China faces up to growing unrestBEIJING - Government officials were shocked when a traffic incident erupted into pitched street battles between majority Han Chinese and ethic Muslims in a small village in Henan, an impoverished province in east-central China. The government put the number of people killed at seven, with 42 injured. The New York Times, quoting unnamed local sources, said that some 148 people were killed in the disturbance, including 18 policemen.
The incident was just the latest in a string of protests that have taken place in recent weeks around China, and that have deeply worried central government leaders.
In October, as many as 50,000 demonstrators lined up in front of government offices in a small town in Sichuan province and set a police van on fire to protest the beating of a migrant worker, allegedly by a government official. Ten days later, in Hanyuan county, also in Sichuan, an estimated 100,000 farmers stormed a government building and battled police over land lost to a dam project and what they called inadequate compensation. Order was not restored until martial law was declared and paramilitary forces were scrambled to the scene.
On October 29, hundreds of heavily equipped security forces imposed a curfew on university campuses in Inner Mongolia after a planned concert by a popular Mongolian rock band was canceled, according to the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center in New York.
And when security guards this month stopped Uighur Muslims in Guangzhou selling fried mutton from a street mall, fighting erupted between riot police and angry Uighurs, leaving several people injured,
Despite 25 years of economic growth that has made China the envy of its neighbors, income disparities are growing and corruption is spiraling, resulting in mounting anger and a sharp rise in the number of disturbances around the country.
Outlook Weekly, a Communist Party mouthpiece, reported recently that China experienced more than 58,000 major incidents of social unrest in 2003 - up 15% from a year earlier - with more than 3 million people taking part in the protests.
Another indication of the scope of the problem is China's Petition Office, which hears public grievances, and which was inundated with more than 10 million petitions last year. According to the Southern Weekly, just two out of every 1,000 cases were resolved. While legal experts argue that the Petition Office should be replaced by rule of law, others are concerned that the dismantling of the system could exacerbate the situation by blocking the release of pent-up anger.
Making matters worse for the government, China's "new media" appear to be reaching a critical mass. While news of unrest is usually blacked out of the Chinese media, word is now spreading quickly via the widespread use of modern communications, including mobile phones, faxes, instant messages and the Internet, reaching Chinese nationwide. Activists in China have also become more adept at communicating with the foreign media. Within the past year, for example, dissatisfied Chinese citizens have begun to contact foreign journalists directly using mobile phones, short messages, faxes and e-mail.
Dru Gladney, professor of Asian studies and anthropology at the University of Hawaii, said its difficult to tell whether the string of recent disturbances represents an increase in unrest or whether we're beginning to learn about more such incidents.
"I think the real new dimension is that activists on the streets and across the country are communicating with each other, and this didn't happen before," said Gladney. "Really, what's different now is the transregional coordination and awareness, rather than an increase" in unrest.
And, Gladney told Asia Times Online, bottling up these channels of communication won't be as easy. "This is clearly of concern to the leadership, but I'm not sure the government can prevent it," he said. "We're dealing with the cell-phone generation where people are in communication more than before. You can't turn back the clock on that."
Enver Can, vice president of the World Uyghur Congress based in Germany, agreed. "The communist government ultimately will not be able to change the tide of globalization and keep its people immune from the free flow of information," said Can. "The Chinese Communist Party will misjudge the situation if it still believes that its key weapon is the control of information."
Can, an ethnic Uighur from Xinjiang, told Asia Times online the situation is spinning out of control. "I have expected such disturbances for years," he said, adding that the government has up until now maintained stability through a "hardline" policy. Can said the rising gap between the new rich and poor, regional economic disparities, the crackdown against minorities and religious groups and the migrant-worker problem all spell continued trouble for the Communist Party.
"I would say that the government will face more and more unrest in the coming years," he predicted. "The string of recent protests might very well be the beginning of nationwide civil unrest."
"This is not a big threat to the party's control," countered Ren Wanding, a veteran political dissident who spent 11 years in prison for his activities. "China is an autocratic state and it is very strong," he told Asia Times Online.
Thomas Bernstein, professor of political science at Columbia University, said the countryside is under-policed and the situation could become serious "under certain conditions". However, he explained to Asia Times Online that these "conditions" do not yet seem to be present and that the People's Armed Police force is large enough to deal with the problem. "I would think a country the size of China could tolerate widespread but localized unrest," said Bernstein.
More important, said Bernstein, is the lack of leadership and organization, which means a "united front of the aggrieved is not likely to be formed ... For any social movement, one really needs leadership, whether generated from within the group or outside," he said. "I don't see any evidence that intellectuals are interested - many sympathize, but many despise the peasants."
Bernstein also argued that urban-rural tensions work against laborers and peasants uniting, and that the government has made efforts to keep the two groups separated.
The "counter-hegemony" that scholars say is essential for radical change "is simply not present", Bernstein said. "If there's going to be regime change, there has to be a viable established opposition, either legal or illegal," he said. "There is none in China."
Gladney too believes that China is not yet in danger of falling into chaos. "I think we're a ways from that," he said. "You need multiple, large-scale events across the country."
Gladney, an expert on China's Muslim community, said the recent Muslim disturbances in Henan and Guangdong showed no sign of coordination or links with fellow believers in other parts of the country, although there were unconfirmed rumors of truckloads of Muslims from outside Henan being stopped by police on their way to the site of the violence.
"The key to dissatisfaction itself is never enough to produce a revolution or regime change," said Bernstein. "The regime has to be weakened in a truly significant way, and I don't see that."
Chinese and foreign experts said that for the most part, farmers and workers don't have a problem with the central government but with local officials. Bernstein said protesters do not attack the regime itself, but are "rebelling in the name of the center".
"The center sides with the peasants over issues such as the financial burdens, so the villagers are angry at local governments and hope that the center will come and help them," he said.
Gladney said a lot of the anger is directed against mid-level local officials, and that Muslim violence generally has more to do with local issues of ethnic and social class conflict, and less to do with radical Islam or separatism.
"It's clear that these are not anti-state protests - and certainly not made by radical Islamists," said Gladney. "They're not national issues, but local ones. They're protests to the state, and not against the state."
The central government has reinforced its role as savior by using what some have called a "fire brigade" approach, or buy-off strategies. In one recent example, some 7,000 striking textile workers in Xianyang, a city in Shaanxi province, called off a seven-week strike after authorities made some concessions. While the strike leaders were picked off one by one, the rest of the strikers soon returned to the factory floor. Bernstein said, however, that this confidence may ultimately erode "if the center can't deliver."
Bernstein argued that one should not underestimate the capacity of the government to reform, and he cited several accomplishments over the past two years: abolishing unfair fees, eliminating the grain tax, offering support for rural education, and raising grain prices - all moves, he said, that have lightened the peasants' burden.
Sources said the government is split on how best to deal with the situation, with some senior officials proposing beefing up police forces and using strong-arm tactics, while others argue for reform and reason.
"It would be better for the Communist Party to tell the truth, and to try to regain the confidence of the people by introducing democratic reforms," said Uyghur activist Enver Can. "If the party does not face the reality, and delays introducing radical reforms, no one can guarantee that the people will continue to be as docile as they used to be.
"I think the greatest threat to the Chinese government is its own policy of suppression against its own people," he continued. "If a government does not serve its own people, it loses legitimacy."
Paul Mooney is a veteran freelance correspondent based in Beijing.