Magazine article Newsweek International

Line of Defense; Beijing Is Worried about 'Alarming' Levels of Social Unrest, but a Policy of Local Crackdowns Is Backfiring

Magazine article Newsweek International

Line of Defense; Beijing Is Worried about 'Alarming' Levels of Social Unrest, but a Policy of Local Crackdowns Is Backfiring

Article excerpt

Byline: Melinda Liu

In the '90s, the Chongqing Special Steelworks was touted as a modern state-run enterprise, with fat profits and grand plans to expand. In fact, its managers were cooking the books to feign profitability. They couldn't pay back loans--or, eventually, the workers' salaries. After the company declared bankruptcy in July, its 15,000 workers began protesting. Some hung white banners--and a 1970s Chairman Mao portrait--out in public, demanding new jobs. On Oct. 7, more than 4,000 workers and relatives converged near the plant, blocking traffic. When more than 100 police pulled up, a melee erupted. Cops and unidentified civilians waded into the crowd swinging electric cattle prods. "Three protesters died, and more than 30 were wounded," one jittery eyewitness told NEWSWEEK last week, requesting anonymity because he feared for his safety. Another began weeping when she recalled the bloodshed, motioning at dozens of Chinese riot police who continued to mill about the protest site last week, days after the confrontation.

At last week's Communist Party Central Committee meeting in Beijing, President Hu Jintao and his comrades approved a new economic plan that listed as its chief goal building a "harmonious society." They'd better get to work, because China is anything but harmonious these days. Protests of varying size and intensity erupt almost daily throughout the country. Because the demonstrations are scattered and isolated, these social squalls aren't a serious threat to the regime. Still, authorities acknowledge that unrest has reached "alarming" levels. Not long ago, the mainland's top cop, Zhou Yongkang, said that 74,000 major protests took place last year, up from 58,000 in 2003. More than 3.7 million people took to the streets in 2004--angry about such issues as official corruption, health problems, environmental degradation, mistreatment by employers and home evictions. Little wonder that Zhou named "actively preventing and properly handling" such incidents as his main task this year.

In a broad sense, the protests are the dark side of the country's economic miracle. Pell-mell economic growth has boosted incomes for hundreds of millions of people, but it's also physically disrupted life in the countryside and left millions more feeling left out of the prosperity boom. Wages in cities are three times greater than in rural areas. According to the U.N. Development Program, China now has one of the worst so-called Gini coefficients in the world--a quantitative measure of economic inequality. China's Gini coefficient is .45, and experts say that any number above .4 is likely to trigger social upheaval. That is precisely what's happening in rural China and high-unemployment industrial regions like the northeast (accompanying story), where citizens are seething with discontent. "Never before in human history has so much change happened for so many people in such a short time," says entrepreneur James McGregor, author of a new book titled "One Billion Customers."

At last week's Central Committee meeting, the Communist Party leadership vowed to bridge the income gap and take better care of the environment as the nation roars ahead. Beijing's strategy for placating the discontented isn't quite so progressive, however. The government has simply ordered local authorities to clamp down, and many are doing so--violently. Minxin Pei, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says that the Public Security Ministry has threatened to fire local police if demonstrators are spotted on the streets. Moreover, Zhou has warned local authorities that democracy activists might try to co-opt local gatherings and weld them into a larger anti-party movement. That's why the government has recently cracked down on NGOs, tightened controls on the conventional news media and closed down cutting-edge Internet chat rooms and Web sites.

But Beijing's plan may be backfiring. …

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