China’s rising tide of social protest is fueled by inadequate government attention to everyday public concerns rather than unequal distribution of wealth, according to experts at a Washington forum.
While many Chinese agree that income gaps in their country “are too large,” they do not regard these differences as inherently unfair, Harvard University China expert Martin Whyte told a hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission last week.
Instead, said Whyte, Chinese respondents to several surveys have attributed differences in income to “differences in ability, hard work, talent, [and] education.”
China’s growing number of social protests—or “mass incidents,” as they are officially called—are due mainly to cases of “procedural injustice,” including unfairness of local governance and abuses of power, Whyte said.
He was among experts who testified at the hearing aimed at assessing the causes of social protest in China.
China sees thousands of "mass incidents" across the country every year, according to official statistics, many of which are protests or sit-ins linked to forced evictions, allegations of corruption, and disputes over rural land.
But the authorities have been swift to nip them in the bud to avoid any sort of mass movement for change to spread in China.
In recent weeks, the Chinese security apparatus has also been quick to suppress any “Jasmine”-style protests demanding an end to corruption, inflation, and the strictures of authoritarian rule, inspired by revolts in North Africa and the Middle East.
Incidents of social unrest in China have increased steadily for nearly two decades and now number in the thousands each year, said Murray Scott Tanner, a China security analyst at the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses.
Data from Chinese law enforcement agencies show that the causes of unrest have remained largely the same, Tanner said.
“[These include] illegal land seizures, forced evictions and demolitions, withheld wages and pensions, air and water pollution, and the refusal of local authorities to honor citizen petitions.”
Party leaders have regularly issued speeches and directives calling for an end to these abuses, but abuses continue, Tanner said.
“[And] faced with this gap between citizen demands and the ineffectiveness of Party and government institutional responses, the Party and the government … rely on their public security forces to contain, manage, and if need be suppress social protests.”
Elizabeth Economy, Director for Asia Studies at the New York-based Council of Foreign Relations, noted that the growing number of incidents of unrest in China point to a “powerful degree of dislocation, and perhaps powerlessness and alienation from the political system” among the Chinese population.
In cases involving the environment, for example, “people try to work through the legal system—maybe for one or two years or even more—in order to get redress for the pollution problems they are suffering,” Economy said.
“When they can’t get redress, they may stage a small protest in front of the polluting factory.”
“But then,” Economy said, “you get an escalation where the factory managers or workers try to disperse the protest, often using some level of force. At that point, you will find that the entire village will become engaged in this protest, and indeed it may spread to many more villages.”
“And before you know it, you have thousands of people smashing buildings and setting police cars on fire,” she said.
The head of China’s intelligence and security services said in a Feb. 21 speech that Beijing should make “social management”—controlling the public to prevent protests or other incidents—a top priority.
Protests move to the cities
U.S. think tank Stratfor called the speech "a reflection of the government’s unease over domestic problems and fear of contagion from unrest in the Middle East."
"Beijing has instructed local governments to clamp down on signs of domestic unrest, but the country has internal security threats other than small-scale protests—namely rising food, fuel and housing prices and financial system risks—all of which have put increased pressure on China’s leadership ahead of its formulation of its 12th Five-Year Plan and a 2012 leadership transition," Stratfor said.
Economy noted that social protests have begun to move from the countryside to China’s cities.
“Over the past several decades, protest has been mainly rural-based, with the exception of workers in some urban factories. But today we are seeing the emergence of middle-class protests—which have a different purpose and different strategy, and which challenge the government in different ways.”
These new protests involve urban, educated middle-class Chinese, and often focus on environmental issues such as plans to build incinerators, Economy said.
By protesting against projects that are still being planned, Economy said, protesters have begun to influence policy-making decisions at the local level. And this, she said, could change the nature of China’s political system over time.
Reported in Washington by Richard Finney and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.