A Chinese City's Rage At the Rich And Powerful
Monday, August 1, 2005
CHIZHOU, China -- Liu Liang, a slightly built computer student with big glasses, was home in Chizhou for summer vacation. At about 2:30 on the hot afternoon of June 26, he was pedaling his bicycle by the downtown vegetable market on Cuibai Street.
Driving down the same street in his new-looking black Toyota sedan was Wu Junxing, deputy manager of a hospital in nearby Anqing. Wu, accompanied by a friend and two bodyguards, had come to Chizhou that day to attend opening ceremonies of a new private hospital and, associates said, survey the market to judge whether he should invest in his own facility.
Liu's bicycle and Wu's shiny four-door sedan collided, sending Liu crashing to the ground. Almost immediately, witnesses said, Liu, 22, and Wu, 34, began arguing over who was at fault. In the heat of the dispute, they said, Liu damaged one of Wu's side-view mirrors, prompting Wu's muscular bodyguards to burst from the car and beat the skinny young man senseless, leaving him bleeding from his mouth and ears.
The beating, part of a minor traffic incident on a slow Sunday afternoon, ignited a spark of anger. The spark became a riot, evolving over eight chaotic hours into an expression of rage against the Chinese Communist Party's new fascination with businessmen, profits and economic growth.
After they saw what happened to Liu, Chizhou's self-described "common people" rose up against what they perceived as their local government's willingness to side with rich outside investors against Chizhou's own. By the end of the evening, 10,000 Chizhou residents had filled the streets, some of whom torched police cars, pelted overwhelmed anti-riot troops with stones and looted a nearby supermarket bare.
The violence in downtown Chizhou startled the leaders of this forward-looking city of 120,000, set in the rich alluvial farmland of Anhui province near the Yangtze River, about 250 miles southwest of Shanghai. Dismayed city officials deplored the impact on their campaign to attract investment and broaden Chizhou's economic base. "Illicit elements" were to blame, they said.
But the riot here, like a growing number of flare-ups in other Chinese cities, was in fact directed against the flourishing alliance of Communist Party officials and well-connected businessmen that runs Chizhou. Before calm returned to the streets, the disturbance had become a political rebellion against the increasingly intimate connection in modern China between big money and Communist government.
"When anger boils up in your heart so long, it has to burst," said a Chizhou man who was part of the crowd that night.
As the Communist Party strives to continue the swift economic growth that has become its new ideology, the official partnership with private business has generated resentment among those left behind: farmers whose fields become industrial parks, workers whose socialist-era factories go under, youths with assembly-line jobs at $60 a month.
In their eyes, the party that assumed power in China 56 years ago as a champion of peasants and workers seems to have switched sides, backing capitalist businessmen instead of the poor as part of a new get-rich ethic in which bribery plays a big role.
Recently, the resentment has exploded into violent protests, despite draconian laws against attempts to challenge the party's rule. Although press censorship prevents an independent count, the government-funded Ta Kung Pao newspaper said Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang estimated that 3.76 million Chinese were involved in 74,000 "mass incidents" during 2004.
Preventing the unrest from spreading has become a major preoccupation of President Hu Jintao and his lieutenants, who regularly call for stability as a condition for further economic progress. The stakes, they know, are high. If the violent outbursts get out of control, they could undermine China's boom and, ultimately, the party's grip on power.