Discontent, but no revolt in China — yet

China squelched calls for protest Sunday, but onlookers shouldn't rule out unrest in world's most populous country

Topics: China, Asia,

Discontent, but no revolt in China -- yetHu Jintao(Credit: AP/Xinhua, Li Tao)

For those who rule out the possibility of a Middle East-style democracy revolution in China, consider the town of Xiangshui.

There, tens of thousands of farmers fled their homes this month in a middle-of-the-night panic on rumors that a nearby chemical plant with a bad safety record would explode. The chaos ensued despite appeals from officials that the rumors were unfounded. It left four people dead when a motorized three-wheel vehicle jammed with 20 people veered into a river.

China may have successfully squelched a mysterious call for protests Sunday, but people’s trust that the government will look after their interests runs shallow.

“The current regime structure is very fragile. It’s not right for revolution at the moment, but that doesn’t mean mass political upheaval can’t take place in the future,” said Minxin Pei, a China politics expert at Claremont McKenna College in California.

In the latest test, China’s authoritarian government seems to have dispatched the threat of public protests with great efficiency. In response to an Internet appeal of unknown origin for simultaneous protests in 13 cities Sunday, police detained known activists, disconnected some cell-phone text messaging services and blocked online searches for the phrase “Jasmine Revolution” — the name of both the protest call and the wave of Middle East democracy protests that started in Tunisia.

As a result, only a handful of people protested in Beijing and Shanghai, though hundreds of onlookers made it difficult to discern sympathizers from rubberneckers. On Monday, many activists remained in detention or unreachable, state media mainly ignored the protests, and Internet connections to news sites and search engines were sporadic, usually a sign of heavy government monitoring.

Tens of thousands of large-scale though local protests take place every year over corruption, seizures of land for development and other acts of government misfeasance. Food safety scandals over milk laced with industrial chemicals and rice contaminated with heavy metals have shaken the confidence of middle class consumers.

Still few China watchers believe a revolution is at hand, following the mass demonstrations that swept the autocratic rulers of Tunisia and Egypt aside and are now violently engulfing Libya and roiling Algeria, Bahrain and Yemen. Conditions in China aren’t quite as desperate.



China is the world’s fastest-growing major economy, with economists predicting another year of better than 9 percent growth for 2011. While unemployment is surely higher than the nearly 5 percent urban joblessness rate, factory wages and conditions are improving for many. University graduates — a crucial group in Egypt’s uprising — are finding jobs in China, though they are poorly paid.

The military, at least at the leadership level, is not showing fissures in support for Communist Party rule, and the police state has suppressed any opposition leaders or organizations from emerging.

“If you look at Chinese people, their lives are improving. There’s no way they are going to put their lives on the line,” said Jing Huang of the National University of Singapore.

Yet as adept as the Chinese leadership has become in learning from the mistakes of other authoritarian regimes and keeping the economy humming, it has steadfastly refused to open up the political system. That insistence on “maintaining stability,” in the government’s phrase, is now seen by many in China as exacerbating social problems: rampant government corruption, glaring gaps between the haves and have-nots and withering public trust.

“History will prove that stability cannot be placed above all else and that quite possibly will destroy all else. This ossified mentality that stability overrides all else will nip in the bud all our efforts to bring health to Chinese society,” said often outspoken Tsinghua University sociologist Sun Liping in a commentary last week on the Renmin Wang website.

Rather than social upheaval, Sun’s diagnosis is that Chinese society is speeding toward extinction, crushed by government power that ruthlessly protects vested interests.

One of those who wanted to take part in Sunday’s protests, lawyer Liu Shihui, posted a message on Twitter — “I have a date with the Jasmine Revolution group” — but never made it. At the doorway to his home in the southern city of Guangzhou, five men stopped him, hooded him and beat him with sticks of bamboo.

“It was cruel,” he said by telephone from a hospital Monday as he received treatment for cuts and possible fractures on his legs. “They didn’t say a word. They just started beating.”

It isn’t just activists who suffer. An analysis of the stampede in the coastal town of Xiangshui found that locals had good reason to be worried about the chemical plant’s safety. After a 2007 explosion killed eight people, the local government prevented reporters from investigating the accident, said the analysis posted on a web site run by the national prosecutor’s ministry.

The government has become so adept at silencing critics and suppressing protests, starting with the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989, that scholars worry that it is becoming a well-worn tool. When that happens, police states can tire, and Claremont McKenna’s Pei said, regimes that look very stable sometimes collapse, like the communist bloc in Europe in 1989, Indonesia a decade later and seemingly Egypt this year.

The original, anonymous call for a Chinese “Jasmine Revolution” echoed some of the tactics of these earlier movements. The appeal said people should gather not just this past Sunday afternoon, but on every Sunday afternoon.

AP Beijing Bureau Chief Charles Hutzler has covered China for more than a decade. Associated Press reporter Cara Anna contributed to this report.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>