By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal, China Real Time Report
Protests expressing citizen grievances have risen recently, not only in rural areas where they have been common, but in cities as well. Moreover, they have occurred throughout the country. Although the protests do not seem to be linked, some foreign observers believe that prominent grievances held by many Chinese can be attributed to social inequality and to the arbitrariness of local officials. Notably, and potentially most threatening, is the growing resentment among many of China’s 150 million migrant workers who are denied the social benefits that are routinely received by citizens of the cities in which they work.
Although there is no sign of any national movement taking shape, the central government is haunted by the Mideast revolutions. Local governments have responded to the protests with repression, sometimes violent. If the growing social unrest provokes further repression, might that response then provoke further social unrest? Or can the central government initiate reforms that would quiet discontent? The rise of protests suggests that it may be necessary to choose soon.
In some cases protests have been intensified by suicides of citizens defeated by the unresponsiveness of local officials to their plight, such as one in Jiangxi province, where a man whose house had been demolished by corrupt officials set off bombs that killed him and injured others. In other cases, spontaneous violence was provoked by cruel treatment of an innocent victim, as happened in Guangdong province when a riot broke out after government street guards assaulted a pregnant young street hawker who was a migrant worker. In another city in Guangdong, rioting erupted out after a worker who went to his boss to ask for unpaid wages was allegedly stabbed on the boss’ orders.
A recent Wall Street Journal report notes that “public anger is growing over issues including corruption and police abuses,” and also observes that some of the protests have been set off by a “flashpoint,” like the assault mentioned above on the pregnant migrant worker or the death of an ethnic Mongol caused by a Han Chinese truck driver that spurred rioting by ethnic Mongols in Inner Mongolia. Another source of “flashpoints” is the Internet, which has served to spread news and rumor in what one observer calls a “confluence of rage and technology.”
Local governments, pressed by the central government to suppress unrest, sometimes muster strong shows of force. When they do, migrant workers “feel oppressed by local authorities,” according to an editorial in the state-owned Global Times criticizing authorities who use “the law of the jungle” instead of “the rule of law.” Formal obeisance to the rule of law is common enough, but it is noteworthy that a state-owned newspaper in Beijing invoked it against a local government.
Under current law, migrant workers are not allowed to receive residency permits (hukou) that would allow them to obtain social insurance, healthcare and housing in the cities in which they work. An example of discrimination in practice occurred in a city in Zhejiang Province in which workers petitioned local authorities for compensation for lead poisoning. After they appeared on the streets in considerable numbers, they were offered 2,000 yuan ($309) apiece. When they expressed dissatisfaction with that number, the offer was then raised to 8,000 yuan – but was only given to workers with “proper work permits.”
A link to the protests described here is suggested by survey research done by Harvard sociology professor Martin Whyte. He concludes that there is “general popular approval of the meritocratic competition in the market place and of affirmative action to help the poor.” At the same time, however, he notes that most of the people he surveyed object to special privileges for people in political power and to the systematic discrimination experienced by urban migrants.”
A spontaneous outburst by a Shanghai taxi driver suggests that the resentment may sometimes be close to the surface. Some years ago, in a taxi, I watched as the road started to narrow to one lane. A black unmarked car with what appeared to be a string of white lights on the roof moved partially alongside the taxi, obviously determined to overtake us. The taxi driver at first refused to move aside, but after an increasingly dangerous contest, he finally yielded. As the black car speeded ahead, I asked him if it was an official car. He replied angrily: “Of course it was an official car! In this country officials have special rights! How can we have human rights if officials have special rights?”
Reports by observers suggest that such views are shared by many Chinese, leading to what Elizabeth Economy, Director of Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes as a “pervasive sense of unfairness in Chinese society.” In a recent commentary on China Real Time, Chinese civil society Yiyi Lu wrote that many of the disturbances and much of the popular discontent stem from “the unbridled privileges claimed by officials and an almost universal disregard for rules.”
If these strands of discontent strengthen and converge, and are met with violent repression, is there danger that more incidents would be provoked and a downward spiral of violence created? Or is it possible for the central government move to adjust policies and practices that provoke protest? In their 2006 book “Rightful Resistance in Rural China,” political scientists Kevin O’Brien and Li Lianjiang have shown that popular protest can affect policy implementation. In his own book on the topic, “Collective Resistance in China,” Yongshun Cai observes that protest can also lead to “the revision or abolition of policies that have caused or failed to address citizens’ grievances” and the creation of new policies.
China’s central leadership has not relied exclusively on suppression, and in recent years has actively been considering reforms to make Chinese society more inclusive through hukou reform, wage increases for workers, poverty alleviation programs and expansion of social insurance systems. The rise of mass protests suggests that the government needs to start putting such reforms into action, or risk angering its citizens to an even greater degree.