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China's Angry Peasants

Author: Esther Pan
December 15, 2005
This publication is now archived.


China is pursuing policies aimed at maximizing economic growth, which has averaged 9 percent annually for two decades. As a result, experts say, Beijing is struggling to contain economic dislocation and social discontent resulting from market reforms that are not accompanied by commensurate political liberalization. The Chinese government announced this year that there were 74,000 protests nationwide in 2004 over such issues as land confiscations, pollution, taxation, corruption, and religion. Experts say surging social unrest reflects frustration, particularly in the countryside, with the lack of redress available through official channels. In the latest incident, in Dongzhou—a small town in China's prosperous southern Guangdong province—the demonstrations turned violent: Police opened fire on protesters, killing several.


What happened in Dongzhou?

Simmering discontent over confiscated farmland and the pollution of fishing waters burst into the open on December 6, when residents of the town of Dongzhou—reportedly armed with gasoline bombs, firecrackers, and knives—clashed with police. Police fired tear gas into the crowd, which did not disperse; the police then reportedly used live bullets. Official reports say three people were killed and eight wounded, but villagers and international media reports say at least twenty people were shot by police and up to fifty are still missing. Some villagers were afraid to cross police barricades to reach hospitals, and others reported local officials were trying to cover up the incident by offering people money to turn over their loved ones' bodies. Police sealed off roads to the village after the incident.

What prompted the protests?

Local authorities confiscated farmland used by the town of 10,000 people to build a coal-burning electricity plant to supply power to Shanwei, a city fourteen miles to the northwest, and surrounding towns. Residents were offered compensation, but claim the amount offered was paltry. In addition, fishermen claimed the power plant would pollute nearby Baisha Lake, which local families rely on for food. "The underlying cause of strife here is the perennial problem of compensation for taking of lands," says Jacques deLisle, an expert on Chinese law at the University of Pennsylvania. Under a series of 1980s reforms known as the "responsibility system," farmers received long-term usage rights to their plots of land, and were able to better their economic situation by selling extra crops to local markets. They came to expect those rights would continue to the end of the decades-long leases; now they're angry at the seemingly arbitrary way their rights were taken away without proper compensation, experts say. Other causes of recent protests around the country include environmental damage—reckless economic development has led to widespread pollution and environmental blight—unfair application of taxes and fees, and endemic corruption by local officials.

What has been the official response to Dongzhou?

Local officials arrested the officer who ordered police to shoot villagers and accused him of "wrong actions." This is an unusual move for the authorities, experts say. The government is now actively trying to suppress information about the incident, banning all mention of it from the official news agencies, freezing web search engines that search for town's name, and erasing blog mentions of the incident as soon as they are posted.

How has China handled previous bouts of unrest?

Experts say officials use a mixture of carrots and sticks to forestall further protests. "The local government will try to divide the leadership—detaining, sentencing and/or torturing them—while repressing and co-opting the others," says Jerome Cohen, a noted expert on Chinese law and adjunct senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They'll give a little candy to the crying babies." Cohen says local governments have been known to hire thugs to beat up protesters, to prevent anyone recording images of the police doing it. These enforcers generally use batons, tear gas, and other methods, but rarely live weapons. But the protestors often also come armed. "Some of these farmers can also play rough," Cohen says. Some have appeared at protests with dynamite charges, hoes, spears, knives, and other weapons.

While this conflict plays out at the local level, Beijing tends to blame local officials for the problems, punish a few, and distance itself from the trouble. "The central government tries to position itself as a good actor," says Adam Segal, the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "So far, the government's been very effective at keeping protests local and keeping workers away from students and farmers [who could broaden the protests]."

Are protests becoming more common?

There has been a clear increase in protests over the last decade. In 1994, there were 10,000 protests, according to China's Public Security Ministry; by 2003, there were some 58,000; and in 2004 there were 74,000 incidents involving some 3.76 million people. Even these figures are "probably underreported," Segal says. Cohen says the 2004 figure has probably doubled in the last year, putting the number of 2005 protests at over 150,000. "Most of these incidents arise from local dissatisfaction," says Cohen. "The common thread is that when people seek to make their grievances known—by petitioning government offices or going to court—they are often frustrated by the runarounds, delays, excuses, and inaction they face there." That frustration feeds local ferment, which leads to collective action.

Why is the Chinese government reporting the protest figures?

Experts say it's telling that the statistic was announced by China's security minister, Zhou Yongkang. Many say the figure is likely to be much higher, but that announcing the 74,000 number to the world bolsters the Communist Party's case for being the only entity that can guarantee social stability. In addition, "the government is trying to demonstrate to some people why it's important to have a very strong police force," Cohen says. "It's good for the budget for the public security forces" to have the number of incidents of 'social disturbance' be known, he says.

Why are the Chinese increasingly turning to protests?

"They're becoming the victims of their own economic success," Cohen says. "Everybody's feeling his oats, in part because of their economic success and the new openness in society." A sense of "rights consciousness"—the Chinese phrase for an awareness of one's rights—is turning people into activists who weren't before, Cohen says. Guangdong province, where Dongzhou is located, has been transformed by the economic boom of the last twenty years from a farmland of fields, rice paddies, and orchards into an increasingly industrial zone of factories, loading docks, and power stations. Local citizens feel they don't have enough of a say in how their area is changing, they see local officials and their relatives getting rich from bribes and stolen funds, and they are angry and frustrated, experts say.

What is the Communist Party doing about corruption?

It wants to root it out, but it's so systemic in at the local administration level there's little party leaders can do from Beijing, experts say. "It's the traditional problem of how you rule a big country," Segal says. "There's a Chinese saying: 'Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.'" The Beijing government doesn't always have control over local security forces, for example, which tend to answer to local officials more than the central security agency. And local officials, especially the ones far from the capital, tend to run their own fiefdoms. "Local officials are so powerful, and so invested in the economic development of their regions, that it's very difficult to change anything," says Veron Hung, a Chinese law expert.

Others say it's a matter of Beijing choosing its battles. While corruption is a "matter of life and death for the party, as the leadership has said many times," says Cohen, the central government is still choosing carefully how to use its limited resources. "On issues of highest priority—national security, or suppression of the Falun Gong sect [seen as a potential threat to the party because of its ability to mobilize masses of people]—the central government's power is almost total," Cohen says. "On other issues, they prioritize."

Are Chinese citizens becoming bolder about demanding their rights?

"Rights consciousness is growing, which is a major reason we have so many protests," Hung says. "When you're aware of your rights but the system doesn't address your needs, you turn to protest," she says. Ordinary Chinese are making more petitions to local or central government agencies, and also turning more to the national court system. "There are a lot of indicators that a 'rights consciousness' is taking hold," Cohen says. In addition, technology—particularly cell phones equipped with text messaging, cameras, and video capacity—are helping people across the country learn about other protests, even while official reports are still banned in the state media.

Do the protests have the power to threaten the Communist Party?

The central government's greatest fear is that a charismatic leader will arise and unify the protesters. If unified, the rural unhappiness over corruption, overdevelopment, and income inequality—combined with urban worker and student grievances—could be a tremendously powerful social force. But experts say the revolution is not quite here yet. "It's clear the protests are becoming bigger and there are more of them, but there's no risk of them overthrowing the Communist Party because there's no coordination between them," Segal says. He says any group that attempted to link the protests or reach across regional lines would be dealt with very severely by the authorities.

Will the central government attempt to address the underlying grievances?

It's unlikely, experts say. The Chinese government's first tendency with bad news is to cover it up. The SARS outbreak in 2003—which officials denied for months, endangering global health—and the November 2005 Harbin chemical plant explosion, which was hidden for ten days until the water supply for more than three million residents was shut off due to contamination, are examples of this behavior. The criticism levied at Beijing after those incidents hasn't produced any changes in official behavior, experts say. "I don't think they've learned the lesson that you should tell the truth," Segal says. "They've learned they can only cover something up for a short amount of time." The most significant issue driving the protests, experts say, is the need for structural change in society, which can only be papered over for so long. "The problem is weak institutions," Cohen says. "The Chinese government faces a challenge: Will it create a truly independent judicial system that people can have real confidence in? Otherwise, the protests will continue."

Is China undertaking reform of its legal system?

It's trying, experts say, but the reality lags behind the intent. China passed some court reforms in late October, Hung says, and the latest five-year plan for the judiciary mentions several others. "They are trying to make the system fairer, but the implementation is spotty," she says. Other experts say the authorities are doing an effective job of educating people about their rights, but then can't deliver on the promises they make—for property rights, civil liberties, or individual freedoms. "The reforms are sincerely met, but implementation fails, and then they've raised expectations that are not met," deLisle says. In some ways, experts warn, this creates a situation more unstable than if citizens were told they had no rights at all.

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