War footing for the Olympics

July 8, 2008

David Whitehouse reports on eruptions of discontent in China as the government prepares for the opening of the Olympic Games.

TOP CHINESE officials have urged provincial and local authorities to "go on a war footing" to head off any protests that could tarnish China's image in the lead-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing, which begin on August 8.

The instructions, issued during a national teleconference and reported on the Web sites of several provincial governments, came on a weekend when 30,000 residents of the southwestern province of Guizhou rioted in protest over the police handling of a teenage girl's death.

Crowds in Guizhou's Weng'an County besieged government and Communist Party (CCP) buildings on June 28, torching official offices and cars. Police had ruled the death of a 17-year-old student a suicide by drowning, but family members claimed that Li Shufen was raped and murdered by the son of a local official.

A crowd of 300 grew to 30,000 after receiving news that Li's uncle had been badly beaten on the street following an attempt to register a complaint with police over his niece's death.

More than 200 rioters were arrested, and police reported 150 injuries. Police blamed the violence on gangs and criminals, but amateur videos showed crowds of young and old, workers and students.

The Olympic stadium under construction in Beijing
The Olympic stadium under construction in Beijing (Dominic Lüdin)

The destruction wasn't random. BBC Newsnight blogger Paul Mason reviewed BBC Monitoring reports from China's official Xinhua news agency and concluded, "What is clear is the scale of the attack on the entire apparatus of CCP rule in Guizhou: the party, the police, the courts and the secret police were attacked, their premises comprehensively trashed and set on fire."

As BBC Monitoring wrote, "In this incident, the county CCP committee's building was destroyed by burning; 104 offices of the county government building were destroyed by burning; 47 offices and four facades of the office building of the county public security bureau were destroyed by burning; 14 offices of the criminal investigation building were smashed up; the entirety of the files and data at the domicile administration center of the county public security was destroyed."

Within a few days, the People's Daily reported that a panel of local and provincial officials admitted the intensity of the crowd's anger was a consequence of a long buildup of grievances.

Since the People's Daily is the mouthpiece of the central government in Beijing, this admission of government wrongdoing really amounted to a staged enactment of a typical strategy for dealing with protest--blame officials at the lowest possible level for abuses that are endemic throughout China. The exercise also served to warn lower officials elsewhere that they would take the blame for outbreaks of protest in their own areas.

Provincial officials pledged to reopen the inquiry into Li Shufen's death and admitted "improper handling" of the case by the lower--county--government.

Within a few days, the Shanghai Daily reported that Guizhou province was firing the county's party secretary, the head of the county government and two top county police officials. The provincial party chief, Shi Zongyuan, condemned the lower officials in harsh terms, accusing them of "severe malfeasance" and "rude and roughshod solutions" to "disputes over mines, demolition of homes for public projects, the relocation of residents for reservoir construction and many other issues."

At the same time, Shi continued to blame "criminal gangs" for turning Weng'an County's legitimate grievances into a riot--and endorsed a new police campaign against gangs and crime.

IN THE days following the Guizhou riot, Chinese sources noted two more outbreaks of violent anger against authorities--in Hunan province and in Shanghai.

In Shanghai, a man carrying Molotov cocktails and a large knife charged into a police building and stabbed six police to death and wounded several others. The 28-year-old man reportedly had been interrogated last October on suspicion of stealing bicycles. "Unhappy about the interrogation, he wanted to take revenge," said the Singapore-based Straits Times.

Following the initial press reports of the incident, postings on the Web--which many Chinese use to get around press censorship--claimed that the attacker had been beaten in custody and was repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to win compensation, according to the South China Morning Post. As the Times added, "Shanghai, a city of 20 million has its share of theft and petty crimes, but such violent attacks are rare."

One day later in Hunan province, a man who was angered at the demolition of his property detonated two bottles filled with cooking gas in a government building, injuring 12 people, according to the Morning Post.

"We all live in the neighborhood and heard about the man," one resident told the Morning Post. "The government plans to move us off the land and build a new industrial park to attract outside investment." He added that the compensation being offered is not enough to buy similar property in other neighborhoods.

When Chinese fail to get satisfaction from their complaints to local officials, they often submit petitions to higher levels of government, which cultivate an image of impartiality. The reputation is undeserved. The South China Morning Post, based in Hong Kong, cites mainland media for its claim that only two out of 1,000 petition cases are ever resolved.

It is precisely these appeals to higher authorities that Beijing officials are concerned to head off in the lead-up to the Olympics. Nationwide, "petitions and complaint visits grew from 4.8 million in 1995 to 12.7 million in 2005," according to the Morning Post.

Echoing the latest directives from Beijing, an official in Sichuan province told the Morning Post, "Our most fundamental demand is that zero protesters go to Beijing, zero go to the provincial capital, and there are zero mass petitions and mass incidents."

Sichuan is the site of May 12 earthquake that killed 70,000, including 10,000 schoolchildren. Provincial officials cooperated with the central government to promptly arrest family members who protested the shoddy construction of school buildings.

BUT THE nationwide campaign to quell dissent began earlier this year. Following riots and major protests by Tibetans in four provinces in March, officials ordered the detention of thousands of Tibetans--and Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang--according to human rights organizations cited in the Straits Times. Activists in Beijing have also been jailed and intimidated.

Tibet's "government in exile," based in India, claims that 203 Tibetans were killed and about 1,000 hurt in the crackdown, according to AFP. Beijing says that only one Tibetan was killed--and that Tibetan rioters killed 21 people.

To neutralize criticism of repression in Tibet, the government recently held high-level talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama, the chief figure of Tibetan Buddhism and head of the "government in exile." The Dalai Lama's main delegate emerged "disappointed" from the talks on July 4, saying that "the whole tactic of the Chinese government is to engage us to stall for time."

The next round of talks is scheduled for October. In the meantime, China's negotiator warned that the talks would be cancelled unless the Dalai Lama prevents his followers from doing anything to disturb the Olympics. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly told Tibetans to avoid disrupting the Olympics, and the Morning Post reported that he has urged overseas Tibetans to stop protests at Chinese embassies and consulates.

George W. Bush and Japanese President Yasuo Fukuda have pledged to attend the Olympics opening ceremonies, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy has made his attendance conditional on progress in the Tibetan talks with the government. The People's Daily reported that Sarkozy's stance provoked new outcries from Chinese nationalists, who rallied by the thousands in April for a boycott of French goods after Sarkozy condemned the Chinese crackdown and the Olympic torch relay was disrupted in Paris.

Beijing's nationwide directive to "go on a war footing" against protests in the coming weeks received a different spin in reports from some officials. According to the Straits Times, one city government said that Beijing was recommending a soft touch to keep small protests from exploding into large ones. Local officials, it said, should "earnestly solve the reasonable appeals of the masses."

But other accounts suggested that Beijing was urging officials to take a harder line through the Olympics, and "strictly deal with any unreasonable troublemakers or matters that disrupt the normal social order."

The language of warfare left no doubt about which message was really intended. As one account put it, Beijing's directive stated that "ensuring a smooth hosting of the Beijing Olympics has become a battle that all [government] levels and departments must win."

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