A Year of Unrest Across China

2007-12-21
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Police cars near a crossroads in Dongzhou. Photo: The Epoch Times

HONG KONG—China saw a turbulent end to a troubled year, with several people detained across the country in connection with mass civil rights activities ranging from land disputes, to complaints against the government, to industrial action.

Police chief Zhou Yongkang has said that “actively preventing and properly handling” mass incidents was the main task for his Ministry of Public Security this year.

But in the space of just a week more than a dozen riots, strikes, and demonstrations were reported by RFA’s Mandarin and Cantonese services.

According to the propaganda department, there are 21 bans: no stories on unemployment, no stories on the upsurge of migrant workers…Radio stations are not allowed to report on workers’ strikes in foreign countries.

In Dongguan city, a booming manufacturing city in south China’s Guangdong province, villagers were beaten by police after several hundred of them tried to blockade the village committee offices in protest at a land deal they say was unfair.

“Almost all our villagers, about several hundred villagers, went to protest. When we blocked the committee office, the...armed police beat us,” one villager told RFA’s Cantonese service.

A familiar story

The story of Dongguan’s Baima village is a familiar one now in villages across China, where property prices have boomed in the last decade. This has rendered responsibility contracts signed by many rural families next to worthless, as local officials use a combination of back-door deals, re-zoning, and bribery of elected village chiefs to turn massive profits on land sold for development.

More than 8,000 farmers from six villages in Wuqing district of the northern port city of Tianjin have protested a massive land grab by local government amounting to around 10,000 mu (670 hectares) since 1992.

The local government initially began to build a reservoir in the nearby area, and began to requisition the land from farmers without any compensation. It then converted the reservoir site to highly profitable, large-scale fish-farms after a directive from higher up warned them they had acted illegally.

Government statistics counted around 74,000 protests across the country in 2005, involving more than 3.7 million people, a sharp rise from 58,000 in 2003, and 10,000 in 1994.

From the point of view of social control, all these crises are in fact economic crises. And in the background of China’s economic crises is a political crisis.

A researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has estimated that 35 percent of “mass incidents” in China are sparked by rural communities fighting for their rights, 30 percent by workers, 15 percent by ordinary citizens, 10 percent from other disputes, five percent as a result of “social disturbances,” and five percent by organized crime.

Those who protest official corruption or seek redress for official wrongdoing often end up in a worse state than if they had done nothing at all.

In Guangdong’s Dongzhou village, more than 1,000 armed police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of villagers who tried again to block the construction of a key pylon near a disputed power plant.

“They used tear gas and scattered the crowd,” a resident of the troubled village near the southern port city of Shanwei told RFA’s Mandarin service.

Earlier, several hundred villagers had converged, beating on cymbals, on the same intersection where police opened fire on a crowd of protesting villagers on Dec. 6, 2005, killing at least three people. The authorities later said police had fired “in alarm” after being attacked by homemade explosives, but villagers deny attacking first.

All economic crises

Academics have calculated that demonstrations involving more than 100 people occurred in 337 cities and 1,955 counties in the first 10 months of 2006, amounting to between 120 and 250 such protests daily in urban areas, and 90 to 160 in villages.

Tian Ren, management professor at Texas’ Drexel University, said the problem of social unrest went hand-in-hand with China’s political system. “From the point of view of social control, all these crises are in fact economic crises. And in the background of China’s economic crises is a political crisis,” he said.

“While the government continues to insist that these are crises of social order, completely separate from the economic and political crisis, it is espousing a view that does not have the participation of the other players.”

U.S.-based social scientist Liu Xiaozhu said China’s central government is well aware of the problem; they are simply unable to deal with it at its root, in the current political climate.

“They have a very sensitive system of gathering information, but the entire political arena is shrouded in fake speech, and befogged by an atmosphere of empty words and automatic clapping,” Liu said.

Reporting banned

“Anyone who tries to speak the truth is immediately attacked. This forces them along the shadowy path of cheating and fakery, which results in the oppression of ordinary citizens.”

Central government officials have admitted publicly on many occasions that corruption and official misbehavior could endanger the Communist Party’s hold on power, and have paid their dues to the problem of corruption with some highly publicized criminal trials of top officials, and a Web site dedicated to fighting corruption.

The site crashed soon after its inception, staggering under the burden of so many complaints. It has since resumed operation.

State media, however, remain tightly controlled in what they can report, and, with a doubling of national security convictions in the past year, reporters are extremely cautious about stepping out on a limb to cover local civil and economic rights issues.

But U.S.-based professor Zhou Zehou of York College said Beijing was well aware of the negative impact that media controls have on social stability.

“If the media had been allowed to report the outbreak of SARS, its negative impact would not have been so great, and the mortality rate would not have been so high,” Zhou said.

An Qi, a former reporter and editor at a number of state-run newspapers in China, is currently studying journalism in France. She described the bans imposed by the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee:

“According to the propaganda department, there are 21 bans: no stories on unemployment, no stories on the upsurge of migrant workers…Radio stations are not allowed to report on workers’ strikes in foreign countries,” An said.

Meanwhile, ordinary people across China doggedly continue protests against what they see as violation of their rights.

Some brave starvation and injury and even risk their lives to get their voices heard.

Beijing-based petitioner Wang Guiying was one of those who tried to present a 10,000-name petition to Party leaders during the 17th Party Congress in October. She was recently detained while begging on Tiananmen Square and beaten by security guards until her leg broke.

Wang is now stuck in a rented room with no money to ease the pain of the broken limb, and no money to buy food.

“They found the break in the bone in her right leg at the hospital,” a Beijing social welfare official told RFA’s Mandarin service. “She was also found to have sustained other injuries. She is unable to move independently. What makes this situation much worse is that they have no money to live on.”

“One the one hand they have no money to buy food, and on the other there is no money to buy medicine. She and her sister are in great difficulty. This is a typical example of where walking the petitioner’s road can get you.”

Original reporting in Mandarin by Ding Xiao, Wen Jian, Shen Hua and Xin Yu, and in Cantonese by Lee Kin-kwan and Bat Tzi-mo. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. RFA Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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