Kathleen E. McLaughlin
June 17, 2011
BEIJING, China — A new round of social unrest is grabbing attention in China.
It must be spring.
In the spring of 2008, there were mass riots in Tibet, followed by deadly riots in Xinjiang a year later. Last year, it seemed that labor strikes were popping up at a record pace all over the country, particularly at the facilities of foreign companies.
This year, clusters of migrant workers, parents and townspeople have taken to the streets in different parts of China to voice complaints over everything from regional discrimination and a growing wealth gap to government corruption and lead poisoning among children.
In the past few weeks alone, there have been several highly publicized demonstrations:
• Hundreds of migrant workers rioted for three days in a denim production center of Guangdong province after a pregnant migrant worker from Sichuan province was maltreated by security forces. Officials said that in addition to 25 rioters, they have arrested a man for spreading rumors on the internet.
• Large protests also erupted this week in Zhejiang province in response to widespread lead poisoning in a manufacturing area known for making foil.
• Citizens in Hubei province took to the streets to protest the death of an anti-corruption government crusader earlier this month. His family believes he was murdered in police custody.
• Violent protests also erupted this week in Zhejiang province among residents angry over heavy-handed land grabs.
It seems like this early summer season is more prone to protest than usual. But why? It may well be that protests are getting more media attention, experts say, or it could be that the incidents have grown larger. It’s almost possible to tell.
Much of the answer may come down to not whether conditions have worsened for workers and others, but how well the media is allowed to do its job and what information is released to the public. China has not released official statistics on what it calls “mass incidents,” a broad term that includes most protests, in five years. Experts said, however, that the number is likely around 100,000 such incidents every year, all around the country.
“For me, I think the question is not why are so many people protesting, but why are not more people protesting given the day-to-day social injustice that ordinary people have to endure?” said Geoffrey Crothall, communications director for the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. “We shouldn’t be at all surprised that people are taking to the streets, because the vast majority of them have no other alternative.”
The migrant worker protests have appeared to grab most of the headlines so far, drawing attention to continued problems for what many consider China’s second-class citizens. As many as 200 million Chinese work away from their homes, foregoing full legal protections and social benefits like education for their children and health care.
Media reports in Guangzhou have focused on the issues facing migrants and growing resentment between Sichuanese migrant workers and the local landowners who have gotten rich off their labor.
“These issues of frustration, anger and just a sense of social injustice, are very deeply ingrained in ordinary people in China and they see it every day,” Crothall said. “The gap between rich and poor is getting to obscene levels.”
A Chinese academic who didn’t want to be named said he believes the government needs to begin taking the underlying causes of mass incidents seriously and address ongoing concerns that lead to protests and sometimes violence. Rapid economic development has helped millions, but created broad inequities and other problems.
“The government should think over,” he said. “Is it really worth it to pursue higher GDP with so many problems across the land?"