Friday, June 17, 2011

Is China sliding towards mass unrest?

In the last few days reports began to emerge of riots on the streets in China. It is not unusual to see unrest in many parts of the world and even China has seen disturbances. But the scale of these latest mass protests has Chinese leaders worried.

The latest clashes began on Friday 10th June after a fracas between security officers and a pregnant street vendor in Xintang, Guangdong province. The anger of the incident swelled, bringing thousands onto the streets. Rioters burned police and fire vehicles, looted stores and fought with police who responded with firing volleys of tear gas into the crowds. Despite dozens of arrests, the disturbances continued over three days [Guardian].

The riots in the Zencheng county were not isolated however. Last week hundreds of migrant workers clashed with police in Chaozhou, also in Guangdong, following a dispute over unpaid wages. In Lichuan, Hubei, as many as 2,000 protesters attacked government headquarters last Thursday after a local politician who had complained about official corruption died in police custody.

In Fuzhou last month, the frustrations of one man's constant battle with authorities over perceived maltreatment and corruption prompted him to target three government buildings in a coordinated series of bomb blasts [ / Miami Herald].

Controlling the news

China has attempted to control the news of these incidents. State media barely mentioned the bomb blasts in Fuzhou with only a small acknowledgement on Xinhua's Chinese language site. Even small shows of dissent have been erased from history. After a student threw an egg and his shoes at the Fang Binxing, the man dubbed the inventor of China's so-called Great Firewall which censors the Internet, news outlets were told to remove content. Fang Binxing's name was also censored on China's largest micro-blogging portal Sina Weibo. The latest incidents have also made few headlines in China itself. Searching for reports of the trouble in Zengcheng, in Chinese or English, on Xinhua brings up no results, while using Xinhua's new search engine Panguso brings up only a select few articles. One article on ifeng refers to the spreading of false rumours which stirred up anger. The article says rumours had spread claiming the pregnant women's husband had been beaten to death. These "rumours and false information" had been spread "through the micro-blogs, QQ groups and forums," the article states. Meanwhile several people have been arrested for disseminating such information.

Distrust in official media

While it is possible, and even likely, that information circulating on micro-blogs and other platforms is spurious, it is a symptom of China's highly controlled information conduit. There is a growing distrust of China's official news platforms, whether it is the state broadcaster China Central Television or the state news agency Xinhua. Even supposedly independent news media is strictly controlled. If articles deemed to be controversial manage to pass by the censors they are expunged and deleted later. Such a controlled news environment leaves a vacuum where information does not exist about certain events. In such a vacuum it is perhaps unsurprising that rumours become exaggerated and spread like wildfire on the Internet.

Earlier this year a lack of information concerning the threat of radioactive iodine in the sea, coming from Japan's stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, resulted in Internet rumours spreading which suggested people stock up on table-salt. In many parts of China salt stocks ran dry as panic buying set in. Some had bought enough salt to last them years. By saturating the body with iodine the body is a little more protected from radio-active iodine since it cannot be stored and passes through the body. But ordinary table-salt would have offered little protection since it contains little if any iodine.

Even aside the rumours and disinformation, there is are many issues which directly affect many Chinese. There is a growing rich poor divide and rising inflation is something many people are feeling.

Rising inflation

This week it was announced that China's consumer price index, the official measure of inflation, had reached its highest level for nearly three years. The National Statistics bureau said on Tuesday that consumer prices in May rose 5.5% over a year earlier, driven by an 11.7% jump in food costs [al Jazeera].

The world's second-largest economy is "still facing significant inflationary pressures" and must implement measures to contain prices, Sheng Laiyun, national bureau of statistics spokesman, said. The inflation for last month was up from April's 5.3% rate and exceeded March's 32-month high of 5.4%.

The figures will make grim reading for China's politicians. Upbeat speeches are unlikely to placate a population which is finding it increasingly difficult to put food on the table and to make ends meet.

In the streets of Beijing, poverty is less obvious. The streets are lined with modern residential blocks and modern cars fill the ever crowded roads. The beggars have been pushed to the outskirts, out of sight from the tourists and the hutongs are gradually being bulldozed away to clear the path for modern buildings.

But visit provincial towns and villages across China and the poverty is far more stark. In Henan's ancient capital of Luoyang there are few shiny office blocks. Residential buildings are old and dilapidated and the beggars are a common sight. The scenes inside the main railway station bore a striking resemblance to a refugee camp rather than a transport hub. Everywhere there were poorly clothed individuals, huddled in blankets, sleeping in any available space and surrounded by a few meagre possessions. These are part of the army of China's migrant workers who take the comparatively cheap train rides to the big cities in the hope of earning more money.

Low wages

Wages are extremely low in many parts of China, and across all sectors. A waitress in a Beijing restaurant may earn only 800 RMB per month, a little over $120. Even those working at China's top news agency Xinhua can only hope to earn around 4,000 RMB per month or $620. On the face of things it would appear many are well off. There are new cars on the streets and mobile phone use is on the up. But many are living on borrowed credit. The housing market is a bubble waiting to burst and many property owners may soon find themselves suffering from the Western disease of negative equity.

In such a climate of economic uncertainty it is unsurprising that social disorder is not far away. The straw that breaks the camels back can be a relatively minor affair, but they are becoming more commonplace. On Tuesday the town of Taizhou in Zhejiang province was the latest to see trouble. Disturbances occurred after the head of a local village government confronted petrol station staff during talks over land compensation fees that the station's owner was due to pay villagers, according to reports.

Within hours of the confrontation hundreds of fellow residents of Rishanfen village had surrounded the petrol station, blocked an adjacent airport expressway, and seized a man who had allegedly struck the village leader, according to the owner of a nearby factory, who witnessed the events. Riot police soon broke up the crowds, but it is a scene repeated across the country [Guardian].

Last week, residents of Lichuan, in the central province of Hubei, laid siege to government offices following the death in custody of a local city council member. A number of local government officials were fired or placed under investigation over the death in an attempt to assuage public anger.


In late February and early march authorities took action to stop Internet calls for a so-called Jasmine revolution. After a small gathering of curious onlookers gathered in Beijing's Wangfujing on the first week, the following Sunday saw heavy handed policing with foreign media arrested or assaulted and the area around the shopping precinct cleared of people.

Meanwhile hundreds of dissidents, political activists, artists and lawyers have been rounded up. Internet controls have also tightened. Many words were censored on China micro-blogging sites including Jasmine, revolution, Hillary Clinton, Ambassador Huntsman and artist Ai Weiwei. Even circumvention software has been targeted with popular VPNs being hit.

Ethnic tensions

It is not just social problems that are creating worries among the Chinese leadership. This year China will celebrate 90 years since the founding of the ruling Communist Party and has already marked the 60th anniversary of what it calls the "Peaceful Liberation of Tibet". [China DailyIncorporation of Tibet into the People's Republic of China / Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet].

In a move seen as an attempt by Beijing to prevent any potential unrest, or reporting of such events in the region, China has closed off Tibet to all foreign tourists until the end of July [BBC].

Ethnic tensions have risen in Hohhot in Inner Mongolia after two ethnic Mongolians were killed in separate incidents. A large protest was seen two weeks ago but news from the region is difficult to obtain since the Internet has been cut off and other forms of communications are restricted [BBC].

Last year tvnewswatch met with a Mongolian who was highly critical of China on a number of issues. He was scathing on several points, particularly human rights and corruption. "China will collapse one day," he said, "There is too much corruption amongst officials." [tvnewswatch].

In fact corruption is far more rife than most might believe. This week a report emerged which showed that corruption had drained over £124 billion from China over a 15 year period [FT]. The report had been mistakenly uploaded to the Internet indicates the widespread problems of bribes, back-handers and free-lunches being taken by officials and administrators [Australian].

Safety scandals

There are other issues which stir emotions too. The infamous milk scandal raised temperatures amongst parents who lost their children to contaminated milk products. There was further anger when hundreds of children died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake after they were buried under the rubble of substandard constructed schools. Product safety is a big issue in China, but is often swept under the carpet. In one of the latest controversies is the lead poisoning of hundreds of children. US-based rights group Human Rights Watch claim Chinese authorities are covering up the extent of the problem and say that hundreds of thousands of children are exposed to high levels of lead daily [al Jazeera]. 

China says it is taking action, but already there are signs that citizens are far from being placated with such promises. In Zhanwang village near to Yangxunqiao in Zhejiang Province in east China, discontent is taking the form of strikes as employees refuse to work at the local tin foil factory. "We've all refused to go to work since June 5th," says one Sichuanese worker. "If we keep working here, we will die here." [FT]

State media have reported the high levels of lead but fail to raise the issues of growing discontent [Xinhua / China Daily]. Some residents have even been rounded up as they sought medical treatment. Authorities detained some 50 people on a bus believing they were attempting to organise a protest. While most were released police have detained two of them for the six months since on the charge of "disrupting traffic" [Guardian].

Running scared

Such actions will do little to soften rising tensions in a country one a few turns away from widespread revolt. Some have described the scenes of rioting over the weekend in Zencheng as "scary" [AFP]. Indeed, riots are hardly a pleasant affair. For China's leaders, they may be running scared as Hillary Clinton suggested only a month ago [tvnewswatch].

Pictures emerging from last weeken's violence [MSNBC] may become increasingly common if ethnic tensions, economic divisions and health & safety issues are not properly addressed, and soon.

There have been accusations by some residents that some violence was encouraged by agent provocateurs and that plain clothed officers helped set fire to cars [Epoch Times]. Such actions would, if true, increase the justification for bringing in armed police and military controls. As temperatures rise amongst the Chinese population, there will be little need of provoking action, the citizens will be angry enough.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

No comments: