PRAGUE, 1 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Chinese leadership spent years preoccupied with developing the country's industrial and technological base. But more recently, it has realized that it is facing a potential social upheaval from a rural population that has been left behind, often in poverty.
Incidents of unrest are rising. Attention has focused on the riots by villagers in Zhejiang Province in January, but figures released by the Public Security Ministry show there were 87,000 riots, demonstrations, and protests in the country last year. That's almost 7 percent more than the previous year.
Long-Term Social Unrest
The official Xinhua news agency quotes an unnamed Public Security Ministry official as saying China faces long-term social unrest, and that the authorities plan to strike hard in this "complex struggle against enemies."
Prime Minister Wen Jiaboa has called for a new emphasis on social justice, saying that his government must strive to lessen the hardships of many Chinese. The People's Congress has set a session on this theme for early March.
China expert Jean-Philippe Beja, of the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris, says the trouble is, there has been more talk than action.
"There has been a lot of discourse about social justice," Beja says. "They have been talking, but they have not done much, because the roots of the problem lie in the type of regime, the system that exists. [It's one in which] local cadres have absolute power."
Because these strong local party structures are the bedrock of the communist party's control, Prime Minister Wen so far has not shown any willingness to change this pattern.
"It's a question of reforming the system, reforming the regime, installing a little democracy, and this is very dangerous," Beja added. "[The government] is very scared of having autonomous organizations in Chinese society, and especially in the countryside; and [the central leaders] are very dependent on the local levels of the party and government to stay in power. So it's very difficult for them to touch it."
However, analyst Rana Mitter of Britain's Oxford University cautions against seeing the picture in too bleak terms.
"In absolute terms, if you look at situations around the world, there are many societies -- and I would name somewhere like Colombia as being an obvious example -- where it's clear that the relationship between the state and rural society is in terminal freefall," Mitter says. "China is a very long way from being in that state, partly because the government itself is much stronger."
In addition, says Mitter, Beijing has at least two parallel strategies to try to deal with the problem. One is to crack down on dissent seen as anti-state; the other is to restore -- at least in part -- the social-security network that existed before the emphasis switched to entrepreneurial economic growth.
"The main problem being of course that in a country as large as China, this is an extremely expensive undertaking, so they have set themselves a very big task," Mitter says.
A Safety Net For 1.3 Billion
Mitter says that for inspiration, Chinese leaders are not looking backward to Marxist ideology, but instead at modern social democracy as practiced for instance in Singapore, where the population has high living standards but restricted political freedoms.
Analyst Beja in Paris is not convinced that the Chinese authorities have the capacity to create a safety net stretching across some 1.3 billion people:
"The state is not ready to commit in reality the amount of resources which would be able to re-create or develop a real social net, in the cities and especially in the countryside; this is one of the worst dangers that the country is confronted with, but they have not taken any real steps which could solve this problem," Beja says.
The result is that health care -- like education -- is becoming more and more elitist: Money will buy good hospitalization and schooling, but those who don't have it are excluded.
Beja says two problems that are of key importance in the Chinese countryside are alienation of the land and pollution.
In the first category, local party secretaries are often in league with real-estate agents. The officials sell land to the agents, but give only a very small sum to the farmer for his land, which of course leads to outrage.
A school in Beijing for the children of migrant workers (epa file photo)
The second key factor is that local party officials are judged on what economic activities they can install in their area, regardless of what these activities are or how polluting they are. For this reason, enormous damage has been caused to the environment and to the health of villagers.
The January riots at Huashui in the coastal Zheijiang Province started because authorities at all levels ignored complaints that newly built chemical plants were polluting the local land and water. The disturbances grew from a small roadblock to reportedly involve thousands of protesters -- who won the closure of the chemical factories.
Similarly, villagers in Huangniqiao, in the same region, managed to have a pharmaceutical plant closed down after they stormed the factory in the face of police resistance.