Emboldened Chinese take their complaints to the streets ++ Government tolerates economic, not political, urban demonstrations

November 20, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- About 200 demonstrators blocked traffic in the central Chinese city of Chengsa this week protesting over not getting paid in the past six months by a local, formerly state-owned company. The police showed up to help unsnarl traffic, but not to intervene in the demonstration.

Last week 200 angry investors who lost their savings in a government-linked futures trading scheme marched to Tiananmen Square and demanded their money back.

Police formed a line between them and the square, but allowed them to pass peacefully.

The demonstration was one of the more brazen ones since soldiers crushed the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement and underlined a growing trend in Chinese society. From striking cab drivers to disgruntled farmers, more and more people are taking their economic frustrations to the streets of China in what some analysts see as a sign of growing pluralism.

Instead of beating and arresting protesters as they might have some years ago, officials seem more willing these days to accommodate, negotiate or simply pay them off. As long as demonstrators don't make personal attacks against top leaders or demand political change, they are often free to vent their anger.

The regime has taken a more pragmatic approach out of necessity and enlightened self-interest, analysts say. In the midst of wrenching economic change, many Chinese need to blow off steam. With protests flaring up all over the country, mass arrests seem impractical and risky.

"If you create martyrs out of these demonstrators at a time when the government is trying to push through very difficult reforms that really hurt people, you are likely to have a major political problem on your hands," says Elizabeth J. Perry, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

"There are legitimate gripes out there," adds a Western diplomat in Beijing. "The government has sent specific instructions down not to break heads."

Although official statistics on social unrest are sketchy, anecdotal evidence suggests the number of demonstrations is rapidly rising. Protests occur almost daily across the country, according to citizens and human rights groups.

Earlier this month, about 30 laid-off Beijing hotel workers staged a sit-in to complain about the loss of their salaries and health benefits. At the same time in Central China's Henan Province, 200 workers at a state-owned cement factory surrounded government offices for five days to protest a planned sell-off of their plant and the impending loss of their jobs.

In a nation whose turbulent history has filled its people with an acute fear of chaos, public officials usually view demonstrations with alarm. The latest to reinforce this occurred nine years ago, when a million citizens took over Tiananmen Square to demand a new political system before soldiers moved in and killed hundreds.

Protesters today seem more focused on narrow economic interests as they try to adapt to China's evolving, more market-oriented economy. For many, it is a painful transition.

As the government overhauls state-owned businesses that offered cradle-to-grave security, millions of workers have been laid off. High real estate prices and the scarcity of land have spurred developers to demolish old Chinese homes without adequately compensating the owners. And investors like the ones who demonstrated last week in Beijing are sinking their savings into get-rich-quick schemes that sometimes turn out to be con games.

At a loss to contain the growing number of disaffected, officials sometimes give laid-off workers money just to keep them off the streets. In Shenyang, a hard-hit northeastern city along China's rust belt, the Communist Party distributes cash through women's organizations, trade unions and former state-owned company managers to reduce the strain of rising unemployment, says Jean-Francois Huchet, of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong.

Huchet suspects China's banking system -- already technically insolvent -- underwrites payments to protesters, a strategy that puts more pressure on the beleaguered financial sector.

"It could trigger greater problems if the people realize they can't trust the banking system anymore," Huchet warns.

Some officials seem to tolerate certain types of demonstrations as long as they serve the leadership's goals, such as cracking down on rampant government corruption or developing a more efficient, competitive economy.

When angry wholesalers blocked traffic late last month outside a failing Beijing department store because they hadn't been paid, police took no action against the demonstrators.

In an unusual display of openness, the state-owned China Economic Times ran photos of the protest on its front page. A reporter for the paper explained that as long as the article focused on the demonstration's economic implications -- and not its social ones -- editors could avoid government reprimand.

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