In China, stresses spill over into riots
Beijing responds with a new campaign after at least eight recent violent incidents.
In an effort to address recent unrest fed by disparate rural, ethnic, and economic tensions, China's leadership has embarked on a "harmonious society" campaign that emphasizes awareness of the country's rich-poor gap, and even tacitly suggests the nation is at a social "crossroads."Skip to next paragraph
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At least eight major incidents of violence and rioting have erupted in recent weeks, against a backdrop of thousands of minor incidents in recent years.
A number of the most recent mass blow ups were triggered by minor events, such as a fight or a traffic accident between haves and have-nots, before quickly escalating to involve thousands of people. The prevalence of such cases, where crowd numbers range from 500 to 10,000, suggest a reservoir of anger existing just below China's social surface, as well as a growing "consciousness of rights," say experts like Nicolas Becquelin of Human Rights in China.
"The unrest has been deeper and more longstanding than we've been led to believe," says Mr. Becquelin. "The problem has been keeping track of all the incidents."
The Chinese magazine Outlook put the 2003 figure of local disturbances about 58,000, involving an estimated 3 million persons.
The unrest is still isolated and uncoordinated, such as a Nov. 15 incident in Guangdong where a woman angry at toll fees sparked a riot involving thousands, including one dead. But evidence shows more Chinese awareness of protests across provincial lines than in times past, largely due to cellphones and text messages, and despite official news blackouts.
The Guandong incident follows one in Wanzhou, where 10,000 locals rioted after a professed government official beat up a "bang bang" or common porter; a seething ethnic clash in Henan between Muslim Hui and Chinese Han peasants last month left at least seven dead (the New York Times cites a figure of 148) after a bloody fight with farm tools.
Not all protests are sudden or disorganized. A huge demonstration of 90,000 peasants in Sichuan cranked up late last month when it was clear they would be driven from their homes and barely compensated after a hydroelectric plant began construction. Similarly, a mass strike of 7,000 textile workers took place for seven weeks this fall in Shaanxi province after workers were blocked from forming a local trade union.
To what degree the new cases are a result of foreign media becoming more aware of problems already existing, and how much is a genuine increase of tensions, is difficult to gauge.
Certainly the campaign for the "construction of a harmonious society" itself indicates a newly recognized lack of social harmony at the official level, experts say, in a country where "stability" is a paramount value. The absence of order in China is feared at a far deeper psychological level than in Asian nations like South Korea, where strikes and protests are daily political fare.
The government's new campaign includes official visits to hot spots, demands that back pay be given to workers, and editorials framing the social tension as "grim."
A Xinhua editorial two weeks ago, one surely approved at a high level, describes China at a pivot point that will lead either to a "golden age of development," or a "contradictions-stricken age" of chaos.