Waves of discontent shake China's leaders

China's Communist leaders control the world's largest army and paramilitary force, but they sometimes act as if they are under siege - perhaps with some reason. Growing waves of laid-off workers, landless peasants, and persecuted religious groups are taking to the streets.

So last week, "200 ... top police, paramilitary, and Army leaders met in Beijing to plan and orchestrate a clampdown," says Frank Lu, who heads Hong Kong's Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.

It's more than the Falun Gong spiritual movement and the tiny pro-democracy opposition that are seen as being out of control. China's Ministry of Public Security reported that "enemies of the party" staged 60,000 major protests in 1998. And human rights workers say those numbers are growing.

The protests, which cut across social classes and ethnic groups, "have gotten the [Communist] Party in a state of some anxiety," says Orville Schell, a China scholar at the University of California at Berkeley.

"Everyone knows that the end of [Chinese] dynasties has often been heralded by such unrest [and] it is this recognition as much as the real threat that creates nervousness."

In northeast China's Rust Belt of failing state-run factories, a growing number of surplus workers has begun surrounding government offices to demand welfare benefits.

In northwest Xinjiang province, restive Muslim minorities periodically bomb public parks and buses to press their demands for political autonomy.

Poor farmers ruled by local officials who treat their villages like personal fiefdoms have joined Buddhists and other religious groups in lashing out against persecution with public demonstrations.

Like the general populace, many senior Communist Party members have lost faith in their revolutionary ideology.

Since the passing of Mao Zedong, who headed the communist dynasty from 1949 until his death in 1976, the market has replaced Marx in guiding the economy, and a vacuum in political and moral values has enveloped China

That means the party leadership is now united largely "around the core principle of keeping power," says Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese politics at Columbia University in New York.

"A century ago, protests by religious groups and would-be political reformers helped lead to the collapse of the Qing dynasty, and the Communist Party is determined to prevent history from repeating itself," says a Western official.

But rather than trying to regain the support of the people by mapping out a new political blueprint as China enters the 21st century, the party is now planning to try to crush its ethnic, economic, and religious discontents in a nationwide clampdown.

During last week's meeting to discuss how to deal with the growing unrest, several members of the party's ruling Politburo "called on the police to step up arrests and told the courts to impose heavy sentences on the 'ringleaders' of all types of protests," says rights monitor Mr. Lu.

But the party must fight on multiple fronts if it intends to crush its myriad critics.

Hu Angang, an economist at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences, estimates that "there are now 15 million unemployed urban workers" and that many receive no jobless benefits.

Mr. Hu adds that "that figure is likely to rise as China joins the WTO and inefficient state factories lay off surplus labor."

The struggle for survival in China's urban jungle, where most features of a social safety net have been abandoned, is being sharpened by the migration of tens of millions of peasants into the cities in search of jobs.

And as police in China's urban centers prepare to halt worker protests, paramilitary troops are being deployed to try to stop independence movements in Xinjiang and Tibet.

During Mao's radical Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, the party tried to wipe out Islam in Xinjiang and Buddhism in Tibet in an attempt to forcibly assimilate minorities. Limited liberalizations since then have unleashed new calls for political autonomy, and Beijing's rulers are reimposing strict limits on religious life.

Anticommunist anger has literally exploded in the last several years in Xinjiang, where extremists among the area's Muslim minorities have waged a terrorist campaign for independence.

In a meeting with the leaders of three central Asian republics that border Xinjiang, Chinese President Jiang Zemin called for joint efforts to "crack down further on the forces of religious extremism, ethnic separatism and international terrorism," says a recent report in the official China Daily.

Some reformist voices in the communist leadership and the nascent opposition China Democracy Party have called for gradual moves toward adopting a democratic, federal structure to co-opt the increasingly diverse sectors of Chinese society. To maintain power, the party is relying on its key resources, which include "the effectiveness and loyalty of the police, [and] the loyalty of the armed forces," says Professor Nathan.

He adds that as long as protesters remain weak and divided, and security forces remain strong, "I don't see why the regime should fall."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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