In recent weeks, angry Chinese have reportedly taken to the streets not only in underdeveloped interior regions but also in prosperous coastal areas in the south of the country. The communist government in Beijing faces serious challenges as it pursues an aggressive policy of economic expansion that represents an odd mixture of socialist and capitalist principles.
According to reports, many have expressed their anger in violent ways and for various reasons. In the industrial city of Chongqing in Sichuan province, 50,000 rioters laid siege to a municipal building in protest against bureaucratic abuses. In Henan province, an ethnic clash erupted between members of the majority Han group and the Islamic minority group, causing heavy casualties.
Farmers have protested violently against giant construction projects that they thought would deprive them of their land and livelihood. In Shanxi province, scores of people were wounded, some fatally, in a bloody demonstration against an economic development project that would force hundreds of farmers to evacuate. In Sichuan province, 100,000 farmers rallied against a dam construction project, inviting military intervention. In Fujian province, droves of peasants marched on City Hall in opposition to expressway construction.
Other demonstrations were peaceful, but participants were hardly content. In Guangdong province, the coastal “sun belt” in the south, residents protested against highway tolls. In the city of Shenzhen, a mecca for foreign businesses, many workers staged street sit-ins to demand wage increases.
These incidents make it clear that farmers and residents are increasingly dissatisfied with the high-handed ways in which local government officials deal with them. Those officials, long accustomed to the autocratic leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, are seen as neglecting the wishes of local people. The incidents thus would appear to frame the problem as one of an economic juggernaut trampling the grass roots.
Consider a large infrastructure project, for example. Local protests are said to be all but ignored as residents are evacuated without adequate compensation. Officials seem more concerned about cutting construction costs. Or take highway tolls. High fees are collected despite strong complaints from users. It appears that Beijing has a time bomb ticking in its midst: a surge of popular dissatisfaction.
The underlying cause of the incidents is believed to be the widening economic gap between rich and poor — the downside of China’s boom. To make matters worse, corruption in high places is eroding public confidence in government policy. The irony is that economic liberalization in China, limited as it is, is creating some of the very conditions that tend to encourage people to speak out or act.
Regional economies received a big boost more than 20 years ago when Beijing launched a campaign of “reform and openness.” But the boom in rural regions fizzled out as the wave of prosperity shifted to big cities along the coast. According to official statistics for 2003, urban residents earned, on average, three times more money than farmers. The income gap between Shanghai, the richest city, and Guizhou, the poorest province in the south, was more than 10 to 1.
China’s new leader, President Hu Jintao, seems well aware of the challenges he faces. In a shift away from the “economy-first” policy of his predecessor, Mr. Jiang Zemin, Mr. Hu is pushing a “people-friendly” policy that focuses on the farmer. He is committed, for example, to easing restrictions on migration within China from rural to urban areas. He has also pledged to improve living conditions for farmers who have migrated to cities. The Hu administration is moving in the right direction. But it will likely take a long time before its policies produce tangible results.
There are other obstacles that must be cleared. One is the ban imposed by the Communist Party on the formation of organizations by ordinary people, including farmers. This is adding to popular resentment against the party and the government. At the same time, though, Mr. Hu’s people-oriented policy is allowing the masses to vent their pent-up feelings. Recent anti-Japanese moves can be seen in the same context.
The tide of popular discontent in China is also a grave concern for the rest of the world, particularly at a time when the country’s overheated economy is showing signs of a readjustment. The possibility is that unrest among the Chinese people, should it escalate, could affect the direction of the economy itself. For foreign companies, including Japanese ones, with large stakes in the “world factory” that is China, a dose of caution seems in order.
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