China has been hit by a series of explosions in the last week. The facts in the two cases have nothing in common, but the circumstances behind them suggest there is a link. Both blasts are the product of the mounting pressure created by economic modernization. China is under increasing strain; more such incidents are sure to result.
The first explosion occurred in an elementary school in the village of Fanglin, in southeastern Jiangxi Province. At least 42 people, almost all of them children, are reported to have been killed in the blast. Authorities first claimed that “a suicidal madman” was responsible. But parents say that the children had been assembling fireworks, a local industry, at the school.
As the country reeled from that tragedy, there was a series of blasts in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Province in the north. According to news reports, four explosions occurred minutes apart in the early hours of Saturday morning. The strongest reportedly leveled a five-story dormitory. As many as 200 people are said to have been killed in the explosion. It is unclear who or what caused the blast, but the size and timing of the explosions suggest they were deliberate. Shijiazhuang has been hit by labor unrest in the past, which fuels suspicions that disgruntled workers could be responsible.
For the Chinese leadership, the explosions could not have come at a worse time. China just held its annual two-week session of the National People’s Congress, its parliament. Just as the government is trying to lay out its blueprint for the future and prepare the way for the generation of leaders who will take office next year, the explosions are a stark reminder to the Chinese public that Beijing may not be in control.
The government reacted in predictable fashion. Damage control has been the top priority. Fanglin was closed off, families were forbidden to talk to the press and the “madman” theory was put out. Similar procedures are in place in Shijiazhuang.
But then a strange thing happened: The truth got out — in Fanglin, at least — and in a stunning development, Premier Zhu Rongji offered a public apology to the families of the victims and conceded that the official version of the incident was wrong. The about-face reflects the government’s weakening grip on information in China. The Internet has eroded its ability to shape reality in China, and Chinese leaders are scrambling to adjust. Mr. Zhu, a savvier politician than most in China, is leading the way.
Unfortunately for the next cadre of leaders, the need for damage control is going to intensify. These two incidents are linked. They are only the most recent signs of the pressures being brought to bear on China as a result of economic modernization.
Rationalizing state-owned enterprises is a top priority for the Chinese government. Reducing the size of the state means breaking the “iron rice bowl,” and forcing tens, if not hundreds, of millions of workers to fend for themselves. Unrest is already climbing and it periodically explodes — literally.
Economic reform is also exacting a toll in the countryside. Many rural communities are not ready for the central government’s retreat. State-supplied revenues have been slashed, and local governments have been forced to make up the losses to build infrastructure, or pay teachers and other workers. As a result, taxes have sky-rocketed, fueling unrest. The elementary-school children in Fanglin reportedly had been assembling fireworks for several years in an attempt to supplement the school’s budget. Many local administrators are doing something similar.
To help lighten the load, Mr. Zhu last week proposed to eliminate ad hoc fees and raise farm taxes, as well as provide extra funds for subsidies and education. That is a good start, but it is only a start. Child labor laws need to be enforced. That will require serious efforts to rein in corruption, since local officials who should have been enforcing those laws were more concerned with lining their pockets. (The same officials have padded payrolls with friends and relatives, exacerbating the need for funds and creating yet more anger among taxpayers.)
During the NPC meeting last week, several speakers reminded the government of the need to fight corruption. No issue poses a greater threat to the country and the Communist Party leadership. Corruption could undo the gains from economic reform. It undermines the party’s claim to lead the country. If it pushes the leadership to take drastic measures — to suppress unrest or to unite the country behind it by, for example, pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy — then the explosions will be felt well beyond China’s borders.
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