As the economy booms, so does unrest14.12. 2005 Politics
It is hard to know what is most remarkable: the protest, the crackdown or the government response. A demonstration in a coastal settlement in a relatively rich province of southern China last week turned violent. Residents in Dongzhou took up spears, knives, pipe-bombs, petrol bombs and sticks of dynamite, first threatening to blow up a local power generation plant and then defying paramilitary police sent to impose order. The police, in gathering darkness and “in alarm”, responded by shooting dead at least three protesters and wounding several others. Witnesses spoke of sustained volleys of gunfire by black-clad riot police and other men in camouflage. Some described “very rapid bursts of gunfire” over several hours on successive nights last week. Reports gathered by journalists who phoned villagers suggest that, in fact, many more were killed, perhaps 20 (one report said 50), including bystanders. Several of those injured are said to be hiding, fearing arrest if they venture to hospital. Amnesty International, a human-rights group, says this is the first time demonstrators in China have been killed by police fire since 1989, when pro-democracy protests were held in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This week a group of Chinese scholars posted a signed letter on the internet demanding that the government name those killed and investigate what happened. They also compared the incident with the 1989 crackdown and called for democratic reform. Though protests are increasingly common in China, the violence in Dongzhou was uncommon. Rarer still was the reaction of the authorities. Rather than deny the police crackdown—though efforts were made to downplay it—the government of Guangdong province at the weekend criticised the “wrong actions” of the commander of the paramilitary forces responsible for the deaths. Civilian officials then detained him, an extraordinary response which suggests high-level concern that the incident was badly mishandled. China last year saw 74,000 cases of mass protest, up from 10,000 a decade earlier, say police. But protesters are usually dispersed with truncheons and tear gas, not live bullets. In Dongzhou, some police were said to be carrying AK-47 assault rifles. Several days after the trouble supposedly ended, some 300 police continued to block off Dongzhou. They carried shields and batons and ordered residents to stay indoors. There is every reason to expect more uprisings as China’s economy continues to boom. The farmers and fishermen who took part in the protest last week are not China’s poorest or most desperate. Many of the homes in their settlement, which is near the city of Shanwei, are modern and in good condition; some are three storeys high. But locals are enraged that land was confiscated for use in a $700m development project to supply electricity to Shanwei, and little compensation was offered. This suggests ordinary Chinese are increasingly aware of their property rights and willing to defy authorities to protect them. Officials admit that social unrest is likely to increase as the wealth of the population rises from desperately poor to moderately poor. (In 2003, GDP per person passed the $1,000 mark.) In less prosperous parts of the country where development is picking up, such as the far west, rumblings of discontent are growing.