now, thanks partly to a freer flow of information helped by the internet, by mobile telephony and, more rarely, by a slightly less constrained domestic press, hardly a week goes by without some protest coming to light. In June, thousands of people rioted in the town of Chizhou, in the eastern province of Anhui, after an altercation between a wealthy businessman and a cyclist over a minor traffic accident. In August, hundreds clashed with police in a land-related dispute that still simmers in the village of Taishi, in the southern province of Guangdong. Last month, the police in Shanghai detained dozens of people protesting against being evicted from their homes.

In some ways, this unrest makes China look a lot more like a normal developing country than the rigidly controlled system it was until the early 1990s. It is becoming increasingly common to encounter small-scale protests in Chinese cities that only a few years ago would have horrified order-obsessed cadres. An apartment block near your correspondent's home in Beijing has for weeks been scrawled with slogans protesting against the adjacent construction of a petrol station. “We want human rights,” says one. Residents say the police have not interfered, save to warn them not to protest during a big political gathering in the city.

Chinese officials often say that greater social unrest is normal in developing countries with a per capita GDP between $1,000 and $3,000. China's GDP per head surpassed $1,000 in 2003. But this appears to be little consolation. In August last year, President Hu Jintao appointed a high-level team, headed by Mr Zhou, to supervise the handling of protests and petitions. Official sources say Mr Hu dwelt on protests in a speech to party leaders in September 2004 and at the party's annual economic planning meeting in December. Late last year the party issued a document to senior officials telling them how to deal with unrest.

According to these sources, Mr Zhou's speeches are laced with warnings that political dissidents might try to manipulate local protests to put pressure on the party itself. This fear explains why the party has further squeezed non-governmental groups and dissidents in recent months. China Development Brief, a newsletter on Chinese civil society developments, reported that in recent weeks China's secret police had been interviewing staff of Chinese NGOs that receive foreign funding, as well as Chinese staff of foreign NGOs in China, about the purpose of their work. The government has suspended the registration of new international NGOs pending the outcome of these inquiries.

The party's dilemma is that much of the unrest is a product of the rapid economic growth that it is so keen to maintain. The outlook of many urban Chinese has changed profoundly since the 1990s as a result of the privatisation of hitherto heavily state-subsidised housing. Anxious to protect their new assets, property owners have increasingly clashed with developers, and their government backers, who have been trying to cash in on the resulting boom by erecting shopping malls and luxury housing. The expansion of cities has fuelled clashes with peasants whose land is needed for construction.

Some argue that these mostly isolated protests, if handled sensitively, could help China maintain overall stability by providing people with a way of venting frustrations. But Mao Shoulong, at Renmin University of China in Beijing, says the unrest is a sign that China lacks channels for people to air discontent in a more orderly fashion. Widespread corruption and an increasingly conspicuous wealth gap fuel a contempt for officialdom that can easily erupt into the kind of class-based rioting that occurred in Anhui in June.

And should the economy falter, urban China could be faced with the twin dangers of an angry middle class saddled with big mortgage commitments and declining property prices (a problem China has not yet had to face), as well as a big increase in the number of unemployed, who, along with unpaid pensioners, are the main participants in protests in those parts of the country left behind by the current boom. Widespread middle-class discontent, combined with blue-collar dissatisfaction, would be a much bigger threat to stability than China now faces.

posted by Simon on 10.01.05 at 10:41 PM in the China politics category.Taishi category.


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A Voice should be heard and taken note of
Excerpt: The harder they try to use police and army forces to handle this problem,the more eagerly they can't wait to narrow their social basis by damaging common people's interest and distancing themself from the public, the earlier they are going to face th...
Weblog: Newsgator Herald
Tracked: October 4, 2005 11:41 AM


And all in the lead-up to the Olympics. Beautiful.

posted by: Fabian on 10.02.05 at 10:47 AM [permalink]

It's an interesting theory, this "unrest threshold" but I doubt that it holds much water. I think they've got two choices: develop a legal system capable of adjudicating disputes with some modicum of fairness or; reinstigate an ideology of community and harmony, probably under the guise of foreign war. I don't like the odds on that one, come to think of it...

posted by: Jonathan Dresner on 10.02.05 at 05:24 PM [permalink]

This is a continuation that has been covered by various sources. The nytimes.com did a similar story that you can read at my website.

August 24, 2005
Land of 74,000 Protests (but Little Is Ever Fixed)


posted by: dave on 10.02.05 at 07:01 PM [permalink]

To get around the block put on Blog-City by Chinese censors, which has made Angry Chinese Blogger inaccessible in China without the use of a proxy, I am happy to announce that an unblocked mirror sites http://www.20six.co.uk/angrychineseblogger is now up and running, spreading the news that Beijing doesn’t want you to hear.

Angry Chinese Blogger’s entire back archive, along with all new articles will still be available at http://angrychineseblogger.blog-city.com/

I would be grateful if you would add a link to the mirror alongside the master link to Angry Chinese Blogger.


posted by: ACB on 10.02.05 at 11:20 PM [permalink]

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