Media Summary: U.S. and Asian Newspapers Analyze Recent Unrest in China (Last Updated Nov. 17)

November 22, 2004

In recent weeks, China has been hit by a series of large-scale riots and demonstrations in different regions. According to various reports:

  • 10,000 citizens blocked traffic in Bengbu, Anhui to protest low pensions (October 22-24).
  • Nearly 10,000 citizens reportedly started rioting over the police response to a minor street scuffle in Chongqing’s Wanzhou district (October 22).
  • Ethnic rioting between Han Chinese and minority Hui Muslims broke out in Henan province, leaving at least seven dead (late October, additional information here).
  • Thousands of Sichuan villagers who had been relocated for a hydroelectric project and who were angry over inadequate compensation clashed with police in late October. When Sichuan province Party Secretary Zhang Xuezhong visited the scene of the protests on November 5, he was reportedly detained for a short time by tens of thousands of angry demonstrators. More than 10,000 soldiers have been dispatched to the scene (additional information here).
  • More than 2,000 demonstrators gathered in Fu’an city, Fujian province to demand the release of fellow demonstrators. The residents have been protesting inadequate land compensation. (November 4)
  • Riot police in Guangxi put down a protest of several hundred peasants protesting the seizure of their land (November 12, additional information here).
  • Large-scale protests erupted in Guangdong and Yunnan, sparked by disputes related to bridge tolls and abusive police behavior. Neither incident appears to have been reported in the Chinese press. (November 16, additional information here)

U.S. and Asian media have published a series of reports analyzing these incidents and their implications. Although none of the reports concludes that China is on the verge of a mass uprising, all of them note the growing number of demonstrations, the instability they are causing, and the lack of effective channels through which China’s poor may seek redress of their grievances.

  • On November 3, the South China Morning Post published two articles on the outbreak of unrest. One Chinese expert interviewed for the articles concluded, “these incidents show that China is at a crossroads, where problems like those of farmers, laid-off workers and ethnic tension all blend together.” The expert noted that the lack of mechanisms through which disadvantaged groups may seek justice is a factor in such incidents.
  • On November 4, the Washington Post published an extensive report reviewing the recent spate of unrest. The piece notes that protests and riots are occurring with increasing frequency and cites Western experts who conclude that demonstrations are growing larger and more violent. In October, the Post also published a detailed feature on unrest caused by illegal land seizures.
  • On November 5, the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) also published a review of the recent unrest, drawing conclusions similar to those of the Washington Post piece. The Journal article focuses in part on the explosion of citizen petitions and the lack of working channels through which citizens can resolve disputes peacefully.
  • On November 6, the Straits Times in Singapore published an article based largely on interviews with a CASS specialist on unrest in China. Applying a comparative analysis of Gini coefficients (a rating used by economists to gauge wealth distribution in a society) now and at other times of unrest in China’s history, the specialist suggests that China is reaching a potential breaking point. According to official Chinese statistics, there have already been 58,000 protests in China this year, a 15% increase over 2002.
  • In an analysis published on November 12 in the Asia Times, Li Yongyan discusses the spark that Sichuan protests provided to the Chinese Revolution in 1911 and draws parallels to the Hanyuan incident. Li concludes that the government's relatively conciliatory response may embolden demonstrators elsewhere.
  • A Voice of America analysis published on November 15 discussed both the economic forces driving recent protests as well as government strategies for containing them.
  • In a more extensive piece dated November 16, Asia Times interviewed several Western China experts on the recent protests. Although one expert points to signs of increased communication between activists on the street, others note that the unrest is still localized and lacks leadership and organization. Moreover, they conclude, anger in the countryside is directed primarily at local officials, not the central goverment, which has maintained legitimacy with buy-off strategies and expressions of sympathy.
  • On November 9, China Youth Daily reported on a new regulation in Sichuan that requires local officials to immediately report all "urgent and major incidents" to provincial officials. The circular suggests government concern that local officials are covering up demonstrations such as the one in Hanyuan.