87,000 Chinese riots: Good news, bad news

Politics as usual or China spinning into chaos?

Published July 17, 2006 6:47PM (EDT)

The great Chinese novel "The Water Margin" tells the action-packed stories of 108 bandits, driven to their lives of outlawry by the corrupt government of the declining Song dynasty. Resistance is justified, is the moral of the story, not to mention a life of crime filled with much drunkeness and people getting beaten over the head with quarterstaffs, when the emperor abandons his duty to the people.

The enduring potency of "The Water Margin's" righteous fervor is one reason why China watchers were driven into a frenzy of comment in January, when the Chinese government announced that there had been 87,000 "public disturbances" in 2005, up sharply from the numbers for 2004 and 2003. The figure immediately became a fixture of China commentary, available to bolster an array of wildly varying arguments. But whether cited as proof that China is about to collape into anarchy or as proof that a democratic civil society is finally emerging, and whether inspired by greedy officials, rising inequality or environmental devastation (or all of the above), the one thing most explanations had in common was that the numbers signified serious trouble for the government, a warning sign that the Chinese Communist Party was in danger of losing the mandate of heaven.

But what always confused me was the genesis of the number -- from the Public Security Bureau of the government itself.

A piece of analysis in today's International Herald Tribune offers one explanation. The release of the number should be seen in the context of a continuing high-level struggle over the direction of the Chinese economy. By this reckoning, it was part of an offensive by the current president, Hu Jintao, and premier, Wen Jiabao, to make their case for slowing the pace of economic growth, adjusting the rural-urban wealth dichotomy, and achieving more balanced development across the country. Thus, it was a shot across the bow at the declining influence of Jiang Zemin and his "Shanghai Clique," the group of reformers who sharply accelerated the pace of market-oriented reforms.

"Jiang's government didn't publicize data on social unrest," writes Bremmer, a political "risk consultant." "When Hu assumed the presidency, protest statistics began to appear. To force policy changes through China's labyrinthine bureaucracy, senior officials are often forced to generate a crisis atmosphere that lends urgency to the implementation of their plans."

The Chinese version of Kremlinology -- attempting to interpret the backroom political maneuvers of the CCP from the tenor of economic and social analyses published in Communist Party publications -- is a fun parlor game that everyone can play, even if nobody really knows what's going on. For example, is Hu Jintao a radical leftist for worrying about the "social costs" of growth, or a pragmatic moderate, or even a conservative? All three descriptions of him abound in coverage of Chinese politics.

But just as I acknowledged a couple of weeks ago with respect to the World Bank statistics on the number of people in the world who live in extreme poverty, I have to cop to citing the 87,000 figure without always putting it in the proper political context. And I don't think I've been the only one. This is especially important if one wants to use the number as evidence that the government is losing control, because seen as an explicit political tactic, it could also suggest that the state is as strong as ever.

This is not to call into question the very real inequities, out-of-control development, and corrupt local government policies that are resulting in unrest, or the spread of communication technologies that mean that word is getting out to the general public more quickly than ever before. There's a real social tension here that cuts to the core of Chinese history, as the enduring popularity of the "The Water Margin" demonstrates. If the government screws up so badly that peasants and workers start to organize bandit groups in mountain fastnesses, that's bad news for the CCP. But that's not necessarily what's happening. Two factions are disagreeing on how to proceed with continued reform, while continuing to rule with an iron hand. This dynasty is far from crumbling.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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