China's underbelly

July 10, 2005

CHINA'S ECONOMIC ascent - the most sweeping and rapid march to industrialization in world history - has much of the rest of the globe and particularly Americans reeling backwards in, shall we say, shock and awe. Even many who long have believed that the 21st Century could be China's suddenly find themselves overwhelmed by the current pace of the transfer of economic and political power from West to East. This shift may continue for years or decades. This dragon is largely real, as are its challenges to the developed world and, again, particularly to America.

But China is a rising world power with a vast vulnerability: its underbelly of 800 million increasingly restive peasants in its often chaotic countryside. Isolated from China's growing wealth, lacking rights, preyed upon by corrupt local officials, facing mounting land grabs and pollution, and frequently without enough means to support themselves, Chinese farmers more and more are protesting or rioting - more than 50,000 such actions a year, by even Beijing's official count.

More than a half century ago, Mao Tse-tung led the Chinese Communist Party to power by encircling China's cities with a peasant army, but now the party fears its peasants. Beijing has tried to contain the rising discontent with expanded village-level democracy, tax relief and grain price hikes. But what once were localized protests now quickly become causes amplified around the country and the world via cell-phone text messaging and the Internet, prompting the possibility that the disparate outbursts could build into some sort of national movement.

That was underscored by a remarkable video tape that recently found its way to Western media from a village called Shengyou 100 miles southwest of Beijing. It showed hundreds of hired thugs attacking farmers who had refused to leave their land to make way for a new power plant, an attack with shovels and shotguns that left six dead. The incident was not as notable as its rare recording and the immediately wide circulation of the video on the Internet within China and abroad.

Such clashes are the natural outcome when an authoritarian regime holds tight to political power while loosening economic and media controls - and in a nation where the urban-rural and rich-poor income gaps are greatly widening. But this year rural tensions have so heightened that some China watchers have been speculating if some sort of critical mass of unrest could be in sight. Of course, no one can say that this will be the case. Nonetheless, the swirling discontent in the Chinese countryside is the dark side of its national economic miracle and, at the very least, a growing source of inner instability that Beijing is failing to contain even as its urban and coastal areas grow richer by linking to the world.

China bashers - a growing corps these days in America - may take heart in the fragility all this gives a seemingly threatening behemoth. But the other side of that vulnerability is the heightened risk that, with China's and America's economies having grown so co-dependent, a small clash in an obscure Chinese backwater might spiral out of control and, ultimately, ripple destructively through world markets. Again, this may not be likely, but just the very possibility tends to put powerful Western financial interests on the wrong side of the tensions in the Chinese countryside, on the side of Beijing's political status quo.

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