Beijing aims to stem mass incidents

By Shi Ren-hou

The Shishou mass incident, which saw tens of thousands of public protesters engaging in open conflict with armed riot police in the central Chinese province of Hubei, has led to a call from the People's Daily for greater transparency on the part of the government and the mainstream media within China.

The rarely-seen high-pitched criticism by the Chinese Communist Party's flagship newspaper suggests Beijing's growing concern that local officials' mishandling of mass protests, mostly prompted by their abuse of power, increasingly poses a threat to social stability, and, in particular, mars the nation's festive mood in the run-up to the 60th birthday of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on October 1.

The incident was triggered by the death of a 24-year-old hotel restaurant cook named Tu Yuangao, whose body was found in front of the Yonglong Hotel - his workplace - in Shishou city, Hubei province, on the evening of June 17. Tu's family, on inspecting his body, immediately suspected foul play and cast open doubt on police allegations that he had committed suicide.

The China Daily reported on June 22 that crowds began to gather in front of the Yonglong Hotel on June 19 following his death to prevent police from removing and disposing of Tu's body. By the following day, they had engaged in violent clashes with the police on numerous occasions, destroying police vehicles and committing arson. Over 10,000 (or 40,000 as Hong Kong media reported) members of the public took part in the incident, and 10,000 armed riot police, equipped with shields and batons, were deployed by the authorities to quell the violence.

The huge crowds had subsided by Monday, yet the scorched front of the Yonglong Hotel and squads of armed military police patrolling the area attested to the intensity and scale of the disturbance.

The Shishou mass incident (the Chinese term for a massive demonstration), one of the largest and most violent public protests in China's recent history, attracted a huge amount of attention in the domestic Chinese media. One of the most prominent and interesting responses from the official press has been an editorial in the People's Daily on June 24, which called for both local government and the mainstream media to provide greater "information transparency" in the immediate aftermath of incidents that could trigger public unrest.

The editorial alleges that the failure of the government to provide timely and detailed information about the circumstances surrounding the suspicious death, combined with the spread of rumors and unofficial information via the Internet, were the key factors that fomented the violent protests. It noted that the government's news releases were sketchy and lacked details, and that only three statements expressing the government's position were placed on its official website following Tu's death. During the same period, however, over 500 posts appeared on an Internet discussion forum about the incident. As the protests occurred, a number of blogs and websites also broadcast streaming footage from the scene, which was shot using mobile phones.

The editorial frankly acknowledged that due to the unrestrained proliferation of alternative media and information channels, such as Internet discussion forums, mobile phone messaging and streaming online video, the Chinese authorities were no longer able to exert total control over the dissemination of news or information. It states, "In the Internet era, everyone has the potential to become a channel of information ... it is as though everyone has a microphone in front of them."

Although mention is made of the need to protect "the people's right to information and right to expression", it is clear that the author of the editorial is not just advocating greater transparency on the part of the government and the media because it is considered an intrinsic, ethical good. Heightened disclosure of information is also recommended for pragmatic reasons, as a means of guiding public sentiment, assuaging public concerns and dispersing any potential resentment against the government.

The editorial cites the case of the Weng'an mass incident, which occurred in the southwestern province of Guizhou during the annual session of the National People's Congress in March this year. The trigger for the Weng'an incident was a similar, suspicious death, yet Shi Zong-yuan, the party secretary of Guizhou province, was able to successfully deal with the affair through the "provision of timely and accurate information about the incident, that successfully dispelled public suspicion and concern".

Despite this articulate and forceful call for greater government and media transparency by China's most prominent organ of official opinion, coverage of the Shishou mass incident itself seems to have been little affected. The Chinese media have been conspicuously taciturn about the extraordinary claims concerning Tu Yuangao's death that have circulated on the Internet in both Chinese and English.

The results of an official forensic examination state that Tu's death was the result of suicide, and that the writing on the suicide note, scrawled illegibly on the back of a telephone bill, was the product of Tu's own hand. This still does little to explain why the death of a young cook - a member of the rural immigrant population so frequently disdained or discriminated against by urban residents - triggered a violent public protest of such prodigious size and intensity, or why Tu's family, who have endorsed the official findings, are being awarded 80,000 yuan (US$11,700) in compensation, to be provided by both the government and the owners of the hotel.

An Internet rumor alleged that Tu was murdered when he threatened to expose a drug-dealing operation that was based in the hotel where he worked. A posting in Chinese on Globalvoiceonline.org asserted that the owner of the Yonglong Hotel was the head of a drug-cartel who enjoyed close ties to senior local government officials. When the owner refused to pay Tu his salary, Tu threatened to expose his illicit activities and was murdered as a consequence. The posting is replete with a graphic account of Tu's gruesome and sadistic killing, which included a lengthy beating, castration and the insertion of nails into his skull. It is also alleged that the Yonglong Hotel was the site of at least several related murders in the past few years.

Similar postings abound on Chinese Internet forums and discussion sites, yet subsequent news stories in the Chinese media have given scant attention to these extreme allegations. While a news story published by the Guangzhou Daily provides an extensive description of Tu Yuangao's background and family, it makes no mention of any accusations against the Yonglong Hotel owner, and states only that the hotel is of modest size, makes little money and is unlikely to be able to provide the full sum of compensation owed to the Tu family.

Nor has there been much meaningful inquiry into why the death of a 24-year-old cook from the countryside could arouse the indignation of literally tens of thousands of Shishou residents. Domestic news stories have instead made veiled reference to the fact that the mass incident had been provoked by Internet rumors, presumably of a misleading and spurious nature.

A call for greater information transparency by the People's Daily may seem to be a welcome move for those concerned about the level of press freedom and government accountability in contemporary China. It is quite obvious, however, that its main motivation is not the satisfaction of any lofty standards of governance imposed by liberal outsiders, but instead the chief and perennial concern of the Chinese government - the preservation of social stability and the prevention of widespread unrest.

This is of heightened importance in 2009, which is the decennial anniversary for several key historic events. These include the 1959 Tibet uprising, the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident and, most important of all in the eyes of the government, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC in 1949. For the Chinese government, it is of immense importance that their 60th anniversary be unmarred by any unseemly mass disturbances. This concern is even further heightened by the current financial crisis and the challenges that the economy confronts as a consequence.

Yet the Shishou mass incident is not an isolated example of spontaneous mass protest, and is perhaps only distinctive due to its unusual scope. Large-scale public protests occur regularly in China, and are invariably triggered by the corruption and abuses of local members of government.

For the "greater information transparency" advocated by the People's Daily to effectively reduce the incidence and intensity of such public disturbances, not only must spurious Internet rumors be refuted, but the actual abuses of corrupt members of government must be exposed and subjected to full public scrutiny by the media. The failure of the Chinese press to fully investigate allegations of egregious corruption in Shishou demonstrates that in spite of a strident call by the party's official mouthpiece for increased media transparency, this is far from becoming general, accepted practice.

Shi Ren-hou is a freelance writer and translator, and the owner of the online news site China News Wrap (www.chinanewswrap.com).