China's Social Powder Keg


Senior Member
Oct 5, 2009
China's Social Powder Keg

China's national government has sprung into action after five shocking attacks on schoolchildren left 11 people dead and 70 wounded in the space of five weeks. The Ministries of Education and Public Security put guards around schools nation-wide, while the Propaganda Department has ordered the media to downplay coverage. Nevertheless, the news has stirred up plenty of debate on the Internet. Even more than the attacks themselves, the comments they have inspired suggest that Chinese society is deeply troubled and unstable.

While several of the suicidal attackers had a history of mental illness, the debate immediately focused on frustration with officialdom as a motivating factor. The country's most popular blogger, Han Han, wrote a post on May 2 that was quickly removed but continues to circulate: "It has become the most effective way of avenging oneself against society"¦. In a society that has no release valve, killing the weakest members of society has become the only release."

Some comments only condemned the attackers for their choice of target, suggesting that they should have killed officials or police instead. Yang Jia, who killed six policemen in Shanghai in 2008, has become an underground cult hero, with his portrait printed on T-shirts and spray-painted on walls around the city.

The official line is that China is building a "harmonious society," and with events such as the Olympics and the recently opened Shanghai Expo, Beijing tries to tout its model of development as a model for stability. But beneath the surface, widespread hatred of government officials simmers. Chinese who dare to criticize the government publicly are sentenced to re-education through labor or confinement in psychiatric hospitals.

Treating those with legitimate grievances as criminal or insane makes it impossible to resolve their issues in a peaceful manner. Ultimately this extreme repression has a self-fulfilling effect, as a small minority become unstable and lash out.

Consider the problem of "petitioners"—people who avail themselves of a system of government offices that is supposed to help those who have suffered injustice. In practice, however, it is about one in 1,000 who gets a satisfactory response, while most are arrested and held in detention centers if they persist. Last year a professor of forensic psychiatry at Beijing University Law School, Sun Dongdong, dismissed these complainants, saying that "at least 99% of the professional petitioners have mental problems—all suffering from paranoia disorders."

Prof. Sun was immediately deluged with public abuse. Human rights groups have examined the cases of petitioners and found that many involve local corruption or abuse of power. Even Chinese journalists have documented such cases; in 2004, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao's book "A Survey of the Chinese Peasants" opened the public's eyes to injustices in the countryside. One of the most common grievances arises as officials across the country expropriate private land to sell to developers; those who are displaced find themselves priced out of the market for new homes.

However, Prof. Sun was not completely wrong. In a society where there is no reliable legal mechanism to check the power of officials, continuing to resist and invite reprisals can be considered irrational. Most petitioners are especially brave or desperate. And after years of poverty and abuse, some of them are driven to suicide or murder. Others with grievances never bother with petitioning and go straight to violence.

Yu Jianrong, a researcher at the elite Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, is an adviser to the leadership on petitioners and social unrest. Last year, he warned that Chinese society is on the verge of "revolutionary turmoil," and now sees the rising number of "venting" attacks is a sign of "a society that has lost its order."

The costs of containing the public's anger and frustration are mounting. The official national budget for domestic security grew 9% this year to $75 billion, almost on a par with defense—and the 21 million public security officials dwarf those of the military. Some provinces are reportedly spending 15% of their budget on security.

It's telling that the perpetrators of the recent school attacks were in their 40s—not the generation that lost the opportunity for education in the Cultural Revolution and was laid off from state-owned enterprises, but rather the first generation to grow up with the new promise of reforms. With youthful idealism, they sympathized with the student protests of the 1980s. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, they accepted the new social contract that in return for accepting a lack of political freedom, they would have the opportunity to get rich.

Today that generation is becoming disillusioned. Without political freedom, they are learning to their cost, equality of opportunity is impossible. Communist Party officials and those who can curry or buy political favor have scooped up most of the opportunities, and the Party's monopoly on power makes violence the only meaningful form of protest. This seems to be the lesson that Chinese are taking from the school attacks, and it is one the Party ignores at its peril.

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