Outbreak of transparency

John Garnaut in Beijing
November 27, 2008

A WAVE of protest and riots has spread across China, igniting debate over whether it shows rising political instability or a new tolerance for democracy.

Official media, predominantly the Government's flagship Xinhua news agency, have promptly and prominently reported violent protests that began with thousands of taxi drivers in China's largest city, Chongqing, on November 3.

The nationwide coverage appears to have encouraged taxi drivers, disgruntled land owners and laid-off workers to take to the streets in at least eight provinces.

The Communist Party's Guangzhou Daily reported that 2000 toy factory workers had ransacked company offices and overturned a police car in Dongguan, a manufacturing city that has been badly hit by the global financial crisis.

This week Guizhou, Hunan and Shaanxi provinces and the city of Shantou in Guangdong have also been rocked by mass unrest. Last night Xinhua quoted the Premier, Wen Jiabao, as telling a closed-door meeting of advisers: "Difficult times require more scientific and democratic decision-making".

The report said Mr Wen had called for "strengthened democratic supervision".

Some local governments appear to have legitimised the right to protest by acceding to demonstrators' demands.

In Chongqing, the local government promised taxi drivers lower licence fees and stricter enforcement against unlicensed competitors following an audience with Chongqing's high-ranking party secretary, Bo Xilai.

"In the old thinking, strikes meant instability," wrote Zhang Yongsheng, a researcher at the State Council's Development Research Centre, in an essay to be posted today on a blog affiliated with the Australian National University.

"But actually strikes are a sign that Chinese society is becoming more and more open, transparent and democratic since the people can now protest publicly and the Government has to solve problems through reforming and disciplining their own behaviour."

Mr Zhang said some Western media reports had mistaken progress towards democratisation for instability and even a crisis in Communist Party rule.

But many old government habits remain, with protest leaders detained and dozens of protesters badly beaten.