Among other things, it has highlighted the challenges for a Chinese government desperate to preserve stability while at the same time pursuing reforms that continue to tear at the nation's social and economic fabric.

 

The event in question, a riot between the minority Hui, who are nominally Muslim, and the majority Han Chinese, appeared to have been sparked by a fatal car crash involving a Hui driver and a Han child.

 

Although ethnic clashes are rare in China, the rapid escalation of violence that left a reported seven people dead does suggest long simmering tensions between the two communities. The region remains under military control.

 

Pattern of unrest

 

The incident, though, is only one of several reported acts of civil unrest since late October. In coastal Zhejiang province, protesters blocked a national highway over a pay dispute, igniting several cars in the process.

 

Chen Guidi has investigated the
tribulations of Chinese farmers

In the city of western Chinese city of Chongqing, between 10-20,000 people protested outside government buildings in response to an incident in which it was believed a government official had beaten a worker.

 

While in the province of Sichuan, fighting continues between police and up to 30,000 protesters who are being relocated to make way for a dam. Several people have also been reported killed.

 

"Such occurrences take place regularly, and they are likely to continue," Gilles Guiheux, head of the French Research Centre on Contemporary China, says.

 

Issues localised

 

Historically associated with dynastic change, social unrest today is no longer linked to grievances such as famine that would have affected hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people at any one time.

 

"Protests reflect the changing climate of China. The country is experiencing huge changes but with
huge levels of waste
and corruption"

Hu Xingdou,
Researcher,
Beijing Institute of Technology

Issues now tend to be localised, focusing on redundancies, compensation levels for housing relocation, illegal seizure of farmland for development, and general abuse at the hands of rapacious officials.

 

Today's protesters appear to be increasingly better organised, with leaders, knowledge of laws and regulations, a degree of political acumen, and at present a focus on the grievance at hand. No longer is it simply about burning down the emperor's palace.

 

"Although directed at the government, a defining feature of popular protest was that it did not challenge the political system as such. Instead, protesters typically legitimated their actions by invoking rules, regulations, and policies promulgated by the authorities, especially the centre," wrote Thomas Bernstein of Columbia University in a 2003 study on rural unrest.

 

Inexact figures

 

The Chinese government describes social unrest as an issue of grave concern, and usually asks domestic media not to report on specific incidents.

 

Li Ping of RDI says farmers need
to be made aware of their rights

Exact figures are sketchy but one report in China Outlook magazine, published by China's Xinhua news agency, said three million people were involved in 58,000 acts of social unrest in 2003.

 

A 2001 report from China's Central Committee's Organisation Department said: "What is especially worthy of attention is that at present the frequency of collective incidents is rising more and more, their scope is broadening more and more, the feelings expressed are becoming fiercer and fiercer, and the harm they do is becoming greater and greater."

It added, "Frequently hundreds and thousands and even up to 10,000" were involved."

 

And as uneconomical state-owned enterprises continue to be closed, dams are built to feed the nations surging power demands, and fields are planted over with concrete, the reasons for social disgruntlement will multiply.

 

Changing climate

 

Hu Xingdou, an outspoken researcher on social issues at the Beijing Institute of Technology, says, "These protests reflect the changing climate of China. The country is experiencing huge changes but with huge levels of waste and corruption."

 

Often, Hu says, the point of protest is to attract the attention of the central government, which under the oft branded "populist" leadership of Premier Wen Jiabao is widely seen as being more sensitive towards workers.

 

Illegal land seizures have hurt
some 40 million farmers in China

"As a farmer, if you go to complain to local officials and they beat you up, then you need to go to higher and higher officials until you reach the central government which will investigate and hopefully make some arrests," according to Chen Guidi, author of An Investigation into Chinese Farmers, a widely circulated and comparatively hard-hitting work on issues facing rural workers.

 

And this is reflected in official actions. Although usually quick to nip protests in the bud, central governments investigations will later point the finger at local officials for inciting the situation through poor leadership.

 

Realistic solutions

 

For decision makers, the key lies in trying to break this cycle of grievance, protest and violence.

 

"The frequency of collective incidents
is rising more and more, their scope is broadening more and more, the feelings expressed
are becoming
fiercer and fiercer"

2001 report of Central Committee's Organisation Department

While some experts talk of the need for political reform or a freer media, more realistic solutions may lie in the relationship between the citizen and local levels of government.

 

According to the Beijing Sanchun Dadi Research Centre, a rural affairs institute, some 40 million farmers have been affected by illegal land seizures and it appears that this is where the government has been focusing its attention.

 

Wary of the Chinese mantra "even the mightiest dragon cannot crush the local snake", Beijing has been busy slashing taxes, imposing land-use conversion quotas to limit development, and strengthening laws to protect farmers from officials and property developers working in cahoots to secure land for as little as possible.


Power to people

 

It is now a criminal offence to abuse land-use rights, that is build factories on land designated for farming.

 

The idea is to give more power to the citizen, who with law on his side can challenge apparent misdemeanours through the courts rather than on the streets.

 

The main challenge is to preserve
stability while pursuing reforms

One problem, says Li Ping of the Seattle-based Rural Development Institute, is that even with these steps, ignorance of the changes persists among those it is aimed at.

 

Having just returned from a field trip, he found that farmers questioned were unaware of the legal changes as the local government had failed to inform them.

 

"There needs to be a social-endorsement mechanism to alert farmers to their rights. At present that will react against officialdom based on gut instincts of what is fair or not when often the law is on their side," Li said.

 

Lee believes the government is marching in the right direction. It is likely to be a long march, however.