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China: Amid 50th Anniversary Party, Signs Of Trouble Grow

  • Petra Mayer



The People's Republic of China celebrates its 50th annversary with pomp and circumstance today, but some China experts say there is little to cheer about for many citizens. Those experts tell RFE/RL's Petra Mayer there are serious problems looming on many fronts, including the economy and human rights.

Prague, 1 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Streets were swept, wreaths laid, and statues were scrubbed all over Beijing this week as the People's Republic of China prepared to celebrate its 50th anniversary today.

But as Beijing works to beautify itself, Chinese authorities have cracked down, expelling or arresting the city's itinerant vendors and political dissidents to avoid any trouble during tomorrow's ceremonies.

Officials reached by telephone at the Chinese embassies in Washington D.C. and Prague declined to answer questions from our correspondent about the crackdown and other issues related to the anniversary. But some Western experts say the government clampdown indicates trouble brewing below Beijing's bright surface.

As it enters its second half-century, the government of People's Republic faces the difficult task of holding the country together while coping with ongoing economic troubles.

Inefficient state-owned enterprises make up 70 percent of China's industrial sector. Still committed to providing housing, food, and pensions to large workforces, they are seen as a drain on the economy. The state-owned enterprises are propped up by China's banking system, which is itself staggering under a load of bad debt.

And while China has largely escaped the Asian economic collapse, the gap between the richer coastal regions and the poorer interior continues to widen. The World Bank says that about 270 million people in China get by on less than a dollar a day, which it defines as the poverty line.

In the past, communist ideology held China's diverse classes and ethnic groups together despite economic misfortune. But one expert tells our correspondent that ideological glue may no longer be holding. George Friedman is the head of Stratfor, a private U.S.-based organization specializing in international intelligence.

"Under Deng Xiaoping, communism as a binding ideology became less and less important, prosperity became the justifying ideology of the regime. As prosperity disappears, how does the regime justify its existence, its claim to power? There are a lot of people inside the government, inside the party, inside the army who had been quite wealthy, who had lost a great deal of wealth over the past year or two, who are quite bitter."

China's government has been trying to reintroduce Marxist and Leninist ideology to distract the Chinese from their economic problems. And while some people in China are nostalgic for the old days of Mao and authoritarian government, Friedman says the new campaigns aren't going over well.

"It's one thing to believe in the revolution in 1955. It's another thing in 1999, when you've seen everyone enrich themselves and become corrupt and so on, suddenly to be told, serve the people. It just rings hollow."

The campaign to reintroduce socialist principles is particularly hard to embrace for those past bulwarks of the Communist state -- the workers. A number of recent media reports refer to large layoffs by state-owned enterprises.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post estimates that as many as one million people are out of work in Shanghai alone, more than five times the official figure.

Dan Southerland is the executive editor of Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-funded radio station which broadcasts to China. He says he's seen some areas where every family has at least one member out of work. He cites a recent incident in which thousands of coal miners protesting layoffs tried to cut a railroad line north of Beijing.

"Some of these workers are very angry. They are really distressed about the changes that are taking place. So far, the Party has been able to isolate them, keep them from uniting, from forming any kind of workersU unions. But itUs hard to see how they can continue laying people off and not have it reach some kind of explosive point."

Among the approved slogans to be shouted at today's festivities in Beijing is one calling on China to "rely wholeheartedly on the working class." But Southerland says the workers no longer want to bear that kind of burden.

"The workers hear that, and they say, what are you talking about? I can barely feed my family!"

Workers aren't the only sector of Chinese society that are unhappy with the government. Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims, are seeking independence in northwestern Xinjiang (pronounced Shin-jyang) Province. Tibet, too, has its independence activists. Xiao Qiang is the head of the New York based monitoring group Human Rights in China. He says China has consistently denied the human rights of its ethnic minorities.

"During the Cultural Revolution, and the entire 50 years, the rights of minorities in China were not being respected, as a matter of fact being brutally deprived by the government. So it is inevitable that there is a strong movement in Xinjiang, in Tibet, that the people want self-determination and even independence. That movement was the direct result, consequences, of the Chinese governmentUs human rights policy in those areas."

Criticism of China's human rights record often focuses on individual cases, or intangibles like freedom of speech and thought. But Qiang says that human rights in China are a concrete, practical issue with a direct effect on the country's economy. He says China will never achieve economic stability without a government that respects the rights of its people. ss
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