Crisis? What crisis? Policy-making is driven by disaster

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 June, 2011, 12:00am


The timing of recent major news events that sent tremors through the mainland and raised eyebrows in the international community may well have been coincidental, but their underlying messages are definitely not, highlighting not only the scale of social discontent but also the mainland leadership's peculiar crisis-driven policymaking process.

Since mid-May, the propaganda machine has been in full gear, showing smiling Uygurs and citing statistics to praise significant changes in people's livelihood and infrastructure in Xinjiang over the past year.

This is being done to mark the first anniversary of a high-level central government work conference that took place in May last year. It was the first held over the future of the restive region, for which President Hu Jintao promised massive investments and preferential policies to boost Xinjiang's per capita GDP to the national average by 2015. He also pledged to eliminate poverty by 2020.

The conference was a direct response to the riots in Xinjiang in July 2009 that left nearly 200 Han Chinese dead and about 1,700 injured.

As the propaganda has come into full swing over the past couple of weeks, protests have erupted in Inner Mongolia.

Ethnic Mongolians took to the streets over the death of a herder in a clash over coal mining and its negative impact on the local environment.

While the protests were spreading in Inner Mongolia, a 52-year-old man, apparently angry about property redevelopment, set off three explosions on May 26 at government offices in Fuzhou , Jiangxi province , killing himself and two others.

Four days later, on May 30, Hu chaired a Politburo meeting to discuss ways to 'strengthen and innovate' social management - a euphemism for social controls aimed at defusing tensions.

The Inner Mongolia protests, which garnered the most international attention, surprised many. The so-called autonomous region - which covers more than one-tenth of China's land mass and is known for its natural beauty of vast, rolling green grassland and deserts - has been largely peaceful.

But dig deeper, and anger over the wealth gap and perceived social injustice is a more likely cause of the trouble in Inner Mongolia than ethnic tension. That is also one of the key reasons cited by analysts as having led to deadly riots in Tibet and Xinjiang in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

The central government should have seen the trouble in Inner Mongolia coming long ago. Over the past decade, the region has undertaken massive large-scale development of coal mining to fuel the mainland's economic growth, overtaking Shanxi as China's No 1 supplier of coal in 2009.

While this has made the local authorities and mining operators fabulously rich, the income disparity has also widened between the mostly Han Chinese urbanites and the Mongolian herdsmen who have complained bitterly that the mining operations have damaged the environment and grasslands.

Similar simmering anger had been long apparent before riots broke out in Xinjiang.

Inner Mongolia has also invested heavily in building gleaming high rises and infrastructure in key cities while paying less attention to the rural areas - more or less what happened in Xinjiang before the riots.

To the relief of the mainland leaders, the protests in Inner Mongolia started to fizzle out late last week after the local government's carrot-and-stick strategy worked.

On the one hand, the heavy presence of security forces prevented protesters from gathering, but on the other hand, it promised to address grievances using various measures ranging from more development projects to tighter regulation of coal mining to more student subsidies.

If what happened in Xinjiang and Tibet following the riots is any guide, the central government is most likely to greatly boost spending in Inner Mongolia, with more money going to the poor and needy.

If so, this would be another example of the mainland's crisis-driven policymaking process. History shows that only crises like the deadly riots in Xinjiang or the protests in Inner Mongolia are able to focus the minds of Chinese leaders and propel them to make strategic decisions to move the country forward.

While the politburo is seeking ways to strengthen social controls, while also warning of the arduous process required, the Fuzhou explosions may be a sign of another crisis brewing. As the media attention has focused upon Qian Mingqi and his grievances, few have realised he is arguably the mainland's first suicide bomber in recent years who intended to attack government offices while sacrificing his life.

It is no wonder that censors have banned most of the mainland media from reporting the incident.