China airs its dirty laundry, a bit

As a report on growing instability is made public, a newspaper's editors are fired for similar stories.

China's reports of unrest in the countryside are usually brief mentions of isolated incidents: striking miners here. a farmer's protest there.

Yet a week after the release of a stunningly open, comprehensive, and gloomy report about rural conditions - overseen by one of President Jiang Zemin's most trusted aides - Beijing insiders and Western experts are scratching their heads about why an account of rising tensions, injustices, and ethnic woes would surface now.

The 308-page report seems written both as an admission and a warning to Communist Party officials that, as China continues to close state-owned enterprises and further removes subsidies to farmers in order to join the World Trade Organization, social unrest may get worse in the short term.

As China transitions to a more competitive market economy, the loss of a cradle-to-grave support of families is causing anxiety. Largely middle-age industrial workers are being laid off by giant unproductive factories ( 52 million workers will lose jobs in the next five years, according to the National People's Congress session this year). Peasant farmers are losing jobs and land to modern farm techniques. Tensions are rising as ethnic minorities find their businesses are not given a fair share of public contracts.

"2000-2001: Studies of Contradictions Within the People Under New Conditions" speaks of an "incomplete" legal system, a "backward" structure of social welfare, and a "breakdown" of state industry. It describes a new willingness by ordinary Chinese to act on their grievances, as they face rapid changes in an era of modern technology and the effects of a global economy.

Grievances run the gamut

Based on research in 11 provinces, and organized by a Chinese Communist Party Central Committee think tank headed by Zeng Qinghong, a protege of Mr. Jiang, the report gives frank details on rising resentment and indignation among groups of rich and poor, rural and urban, party officials and ordinary workers, and between Chinese in old state and new private sectors.

Without giving exact statistics, the report makes clear that protests, marches, and boycotts are on a steady rise in heartland provinces like Hunan and Sichuan, away from the wealthy coastal areas of China.

"Our country's entry into the World Trade Organization may bring growing dangers and pressures," it says, "and it can be predicted that in the ensuing period the number of group incidents may rise."

Except for a brief mention of the United States in a separate preface, and what seems an obligatory ideological reference to the attempts of capitalist states to wage war against socialism - the study does not attempt to place blame for China's troubles on the outside world, say experts who were shown the report.

"This looks like a big goodbye to the past," says one Western scholar in Beijing. "It looks like the Party is telling itself that WTO accession is inevitable and desirable - but very worrying."

Chinese-language "sample copies" of the report were made available for three days starting last Friday but are now sold out, said an employee at the Translations Press office, a small Central Committee organ. The employee said the report is not officially approved, but was expected to be in time for the Chinese Communist Party's 80th anniversary on July 1.

The report delved deep into the party structure for its information, relying for example on six powerful Party Standing Committee "organizational chairmen" to consult on individual chapters about their provinces. Meeting three times over a period of a year, Mr. Zeng's think tank put together one of the clearest, if worrying, single official snapshots of rural and working class China ever.

It describes the changing face of the protest crowds - adding the unemployed, private business owners, veterans, technicians, and even some Chinese officials - to the farmers and retirees. Protesters even in small towns now are savvy enough to hire attorneys, and seek media attention, the report says.

It states that women in some industrial rust belts are nearly twice as likely to be placed on unemployment as men. It describes more violence, such as when eight police in Sichuan last year were injured in an incident with 100 villagers, armed with hoes, bricks, and steel posts in a dispute over confiscated land.

Greater sensitivity toward farmers, who make up 80 percent of the Chinese population, is called for in the report. It recounts a popular new saying that farmers tell Party members: "I plant, I farm, I harvest. I ask nothing of you. I have plenty to eat, to wear; I don't beg. I rarely bother you. So if you can't solve my problems when I do, I will scold."

In some regions, frustrated unemployed farmers have formed freelance "tax collecting" agencies that use strong-arm tactics - and have harassed tax collectors who have come to their towns to dine in luxury, gamble, and use rented cars instead of bicycles. In an example of behavior to be duplicated, the report states that in Hunan province, some Party officials forced tax collectors to live in farmers homes, eat in modest state restaurants, and pay for their own food.

Questions about who's next at top

As a warning, there is even a psychological analysis of "distrust" by the Chinese masses of those officials who joined the Party during the Cultural Revolution - the generation of leaders about to succeed Jiang, whose term of office ends next year. Much of domestic Chinese politics today is consumed by the succession issue. The report quotes a Chinese proverb: "Water can help a boat sail, but it can also flip the boat over."

Two chapters are devoted to the troubled and Muslim-dominated far west province of Xinjiang, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. Speaking of the Muslims in Xinjiang, the report says: "their power is becoming strong and they are supporting enthusiastic religion. In some areas the mosques are as thick as a forest.... They are often large and fancy and take the best place in towns.

"When the government takes steps to close some mosques or have them meet Chinese codes of building, this has led to riots...."

"This is a highly unusual account, even keeping in mind it is not for Chinese general consumption," says one American scholar in Beijing. "Normally, any mention of unrest is attributed to people who are mentally unstable, or who are part of a cult."

"We are hearing more and more about these kinds of open talks. Honest discussion at the highest levels have been going on for some time now," says Dan Brody, director of the US Information Technology Office, a trade-promotion organization. "The story that the party is out of touch with the people is not founded. The party is not stupid, they are making real appraisals."

But don't expect public frankness

However, the report's release is not viewed as a prelude to a greater opening of discourse in China or for franker daily reports by national media. The "Studies of Contradictions Within the People" report itself has not been aired in the Chinese press.

Two days after it was released, the principal editors of one of China's vanguard newspapers, Southern Weekend, were removed from their jobs - ostensibly for a series outlining the very pattern of rising protests, crime, and anger in rural areas that the official study looks at.

"That's a perfect irony," says a Western diplomat, adding, "It's interesting that the officials [who authored the report] are saying the same things the gloomiest economists are saying. But we may not know what is behind this for many months."

While affirming that "maintaining stability is our main purpose," few proscriptive remedies are offered. Party members are asked to speed reforms, to consider more equitable tax collection strategies, to harness official corruption (so bad in some places that it hampers attempts to reemploy workers). Calls for greater adherence to Marxist thinking is also a pattern in the study.

Various theories and speculations about why such a frank account was allowed to be aired by Chinese authorities have surfaced.

One view is that the party is preparing the country for the kinds of greater "transparency" needed under WTO regulations. Such an honest airing of problems sets an example.

Some experts feel that Jiang is looking to his place in history. Next year Jiang steps down, the theory goes, and he realizes that if he is to attain the stature of Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping, he must be seen as a strong, open, liberal leader - unafraid to face the toughest problems of his day.

Another theory has Jiang angling to push Zeng Qinghong to be his successor as the top leader in China. In developing a sophisticated analysis to China's problems that is public knowledge in elite circles, and by developing strong ties with the organizational heads of the party structure in many provinces - Zeng could be a contender.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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