Hundreds of rioters in a southern Chinese city fought with police today after a disabled fruit vendor was reportedly beaten to death by officials in broad daylight. The protests are of a similar scale to last month’s riots by migrant workers in the southern city of Zengcheng (above) after security guards assaulted a pregnant woman who refused to move her market stall.
But the growing incidence of mass unrest will not “necessarily destabilize the authoritarian status quo,” one analyst says.
Fresh protests also broke out in Inner Mongolia as indigenous herders protested against local authorities for allowing a Han Chinese businessman “to illegally grab a large piece of their grazing land for cultivation”, according to the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre. Major protests erupted earlier this year after a herder was struck and killed by a Han truck driver.
The protests in Mongolia erupted when a Han businessman “hired more than 200 Chinese to kill dozens of livestock with their heavy vehicles and bulldozers and to beat up local Mongolian herders who resisted the occupation of their land”, said the New York-based SMHRC.
The riots in Anshun, a city in Guizhou province, will prompt parallels with the fate of another fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation after being humiliated by local officials sparked Tunisia’s revolution and the wider Arab Spring:
But most analysts point out that, despite Beijing’s nervousness, China does not share many of the problems that allowed a seemingly isolated incident to spiral into a revolution in Tunisia. For example, China’s population is relatively old and getting older (thanks in part to its one-child policy), average incomes have been rising steadily for years, and urban unemployment is very low.
In 2007, China experienced over 80,000 “mass incidents”, up 60,000 the previous year, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“Given all this, we should not expect the growing social unrest today to necessarily destabilize the authoritarian status quo,” writes Ho-fung Hung is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at The Johns Hopkins University.
China’s history has seen “similar waves of violent resistance against local governments coupled with humble petitions to the power centre in Beijing.. [that reflect] …a deep-rooted Confucianist conception of authority and justice,” he observes. Confucianism permits aggrieved subjects to confront corrupt officials “by any means necessary,” but they must rely on the central authority to redress injustice, “just like children abused by their parents should look to their grandparents or lineage elders for paternalist protection.”
But, Ho-fung Hung concludes, “we should not be surprised if an unexpected singular event — such as a major economic blunder, a scandal involving the highest leaders or defeat in a geopolitical conflict — abruptly displaces the popular trust in the central government and precipitates a breakdown of the party-state.”
A disturbing number of Western experts and analysts appear to accept the ruling Communist party’s claim that China is “best served” by one-party rule, writes Stanford University’s Paul Roderick Gregory is a Hoover Institution research fellow. But he disputes the suggestion that the party rules with the consent of China’s people:
If the people support the CPC, why is it so afraid? Why does it crack down mercilessly on informal Christian religious services? Why does a Nobel Prize awarded a dissident poet create an international incident? Why does it grow hysterical when a foreign leader receives the Dalai Lama? Why is it so fearful of public protests or strikes?
The answer, he suggests, is that the party itself realizes the brittle nature of its rule and the nherent fragility of its performance-based legitimacy:
The CPC realizes that it has no basis for legitimacy; therefore, it must repress any hint of an alternative or a challenge to its legitimacy. Growing church attendance suggests to the CPC that one day the church could challenge its monopoly, as it did in Communist Poland. If workers organize into real labor unions, the unions could eventually become an alternate political movement. A lone dissident may strike a chord among the people that sets off something that they cannot suppress by their usual repression. The CPC leaders look with fear and trembling at the Arab Spring, knowing it could happen in their backyard.
Similarly, notes Carlos Alberto Montaner, admirers of China’s authoritarian capitalism should reflect on the country’s alternative options:
It shouldn’t be difficult for the Chinese to remember that, before the recent progress of mainland China, two appendices of that culture found their way toward the First World: Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a British colony, Hong Kong became wealthy without surrendering its freedom. Taiwan prospered while its society cast off its dictatorial origins and became free.
“One doesn’t have to choose between freedom and progress,” he notes.
The Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.