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China: Frustrated Citizens Take To The Streets

Traditionally China's 900 million peasants have served as the power base of the Communist Party Scarcely a month goes by without news coming from rural China of often-violent protests by locals over corruption, land-grabs, taxation, or environmental issues. The authorities are struggling to stem this rising tide of challenges to abuses that are probably inherent in any one-party dictatorship.

China's extensive economic growth in recent years has not been an unmitigated blessing for all. The late "paramount leader," Deng Xiaoping, was fond of the slogan "to get rich is glorious," but later added that "some people will get rich before others." Today, income disparities continue to grow between the coastal and inland provinces and between urban and rural areas. The most prosperous areas are the urban settlements in the coastal regions and the least fortunate places tend to be in the rural interior.

At the heart of the problem is the one-party dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has held undisputed power since 1949. There is no system of checks and balances, no independent judiciary, little rule of law as is understood in Western countries, and no system of transparency. Along with the reforms launched in 1978, there has been a tendency for various reasons for local officials to become more powerful and, perhaps not surprisingly, more corrupt.

The up to 900 million peasants -- who were traditionally the backbone of support for the CCP -- have frequently been the target of local officials' abuse of their power. In a centuries-old tradition, officials have imposed arbitrary and often dubious taxes as a means of filling their pockets as well as state coffers. Complaints such as "we pay more taxes, and they buy more cars" are heard frequently. In addition, land has been forcibly bought from peasants without fair compensation -- or taken outright -- for public-works projects or lucrative real-estate developments.

Rural industries that are often linked to local power structures pollute the air and water without remedying the problems they pose to farmers' livelihoods. Elsewhere, landless rural laborers drift to the cities and towns in pursuit of jobs in construction and other sectors, but even those lucky enough to find what they seek sometimes wind up not being paid for their work. According to official figures, such workers were cheated out of $2.5 billion in 2004 alone. And the once free and supposedly universal educational and health-care systems introduced, however imperfectly, under the late Chairman Mao Zedong have long passed into history.

Protests Turn Violent

In such a situation, it is not surprising that violent protests have emerged. In late August, Radio Free Asia's Mandarin Service (RFA) reported that about 10,000 villagers in Meishan township in coastal Zhejiang province clashed with about 1,000 riot police, adding that a "very large number" of peasants were injured, while others were arrested, reportedly including innocent bystanders. The protest erupted after villagers failed in their attempts to draw the attention of the authorities and the media to what they said are high levels of lead in local children's blood caused by pollution from the Tian Neng Battery Factory there.

What particularly disappointed the villagers was that "there were no reports about this [protest] in the local news. It was a huge story, but there were no journalists present," one local woman told RFA. Another Meishan resident said that the local people tried to contact the media, but "they didn't want to come. [The government had declared Meishan] a no-go area" for the press. When RFA asked local government officials for their version of the events, the reply was: "We have a propaganda department for disseminating news. They will release this news in the next couple of days, so you can wait until they do."

The Meishan protest was typical of the many that take place throughout China. One human rights lawyer told the "International Herald Tribune" in August in reference to one protest that "the general rule in China is that all incidents like this end with promises of compromise and then mass arrests."

The Labor Ministry warned recently, however, that the income gap continues to grow and that "social instability" could result after 2010 if the trend continues. "Maintaining stability" is a favorite CCP slogan and alludes not only to the many periods of turmoil in Chinese history but also to the need in Beijing's eyes to thwart any challenge to the CCP's grip on power.

Balanced Development?

The authorities under party and state leader Hu Jintao accordingly stress the importance of promoting "balanced development" throughout the country. Paradoxically, however, they are nonetheless also committed to growth as essential for maintaining social stability and the CCP's power. Sometimes the authorities' encouragement of "getting rich" takes on unusual forms, such as when Houston Rockets' basketball player Yao Ming, who lives most of the time in the United States, recently won a Maoist-style Model Worker award. According to the "Washington Post," he makes $15 million per year from playing and product endorsements.

The authorities are nonetheless aware that they have a problem on their hands. The "International Herald Tribune" recently quoted Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang as saying in July that "mass incidents have become a major problem for social stability. The number is on the increase, and their scale is constantly expanding.... The trend toward greater organization [of the protests] is clear." He noted that there were 58,000 protests in 2004 and 74,000 so far this year.

The authorities' response, however, has not tended to be one of addressing legitimate complaints, even when the problem at hand might have been easy to solve. Their tendency to use force has been clear, and security officials set up elite police squads in 36 cities in August to deal with riots and "terrorism." Furthermore, the authorities decreed new measures this spring aimed at limiting journalistic coverage of domestic stories by preventing reporters from going outside their own localities to report on events in places where they might not be subject to the same kind of controls they would face at home. This might also explain why the people in Meishan found that local journalists were reluctant to visit them.

Holding Back The Flow Of Information

In addition, the authorities are taking steps to deal with the growing electronic communications between the peasants and activist scholars, lawyers, journalists, and NGOs. An Internet police force has been created to monitor urban Internet cafes (see "Acting To Keep Out 'Harmful Information'"). Websites and key words such as "Falungong," "democracy," or "human rights" are censored in what London's "The Times" has called "the most sophisticated Internet filtering methods in the world."

During the recent anti-Japanese protests that were organized in several cities largely via the Internet and through cell-phones, demonstrators received text messages from the police warning them to behave. In the dynamic city of Shenzhen near Hong Kong, those wishing to use instant-messaging software must register under their real names and be vetted by the Tencent company, RFA reported. The object of this exercise, as with some other new media policies, is to intimidate.

For those who do not readily practice self-censorship, other approaches are used. On 29 August, police raided the Beijing offices of the NGO known as the Empowerment and Rights Institute to search its offices and computer files. At the same time, 10 plainclothes police officers visited the home of Hou Wenzhou, who heads the NGO, shortly before the arrival in China of Louise Arbour, who is the UN's high commissioner for human rights. Hou has been particularly active in investigating issues like land confiscations and police torture.

The question remains as to how matters will develop in the longer term. Veteran China-watcher Jasper Becker argued in his 2000 book "The Chinese" that the dead weight of history will be too much to throw off. He wrote that a small elite will probably continue to rule through a centralized bureaucracy "over the destiny of the vast majority of submissive, relatively poor, and ill-educated peasants.... Vast disparities in wealth and status, which have always existed, will increase." He nonetheless feels that television has helped the Chinese peasants -- whom he calls "the largest disenfranchised group in the world" -- by bringing them news of taxation legislation and other relevant laws. Becker also believes that the authorities will continue to ignore environmental protests and the problems that led to them only at their peril.

'The Masses Will Soon Rise...'

Octogenarian veteran dissident journalist Liu Binyan told RFA from his home in the United States in March that he, however, expects a massive upheaval. "The masses will soon rise, and people from different regions will join hands in their struggle. There will be great disorder, and the [CCP's] dynasty will soon collapse. Their actions do not square with their promises," Liu said.

He argued that rapid growth has enriched corrupt government officials and a small urban elite but at the cost of widening the gap between haves and have-nots, including migrant workers as well as the peasants. Liu pointed out that some migrants have committed suicide by self-immolation to draw attention to their plight.

Liu continues to display the same contempt for China's intellectuals that characterized much of his earlier writing, in which he dismissed them as toadies. But Liu takes heart that "on the Internet, you can see young and vigorous Chinese intellectuals in their 30s and 40s identifying themselves with workers and farmers. This is most encouraging."