China's Rage

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NISID HAJARIChina's leaders are not alone in seeing the fall of dynasties in portents--floods, shooting stars, earthquakes. But their response to such omens often displays a singular crudeness. In the heart of Beijing, authorities have blocked off historic Tiananmen Square until July--ostensibly to replace its concrete with pink granite, but also no doubt to prevent crowds from congregating there on the 10th anniversary of the massacre of democracy activists this June 4. They have also decided that nearby Changan Avenue should be purified, cleansed of neon signs advertising the likes of Kodak and McDonald's, and that two neighborhoods populated by Uighurs--Muslims from China's northwest who are often blamed for separatist violence--be razed. New regulations ensure that anyone who dares report an earthquake without official permission can now be arrested.Yet the rumblings are now loud enough for all to hear--louder perhaps than at any time in the past two decades of reform. Already this year has seen dozens if not hundreds of protests across China: from investors angered by lost savings to workers distraught over being sacked to peasants--thousands of whom confronted armed troops in rural Hunan last month-- squeezed dry by corrupt officials. In 12 different incidents in January, crude bombs have been set off or discovered; 33 have died and more than 100 have been injured. Not all these explosions had political targets, and none seems to have any connection to the others. But they are likely only the tip of the iceberg. Only recently the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences revealed that an astonishing 2,500 bomb blasts were recorded in the first nine months of 1998. Together they speak of a worrying discontent--an uneasiness shared by leaders in Beijing, who may feel that their worst fears are beginning to come true.

They have reason to worry. More than 5,000 protests reportedly roiled the mainland last year, enough to tax even China's extensive security network. On Jan. 8 troops from Changsha, the provincial capital, rushed to Daolin township in southern Hunan to confront up to 10,000 angry farmers; one protester bled to death after being struck by a canister of tear gas. Only a few days earlier, another violent protest was recorded in Jiangsu province. And around the same time, 1,000 peasants reportedly challenged local elections in Shaanxi province. Smaller demonstrations have taken place in several other cities as laid-off workers demand compensation. The incidents are all the more unsettling precisely because they are so disconnected: the bombings--both far-flung (from Tibet to Fujian province) and mysterious (officials have blamed everything from jealousy to robbery)--point to a sense of random and widespread anger.

Taken individually, the protests often have quite limited aims. Most of these cases are very local, explains a Beijing academic. The rural population has no way to complain so they take extreme action. The Daolin riot was sparked by fury over the crushing tax burden (nearly twice the legal amount) levied by the local government--and by its wanton waste of that money. More common in cities are demands for unpaid wages and anger over corrupt management. So far, few protests have directly targeted leaders at the national level, or the Communist Party itself.

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That, however, could well change as conditions worsen. The government estimates that the urban unemployed will number 16 million by the end of the year; outside analysts say the total could be nearly twice that. (As many as 130 million rural Chinese are without work.) The layoffs have fueled an increase in the crime rate--robberies, murders and kidnappings are all up--which itself has rattled citizens. (The Fujian bomb was reportedly detonated by two men trying to blast their way into a branch of the Construction Bank of China.) In the countryside, growth in rural incomes has slowed to 4%, while almost no one thinks China can achieve the 7% overall growth rate necessary to absorb the 10 million people that will enter the labor force this year.

At the same time, authorities cannot easily cushion the blow. Many have grown skittish of the pain caused by Prime Minister Zhu Rongji's slash-and-burn efforts to revamp the state sector. In the reform process, Chinese have gotten used to gradualism, not rapid change, notes a Chinese official. Yet as rivals scale back Zhu's reforms and resume the flow of money to leaky state enterprises, they are only hobbling the economy further. Authorities have shown themselves more resolute in tackling corruption: nearly a third of the cases in Chinese courts last year involved graft and bribery, and the axe has begun to fall on those once protected by political connections. But even here many wonder how far Beijing is willing to go. Analysts warn that, as in the former Soviet Union, the network of corrupt cadres cannot be unraveled without undoing the party itself. It's a dangerous policy, warns a Beijing academic. You can't go after one person without going after many.

Beijing's kneejerk response--to clap a few troublemakers in jail--will likely only exacerbate the problem. The harsh sentences meted out to organizers of the China Democracy Party in December drew swift international condemnation. (And didn't work: last week, as another CDP organizer was sentenced to prison, Hong Kong activists claimed the party had expanded to 23 provinces.) But Chinese themselves may be more disheartened by the fate of Yue Pianxiang and Guo Xinmin--bus drivers from Tianshui in northwestern Gansu province who went to court to demand the salaries due them and their colleagues since 1995. They won, but as soon as they tried to collect the overdue wages they were arrested and later accused of endangering state security. The same charge earned some CDP leaders more than a decade in jail apiece. The government is encouraging people to abandon the system, says Hong Kong-based labor activist Han Dongfang, who advised Yue and Guo on their suit. It's telling them that legal procedure doesn't work, so they might as well go with bombs.

The government would rather tell them nothing at all. A lot of protests are never allowed to be reported, so we can't be sure of how many bombs there have been, notes Frank Lu, founder of the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China. In late December a Hunan court reportedly sentenced one activist to 10 years in prison for speaking to Radio Free Asia about farmers' protests in the province. In Shenzhen, at the spot where police overpowered an ex-soldier carrying a bomb on a local bus, the only sign of the incident is a splash of newly poured concrete on the sidewalk where experts detonated the device--and the plainclothes police who flash their pistols when a reporter begins to ask questions.  |  2  |  
On the other hand, officials have linked Muslim separatists to some of the bombings. And they have heavily publicized a recent crackdown in the province of Xinjiang. Last week state media reported that police had arrested more than 80 people for involvement in at least 15 bomb attacks in the province last year, raided a terrorist training cell and plugged an alleged arms pipeline from Pakistan. When Chinese papers publicize these arrests they are justifying a future crackdown, says a Western analyst in Beijing. They may also be preparing a scapegoat to explain the more inconvenient bombings.

To be sure, authorities have also busied themselves calling for an end to corruption and demanding that workers be paid on time. But they have yet to feel the need to grant any significant political concessions. These are not political protests, notes Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong. The bombings in particular have not yielded any ideological clues: the Shenzhen suspect is thought to have been distraught over an ex-girlfriend; bombs in Tibet and Henan have been attributed to extortion attempts; two separate bombings in Guangdong have been described as acts of personal revenge. (Only an explosion that destroyed a section of the Beijing-Guangzhou railway line, and two blasts in Hunan that killed nine people, are thought to have been politically motivated.) In Daolin, the protest leaders most sought after by police reportedly fled to Beijing of all places--to seek the aid of top officials. People aren't really sure what they want yet. They're waiting for somebody else to go down to the streets first, says Han.

That, however, should be worry enough in China, where bloody protests have sprouted from the simplest, most symbolic events. The fear of unrest being inflamed by this year's fraught dates--the 40th anniversary of a Tibetan uprising, the 10th anniversary of Tiananmen, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic--is not unwarranted. The longer even purely economic grievances linger, the more likely they will be transformed into more pointed criticism. As Han says wryly, there's nothing in this country that is not political. China's communist emperors would do well to heed the tremors they can hear already.

Reported by Maria Cheng/Hong Kong, Isabella Ng/Shenzhen and Mia Turner/Beijing  |    |  3