China reports decline in unrest

Some analysts see drop as reflection of government's effort to ease social tensions

November 09, 2006|By Mark Magnier | Mark Magnier,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIJING -- The number of "mass incidents" in China, a reference to protests, riots and other forms of social unrest, fell by one-fifth in the first nine months of 2006, according to Chinese government statistics released yesterday.

The official New China News Agency reported that police dealt with 17,900 disturbances during the January-September period, a drop of 22.1 percent, quoting Liu Jinguo, a vice minister of the nation's Ministry of Public Security.

At the same time, Liu also warned that unapproved religious groups have been gaining in numbers and influence.

Government statistics in China have long been viewed with skepticism by critics who said they tend to be inaccurate and are engineered for political purposes. With President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao having made social stability a cornerstone of their administration, some analysts wonder whether the statistics are geared toward showing such results.

"The government has never defined what `mass incidents' refer to, so it's hard to tell if we're comparing apples and oranges," said Robin Munro, research director of the China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based activist group that monitors labor conditions and worker complaints across China.

"I'm instinctively suspicious of official Chinese statistics, which tend not to be reliable, especially when they're dealing with social instability," he added.

But others say that the numbers demonstrate that the government's bid to reduce social tension in line with its "harmonious society" slogan appears to be showing short-term results. Police are now required to meet with citizens bearing grievances, said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, while some social security programs have been expanded and more farmers included in income-guarantee programs.

"These all ease conflict to a certain degree and solve some unjust cases," Hu said.

While China's leaders have focused on higher rural incomes, a recent study by the China Labor Bulletin found that wages of female migrant workers in Dongguan, a city in southern Guangdong province, remained essentially flat over the past decade even as prices have spiked and the income of government workers and Party officials has grown five-fold.

"From our work, I don't get a sense society is becoming more harmonious," Munro said. "Corruption, abuse of power at local levels, land seizures across the country, all seem to be getting worse. ... There's a big squeeze on many segments of the population."

Another question is whether China is seeing fewer mass incidents, or whether fewer are being reported. In recent months, the powerful Propaganda Ministry has issued rules banning coverage of public disturbances without authorization.

This dovetails with the Hu administration's bid to expand its control over civic groups, Internet essayists, public interest lawyers, activists, academics and other potential critics. That said, China's rapid economic and social transformation, widening rich-poor gap, unemployment gap and the massive migration of rural residents to urban areas would challenge the skills of most governments anywhere.

Some analysts suggest the nature of Chinese disturbances might be changing, with fewer disturbances among rural residents and more among migrant workers and students. But they readily admit that this is difficult to substantiate.

In recent months, several campuses have erupted as a growing number of graduates nationwide fight for fewer jobs. Beijing is particularly sensitive about university protests in the wake of the 1989 student-led Tiananmen Square unrest that saw several hundred students killed.

In late October, students at Ganjiang College and Jiangxi Clothing Vocational College, two vocational schools in eastern Jiangxi province, took to the streets, overturning cars, setting fire to buildings and smashing windows after administrators allegedly misrepresented the type of diplomas that graduates could expect. Calm returned only after riot police were called in.

Even some who believe recent government efforts to lower rural taxes, reduce arbitrary fees and eliminate tuition for farmers' children are reducing social tension question whether the trend can last. "The measures the government has taken only solve the symptoms, not the root," Hu said.

Mark Magnier writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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