Beijing flicks the safety switch
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - Shifting from an overtly idealistic agenda to a much more pragmatic approach, the Chinese government has quietly softened its public aspirations ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympics next month.

Original slogans such as "To hold the best Olympic Games in history" and "The harmonious Olympics" are seldom, if ever, shouted these days. In their place, one hears "Hold a safe and sound Olympics" and "Hold a fruitful Olympics".

"To be fruitful" is a safe enough aspiration for any sports event in
which competition is required - just consider the Olympic motto: "Faster, Stronger, Higher".

And the slogan, "To hold a safe and sound Olympics", also speaks for itself. Beijing is - understandably - now placing safety as top priority and setting aside more vainglorious concerns. It is rumored that President Hu Jintao himself ordered the "safety-first" mantra.

There are plenty of reasons for Chinese leaders to be worried about safety. International terrorist organizations may see the Olympics as a prime opportunity to launch attacks, and they might not necessarily be aimed at China. Beijing is also worried that pro-Tibet activists or Xinjiang province's Uyghur separatists may try to steal the spotlight with acts of Olympic-sized sabotage.

There are also growing concerns among Chinese officials about other potential internal threats. Some Chinese residents, discontent with the government for various reasons, may create incidents on the sidelines of the Games in an attempt to highlight their respective problems or demands. Such activists have learned that once a complaint by Chinese citizens receives wide coverage in the Hong Kong media, it is generally dealt with promptly by local authorities.

In fact, Beijing may be better prepared for external threats, which are comparatively more visible and easier to track. Domestic issues are more difficult to discern and much less predictable; they could come from anywhere at any time, especially given the widespread public discontent over various problems, particularly those related to abuse of power by officials.

Chinese authorities now use the term "mass incident" to describe public protests. According to official statistics, there were 74,000 mass incidents in 2004 with 3.7 million Chinese citizens taking part. In 2005, the number of mass incidents with at least 15 participants totaled 87,000. In addition to the mass incidents, lone individuals are increasingly causing "incidents".

A series of mass and individual incidents over the past two weeks may be proof that concerns about potential domestic problems are not unfounded.

  • On June 28, the police headquarters and county government office in Weng'an county of southwest China's Guizhou province were assaulted and torched by protesters. A 15-year-old junior high school student had been pulled from a river on June 22 and found dead. Her family and residents believed she was raped and drowned, and were dissatisfied by a police report claiming the young woman leapt into the river to commit suicide. The woman's relatives and friends were joined in a street protest by some 30,000 protesters. Chaos ensued as rioters smashed the police and government buildings and several police cars,

    Subsequently, Guizhou provincial authorities concluded that the riots had been instigated by local triad (criminal)gang members. So far, dozens of alleged triad society members have been arrested.

    Meanwhile, provincial Communist Party secretary Shi Zongyuan admitted the incident was a result of "deep contradictions" in Chinese society. In plain words, it was the explosion of public discontent with the local government. And just days after the incident, Weng'an's police chief and political commissar were sacked for "dereliction of duty". Later, authorities agreed on reopen an investigation into the young woman's death.
  • In the morning of July 1, 28-year-old Beijing resident Yang Jia arrived at a police station in Shanghai's Zabei district. He threw several Molotov cocktails through the entrance and stormed the building brandishing a dagger. He proceeded to stab policemen until he was subdued, killing five and injuring three.

    The incident shocked Shanghai, considered one of the safest cities in China, and reverberated around the nation. Many observers were puzzled by the ease with which Yang assaulted so many policemen inside their own station. Others asked, "If the police cannot protect themselves, how can we expect them to protect us?"

    Yang's motives are unclear. According to Chinese media, he came to Shanghai for a tour last October and rented a bicycle. But he was quickly arrested because the bicycle he had rented was stolen. After he was proved innocent, he demanded compensation of 30,000 yuan (US$4,375), but the Shanghai police were allegedly unfriendly and only agreed to half the sum. Many have concluded that he was seeking revenge.

    Interestingly, some Chinese bloggers have expressed their sympathy for Yang despite his brutal attack. This online response is indicative of how police are often disliked by the public.
  • One day later, in Zhangjiajie city, a well-known tourist spot in central Hunan province, a resident drove a vehicle with two burning gas containers into the local government complex out of anger at officials who had forcibly demolished an allegedly unauthorized building he had constructed. Twelve people were injured, five seriously, and the suspect was soon arrested.

    These three incidents are independent and isolated. However, they are linked in an unsettling way for the government: when people feel bullied by officials, and find they have no recourse for complaint, they resort to extreme measures to vent their rage. Violence can never be justified, but a lack of channels for ordinary people to file complaints is a serious problem in China.

    "In general, Chinese people are very tolerant," a sociology researcher in Beijing told Asia Times Online. "But for any person, tolerance has its limits. When one's discontent or anger grows to a certain degree, it will explode. Just like in a pressure cooker, you need a valve to let the steam go out or it will explode like a bomb."

    As both "mass" and "individual" incidents escalate, Beijing must consider opening up more avenues for people to lodge grievances. For instance, the media should be allowed to take individuals' complaints about alleged wrong-doings of officials and do investigative reports. This would also help the government monitor local officials.

    All levels of government have an office for hearing complaints, but most are merely perfunctorily. Not empowered to investigate any cases, they can at best pass on complaints to higher authorities. Often, complaints are passed directly to those who have been complained about. This is like asking the government to supervise itself. In the end, such self-supervision is no supervision.

    Another way to monitor the government externally is to empower deputies of the National People's Congress and local parliamentarians to deal with complaints. Superior authorities would then be held responsible for dealing with complaints about their subordinates seriously rather than perfunctorily.

    With Hu's call for a "safe" Olympics, Chinese officials will surely do their best to prevent any incidents - mass or individual - from hampering the Beijing Games. But as long as officials can exercise their powers unchecked, and as long as the people's complaints are suppressed, incidents of all types will occur.

    Until this system is changed, Hu's idea of building a "harmonious society" will remain a dream.

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