China’s social stress – can it be contained?

The plate tectonics of China’s haves and have nots continue to rub against each other with increasing friction, and the news today is packed with stories of social unrest, almost all the articles leading back to citizen resentment against China’s repressive political-industrial complex.

This massive article takes a detailed look at the recent Chizou riots (the one sparked by a bicycle accident) and the rage of everyday citizens convinced that big business, working in an unholy alliance with the CCP, can step on them at will with no repercussions. Interesting to note is that Chizhou is not one of those impoverished cities where toxins are pouring into the drinking water or farmers are tossed from their homes en masse. It appears to be relatively prosperous. But the hatred against the party and its business chronies is palpable.

The violence in downtown Chizhou startled the leaders of this forward-looking city of 120,000, set in the rich alluvial farmland of Anhui province near the Yangtze River, about 250 miles southwest of Shanghai. Dismayed city officials deplored the impact on their campaign to attract investment and broaden Chizhou’s economic base. “Illicit elements” were to blame, they said.

But the riot here, like a growing number of flare-ups in other Chinese cities, was in fact directed against the flourishing alliance of Communist Party officials and well-connected businessmen that runs Chizhou. Before calm returned to the streets, the disturbance had become a political rebellion against the increasingly intimate connection in modern China between big money and Communist government.

“When anger boils up in your heart so long, it has to burst,” said a Chizhou man who was part of the crowd that night.

As the Communist Party strives to continue the swift economic growth that has become its new ideology, the official partnership with private business has generated resentment among those left behind: farmers whose fields become industrial parks, workers whose socialist-era factories go under, youths with assembly-line jobs at $60 a month.

In their eyes, the party that assumed power in China 56 years ago as a champion of peasants and workers seems to have switched sides, backing capitalist businessmen instead of the poor as part of a new get-rich ethic in which bribery plays a big role.

Recently, the resentment has exploded into violent protests, despite draconian laws against attempts to challenge the party’s rule. Although press censorship prevents an independent count, the government-funded Ta Kung Pao newspaper said Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang estimated that 3.76 million Chinese were involved in 74,000 “mass incidents” during 2004.

This remarkable story puts you right there on the street as the public’s anger metastasizes and takes on an unstoppable life of its own. You have to wonder, if this is how the “everyday people” of a prosperous Chinese community feel toward their government, how can the CCP possibly remain in power? I’m not saying they won’t remain in power (they wil), but there is definitely trouble in paradise.

The Discussion: 37 Comments

The article reminded me of the tension that was present in African Americans in South Central L.A. before and after the Rodney King riots. The rioters were a segment of the population that felt disenfranchised to the point that violent reaction was the only method of raising their concerns. I worry about the combination of civil unrest in China and the historically strong-armed methods the CCP has used to quell protests.

[An interesting aside: I don’t recall any meaningful social or economic changes occurring in South Central after the riots – are these actions little more than releasing steam from the kettle?]

August 1, 2005 @ 6:03 pm | Comment

Not to be pedantic or anything, but “chronies” should probably be “cronies”. ๐Ÿ™‚

It strikes me that this is symptomatic of the methods by which China has achieved its economic growth (and I have my doubts about those figures, although not being an economist I can’t say for sure that they’re not telling the truth). I hear, though I can’t remember where, that the Gini Coefficient in China is among the highest in the world, meaning that income inequality is incredibly high. In other words, “to get rich is glorious”, no matter the methods used.

No wonder Hu has been trotting out Mao over the last year or two. Symbols of “the good old days” to legitimize his reign as opposed to the reign of his predecessor. Unfortunately, I don’t think trotting out a long dead tyrant is quite doing the job today.

Any serious social unrest, if publicized, would have a fairly negative impact on foreign investment in China. Lord knows, if I were an investor, I’d be seriously thinking about getting out of there if I started seeing more signs that the “rock-solid” government of China isn’t nearly as stable as they like to pretend to be.

I suspect the CCP may well be between a rock and a hard place right now.

August 1, 2005 @ 7:12 pm | Comment

It’s a very tenuous situation. There are whispers of impending deflation and a slowdown, and all they need is a jolt like that to topple down the whole house of cards. I honestly hope it doesn’t happen, not because I give a damn about the party (i don’t), but the idea of the people suffering an economic collapse is agonizing.

August 1, 2005 @ 7:41 pm | Comment

Well said, richard

August 1, 2005 @ 11:33 pm | Comment

I’m not too pessimistic. Same sorts of things happened in Europe and the United States during the 19th century.

August 2, 2005 @ 12:05 am | Comment

One thing that you have to keep in mind is that the riots and social unrest are in some ways a good sign. People are mad, but they have some hope that they can do something.

What is sad is where people have given up hope and are fatalistic about things.

Also, we are in a situation where the party has to *do something*. It is simply impossible for the CCP to do nothing and they realize this. Again this is in contrast to places where the people in charge don’t have to do anything to stay in charge.

August 2, 2005 @ 12:10 am | Comment

I think this was a very good article, well written and not too partisan toward one direction or another.

Anhui, though, is a poor province, not wealthy. There is a lot of need to develop the province. I think the article did give a hint of the provincialism that is still in much of China (one can think of the West Virginia or Alabama thinking of a generation or two ago in the United States-the us-um vs. them-ums mentality).

Here the issue was not money in particular, it was the outsiders had the money and the prestige that goes with money and we, the common folk, do not have money nor the prestige. And those stinking rich outsiders are getting favors from the local government toadies, and that just isn’t right. It almost sounded like they wanted a lynching. Instead of the LA riots, I was thinking of those old lynchings they held in the South, Mississippi and country.

It is a serious problem and there are no simple solutions.

August 2, 2005 @ 1:24 am | Comment

Joseph, what in fact has the CCP done to address the situation? There seems to be a very big gap between knowing that something needs to be done and actually doing something. Please correct me if I am wrong or uninformed.

August 2, 2005 @ 2:05 am | Comment

At least there was a second, federal trial of the police officers after the riots, maybe in a small part pushed by those riots.

In the long run “containment” policy will fail in China unless the CCP keeps its guns trained on the Chinese population. Containment does not mean “fix” in my view. The fix would be fixing the representation system and do a massive purge of the local and provincial officials who are sucking the money out of the hands of the farmers and common folks and kowtowing to the entreaties of the people with money.

Of course this won’t happen, not when the CCP and its members are fully involved, except for the very naive or idealistic believers in the Party or communism, as co-conspirators in probably the greatest scam every perpetrated on a group of people. How about 1 billion people believing the CCP is working for their betterment, while the CCP and a vast majority of its membership are trying not only to build an edifice to Chinese history, but to build power and wealth for themselves on the backs of these poor billion souls. It puts the lie to the notion that the Party is for the farmer, peasant and laborer. The people now are the conscripted building blocks for a second Great Wall, built this time to pay homage to the power of the rulers..

August 2, 2005 @ 4:47 am | Comment

Historical repetition? In China? Naw!

August 2, 2005 @ 4:58 am | Comment

Pete,Is there a real difference between,Say,Mao and all of the other rulers of China? I don’t know. It’s a question. And if they are similar do you think that todays China is really all that different than before.

August 2, 2005 @ 5:10 am | Comment

fatcat: Something that almost never gets mentioned is that nine times out of ten, the rioters get what they want. If you look at the typical Chinese riot, it ends with a few leaders in jail for a few months and most of rioters getting what they wanted (i.e. plants closed, land redistributed, better wages, officials fired and in some cases charged with corruption).

Also while it is fashionable to bash Chinese government officials, my experience is that Chinese government officials tend not to be any more or less disreputable than government officials in other places in the world. That’s why “get rid of all of them” doesn’t seem to be a good solution to me. If you just get new people in, the new people will quickly start behaving like the old people or worse.

In particular, “shoot the rich people and take their money” also isn’t that great a solution. It’s been tried before, doesn’t work that well.

August 2, 2005 @ 8:19 am | Comment

Sorry, Joseph,

I don’t know what you’re smoking in regards to not being worried because the same thing happened in the US and Europe (really the latter) in the 19th century. That century was by far among the most chaotic in European history. And don’t forget that the social tensions of the 19th century led to the overthrow of almost all of the then governments of Europe in either the 19th or the early 20th century. In the 19th century alone (including the last years of the 18th century) France went from being a monarchy to being a republic to being an empire to being a monarchy to being a republic to being an empire to being a republic. Sure things are stable now…but it sure did not come without a lot of bloodshed.

I am not at all suggesting that this is the course for China, but if you are not worried because “Europe went through it” you should think twice.

As for riots being a good sign, do riots come out of hope? No. They come out of desperation…the idea that there is no other way to resolve a problem than be violent. I do not take China’s spike in riots as a good sign at all. It is a very bad sign that something is not going right in the society (and my money is on “rule of law”). This does not mean the government will topple because of the riots, but there is no “good sign” about them.

August 2, 2005 @ 8:34 am | Comment

Sorry Joseph, I am firmly with Thomas on this one.

August 2, 2005 @ 8:36 am | Comment

I am very concerned about the human rights of poor minority Americans.

When the history of the 21st century is written, the record will probably
show that the spark that set off Civil War II was Cincinnati Ohio, in April
of 2001. This riot was not
some spontaneous event, which took its own course. Once it began, organized
elements leapt to the fore and took command of the situation. It was far
better organized than any previous riot.

Let it be said, first and foremost, that this was a full-fledged spasm of
race war. It was short-lived, but it was intense and extremely dangerous to
everyone involved. The details of which are listed below:

One of the most unusual effects of the discord was that it kept on going,
seemingly without end. There were new rioters stepping into the fray, almost
as fast as the police could snatch them off the street. The emotional charge
of the riots was unchanged from beginning to end. The depth of rage in most
of the rioters was beyond measure. Report after report came through local
media of white people, when screaming for a reason they were being stomped by
their black attackers, were told, รข?oItรข?Ts because youรข?Tre white.รข? And,
is a race thing.รข? These reports were seen and heard by hundreds of thousands
of people on local news channels.

Two things happened on the first night of the riots:

August 2, 2005 @ 10:54 am | Comment

Aside from the spontaneous explosion of rioting, there was a meeting held at
a downtown church, The New Friendship Baptist Church, where ministers of the
local black churches, the New Black Panthers, the Black United Front, family
of the man killed by police, a local elected official, and a crowd of
supporters gathered to compose themselves and plan a strategy.

Damon Lynch, of the Black United Front condemned the violence on the one
hand, and encouraged it on the other: รข?oThe government will not change until
we stand up in numbers,รข? and รข?oOnly through chaos will change come.รข?

Cincinnati beat cops, who ordinarily patrol the area were allowed entry to
the church. The cops were invited to speak, but after stating, รข?oThe problem
is not with the police, itรข?Ts with the parents,รข? the police were shouted down
and run off with chants of รข?oPigs out of the building!รข?

Attendees then decided to march down to the site of the rioting with the
ministers, the elected official and several nuns in the lead. They were met
by a line of police who instructed them to stop, turn around and go back.
After the ministers refused to leave, stating that they wanted to try and
cool things down, police held a loaded shotgun to the head of the politician
(Roland Heyne) and the order to leave repeated. Only then did the marchers
obey the police and return to the church.

August 2, 2005 @ 10:55 am | Comment

As fifty people stood on the steps of the church, five police cars roared by
with their lights blinking. From the police cars a barrage of rubber bullets
flew into the side and doors of the building, ricocheting and bouncing
around. Miraculously, no one was hit. Absolutely none of this was reported in
the news. One witness said she counted twenty shotgun blasts.

How could anyone in their right mind say that such actions by the police
could possibly help the situation? If anything, it undoubtedly worsened

August 2, 2005 @ 10:57 am | Comment

You’ve heard of the Haymarket riots? The Molly Maguires? The Pinkertons? The Wobbies? Robber barons? The entire later half of the nineteenth century United States was a huge period of turmoil, riots, and labor unrest.

Marx was convinced that the revolution would happen first in England and the United States. It didn’t happen.

August 2, 2005 @ 11:32 am | Comment

Also you are confusing the first half of the 19th century with the second half. France moved from a monarchy to a republic to an empire back to a republic, but neither of these periods were particularly bloody (discounting the Franco-Prussian War). Germany was rather free from internal turmoil during this period.

And yes there is something fundamentally wrong with Chinese society. And its the same problem that US and Europe faced in the last half of the 19th century. Laissez-faire capitalism is needed for economic growth, but it naturally produces huge inequalities. Huge inequalities create resentment and produce these sorts of riots.

Ultimately I don’t see these riots as a bad thing. You want democracy? Democracy is based on the premise that if the government doesn’t do things right, the mob will take over. Without these sorts of unrest, you’ll never see Party make any sorts of meaningful changes, because large bureaucratic organizations simply do not make fundnamentally changes with some *huge* external force, and these sorts of riots force the Party to do things to improve society or else the mob will come and kick them out, and that would be a bad thing for everyone.

August 2, 2005 @ 11:49 am | Comment

Social stress (who is posting on my site under three different names), what’s your point?

Joseph, your comparisons are way off. The Haymarket riots were about labor and politics, they were in no way comparable to what’s happening in mainly rural China. And the number of people involved in the Haymarket and Pinkerton riots was miniscule compared to what we’re seeing happening everyday in China. And they led to reforms in a relatively short period of time! Journalists like Ida Tarnbell exposed the robber barons — something you can’t easily do in China nowadays. No comparison at all.

August 2, 2005 @ 11:52 am | Comment

One thing. These riots aren’t new. They’ve been going on for the last 15 years. What is new is that now people have digital cameras and internet access so that people in the West find out about them more quickly. The main reason I don’t think that these are going to overthrow the government is that they’ve been going on for a long time, and there is a standard operating procedure for dealing with them.

August 2, 2005 @ 11:55 am | Comment

No one said they wanted instant democracy; that won’t work. But to compare China with 19th century US or Europe is literally bizarre. There were labor issues and exploitation, for sure. But there were also essential freedoms, where Charles Dickens and Voltaire and Victor Hugo and so many others could critizise their governments and social-economic structures and bring about vast change in a relatively short period of time. There was none of the widespread riots akin to those occurring in the thousands in China. Zero. The US and Europe in the 19th centure functioned infinitely better than China does today, with rule of law, prosperity and huge reforms stimulated in large part by the Enlightenment of the late 18th century. You cannot say just because there were some riots over exploitation in the US or England in the 19th Century that they are analogous to China today. It’s nuts.

August 2, 2005 @ 11:58 am | Comment

Who ever said they were going to overthrow the government? In my post, I specifically said they will not.

August 2, 2005 @ 11:59 am | Comment

There are a huge number of riots in urban China about back pay, working conditions, and land seizures. The NYT covered one of them in Shenzhen a few weeks ago. They are practically a daily occurrence. (One can argue that the reason that you didn’t have rural riots in the United States was that you had a huge frontier that could soak up excess population.)

The Haymarket and Pinkerton riots were a tip of a larger iceberg of unrest. Also, there are a huge number of publications which expose corruption in China today. (Yes some of them are banned, but it doesn’t keep people from reading them, and the internet makes it really easy to circumvent press censorship.)

As far as short time. The period lasted about thirty years 1870-1900. It wasn’t until the early 20th century and the Progressive era that a lot of the major laws that were involved got put into place.

Excepting for the loss of life (and the vast majority of these riots end without serious injury), I don’t see them as such a bad thing. Unless you scare the daylights out of the people in power, nothing is ever going to get done.

August 2, 2005 @ 12:09 pm | Comment

Voltarie didn’t live during this period. Victor Hugo undermines your point. He lived outside of France from 1852 until the fall of the Second Empire in 1870 because Napoleon III would have thrown him in jail. The press laws in Imperial France and Germany were roughly as repressive as the ones in China today.

As far as numbers 3 million participants in a nation of 1.3 billion. My guess is that if you take any sort of per-capita measurement – number of riots per day per person, you’ll find roughly the same amount of social unrest.

The reason I bring this up is that my sense is that people in the West don’t realize how hard and how messy the process of creating a modern social system is.

August 2, 2005 @ 12:20 pm | Comment

Voltaire lived during the Enlightenment and helped change the way people thought about their government and their rights. You have not the slightest clue whereof you speak and you obviously have a political agenda. You are so distorting the argument it isn’t funny. Compare China to 19th century Europe all you want. As one who majored in European history and lived there, and as one who lived in China, I can safely say you are either playing games or are immensely ignorant.

August 2, 2005 @ 12:25 pm | Comment

I’ll leave with a thought. Democracy is a good system because the interplay of ideas tends to give you better decisions. However, the really, really hard part comes in when you learn that “gasp” people have different views some of which you can’t possible imagine to be useful. At this point there is a natural tendency to regard those with different views as “outside the system.”

This tend to end up being self-destructive.

August 2, 2005 @ 12:49 pm | Comment

I tolerate different views. I don’t tolerate simplistic ones like comparisons of today’s China, where people can be tossed out of their homes into the street with no place to turn, with 19th century America, where there were indeed struggles between laborers and the robber barons, but never even once approaching the scale in either size or number to what has been going on in China. And in China, there’s far less recourse, except violence and more violence. And maybe then, the protestors win, but certainly not through ordinary means.

August 2, 2005 @ 12:58 pm | Comment

No wonder they riot. From Aug 1 SCMP:

Secondary school teacher Wang Li, 35, lives with his wife in a 130sqft basement room in Beijing. Last December, he applied for low-cost housing, to which he was entitled due to his low salary and poor living conditions.

For 10 weeks, Mr Wang lived on the street next to the developer of a housing project in the hope of being first in the queue when homes went on sale. But he missed out because his number did not come up in the lottery that decided the lucky winners.

It is 12 years since the government announced the idea of low-cost urban housing for those who could not afford to buy homes in a market that for 40 years had relied on cheap apartments from work-units, but that had since gone commercial.

There were lots of complaints in the US in the 19th centyury against the government and land owners, but none like what we see in China today.

August 2, 2005 @ 1:18 pm | Comment

Why the need for direct comparisons with 2005 China and 19th Century Europe and America? Where and what is the relevance? The world today is a wholly different place to the world in the 1960’s for example, never mind the 19th Century. It was an ENTIRELY different world then.

I have never ever seen the two compared like this. Quite probably because it is a lost cause and completely irrelevant to make definitive conclusions.

Is China struggling to transform its social system? Absolutely. However, what has that to do with Europe/America in the 19th Century?

I’m sorry but I’m a little bit speechless here.

Joseph, you also say that riots are a good thing because it’s the only way to change a huge bureaucracy? I’m sorry but rioting in an authoritarian state which treats such events as a direct threat and has a history of supressing such events with guns is, without a doubt, the last resort of the truly desperate. The last resort of people who are prepared to stand up to ruthless opression because there is no other option left to them.

August 2, 2005 @ 1:20 pm | Comment

Maybe a few more comments….

As we all know the issue of housing for the poor is a solved problem….. And that in the United States one cannot be turned out into the street for not paying rent……..

Martyn: The relevance with comparing to the past is that it gives you some idea of what to do and what is likely to happen. You can argue with my comparsions, but I believe that the only way of making sense of these sorts of things it by trying to fit them in historical analogies. Colonial America was completely different from the republics of Rome and Greece, but one reason that the US Constitution worked out as well as it did was that the Founding Fathers tried to look at the past to figure out some lessons to learn.

And yes I am saying that riots are a good sign. Riots like these just don’t happen in ruthlessly totalitarian regimes because the rioters know that they are going to be shot. People just didn’t riot this way in any of the really bad totalitarian regimes. It’s when you start lifting the lid and reducing the repression that all of this stuff start boiling over.

In particularly, they are happening now because it is clear that the government doesn’t have the will or means to stomp down hard, and the rioters know that by holding a riot, they stand a good chance of getting what they want. There was a statistical study in China Quarterly on the outcome of rural riots, and one thing that comes out is that your chances of getting into trouble by joining a riot is fairly low. Typically only a few people get arrested, and even they don’t get sentences that are extremely severe because they might get turned into martyrs. (It also helps that the police are often sympathetic to the rioters.)

The Chinese government has three choices. One is massive repression. The second is to try to change the system so that people have some way of expressing their grevances without breaking windows. The third is to get overthrown by the mob.

One is not feasible. The amount of repression that would stop the riots are going to be far more than the system can handle. If the CCP tries to deal with these issues with repression, it will crumble, and its clear that they know this.

That leaves two or three. Reform or revolution. The government is trying reform. I hope it works. If it doesn’t that means revolution.

I don’t see what this is such a bad state of affairs. Either way, there is a good chance that things will get better.

August 2, 2005 @ 5:08 pm | Comment

The only good I see in a riot is that if the bad policies are removed or good policies are instigated as a follow up. Finding some scapegoat is what often seen in China after a riot, if anything is done at all. This kind of fix is superficial and does not address the root of problem.
To say that CCP has 15 year of experience dealing with riots and has developed a standard procedure to deal with them is just โ€ฆ.sad. However you dress it up, riots are symptoms of a dysfunctional society, China or elsewhere.

August 2, 2005 @ 11:07 pm | Comment

Not to mention Joseph, that I am not confusing my halves of centuries at all. I was referring to the whole 19th century as well as the end of the 18th (a period that many consider to be one century in French history because of the continual transformations). And you say none of those periods was bloody? Don’t forget it all started with la Revolution and la Terreur. Goodness…I don’t know what you are reading.

August 2, 2005 @ 11:28 pm | Comment

Joseph, after all these intriguing discussions and comparisons, I still don’t think that you’ve satisfactorily answered my question : what in fact has the CCP done to address the situation?
On top of this, I’d like to throw in another question: Why do people have to go on the street and join a riot to get what they want? Aren’t there other legitimate means of grievance resolution in China?
To give you more information to work on: a friend of mine told me that his father, a 70 year old retired teacher living in Beijing, recently joined his neighbours to demonstrate against contemination of water supply to their block of flats. He only joined the demonstration after exhausting every avenue that they can appeal to for help. They didn’t get what they wanted and are still waiting for the problem to be fixed. Didn’t you say that most rioters will get what they want? In this case, what has my friend’s father done wrong? Is it because they didn’t managed to make it a news-worthy event?

August 3, 2005 @ 1:37 am | Comment

Ha Ha I love the way that certain Chinese can recite canned slanted historical “facts” about American history, but seem to have no comprehension of major principles such as the difference between living in a country where the protection of Individual Rights are the founding idea, versus one in which individual rights are violated by whomever has the power to do so.

As Lu Xun wrote in “Diary of A Madman,” Chinese eat people. The powerful sacrifice the rights of the powerless to their fortunes, in the name of “the people” or “China”. Ocassionally, the powerless get tired of being gnawed upon, and try to overthrow their oppressors, but unfortunately are doomed to repeat the cycle until they learn the moral/political principles of an individual rights -based society.

August 3, 2005 @ 1:50 pm | Comment

Here are two comprehensive studies on the rural riot situation….

One interesting thing that comes out is that the riots that have been reported in the Western media are tiny in comparison to some of the one’s that have happened in the past.

Now as far as what the government has done. Some of the major changes are….

1) a complete overhaul of the taxation system in which local officials find it much harder to charge fees. 2) village committees are now completely elected 3) the land laws have been changed to increase land tenure rights and clarify compensation rules 4) local governments have had mass layoff. fewer officials means more money to pay officials means less corruption 5) promotion rules have been changed to make economic growth less important in evaluating officials 6) the government is currently trying to make the petition system useful

Now one might argue that these measures are ineffective, but I don’t think it is reasonable to argue that the government has been totally ignoring the issue.

One of the interesting patterns is that the cause of the riots seem to be shifting in that the newer riots seem to be more about pollution and the environment which was not a major topic of protest in the mid-1990’s. Part of the problem was that until very recently the thinking in China was “growth at any cost,” and its only recently did this change.

A West: I find it very interesting that in these sorts of conversations someone always accuses me of being sympathetic to the government. “Mass protests in China are a good thing because they force the party to change or die.” doesn’t strike me as the “party line.” Also “looking at the late 19th century United States for clues for how to address unrest in China” doesn’t also seem to me that unreasonable.

Also, I think it might be a *huge* mistake to label all of these “mass demonstrations” as “riots.” Looking over the list, most of them appear to be peaceful and labelling them all as “riots” might be a bad idea because it delegitimizes them, and makes them seem more violent than they are.

“Violent riots” may be a sign of dysfunction, but “mass demonstrations” clearly are not.

I think my positions on this topic might make a lot more since if you substitute the term “mass protest” for “riot” which is a lot more accurate.

August 3, 2005 @ 8:52 pm | Comment

Joseph, I wasn’t thinking of you in my comment, I was thinking of the “social stress” person who appeared to be copying and pasting a canned diversion.

August 5, 2005 @ 7:09 am | Comment

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