China Grows More Wary Over Rash Of Protests

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 10, 2005

BEIJING, Aug. 9 -- Facing a steady rhythm of violent protests, the Chinese government is showing increased concern about stability, using caution in putting down riots around the country but warning people that violence will not be tolerated.

The fallout from a series of demonstrations has been magnified recently because of loosened restrictions on news reporting and increased use of cell phones and the Internet, even by villagers in remote areas, according to government-connected researchers and peasants involved in the protests. Although Communist Party censors try to stifle reporting on the unrest, they said, word of the incidents is transmitted at a speed previously unknown in China.

As they are more widely publicized, the violent protests have become a major issue for President Hu Jintao's government. According to Chinese academics with ties to the government, senior officials early on realized that such violence could undermine the country's economic growth -- and perhaps the party's monopoly on power -- if it continues to grow and spread. As a result, calls for stability and social harmony have become the watchwords in speeches by Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Reflecting the leaders' concern, the People's Daily, the main party newspaper, declared in a front-page editorial July 28 that any attempt to use protests to correct social injustices that arise as China moves toward a market economy would be "punished in accordance with the law." The editorial was also broadcast on state television and relayed by the official New China News Agency, underlying the importance officials attached to the warning.

"Resolving any such problems must be done in line with law and maintenance of stability," the editorial said. "The solution of any problems must rely on the party, the government, the law, the policies and the system."

Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang said last month that the number of what he called "mass incidents" was rising fast across China, according to an official who heard Zhou speak at a closed meeting. Zhou said that 3.76 million Chinese took part in 74,000 such protests last year, which he characterized as a dramatic increase.

Perhaps more worrisome, Zhou continued, is a "noticeable" trend toward organized unrest, rather than the spontaneous outbursts that traditionally have led to violent clashes between citizens and police. The minister added, however, that most protests erupt over specific economic issues rather than political demands, suggesting they are not coordinated or directed at bringing down the one-party system that has been in place in China since 1949.

Rural protesters have recently cited farmland seizures by local governments working with developers, or pollution of fields and irrigation sources by locally licensed factories or mines as the reasons for their uprisings. Other protests have erupted over clashes between factory managers and the millions of youths who leave their villages to work in assembly plants in big city suburbs.

Provincial, municipal and county governments have often proven unable to handle these complaints because local officials, eager for economic growth in partnership with businessmen, regard the aggrieved people as obstacles to success.

Kang Xiaoguang, a Tsinghua University professor and political specialist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, noted that the protesters' lack of national coordination or broad political goals is an indication the government can probably bring the riots under control.

Hu and Wen, he said, regard the unrest as a major problem but inevitable, the fruit of economic disparities caused by reforms over the past 25 years. As a result, Kang added, they want to rein in the poorly regulated capitalism that, in many respects, has replaced socialism and have gone out of their way to demonstrate concern for the underdogs in China's hybrid system.

As far as is known, even the most violent protesters have been armed only with farming tools in the spate of unrest over the last several years. Similarly, police responding to riots have generally been equipped only with clubs, staffs and tear gas. There have been no reports of firearms being used.

However, officials told a party newspaper in Guangxi province last week that police found arms, ammunition and explosives in a raid Thursday against villagers who refused to heed orders to stop illegal mining. The villagers had already clashed once with police in late June, the Reuters news service reported.

Seeking to get ahead of the protests, Zhou has urged Chinese security officials to study what causes riots and try to resolve problems before they get to the stage of violence. Beijing, the capital, already has set up such a committee, officials reported, as part of its effort to prepare for the Olympic Games in 2008.

"Short-term methods, such as this emergency committee system, and long-term methods, such as an early-warning system [about social discontent], should be combined to solve the problem," said Deng Weizhi, a Shanghai University sociologist and member of the People's Political Consultative Conference, a government advisory body.

Deng, who was at a meeting of the conference addressed by Zhou recently, said the minister showed concern about instances in which police must react violently to bring protests under control. This was particularly true, he said, when police broke up a protest in Beijing in April by People's Liberation Army veterans demanding better retirement benefits. Another protest by disgruntled PLA veterans was held last week in Beijing as the army marked its 78th anniversary, witnesses said, and police intervened to break it up by hauling away a number of demonstrators.

In a sign of the swift movement of protest news, one of the organizers sent a short cell phone message to a Chinese journalist Tuesday saying he was about to be arrested for his part in the demonstration. Similarly, a peasant protest leader from Zhejiang province, whose grimy fingernails and weathered skin attested to a life on the farm, remarked matter-of-factly in a conversation last week that he became aware of other protests after surfing the Web.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company