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Chinese protesting more as social problems grow

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/05/01/MNGE5CID7E1.DTL Chinese protesting more as social problems grow Beijing may find it hard to
    Message 1 of 1 , May 1, 2005

      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."
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