BEIJING, Nov. 3 -- As police battled to suppress deadly ethnic clashes last week in central China, tens of thousands of rice farmers fighting a dam project staged a huge protest in the western part of the country. The same day, authorities crushed a strike involving 7,000 textile workers.
A week earlier, a large crowd of retirees demanding pension payments blocked traffic for days in a city in the east; nearly a thousand workers demonstrated outside a newly privatized department store in the northeast; and police used rubber bullets and tear gas to quell a giant mob of anti-government rioters in a western city.
Chinese paramilitary police patrol on a bridge in Henan province after violence between members of the Han ethnic majority and Hui Muslims.
(Photos Greg Baker -- AP)
The string of disturbances, described by local journalists, witnesses and participants, highlights the daily challenge that civil unrest now poses to the ruling Communist Party. Despite historic economic growth that has lifted millions out of poverty, protests and riots in the world's most populous country are occurring with increasing frequency, growing in size and ending more often in violence.
This expansion of social strife has yet to shake the party's authoritarian grip on power. But the trend, evident in the government's own police statistics, has prompted alarm at the highest levels of the Chinese leadership, which has repeatedly declared social stability its top priority.
The Communist Party has indicated it is worried that these outbursts of discontent might coalesce into large-scale, organized opposition to its rule. The concern was apparent in a report by its Central Committee in September urging officials to improve governance and warning that "the life and death of the party" was at stake.
"The Soviet Union used to be the world's number one socialist country, but overnight the country broke up and political power collapsed," Vice President Zeng Qinghong wrote last month in the People's Daily, the party's flagship newspaper. "One important reason was that in their long time in power, their system of governing became rigid, their ability to govern declined, people were dissatisfied with what the officials accomplished, and the officials became seriously isolated from the masses."
There were more than 58,000 major incidents of social unrest in the country last year, about 160 per day on average, according to the party magazine Outlook. That was an increase of 15 percent over 2002 and nearly seven times the figure reported by the government just a decade ago. Another study of police statistics, by Murray Scot Tanner, a scholar at the U.S.-based Rand Corp., concluded the demonstrations were growing in size while violence, including attacks on party and state officials, was also on the rise.
"Research institutes like our center are working on this issue day and night, and so is the government," said He Zengke, executive director of the China Center for Comparative Politics and Economics in Beijing. "We all know the importance and urgency of the problem."
The incidents that erupted over the past two weeks illustrate the wide variety of factors behind this wave of unrest: tensions between the Han ethnic majority and ethnic and religious minorities such as the Muslim Hui; a widening wealth gap and persistent government corruption; the seizure of farmland for development; and layoffs associated with the transition from socialism to capitalism.
The party once blamed domestic unrest on subversives and foreign agents, but it now acknowledges that many taking part in these protests have legitimate grievances. Officials also recognize that protests are inevitable in a rapidly changing country and can serve as a safety valve for pent-up public anger.
Wang Yukai, a professor at the National School of Administration, which trains government officials, said most protesters were among the poor who have suffered in the transition to a market economy and have been unable to protect their rights through approved channels. He said the party's recent call to improve governance is an attempt to address this problem by making officials more responsive to the public and less corrupt.
But the party, under the leadership of President Hu Jintao, has ruled out democratic reform as an option, choosing instead to experiment with broadening its base and making leaders more accountable to party members. It has also adopted a carrot-and-stick approach toward protests, giving in to some demands while arresting activists and taking firm steps to prevent demonstrations from spreading.
One of the party's key weapons is the control of information; officials restrict or bar news reporting of all social unrest. But with the growing use the Internet and e-mail, widening access to overseas news media and the prevalence of cell phones and text messaging, censorship is becoming more difficult.
Word of a traffic dispute between Han and Hui villagers in central Henan province spread so quickly last week that thousands rioted before police could respond. More worrisome for the authorities, residents reported that hundreds if not thousands of Hui from other parts of China learned of the clashes by telephone and rushed to the region.