August 24, 2005
Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
SHANGHAI, Aug. 23 – There is a growing uneasiness in the air in China, after months of increasingly bold protests rolling across the countryside.
For reasons that range from rampant industrial pollution to widespread evictions and land seizures by corrupt local governments in cahoots with increasingly powerful property developers, ordinary Chinese seem to be saying they are fed up and won’t take it any more.
Each week brings news of at least one or two incidents, with thousands of villagers in a pitched battle with the police, or bloody crackdowns in which hundreds of protesters are tear-gassed and clubbed during roundups by the police. And by the government’s own official tally, hundreds of these events each week escape wider public attention altogether.
No one is ready to predict that this is the beginning of any great unraveling of an authoritarian state that has, over the last two decades, largely brought social peace and a reprieve from demands for political change by delivering breakneck economic growth.
But the response by the Chinese authorities, a mixture of alarm and seeming disarray, is a clear indication that whatever is brewing here is being taken with utmost seriousness at the summit of power.
Last week, for example, the government announced it was setting up special police units in 36 cities to put down riots and counter what the authorities say is the threat of terrorism.
With the exception of infrequent incidents involving Uighur separatists in the remote western region of Xinjiang, terrorism is all but unheard of in China. On the evidence, it would seem the authorities are most concerned about what Zhou Yongkang, the public security minister, told Reuters last month were the 74,000 mass incidents, or demonstrations and riots, that occurred in 2004, an increase from 58,000 the year before, and only 10,000 a decade ago.
Other signs of mounting concern over this unrest are just as telling. This week, The Liberation Army Daily quoted a notice by the armed forces warning soldiers that they would be “severely penalized” for taking part in petitions or demonstrations. The statement appeared to be prompted by a series of recent protests by veterans over their pension benefits at a People’s Liberation Army office in Beijing.
News of the antiriot brigades coincided with an order to police chiefs nationwide to meet with “petitioners” lodging complaints about this or that issue. The order seems to be an attempt to nip localized discontent in the bud before it can turn into outright protest or disorder.
The entire campaign appears to have been kicked off with a strongly worded recent editorial, published in People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, under the headline “Maintain Stability to Speed Development.” The commentary warned citizens to obey the law, saying threats to social order would not be tolerated.
In the last two weeks, the demonstrations have come to Shanghai, a showcase city that is among the country’s most tightly policed, and where public protests are relatively rare.
Day after day recently, the angry complaints of citizens could be heard in the heart of downtown here, especially across the street from the elegant exhibition center where city government was in session. In one protest, middle-aged residents invoked rebellious slogans from their youth during the Cultural Revolution, reportedly saying things like “to rebel is just” as they denounced summary evictions to make way for high-rise developers and demanded fair compensation.
On another day, in the same spot, a separate group of elderly residents, also angry about evictions, chanted the name of the city’s party secretary, saying, “Chen Liangyu, step down!” Nearby, a mother and her children, whom she has been unable to place in local schools, hoisted a sign whose bold characters read, “Why do we need to bear the consequences of government non-performance?”
A half-block away, restaurant workers massed to protest their dismissal by what they said were hired gangsters in favor of cheaper out-of-town employees. Taxi drivers, meanwhile, embittered over a steep increase in gasoline protests, have been discussing a mass work stoppage for Sept. 1.
While Beijing focuses on the need for more policing and a more accountable local government, many Chinese identify official corruption as the biggest source of their woes. Many political analysts say the Chinese system of government, based on a monopolization of power by the Communist Party, inhibits transparency and prevents the development of the kinds of checks and balances that would help limit corruption and give citizens an outlet for their anger, along with a means for redressing grievances.
“There are a great many socioeconomic factors to stimulate protest, such as the increasing gap between rich and poor and many land and environmental factors,” said Wu Guoguang, a former government adviser and People’s Daily editorialist who now teaches political science at the University of Victoria, in Canada. “But the masses are angry basically because of abuse of power by party officials. If the government were clean and efficient, things would be much calmer. But the perception is that the officials don’t want to pursue the state’s interests, so much as pursue their own interests – both legal and illegal.”
By contrast, in Japan, an outbreak of severe nervous system disorders in Minamata during the 1950’s was traced to industrial dumping of mercury compounds into a local river basin. Citizens sued and obtained compensation, along with the enforcement of strict new environmental guidelines.
In China, cases of dangerous industrial pollution are rife, even if their full human toll is not yet known. But local authorities often side with industrial interests, and the courts provide little relief.
“What the government has used mostly is administrative means to promote what it calls a ‘harmonious society,’ which means making security officials meet with petitioners, or forcing people found responsible for various things to resign,” said Mao Shoulong, an expert in public policy at People’s University in Beijing. “These approaches can solve some problems, but they create other ones. The reliance on the government has become ever larger, and this creates a huge administrative burden, with the government becoming a firefighter, rushing from problem to problem without ever really solving anything.”
August 24, 2005