Social stability seems rocky in much-vaunted boom times

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 12:00am

CHINA IS 'BOOMING', as everyone says, in more ways than one. That atrocious and over-used word is typically used when comparing the mainland's economy to that of its struggling regional neighbours, or when waxing poetic about the post-World Trade Organisation riches supposedly awaiting Hong Kong and foreign investors.

But it applies just as well to China's polity in a pejorative sense, as evidenced early on Friday morning when not just one or two - but 22 - bombs went off in the western Guangdong port city of Zhanjiang and Jiangmen in the Pearl River Delta.

One failed to detonate, but the others exploded within 20 minutes of each other.

According to the official version, one man - Lin Guojian, 39, was responsible for the bombings, and the explosions were not massive.

No buildings came tumbling down, and in most photos the damage looked to be little more than a few blown-out windows or doors.

But they did kill five people - conveniently including the alleged perpetrator - and injured seven more.

And, when viewed up-close, the damage at some of the bomb sites was greater than expected.

Where Mr Lin supposedly blew himself up, for example, the force of the blast shattered windows as far as 100 metres away and ripped apart air conditioners and telephone switch boxes as if they were aluminum cans.

One can only imagine what it did to Mr Lin himself, whose remains were identified after DNA analysis.

The point of rehashing all this is not just to generate copy for a journalist whose original column subject - along with his planned weekend Christmas shopping trip to Hong Kong - was blown apart by Friday's developments.

Rather it is to remind readers how easy it is to exaggerate China's much-vaunted 'social stability', even when evidence of its real instability repeatedly confronts you.

This has been the year of the angry lone male on the mainland. In March an elementary school explosion that killed 43 children and teachers in Jiangxi was blamed, literally, on the village idiot.

Weeks later, another lone bomber was proffered up as the culprit for a series of blasts that killed 108 people in Hebei's provincial capital, Shijiazhuang. So far this year, the death toll from 12 suspected criminal explosions on the mainland stands at 226.

In most of these cases, a similar and telling pattern emerged, and it was repeated again during the weekend in Zhanjiang.

First the foreign media or a brave local newspaper gets wind of the fact that there has been an explosion and puts out a report, which is usually fragmentary.

On Friday evening, for example, Reuters said there had been at least 13 explosions in Zhanjiang.

The Beijing Evening News subsequently published news of the explosions in Jiangmen. But while it was noted they occurred at about the same time as the Zhanjiang ones, there was no concrete evidence connecting the explosions in the two cities.

The Chinese Government was then forced to confirm the event through its Xinhua News Agency, which put out a bare-bones statement acknowledging only 'several minor explosions' and two deaths in Zhanjiang. Beyond that there was silence.

As a result, for two full days Zhanjiang residents learned of a major local story not from their own newspapers, but by word of mouth.

Taxi drivers appear to have been leading disseminators. A number of drivers said they learned of the explosions from passengers who lived near one of the blast sites and in turn passed the news on to other passengers.

Finally, on Saturday evening the Guangdong Public Security Bureau trotted out its official - and final - version of events, which held the dead Mr Lin and a minor accomplice in Jiangmen responsible for all 22 bomb attacks.

The bureau's statement was then regurgitated in the mainland press the next day. Case closed.

Or is it? While there is no evidence of a government cover-up, legitimate questions were left unanswered.

For example, Guangdong security officials said the explosions in Zhanjiang were motivated by commercial disputes, but they did not say what line of business Mr Lin had been in or for whom he had worked.

And how exactly could one man carry out so many attacks in such a short period of time, especially when - according to a police timetable - five of the explosions occurred after the blast that killed Mr Lin?

Chances are the Guangdong Public Security Bureau has plausible answers to such questions. But, because the authorities want it to appear that China is back to its normal 'politically stable' self, you will not be hearing them soon.

Indeed, the same pattern - explosion, silence, incomplete official explanation, silence - is being repeated in the McDonald's bombing case in Xian.