Time for reason amid a spate of protests
The latest riot on the mainland, in the northwestern city of Longnan , Gansu , is a striking reminder of the fragility that lies beneath the surface of mainland society as it faces an economic slowdown. Thousands of people have stormed local Communist Party headquarters and other government offices over the past two days, smashing vehicles and clashing with police. Officials have admitted some of the protesters lost their homes under a relocation programme.
Such violent unrest and protests are common across the country, with the Longnan riot attracting media attention only because of the intensity of the violence and the number of rioters involved. The triggers for these events can vary greatly, from land seizures without adequate compensation to corrupt officials and miscarriages of justice. But most stem from public grievances against officialdom. Officials have every right to restore order when violence breaks out. However, protesters are often ordinary people with genuine concerns, rather than troublemakers. This was certainly the case with heartbroken parents whose protests were suppressed after they lost their children in badly built schools during the Sichuan earthquake. Officials should strive to ensure that people with grievances are listened to and that matters do not get out of hand.
Demonstrations had been widespread long before the current global financial crisis, but the potential for unrest has increased with the downturn in the economy. After years of double-digit growth, mainland officials warn gross domestic product growth may fall below 8 per cent next year. This is the level that economists estimate the country needs to keep up with the demand for new jobs. Already, one in two toymakers across the mainland have shut down this year. Many factories are expected to go bankrupt before the Lunar New Year in the greater Pearl River Delta region, leaving many workers out of a job. Already, there have been demonstrations by laid-off workers claiming unpaid wages. Cab drivers continue to protest in several cities over petrol prices and illegal taxies. And the mainland's official environmental watchdog has acknowledged about 51,000 pollution-related protests in 2005 alone.
The central government recognises the danger signs. This is why it is pouring 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.5 trillion) into the economy in the hope of staving off a downturn. Paradoxically, President Hu Jintao has made achieving a harmonious society a state policy goal at a time when riots are on the rise. Despite the often sensible pronouncements and policies of Beijing, officials on the ground frequently resort to the time-honoured tradition of blaming a group of 'gangsters' with ulterior motives for instigating riots, regardless of the nature of the unrest. And state-run media are often told either not to report the event, or only to report the official version.
People resort to demonstrations out of frustration because they believe there are no other channels to resolve their disputes and receive justice. Though the mainland has made some progress in moving towards a system based on the rule of law in recent years, a long road lies ahead. There is an urgent need to develop independent and equitable mechanisms to deal with complaints and grievances against government departments without the fear of reprisals. People should not resort to violence. But they need to know that when they seek redress through official channels, they will be treated fairly. Until they can expect a reasonable hearing and a chance to obtain a just and equitable outcome, protests and demonstrations will remain their only choice.