Prairie Fire: The New China's New Unrest

It was the bloodiest clash between Chinese police and civilians since Tiananmen Square. On a December evening in 2005, hundreds of paramilitary police descended on Dongzhou, a fishing village in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. At seven o'clock, security forces fired tear gas canisters erupting into a crowd that had gathered to protest a power plant being built in the hills. The demonstrators didn't disperse, so at eight o'clock, police began shooting into the dirt with their AK-47s. "Finally," one witness said, "at about 10 pm, they started killing people."

It was the bloodiest clash between Chinese police and civilians since Tiananmen Square. On a December evening in 2005, hundreds of paramilitary police descended on Dongzhou, a fishing village in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. At seven o'clock, security forces fired tear gas canisters erupting into a crowd that had gathered to protest a power plant being built in the hills. The demonstrators didn't disperse, so at eight o'clock, police began shooting into the dirt with their AK-47s. "Finally," one witness said, "at about 10 pm, they started killing people."

"They were bleeding," an angry villager said to a reporter from Radio Free Asia. "One was hit in the head, one in the foot, and one in the torso . . . We have prepared detonators. We're ready to fight."

For five continuous months, Dongzhou villagers had taken turns outside the Shanwei power plant, trying to block its construction. Much of China's economic miracle is made in hyper-industrialized Guangdong. But clothing, auto parts, and toy factories devour electricity just as they – and the power plants that fuel them – swallow ever-growing swaths of land. Dongzhou farmers lost their homes and livelihoods when the government confiscated their property for the plant's construction. Villagers also worried that the plant's land reclamation project would destroy the tidal inlet on which they depended for seafood.

Dongzhou is not poor by China's rural standards. Modern cement buildings, wind generators, and a sky thick with gray haze all point to the industrial boom. But locals complained regional officials gave them no voice in what they gained or what they lost. "Shanwei's deputy party secretary said that he wanted to trample Dongzhou into a flat land," one woman said. "He said we're just like a small hole in the ground."

Small protests led to arrests. Anger rose and tensions escalated. Some villagers armed themselves with the explosives they normally used to stun fish in the adjacent South China Sea. When the gunfire finally died down that night after three hours of shooting, roughly 20 villagers lay dead, and dozens more were wounded or missing. Villagers reported seeing policemen burn bodies or toss them into the sea.

Chinese authorities gunning down protesters is almost unheard-of, making Dongzhou's carnage stand out. But the same anger that bloodied that night is erupting throughout the country. Every year, millions of Chinese take part in what officials euphemistically call "mass incidents." The government reports that some 87,000 such riots and other disruptions took place in 2005, the latest year for which complete figures are available. That's a tenfold increase from the 8,700 that happened in 1993. China is in the middle of the biggest and longest economic boom in history, but hundreds of millions are being left behind in poverty. Unrest flares as choking pollution, systematic corruption, and official abuses of power destroy much of what many had before. This is not a clash of ideologies, but a fight for survival.

China's yawning gap between the haves and have-nots hardly differentiates it from more developed countries. Poverty grips parts of wealthy cities in North America and Europe too. In booming Chinese cities like Kunming, weather-beaten peasants from the countryside sleep and beg outside gleaming shops stuffed with the latest from Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Burberry. But even the worst urban poverty offers something a peasant farmer's life cannot: hope that life could get better. The strife embroiling parts of China incubates where even that faint hope is dead.

Drive an hour or two outside Kunming in any direction and you can see a way of life untouched by modern convenience. Wheat grows in 1,300-year-old stone terraces that blanket the steep mountainsides. Teams of farmers hack the grain down by hand with sickles. In the city, a person might find a factory job and work his or her way up the ladder. But in much of rural China, the demands of labor have changed little in more than a millennium. Working by hand, a person can barely grow enough to eat. Even if a farmer could save enough to buy modern harvesters, they would be too cumbersome to work in the steep terraces. Since the 1980s 100 million migrant workers have left the countryside for the urban life in what is the biggest migration in human history. Many farmers do live in more agriculturally productive regions. Still, the minimum wage in a Guandong factory can be several times more than those farmers' earnings. But while modernization and the flood of foreign capital enrich people's lives in the cities, those same forces are churning rural China into a frothing sea of anger.

As villagers flood into the cities, cities gobble up millions of hectares of farmland. The mushrooming factories, power plants and housing complexes sprawl out, taking people's land, their water, and their livelihoods. Peasants have few property rights. With few legal means, many receive little or no compensation for their land.

In theory, local townships own the land and give long-term leases to villagers. But local officials sell land to land-hungry developers, often enriching themselves in the process. The outskirts of Beijing are now crowded with North American-style subdivisions, complete with pastel stucco single-family homes. In Yangge, town officials sold the land for one such development for $9.7 million, angering residents who felt they should have received more. One thousand homes worth $1 million or more sprang up where wheat once grew. The developer's own estate in Yangge is a $50 million replica of the Château Maisons-Laffitte in France, made with the same stone as the original. Sadly for the now-landless villagers, their money – entrusted to local leaders – has since disappeared.

Life is hard even for those who seek urban riches. The divide between city and country dwellers has been ingrained in Chinese culture and law since the great dynasties. To their urban counterparts, rural folk are seen as ill-mannered, poorly educated, or worse. Under the strict hukour registration system, only those classified as urban residents have legal right to live in cities. Such laws have helped provoke thousands of riots. Companies withhold wages, provide harsh work conditions, and violate labor laws with relative impunity, knowing that migrant workers have few rights under the law, and even fewer in practice. Migrants get paid less, get poorer access to health care, and their children get lousier education. Like illegal laborers elsewhere, they live as an underclass of untouchables in the cities where they work.

One factory riot after another has rocked Guandong in recent years. Workers put up with living 15 to a room, eating cheap mushy vegetables, and working twice the overtime allowed by law. The final straw often comes on payday, when workers find they’ve been shorted or not paid at all. Workers at one Shenzhen electronics factory took two of their bosses hostage when they heard they wouldn’t be paid what they were owed. In Dongguan, several thousand workers trashed computers and the cafeteria at their shoe factory.

Most frightening for the rural poor is that officials collude with organized criminals, hiring gangs to wipe out opposition. An army of thugs enlisted from local organized crime groups aided the police forces in Dongzhou. “They had knives and sticks in their hands, and they were two or three layers thick, lining the road,” one villager told the New York Times. That scene is repeated countless times across China. A few weeks earlier, hundreds of goons hired by a power company in Shengyou, Hebei province, attacked villagers with explosives, axes, and sticks. The town shook with its residents’ screams as the clash erupted into medieval warfare. Six villagers were clubbed or hacked to death in the melée.

China’s autocracy concentrates levers of economic power into the hands of a privileged few. The result is corruption that’s deeply rooted and widespread. There’s a saying: “Power cannot be deposited in a bank so you’d better profit from it while you can.” Hong Kong University economist Carsten Holz reports that of the 3,220 Chinese citizens worth more than 100 million yuan ($13 million), 2,932 are children of high-level cadres. They strip the assets of state-owned enterprises they control, dip into public investment and pension accounts, and embezzle the proceeds of the sale of public lands. The overwhelmingly irregular transformation of rural land to urban, Holz writes, qualifies as “systematic looting” by local leaders.

Foreign firms pouring cash into China feed the kleptocracy. In Ethan Gutmann’s book Losing the New China, he quotes a multinational executive describing how his firm hires a consultant to dispense bribes from a $10 million slush fund. No questions are asked of where the money goes. “We knew exactly what [the consultant] was up to, and exactly how successful he would be.” Companies lavish baksheesh on officials to buy sweetheart deals on land, or ensure that labor and environmental law enforcement is lax.

The irony is that Chinese leaders believed that crushing democratic aspirations and opening the country to trade would bring stability and wealth to the country. Western leaders, for their part, told themselves increased trade would open the country to both foreign goods and democracy. But despite the riches flooding into China, trade brought neither stability nor western-style rule. In fact, China is exporting its brand of corrupt, autocratic capitalism like so many cheap toys. Neighboring countries like Cambodia and Myanmar look to China’s success as a model for what can be achieved by combining freer markets with iron-fisted rule. So too do regimes in Russia, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Sudan. Chinese resource extraction in many of these countries fuels the same land grabs as at home.

The last time China saw such widespread unrest was during the failed democracy movement of 1989. Then, it was students and intellectuals who led the fight. China, led by pragmatists such as Deng Xiaoping, started reforms in 1978 that would move it towards a market economy. “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” it was called. But in the late 1980s the student movement called for the economic liberalization to be matched by political freedoms like those gained under glasnost in the Soviet Union.

Chinese leaders saw the democracy movement as a threat – a fear that would prove to be justified in following years as it saw democratic revolutions topple its former Soviet Bloc allies. So in the early hours of June 4, 1989, tanks opened fire and mowed down crowds in Beijing. Thousands died that day.

The government has since been successful snuffing out calls for democracy. Hundreds of millions of urban Chinese now enjoy comfortable middle-class lives and are in no mood for unrest. But the government also takes great measures to stifle any and all dissent. Every day, newspaper editors receive a list of banned subjects from the government’s Publicity Department. Banned topics include references to protests, Tibet, or unemployment. All references to the Tiananmen Square massacre are, of course banned, so a whole generation knows nothing about it. Likewise, the government removed all internet search results for the town of Dongzhou.

Some 30,000 police patrol what’s known as the Great Firewall of China. Two cutesy cartoon characters, Jingjing and Chacha (jingcha means police), symbolize the folks keeping internet users from looking at everything from porn to Wikipedia. Emails are filtered and sometimes not delivered. In one Shanghai college, typing the name of former Chinese head of state Jiang Zemin three times leads to the automatic shutdown of the search engine for the whole campus. Bizarrely, you can post a blog on the Google-owned Blogger, but you can’t actually view any blog on Blogspot – including the one you just posted.

Internet censorship is one reason why so much information is spread via mobile phone text messages – millions of text messages alerted people when the government tried to cover up the outbreak of SARS. But now the state-run mobile company is installing filtering algorithms that will alert police if users send “reactionary remarks.”

The difficulty of organizing politically in China has splintered the opposition. Instead of a unified movement, the countryside is lit up with tens of thousands of insurgencies. But because so much of people’s lives are at stake, and because the government is so unaccountable, the unrest runs far deeper than did the democracy movement in 1989. The government, through its prolonged unyielding to public demands, is reaping what it has sown. And like any diffuse insurgent movement, this one is harder to destroy.

Ideology is no longer on the lips of protestors, nor in the minds of the leaders they fight. Citizens receive little political or ideological training, unlike the days of Mao. “China has no governance,” Peking University professor Han Yuhai laments in the Far Eastern Economic Review. “The economy is the only government . . . Money is the only ideology.”

Neoconservative thinker Francis Fukuyama predicted in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man that with the end of the Cold War would come “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Capitalism and democracy are supposed to go hand in hand. But somebody forgot to tell the Chinese.

Free-enterprise autocracies are on the rise, with China leading the way. The clashes of the future may see fewer nation-state ideological standoffs, but thousands more bloody nights like Dongzhou. Indeed, the divisions within China are fast growing wider than those without. A garment worker, for example, in Guangzhou lives a life more akin to her Mexican counterpart than to an investment banker in her own city.

Few Chinese – rural or urban – look back to the days of Mao with great fondness. Reforms have since brought hundreds of millions out of poverty. The poverty rate dropped from 53 per cent in 1981 to 9 per cent in 2001. But the country traded egalitarian deprivation for grossly uneven wealth. Indeed, the rural population was the first to benefit from the reforms of 1978. Farmers gained wealth with new rules that allowed them to sell surplus crops for profit. The protests of 1989 were partly rooted in urban-dwellers’ anger that farmers were benefiting most while they were losing jobs, losing government services, and they couldn’t afford higher food prices. So as the new China divides the country into winners and losers, anger depends on which side of the fence you’re on. And as the moat between those two sides grows, China grows ripe for turmoil.

In the aftermath of Dongzhou’s violence, police sealed the town off from the world and searched door to door for men they accused of inciting problems. Intense surveillance, platoons of police, and the arrest of troublemakers gradually turned Dongzhou’s boiling rage down to a simmer. Eleven months later, in the calm of the clamped-down village, the Washington Post asked a villager if it could all explode again. “It’s out of the question,” she said. “People are all scared to death.”

But they weren’t.

In early November, a villager named Chen Qian, got arrested and beaten for hanging anti-corruption posters. His fellow residents responded by taking eight officials hostage, barricading them in the local temple. Once more, police vans encircled village. For nine nervous days, the standoff continued. On November 18, the air in Dongzhou filled again with the sound of gunfire, and the acrid smell of tear gas. This time, at least, nobody died, but millions of Chinese are ready to take that risk. And the protests will continue.

_Dee Hon is a Vancouver-based writer and regular contributor to The Tyee.