Taskforces set up to keep lid on protests

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 February, 2009, 12:00am

Vice-President Xi Jinping has been put in charge of a massive public security campaign to prevent and respond swiftly to any possible social unrest this year, sources say.

The Communist Party leadership is facing several politically sensitive anniversaries at a time when economic growth is faltering and unemployment soaring - which could lead to social discord.

Zhou Yongkang, another Politburo Standing Committee member and the top official in charge of law and order, and Meng Jianzhu, the national police chief and a state councillor, are Mr Xi's deputies on the central government taskforce in charge of the campaign, the sources say.

The taskforce, made up of top party, government and police officials, is believed to have been set up before the Lunar New Year.

All provinces and municipalities have also been required to set up similar taskforces, headed by their deputy party secretaries and assisted by local police and law enforcement chiefs. In the Communist Party hierarchy, the deputy party secretary is the top official in charge of a province's political and party affairs.

Under the programme, governments below provincial and municipal level have also been asked to assign a top party official and police and law enforcement chiefs to oversee social stability and report to the security taskforces, sources familiar with the process say.

The local taskforces will also include officials from local economic and labour departments, government-sanctioned trade unions and the Communist Youth League, the sources said.

The campaign's apparent aim is to step up control over people or areas the authorities believe can cause trouble. It involves heightened surveillance of, among others, political dissidents, human rights campaigners and petitioners, and a tighter grip on the media and internet chat rooms.

What the government fears most is that 'hostile forces at home and abroad' might use discontent over rising unemployment, falling incomes, inequality and corruption to inspire strikes, protests and riots.

Sources said some officials had described the campaign as 'Project 6521' - a reference to this year's 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic on October 1, the 50th anniversary of the failed Tibet uprising in March, the 20th anniversary on June 4 of the suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests and the 10th anniversary in July of the outlawing of the Falun Gong movement.

There are other politically sensitive anniversaries this year, including the 90th anniversary of the May 4 Movement in Beijing that unfurled the banner of modernisation, iconoclasm and democracy and has inspired many student protests since 1949, including the 1989 student-led movement.

History is often an intensely political matter on the mainland. The leadership fears the string of sensitive anniversaries will bring petitions calling for political change.

In December, more than 300 of the country's most prominent activists issued a wide-ranging appeal for democratic reform. This campaign for political and legal reform, known as Charter '08, is the first real opposition to the Communist leadership since the 1989 protest. Protests by Tibetans, petitioners and the unemployed have grown more frequent.

The abrupt economic slowdown has stoked officials' fears of a dangerous rise in social unrest this year. The economy is slowing sharply; it grew at an annual pace of only 6.8 per cent in the final three months of last year - the slowest growth in a decade.

The global financial crisis has thrown at least 20 million migrant workers out of a job.

In January, the government-run weekly magazine Outlook issued an unusually candid warning of the risk of mass disturbances this year.