Dichotomies endure, but the pressure builds

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
Published: January 18, 2008
WUHAN: More than most places, it is tempting to see China today as a study in dichotomies.
The world’s fastest-growing large economy gorges itself on private – that is to say capitalist – investment, and yet is overseen and closely regulated by one of the world’s last surviving Communist-led governments.
At a casual glance, the giant boomtowns of the country’s east seem very much like first world cities, with the dizzyingly rapid proliferation of skyscrapers and expressways, shopping malls and traffic jams.
Travel a couple of hours inland to the west, though, and you can find parts of China that seem stuck in a past 20 or 30 years distant; places where subsistence is the rule and income levels hover closer to Africa than to the Group of 8-style wealth of Beijing’s dreams.
Or don’t travel at all. Poke around any big eastern city, and amid all of the frantic striving in this new culture of acquisition, and you can find deep pockets of the third world that persist just around many a street corner.
After decades of enforced egalitarianism, China has become one of the world’s most strikingly unequal societies, and the gap between rich and poor, that most fundamental dichotomy, yawns most startlingly in the showcases of new wealth.
China observers are fond of probing this jagged fault line in the society, often wondering aloud what will happen here if the extraordinary growth of recent years comes skidding to a halt. As gloom spreads in the world economy, speculation like this grows particularly rife. Never mind that looking too far ahead to predict the direction of the global economy, or China’s for that matter, is a fool’s task. All booms come to an end, but when is anyone’s guess.
There is another dichotomy, however, that is potentially even more important, and while it relates to the creation of great fortunes, sometimes under the murkiest of circumstances, it has everything to do with attenuating the volatile divide that great wealth gaps tend to foster.
This dichotomy involves an ongoing struggle for social justice, and can be seen as a race between protest and process as a means of addressing legitimate grievances.
The last few years have seen an explosion of social ferment in China, including a proliferation of what the authorities coyly refer to as mass incidents, tens of thousands of events that in most countries would simply be called protests. There can be any number of reasons for people to be up in arms: disputes over land rights, anger over environmental degradation, corruption and favoritism in local politics, a generalized lack of transparency and the arbitrary way that so many decisions are made here.
Many of these elements came together early this month near this central Chinese city, where residents of a village mounted a protest against a decision to build a garbage dump near their land. The local authorities appear not to have heeded their opposition, and dispatched the dump trucks anyway, prompting an effort by residents to block them.
Wei Wenhua, the general manager of a local construction firm, happened to be driving past the site when the commotion broke out. Instead of simply rubbernecking, he got out of the car to photograph the scene with his cellphone and was set upon by a mob and beaten to death.
The mob, in this instance, did not consist of unruly citizens, but rather of lawless authorities – members of a quasi-police force that operates in Chinese cities known as cheng guan. Their likely objection was to the man’s decision to film something that the authorities have always preferred to keep invisible: the forceful suppression of protest.
Their actions achieved exactly the opposite end, however, as protests of the killing spread through the area over the next few days, and the entire affair became a cause célèbre in the press and on Chinese Internet sites.
In recent months, citizens in China’s eastern cities have been nudging the system in a different direction, urging the authorities to give flesh to official calls for the development of a “harmonious society,” by expanding the say of people in decisions that affect them.
Mindful that they are unlikely to get any hearing at all without pressure, middle-class city dwellers have marched peacefully in Xiamen and more recently in Shanghai to demand that the government reconsider big development projects being built in their midst.
The citizens have been very careful to state up front that they are not dissidents opposed to the government or against the rule of the Communist Party, and yet the challenge they pose to the system could hardly be clearer.
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