Beijing's increasingly heavy-handed response to maintain stability

Chang Ping says two recent heavy-handed displays of power to quell relatively minor protests show the authorities are ramping up efforts to maintain stability, and would not hesitate to quash any sign of dissent

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 2:53am

Before the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, the most serious public incident in Chengdu was the protest against the setting up of a petrochemical plant in the suburbs of Pengzhou city. People answered blog calls and gathered "for a peaceful stroll" on May 4. That followed a number of anti-pollution protests in Xiamen.

A large number of police officers were on hand at the protest site, dispersing any passers-by who looked likely to linger for an assembly. City authorities and businesses also called meetings with employees, warning them that they would be sacked and punished if they were absent from work that day. As a result, the protest was quashed.

The Wenchuan quake happened just eight days later, killing more than 88,000 people. Despite the sadness, the people were glad that the site for the planned Pengzhou petrochemical facility had been badly damaged and the project would most likely be scrapped. Certainly, they did not expect the project to return five years later. Another "peaceful stroll" seemed to be on the cards on May 4 this year.

The difference today, from five years ago, was marked. This time, the authorities took much stronger measures. Chengdu authorities organised a drill for some 170,000 people to promote social stability. All the streets and alleys around the planned protest were packed with uniformed and plainclothes police officers as well as all manner of people ready to defend "order".

It was a weekend but schools stayed open and all private and public offices were open for overtime. Meanwhile, people buying surgical masks had to register their names first; shopkeepers were asked to report purchases. Rights activists either went "missing" or were kept in custody. I phoned a female acquaintance who had taken part in the "tofu schools" investigation after the Wenchuan quake and found that she was being watched and monitored by four policemen. This protest was over even faster than the one five years ago.

On May 3, Yuan Liya, a young woman from Anhui, plunged to her death from the multi-storey Jingwen wholesale clothing market in the Fengtai district of Beijing. Police said it was suicide.

Her family asked for surveillance videos to be checked, but police refused. Blog rumours began to circulate claiming she had jumped to her death as she tried to resist being gang raped by security guards. On May 8, protesters gathered outside the market and demanded a thorough police investigation. The response they got was the arrival of a shockingly large contingent of anti-riot police, armed officers, military vehicles and helicopters. Some people even claimed to have seen heavy artillery being delivered. It was almost like a war zone in the southern section of the capital.

A friend with a non-governmental organisation in Beijing told me she suggested they should pay attention to this gathering of civilian protesters. But before they could even decide what to do next, police had arrived at their office. The fact is that this proactive NGO is under constant surveillance and monitoring.

My conversations with some people involved in the two cases have led me to doubt several ideas currently in vogue about the authorities.

First, it is generally thought that the government authorities are plagued by internal chaos, with corruption and bureaucracy rife in their ranks, which is adversely affecting their efficiency.

This certainly seems to be the case whenever they are called on to deal with livelihood problems. But, when it comes to ensuring the safety of the ruling class, miraculously, the system works like clockwork.

For years, the public at large and academics believed that strongman politics had ended with the death of Deng Xiaoping, and that there would be no one bold enough to give the order to "fire" on protesters in the event of another June 4 incident occurring. But we must question that belief when artillery and helicopters are immediately deployed in a minor case involving the death of a young woman.

Should another June 4 occur, it seems that today there would be no intra-party struggle or moral conflict to be resolved; the gunfire might just begin sooner, and the violence be more forceful. In addition, since it became known that the Communist Party has for years been spending billions of yuan annually on efforts to maintain social stability, the media, both at home and abroad, has questioned the ability of the state to sustain this, simply in financial terms.

The fact is that with repeated crackdowns by the authorities eroding people's courage to resist, the party may not need to raise its budget that drastically to maintain stability. And when law-enforcement officers seek to maintain stability at all costs, shirking their other duties such as maintaining law and order and helping the people, what is the cost? With only this to gauge their performance, there is no proper mechanism to hold them responsible. Added to this, without scrutiny and monitoring in the court of public opinion, authorities find it all too easy to impose taxes, both directly and in other ways.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese