Before Games, China Puts Conflict on Hold

Police officers patrol in Weng'an county, where tens of thousands of people participated in violent riots to protest authorities' handling of the death of a teenage girl.
Police officers patrol in Weng'an county, where tens of thousands of people participated in violent riots to protest authorities' handling of the death of a teenage girl. (Reuters)
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

BEIJING -- A dusty black van sits on the street outside the State Bureau for Letters and Visits. The driver puffs on a cigarette, his knit shirt pulled up to expose his belly to the breeze. His license plate shows he's from Liaoning province, more than 200 miles to the northeast. Vans like his are a common sight on this street, their drivers under orders to look for people from the home province and haul them back before they make too much trouble in the capital city on the eve of the Olympics.

In centuries past, Chinese villagers who believed they were victims of injustice often traveled to the capital to appeal to the emperor. Today, that custom survives, usually as a hard-sleeper train trip to Beijing to petition Communist Party leaders at an office like this one.

Two weekends ago, provincial party officials were told in a conference call to solve problems at home and stop the flow of petitioners into the city, lest they disrupt the harmonious atmosphere the government is attempting to maintain in preparation for the Olympic Games. The crackdown is part of a broad effort to squelch any signs of conflict. The campaign includes the stepped-up surveillance and detention of dissidents, and the denial of visas for thousands of foreigners who might be troublemakers.

"All signs point to a stability-ahead-of-all-else policy," said Joshua Rosenzweig, a senior researcher in Hong Kong for the Dui Hua Foundation, which advocates for human rights. "Just to be sure nothing bad happens, a lot of good things may not happen at the same time."

Although estimates are that fewer than one in 500 petitioners ever resolve their cases, that has never stopped people from lining up in front of Beijing's petition offices, clutching satchels or plastic shopping bags filled with documents to argue their case.

Some say they realize their quest is probably hopeless, but they have nowhere else to turn because back home, every avenue of appeal, including the courts, is controlled by local party officials. Although the petition offices here are also run by the party, at least they are on the national level. Now, even this safety valve is being shut.

With few lawful ways to press a grievance, repressed anger can slide to violence. In the same week that word went out to block petitioners, three unrelated incidents of mayhem erupted over perceived injustices.

An estimated 30,000 people rioted two weekends ago in Weng'an county in southwest China's Guizhou province, with students torching police cars and attacking government offices to protest authorities' handling of the death of a teenage girl.

In Shanghai, a man apparently angry over his interrogation concerning a theft went on a stabbing spree that left six police officers dead and four officers wounded. And in central China's Hunan province, a man incensed over the forced demolition of his building exploded two gas canisters in front of a local government complex, injuring 12 people.

The incidents prompted some official soul-searching about the consequences of the state ignoring popular anger.

"Why were the people of Weng'an so angry as to set fire to government buildings? How could a citizen turn so violent after a single regular police interrogation? Does the removal of an illegal structure have to end up in hatred?" asked an editorial in Friday's China Daily, the state-controlled English-language newspaper. "The three tragic episodes reveal a less-than-harmonious relationship between the general public and those who are supposed to be at their service."

The party's response in the Weng'an case was twofold: arrest people involved in the riot and blame local officials for letting long-rising tensions in the county get out of hand. By Friday, the county's party secretary, its top magistrate and two police chiefs had all been fired.

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