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."
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.
"China is at the crossroads," says Lu Xueyi, director of sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, quoting officials in the China Daily. "It can either smoothly evolve into a medium-level developed country or it can spiral into stagnation and chaos."
Whether the strikes are a harbinger of larger social crises is a cause for debate in Beijing. Those who argue not say China is still a nominal police state, capable of shutting down or buying off locals. Some point to a lack of honed principles among the aggrieved that would sustain a protest.
There is little evidence of coordination among groups. Comparisons to the Polish Solidarity movement of 1980 get dismissed - since China does not allow trade unions, and unlike Poland, is not occupied by an outside power. Some say that Sun Yat-sen, who wrested power away from the feudal dynasties in China, used peasant protests to his advantage. Yet in the China of 2004, there are few independent leaders, certainly none allowed to operate and speak freely.
Moreover, the new leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, has an ear more receptive to people's needs, they argue, than did Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, who were intent on a "city first" policy.
Those who do feel China faces a major problem argue that the causes of instability are more diverse and "built into" a system that is "incapable of reform," as one Beijing scholar put it. Social inequities are serious, as is current anger at local (though not yet central) government. The good fortune and material success of a relative few is more obvious to the many. China has 800 million rural peasants. The lack of formal dialogue between the people and the one-party state is a recipe for future crises, in the pessimistic view.
In the Wanzhou riot, where a porter was beaten by a well-off man claiming to be an official, a second wave of rioting took place outside a government office. One protester was heard shouting, "officials under this sky belong to one family - the porter will not get justice from officials."
"I hear a lot of cases, people coming to me, and speaking of tensions between people and local officials," says Wu Qing, a district People's Deputy in Beijing. "There's a lot of corruption, a lack of supervision, a use of police in the villages," she says. "Some Party members are good; some are not."
A common in many Beijing circles is that ordinary Chinese are more aware of their rights. The officially prescribed method of protest, filing a petition, is so ineffective that a rural scholar, Yu Jiangrong, told reporters this week that only 2 out of every 1,000 people who stand in line for days to file ever get a reply.
The spread of information via text messages, cellphones, and the Internet is playing a new role. Premier Wen reportedly became aware of "tio lou xiu" - unpaid construction workers who jump off high-rise buildings - via an Internet clipping service. The report figured in an official push to demand billions in withheld "back pay."
Last spring, Internet protest over a BMW owner who ran over an onion farmer but paid only a small fine was so intense that authorities shut down chat rooms and message boards on the biggest Chinese servers.
"There's a sense in China now that if you put it on the Internet, it will become an issue on the leadership screen," says Robin Munro of China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong.