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China Syndrome: Staving off social meltdown in rural China

China Syndrome: Staving off social meltdown in rural China

Contributed by Max Hirsch (hirsch@taipeitimes.com). Max Hirsch is a translator in the Ministry of Economic Affairs in the Taiwanese government. He also conducts research for the Ackerman Group, a Miami-based risk consulting and investigative company that specializes in kidnap victim recovery. Contributed articles do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of ÆGIS.

The Hu administration is not adequately addressing the deteriorating security situation in China. The problem appears to be worsening.

Political supremacy in the People’s Republic of China is locked up in three titles: President, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Soon after succeeding Jiang Zemin as CCP general secretary and president in 2002 and 2003, respectively, President Hu Jintao sought to acquire the remaining title and consummate his pursuit of power. Hu skillfully nudged Jiang into early retirement from his last post as CMC chairman in September 2004, taking the reins of the CMC for himself.1 As China’s new paramount leader, Hu has inherited the fastest growing economy in the world; under his stewardship, China has continued prospering.2 However, for all its successes, China’s tremendous social problems threaten – more so than ever – to derail its hugely successful developing economy: China’s remarkable statistics regarding the scope and rate of its economic modernization are rivaled by the sheer number of “mass incidents” nationwide (i.e., protests and other major “public order disturbances”) in recent years, as well as the rate of increase of such incidents.3 In light of disturbing statistics that suggest social unrest is fast eroding political stability/public safety in rural China – and will continue to do so – Chinese authorities are rushing to stabilize the countryside with a mixed bag of sticks and carrots. This paper seeks to briefly address what the Chinese government has and has not been doing to restore order in the countryside since Hu consolidated power, and how effective the government’s response has been.

1 A New York Times researcher at the Times’ Beijing bureau – Zhao Yan – helped break a story revealing the political intrigue behind Jiang’s unexpected retirement as CMC chairman. Shortly after, Zhao was yanked from a Pizza Hut in Shanghai by government agents and has since been imprisoned. He has been formally accused of “leaking state secrets” and is standing trial.
2 China’s GDP growth in 2005 was 9.9% and has surpassed Britain, France, and Italy to become the fourth largest economy.
3 For what official Chinese statistics are worth, there were 10,000 major public disturbances in China in 1994 involving 730,000 people; that figure rose to 74,000 in 2004 involving 3.76 million people. Between 2004 and 2005, the number of public disturbances continued to rise at a rate of 6.6% to 87,000.

Although Hu is still largely a mystery to Western and Chinese observers alike, his low profile and heavy-handedness cast him as a subtle hardliner. He is also highly responsive to his nation’s needs, particularly the need to narrow the yawning wealth gap between China’s urban and rural populations.4 With Jiang out of the way, Hu is confidently asserting a new ideological direction for the CCP to address this problem. Whereas Jiang carried on the breakneck economic reforms of his predecessor Deng Xiaoping with his “Three Represents” doctrine, Hu is focusing on the great divide between the haves and have-nots; his “Harmonious Society” doctrine is his ideological retort to China’s Social Darwinist mad dash under Deng and Jiang to become an economic powerhouse.

Hu’s populist ideological bent and policies constitute the carrots that are being used to address public unrest. Under the auspices of the Harmonious Society doctrine, the government has been investing heavily in rural education and welfare, and is eliminating taxes that hurt farmers. Hu is also cracking down on corruption in the party rank and file like never before, prosecuting 50,000 officials nationwide in a 2-year ongoing campaign against corruption.5 Even top officials are coming under fire.6

In curiously blunt statements, Premier Wen Jiabao was quoted in state-run newspapers in January 2006 as saying that illegal seizures of farmland by local authorities were the main source of rural instability. He also reaffirmed the government’s plan to boost rural spending, improve working conditions, and protect migrant workers. A high-profile communiqué issued on 6 January 2006 by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s anti-corruption watchdog, calling on party members to do more to stop corruption, further underscores the party’s determination to “clean house” and raise the living conditions of the rural population.

To be sure, the new generation of leaders in the reign of Hu is just as focused on economic development as its predecessors. The doctrinal shift

4 According to the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics, the top 10 percent of the richest Chinese currently enjoy 45% of the country’s wealth, while the poorest 10 percent possess only 1.4%. Moreover, rural incomes average $300 a year while urban incomes average $1,000.
5 According to China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, more than 1,000 party cadres have committed suicide and 8,000 have fled China in the course of the campaign.
6 In August 2005, the former CEO of the Bank of China’s (BoC) Honk Kong subsidiary and vice president of the entire bank, Liu Jinbao, was sentenced to death for accepting bribes and embezzling millions of dollars. Liu was the poster boy for Chinese banking in Hong Kong, running the most important Chinese- owned bank in the former British colony for six years.
In December 2005, former cabinet minister Tian Fengshan was sentenced to life in prison for accepting bribes while in office in the highest level anti-corruption trial in 4 years.

from Three Represents to Harmonious Society has not resulted in less of a policy emphasis on economic liberalization; the government is doubling back to pick up the masses left behind in the first two decades of “opening up” while forging ahead with economic liberalization. With a migrant population 150 million strong, drifting between the cities and countryside, and a growing middle class eager for higher standards of living, Hu is keenly aware of the need to sustain high growth. Maintaining political stability in China is a tightrope act – the acrobat must balance many factors in preventing the unemployed/underemployed from hitting critical mass. So far, Hu has displayed fair balance.

But let’s not forget that Hu also wields a long, mighty stick to steady himself on that tightrope. Economic populism and liberalism are just the carrots. Hu is also active in a Machiavellian sense, putting the screws on state media, reining in telecommunications freedoms, and cracking down on demonstrators and other “agitators.” Although recent outbreaks of police violence against protestors in Guangdong Province 7 seem not to have been sanctioned by Beijing, implementing oppressive tactics in affected regions after the fact is a typical response to such mass incidents by local authorities, and is likely at least tacitly endorsed by top leaders, provided “damage control” is achieved.8

Moreover, China appears to be gearing up to increasingly confront demonstrators head-on. Two senior generals recently pledged to further augment the already one-million-strong People’s Armed Police (PAP), the paramilitary force charged with maintaining domestic social order. A top official in China’s Ministry of Public Security quickly followed up the generals’ statements by saying that China is preparing to “strike hard” against internal civil strife. Such comments do not augur well for the poor, oppressed masses.

What betrays Hu’s hardliner credentials most egregiously is his iron grip on state-run media and telecommunications. Beijing has compelled – one by

7 In early December 2005, up to 30 protesting villagers were reportedly shot dead by police in Dongzhou, a small town near Hong Kong. The villagers were protesting the confiscation of their land for the construction of a windmill farm. If the villagers’ claim regarding the number of casualties is accurate, the Dongzhou incident is China’s bloodiest crackdown since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

On 14 January 2006, another land-related protest in Guangdong in which 2,000 electric baton-wielding policemen attacked up to 20,000 demonstrators, resulted in scores of serious injuries. A 13 year-old girl was reportedly clubbed to death in the incident.
8 Here I am referring to authorities’ sealing off villages where unrest has occurred and rounding up agitators, information control, pay-offs to families of victims of police brutality to stay silent or lie about the circumstances of a relative’s death, etc.

– even U.S.-based high-tech giants like Microsoft, Yahoo!,9 Cisco, and Google 10 to assist the central government in censoring Internet content in China. Blogs and other on-line message boards, cell phone calls and text messages, and email are routinely monitored by authorities. 200 million Chinese must provide proof of identity before purchasing even prepaid cell phone cards.

As the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the seventh consecutive year (32 journalists and 62 “cyber-dissidents” are currently locked up), China’s suppression of the media, especially the state-run variety, is extreme. The sacking of outspoken editors,11 the shutdown of progressive publications, and the jailing of journalists have all intensified on Hu’s watch.

The government’s strict policing of speech and expression has also affected many NGOs, lawyers, professors, dissidents, and other potentially outspoken parties. The idea is to prevent disenchanted individuals or groups from linking up to form grass-roots networks, or to otherwise become empowered in airing their grievances or challenging authorities. Of course, media blackouts and other methods of information control also serve to prevent civil disobedience “wildfires” from spreading.

Such draconian measures present a Catch-22 to the Chinese government, one that tests the political savvy of a leadership steeped in the culture of totalitarianism. That is, the short-term stabilizing effect that information control has on China’s masses also feeds the instability problem in the long- term. Information control as a means to sustaining political power is an addictive enterprise; its narcotic expediency demands that unpopular autocrats use it again and again. Predictably, the problem (e.g., social unrest) will eventually fester beyond what suppression can solve due in large part to suppressive tactics in the first place (as is increasingly the case in China); on the other hand, quitting those tactics cold turkey could very well lead to an utter breakdown. Hence, the powers that be are compelled to continue availing themselves of their old sticks, which in turn exacerbates the underlying problem.

9 According to the Washington Post, Yahoo! disclosed to the Chinese government the name of a China- based Yahoo! user (Shi Tao) who was sending out sensitive emails. Shi is presently serving a 10-year prison term of hard labor.

10 In the same week that Google finally succumbed to Chinese pressure to obey the nation’s propaganda chiefs, a respected news weekly attached to China Youth Daily was shut down; the weekly’s corresponding blog was also shut down. (The editor vowed to fight the crackdown in a circulated letter.) Additionally, a journalist was jailed for reporting on an outbreak of dengue fever in Fujian Province.
11 In December 2005, authorities sacked the chief editor of the popular Beijing News, triggering a rare walkout of the paper’s reporters. The clampdown on the forthright newspaper came in the wake of its reporting on a bloody crackdown on protesting farmers in Hebei Province in June.

Media clampdowns are a case in point. Ideally, the role of journalism is to serve as an independent supervisory mechanism in society, putting into focus specific problems that call for government intervention. At the very crossroads where the Chinese government truly needs the eyes and ears of reporters to better understand the nation’s problems, it is increasingly plugging those ears and veiling those eyes. The result is that when authorities finally become fully aware of a problem, it is because 20,000 rioting villagers told them so.

History has shown us that a centrally planned economy does not work. A government simply cannot effectively manage all aspects of a national economy; it needs to rely heavily on the self-adjusting tendency of market capitalism. Chinese leaders understand this lesson well. However, just as a government cannot single-handedly manage something as big and complex as the fourth largest economy, so it is unable to independently oversee a society of 1.3 billion people. Political liberalization (i.e., relying on the stabilizing effect of democratic forces on society) is the next step in China’s evolution on the heels of economic liberalization, and the time is ripe. Consider what New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman wrote in his bestselling book, The World is Flat:

[China] will soon be reaching a point where its ambitions for economic growth will require more political reform. China will never root out corruption without a free press and active civil society institutions. It can never really become efficient without a more codified rule of law. It will never be able to deal with the inevitable downturns in its economy without a more open political system that allows people to vent their grievances. To put it another way, China will never be truly flat 12 until it gets over that huge speed bump called “political reform.” (p.126, emphasis mine)

Obviously, Chinese leadership is not going to endorse political pluralism for the foreseeable future. What is conceivable, however, is their weaning themselves off of strict information control. Gradually loosening media controls is a necessary and reasonable step in appeasing the rural masses. This is because such a step not only allows journalism to grow into its role as society’s biggest watchdog, but also does not threaten the party’s monopoly on power. In fact, using journalism to funnel in more information regarding specific problems, and then acting on that information in a timely fashion, is sure to strengthen the party’s grip on power. Of course, the key to reaping the benefits of a freer press without inviting disaster is to strike a balance between excessive information control and not enough control, which would certainly open the proverbial floodgates.

12 Friedman’s use of the term “flat” refers to integration with the global, knowledge-based economy. 

In light of the fact that unrest is trending upward at an alarming rate, Hu must add more carrots to his mixed bag – particularly in the period before the effects of his rural investment programs take hold – if he seeks to keep his country from imploding. However, Hu is not adding more carrots like a freer press, which is why the social unrest problem is quickly worsening, even as the government rolls out the riot squads and beefs up its Big Brother apparatus. Even official Chinese statistics show that these sticks are not solving the problem in the long-term.

Given Hu’s failure to use all the necessary tools at his disposal in reversing civil strife trends, we can expect higher levels of social unrest in 2006. Disregard for a moment that peasants regularly fall victim to land-grabbing state enterprises. Peasants oftentimes do not even have access to clean drinking water. According to official Chinese statistics, 300,000 people in China regularly drink contaminated water, and 9 out of 10 Chinese cities rely on polluted groundwater. Furthermore, rural health care is woefully inadequate and local authorities are notorious for indiscriminately levying taxes on farmers. The disconnect between central and local authorities is well known – Beijing oftentimes cannot rely on local government to carry out its bidding, which is another reason why policymakers need to exploit the ubiquitous eyes and ears of the media.

The steady erosion of public safety and political stability has become the centerpiece issue in recent security analyses of China. Multinationals should take extra precautions when visiting China, especially in light of other alarming indicators. For example, China has beat out Columbia to become the world’s premier kidnapping country, with the most common targets being celebrities and businessmen, or their families.

In short, China is quickly becoming a much less safe place to do business, and, as long as Beijing continues to handicap itself in addressing the deteriorating security situation, the problem will get worse in this Year of the Dog.

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