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China’s Political Safety Valve

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
March 26, 2007

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Social protests in China no longer startle. Hundreds and even thousands regularly gather to rail against local corruption, land expropriation, environmental degradation, or unpaid wages, often prompting harsh police crackdowns. In recent days, police teargassed protesters (Radio Australia) when the crowd blocked train lines in eastern China to protest redistricting they fear may threaten their social benefits. The unrest has not escaped Communist Party notice: An official newspaper advised local authorities to restrain (AP) from using force in protests that serve as a “collective appeal for help from violations of the law.” CFR Fellow Carl Minzner says in a new podcast that China lacks institutional means to address grievances at the local level, so protesters mount large-scale demonstrations to petition the central government for assistance.

If the issues discussed at the recently concluded National People’s Congress (NPC) serve as any indication, Beijing hopes to address the widening gap between the urban wealthy and rural poor causing instability, as an analysis by the Power and Interest News Report explains. The NPC has also sought to address the grievances (Xinhua) of the tens of millions of rural migrants moving to cities in search of work by requiring cities and provinces with large migrant populations to meet quotas for migrant representatives among their delegates at the 2008 NPC meeting. The degree to which the new NPC law will assist internal migrants remains to be seen, given that a large number of them move without official permission and, therefore, may not be included in counts that determine representation. A new Backgrounder looks at how China’s household registration system affects internal migrants, as well as the obstacles that prevent them from accessing social services.

One of the more controversial laws passed by the Communist Party’s Congress protects individual property rights. The new law includes a stipulation that “the property of the state, the collective, the individual…is protected by law, and no units or individuals may infringe upon it.” Philip I. Levy of the American Enterprise Institute writes that, despite China’s lack of an independent judiciary to protect against “predatory inclinations of high officials,” the law serves as an important first step in ensuring individual property rights.

The Economist reports (Subscription only) the property law “is mainly intended to reassure the country’s fast-growing middle class that their assets are secure.” The legislation could resolve land-ownership issues for rural farmers, who receive thirty-year leases for land plots, to renew leases after they expire. With land appropriation one of the chief causes of social protests in China, the property law seeks to show rural Chinese “that they, too, can have a direct impact on legislation,” says intelligence analysis site Stratfor. But the law does not prohibit land appropriations, effectively failing to protect (Asia Times) farmers’ land rights. Minzner says that even if the Communist Party passes legislation in response to collective action, the one-party system prevents the guarantee of such laws: “Unless you’re going to compromise or attempt to create independent institutions outside the control of your local party secretary, how do you actually make sure he’s abiding by what the national rules are?”

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