China: 87,000 'mass incidents' in 2005

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China experienced a 6.6 percent increase in ?public order disturbances? last year, to a staggering total of 87,000 incidents ? or 240 every day ? following a 28 percent rise from 2003 to 2004, according to official statistics.
By Laurence Coates, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden). In the face of this new evidence of growing instability, China?s nominally ?communist? leaders are struggling both to dampen social contradictions, but also to rein in officials at local level, whose antics are inflaming the situation.

The official Xinhua news agency on 19 January reported the total number of ?public order disturbances, obstructions of justice, gathering of mobs and stirring up of trouble,? at 87,000, but did not elaborate further on these figures.

Rising social unrest in China has been fuelled by a range of issues from non-payment of wages, job losses and privatisation, land seizure, low-levels of compensation, pollution scandals, official corruption and the yawning wealth gap. In the face of this rising curve of increasingly militant protest, the Chinese state has been split over how to react. Reuters reported that two top generals in the People’s Armed Police pledged this month to boost the “combat effectiveness” of the one-million-strong paramilitary police to stamp out unrest. At the same time, premier Wen Jiabao chastised local officials in a recent speech, saying that if the current pace of land seizures continues with peasants being hoodwinked out of their land, it would be a ?historic error?.

“Some locales are unlawfully occupying farmers’ land and not offering reasonable economic compensation and arrangements for livelihoods, and this is sparking mass incidents in the countryside,” said Wen. “We absolutely can’t commit a historic error over land problems.”

Whose in control?

The central government is grappling to assert its control over the lower echelons of the state, which often openly flout its decisions. This is the case in connection with mass protests too. New national emergency response measures require local officials to report unrest immediately to central leaders. Cover-ups by local authorities are common, especially when the corrupt actions of local leaders have triggered the protests in the first place. Other cover-ups, such as the attempt by local and provincial leaders to hide the effects of the toxic waste spill in the Songhua river in November, which forced the city of Harbin to close down its water supply for five days, have inflicted a heavy cost on the ruling party by further undermining its support.

Other actions by local leaders have caused even greater problems for the Beijing regime, such as the decision by officials in Dongzhou, Guangdong province, to order police to use live ammunition against farmers protesting against land seizure and the building of a coal-fired power plant. Despite official claims that only three people were killed by police, it seems almost certain now that the real death toll is around 30. While publicly backing up the account by local officials, the state media later reported that the commander of the police unit was arrested for “wrong actions” in connection with the fatal shootings.

Firemen and arsonists

The problem for the central government is that it can only intervene after the event, and is confined to ?damage limitation? exercises. Just one month after the Dongzhou massacre, Guangdong?s police were responsible for a new outrage, using water cannon, gas and electric cattle-prods to break up a four-day road blockade by villagers near the town of Zhongshan. The central government finds itself in the position of firemen running around trying to extinguish fires, but unable to keep up with the arsonists ? local officials bent on succeeding in the new capitalist China by plundering the resources under their control.

As the New York Times reported from Guangdong province, ?In a series of interviews… people here made it clear that there was a broad awareness of the events in Dongzhou and of the fact that much of rural China is simmering with discontent. But they are fatalistic about their power to win redress for their grievances against the government.?
This may be the feeling among many today. But as the crisis deepens, more will draw the conclusion that mass struggle ? and therefore organisation ? is the only way out.