China writes new script for mass protests

By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG

- The official script has played out countless times like a poorly written, predictable television drama: spurred by malicious rumor and gossip, a gullible Chinese populace rises up against their well-meaning local leaders. The besieged leaders are the victims of outside agitators - "schemers" is the preferred word - who have manipulated ignorant villagers into believing that their land has been stolen or their water poisoned and the municipal or provincial authorities are to blame.

Pity the honorable victims; smash the pernicious schemers.

Just about everyone has grown tired of this hackneyed, unconvincing plot, and last week even the state-run Xinhua news agency called for a rewrite.

"In recent years, when large-scale [protests] happen, more often than not local governments have not done their job properly and have dealt inappropriately with problems," Xinhua stated in an unusually frank commentary. "Blaming people for not having all the facts is no different from saying they are unable to distinguish right from wrong, and that is simply untrue," it added.

Later in the week, the Southern Metropolitan News reported that Beijing plans to launch a training course to "help grassroots cadre better handle emergencies and avoid lax and worsening management". Zhu Lijia, a professor from the party's administrative school, will host the one-week course.

The professor has left "schemers" and "foreign instigators" off the syllabus. The central government' efforts are an attempt to encourage a more humane, people-oriented management style in the provinces during challenging economic times and two months ahead of the 60th birthday of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

China's top leaders do not want this milestone event - to be marked with fanfare on October 1 - undermined by further reports of mass protests and brutal crackdowns.

In China, protests are officially referred to as "incidents." If more than 100 people are involved, a "mass incident" is declared. There were 80,000 such demonstrations in 2007, the last time state media published a figure for a national affliction the central government would like to see reined in.

It's safe to say that every day, somewhere in China, an aggrieved crowd gathers in anger over a land seizure or industrial accident. It is only the most sensational of these protests that become "news" - and then often only if the country's growing army of netizens spreads the word, forcing the hand of state media.

Optimists now feel that central authorities have been moved to whip corrupt local officials into line.

Then, again, although the Xinhua commentary was extraordinarily blunt, this is hardly the first time Beijing has sounded the call for a cleaner regime at the local level. Yet, by all indications, corruption is getting worse, not better.

This latest call for reform was published after a party chief was sacked for mishandling a large protest in Shishou city in central Hubei province. The commentary also referred specifically to a riot that occurred on July 24 in the industrial city of Tonghua in northeastern Jilin province. The violence was prompted by news that the state-run Tonghua Iron and Steel Group had been taken over by privately owned Jianlong Steel.

Fearing massive layoffs, thousands of workers stormed the office of Jianlong general manager Chen Guojun, beating him to death. About 100 people were injured in the tumult.

Seemingly brushing aside the death and injury in Tonghua, Xinhua asked: "Isn't the Tonghua case about not caring about the interests of the workers during a restructuring? People just want to have a stable life."

Xinhua did not choose to mention the far more lethal riots that broke out last month in Urumqi, capital of the remote autonomous region of Xinjiang. The clashes pitted Muslim Uyghurs, the majority in the region, against Han Chinese migrants, who now dominate the capital and have taken most of the plum jobs. They spanned several days, leaving at least 197 people dead and more than 1,600 injured.

Because these were the worst riots China has witnessed in decades - following the script, local (and central) authorities blamed exiled Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer and her World Uyghur Congress for inciting them - they seemed conspicuous by their absence from the Xinhua editorial.

No matter who was responsible for the Urumqi riots and why, surely they sounded an alarm that Beijing needs to rethink its policies toward ethnic minorities; otherwise, more violent clashes can be expected.

Ironically, last Wednesday, the day after the Xinhua commentary was published, another protest began in Hunan province - the tragic tale is still is unfolding.

Following another script that has become all too familiar, six villagers were detained in Zhentou township while staging a demonstration to demand free medical treatment and compensation for their land after a chemical plant poisoned their bodies and their farms with toxic waste.

The next day, 1,000 supporters surrounded the local police station, shouting for their release. Another protest is planned for Tuesday unless villagers are justly compensated. So far, at least two people have died from the poisoning, and hundreds, if not thousands, more have been affected.

The culprit is the Xianghe Chemical Factory, located in Liuyang city. For the last five years, the plant has released toxic waste into the water the villagers drink and the fields they farm. So much cadmium (a toxic metallic element used to make batteries) has been found in soil samples that experts say farms in proximity to the factory will be unsafe for planting for up to 60 years.

For now, villagers are living on food and water delivered to them from uncontaminated areas.

Local authorities, after denying for years that there was anything wrong, finally shut down the plant and, over the weekend, detained its boss. In a token gesture of accountability, both the chief and deputy chief of Liuyang's environmental protection agency have been suspended.

This is not the first instance of cadmium poisoning in Hunan. In 2006, it killed eight people in the city of Zuzhou and made 1,000 others ill. A year later, 100 employees at a plant in Jiangsu province were stricken with cadmium poisoning.

In 2004, Hong Kong's Gold Peak Industries agreed to pay compensation to more than 1,000 of its employees for illnesses that they maintained could be traced to exposure to cadmium at the company's factories in southern China.

The official foot-dragging and perfunctory response to the latest cadmium case in Hunan presents a perfect opportunity for central authorities to put Xinhua's recent tough talk into practice.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.