Chinese protesting more as social problems grow
Chinese protesting more as social problems grow
Beijing may find it hard to retake reins
Kathleen E. McLaughlin, Chronicle Foreign Service
Sunday, May 1, 2005
Shanghai -- Anti-Japanese demonstrators who drew
global attention as they marched -- and sometimes
rampaged -- in China's large cities in recent weeks
are part of a growing climate of dissent in the
country, analysts say.
Despite its rising prosperity, China has seen a
dramatic increase in public demonstrations after
several years of nervous quiet followed the violent
government crackdown on the Tiananmen Square
demonstrations in 1989. The number of protests grew to
more than 58,000 in 2003, when an estimated 3 million
Chinese took to the streets to air their grievances,
said Scot Tanner, senior China analyst with Rand,
citing police statistics.
While more recent figures are not yet available,
Tanner and other analysts agree that spreading civil
unrest presents a striking challenge to the Communist
"For the past 10 years, this has been going up every
single year and it is, by all accounts, driven not by
one type of problem or two or three types but by a
dozen different types of sparking problems," Tanner
said. "There are clearly a number of much bigger
forces that are propelling unrest in this society."
For example, even as 20,000 anti-Japanese protesters
who massed in Shanghai on April 16 made headlines
worldwide, a larger and far more volatile crowd staged
an uprising in Huaxi, a village in coastal Zhejiang
province a few hours south of Shanghai. Upset over
environmental contamination from local chemical
plants, 30,000 residents demonstrated in the streets,
clashing with police after authorities tried to stop
their peaceful protest and seizing control of the
Though journalists have since been barred from the
town, reports that trickled out painted a scene of
chaos. A reporter for the Hong Kong-based South China
Morning Post described the riot as a "melee of epic
Meanwhile, smaller protests are becoming almost
"In a lot of ways, what we're hearing about in
Zhejiang is more typical of what is happening all over
China," Tanner said. "They have more problems than
they have money and political systems to cure them."
Those problems include unfunded government pensions,
corruption, environmental degradation, property
seizures by the government and a growing gap between
rich and poor. In addition, migrant workers who
operate what has become a factory to the world are
often unpaid for months, struggling to provide basics
like education for their children.
As an illustration of rising labor protests, Stephen
Frost, Asian labor researcher at the City University
of Hong Kong, cited an action last week, unrelated to
recent anti-Japan rallies, in which all 20,000 workers
walked off the job to demand better pay and a labor
union at the Shenzhen phone factory of Japanese-owned
Uniden Corp. Other examples abound across China. In
the southwest, environmental activists have managed to
stave off major hydropower projects through huge
protests. Elderly army pensioners staged a
demonstration outside government headquarters in
Beijing recently to protest their meager living
allowances, and Shanghai residents have taken to the
streets dozens of times in the past several years to
decry the city's demolition of old neighborhoods.
In this atmosphere, critics say the government took a
big gamble with its generally hands-off approach to
the raucous anti-Japan protests, setting a precedent
that will not go unnoticed on the streets.
"Activists are slowly starting to link up, creating a
rights-defenders network that reaches across regions
and issues," said Sara Davis, China researcher at New
York-based Human Rights Watch.
Indeed, Tanner said he was impressed with the way
protest organizers in Beijing and Shanghai used the
Internet and other technology to draw in supporters,
organizing marches via e-mails and phone text
"Four hours before the protests, I knew here in
Rockville (Md.) where they were going to meet," Tanner
said. "That is just astounding."
The government's laissez-faire attitude toward three
weeks of angry Japan protests was apparent in major
Chinese cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing
and the special administrative region of Hong Kong.
Law enforcement officials shepherded demonstrators
rather than cracking down on them, even though such
public gatherings are illegal in China without a
permit. In Shanghai, police escorts cheerfully
surrounded thousands of marchers as they made their
way across the downtown. Officers then formed a
barrier around the Japanese consulate but did not stop
demonstrators from vandalizing the structure.
Many analysts believe Beijing's hands-off strategy was
intended, in part, to allow protesters fed up with
their own government to blow off steam at another
target. It's a strategy that could easily backfire.
"Everyone knows they are playing with fire," Davis
said. "Mass anger continues to bubble up from below,
and it could boil over at any time.''
Beijing may be getting the message. In the past week,
authorities have cracked down on nationalist
demonstrators, arresting more than three dozen in
Shanghai for vandalism, closing down activists' Web
sites and issuing warnings about organizing protests
via the Internet and cell phone text messages. Earlier
last week, the Liberation Daily of Shanghai called the
demonstrations part of "an evil plot" to undermine the
But some observers say it may be difficult for Beijing
to put the genie back in the bottle. Activists are
already threatening more protests for May 4, the
anniversary of a nationalistic student uprising in
1919 sparked by a proposal in the Treaty of Versailles
to award land in China to Japan.
"The question the government faces now and whenever
they start to allow mass protests is whether they'll
be able to put the lid back on," Davis said. "Unless
there is real systemic change that gives ordinary
people access to justice, the day will come when the
lid won't fit."