Rising Social Malaise Beggars Hu’s Reforms

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 11

Police in front a school in Fujian Province

Beijing authorities have raised the country’s security alert to the highest level—the first time since the August 2008 Olympics Games—in the wake of a spate of killings in schools and kindergartens that left at least 27 dead and some 100 injured. Given the resources that the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the Education Ministry and other administrative units have invested into promoting safety in school districts, it is probable that these heinous crimes will diminish over time. Yet, disturbing questions are being asked about the authorities’ handling of the brutal incidents. The issues range from severe restrictions on media coverage to the efficacy of China’s apparently seamless state-security apparatus. More significantly, the mishaps seem to demonstrate that even as socio-political contradictions are being exacerbated, members of disadvantaged classes have been denied avenues to vent their frustration, let alone have their injustice redressed.

According to official press reports, seven major incidents took place from March 23 to May 19 in kindergartens, schools and at least one college in the provinces of Fujian, Guangxi, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Shandong and Hainan (Reuters, May 20; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], May 20). Yet, according to the Hong Kong media, a few dozen smaller cases have gone unreported. Almost immediately after eight school kids were hacked to death in Nanping District in coastal Fujian Province in late March, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Propaganda Department asked all news outlets to tone down coverage of the slayings. A number of incidents in which the attackers were subdued before any fatal harm was done were not publicized. There were at least seven such instances in Beijing alone (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], May 13; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], May 18).

Moreover, relevant authorities have released very sketchy information about the felons. The killer in Fujian was said to have been mentally deranged due to unemployment and a broken love affair. The Jiangsu government’s response to the April 29 kindergarten mayhem in the city of Taixing, in which 31 children and teachers suffered injuries, caused the most ferocious uproar. Ten thousand residents protested outside the municipal government a day later because many parents were not allowed to visit their hospitalized kids. Most intriguingly, the culprit, Xu Yuyuan, was sentenced to death barely 16 days after his crime. His motivations were said to include frustration due to the failure of a small direct-selling business and “unjust dismissal” from an earlier job (Ming Pao, May 1; China News Service, May 15; Wen Wei Po, May 16).

Also called into question is the effectiveness of China’s much-ballyhooed security establishment. Since 2008—the year of the Olympics and the Tibet riots—the leadership under President Hu Jintao has devoted unprecedented resources to hiring more police, state-security agents, anti-terrorist experts and para-military People’s Armed Police (PAP). Several million volunteers have been recruited as vigilantes nationwide. Wei-wen (“uphold stability”) expenditures this year are set at 514 billion yuan ($75.26 billion), which is close to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) budget of 542 billion yuan ($79.36 billion) (Ming Pao, March 6; Southern Weekend [Guangzhou], March 3). Yet, the apparently random acts of several individuals have plunged what could be the world’s most redoubtable police network into disarray.

After the first couple of incidents, President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao issued orders that all government units “take immediate steps to prevent the recurrence [of similar cases] and to safeguard social harmony and stability.” Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member in charge of security Zhou Yongkang told a televised conference of the nation’s top police, prosecutors and judges that ensuring safety in schools had become “a major political task.” State Councilor and Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu vowed that the police would construct a “wall of steel” to ensure a safe environment for schoolchildren everywhere. The media also reported that emergency security measures had reached guojia gaodu, or the “highest level of state” (Beijing Evening Post, May 5; Public Security Net, May 13; China News Service, May 15). Many cities have implemented a “one police in every school” policy. The capital city has mobilized 20,000 additional officers for this purpose. Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who gained worldwide fame for cracking down on triads, has stationed 6,300 security personnel in the city’s schools. A government spokesman in remote Tibet indicated that “we will make sure that a police officer can be seen in every school so that the hearts of parents, teachers and pupils will be put at ease.” Law-enforcement personnel have also been instructed to shoot to kill when handling what the party leadership calls “urban terrorist incidents involving [disgruntled] individuals” (Nanfang Daily [Guangzhou], May 14; China News Service, May 13; New Beijing Post, May 6).

Yet this high degree of nervousness has also betrayed chinks in the police apparatus’s armor. In late April, the MPS dispatched 18 investigation teams around the country to check out loopholes and to tighten the security net. Moreover, PBSC member Zhou issued a nationwide directive asking local leaders in all cities, counties and villages to “be personally responsible” for safety in schools and campuses. “Top party and government cadres have to bear overall [political] responsibility while leaders with specific responsibility [for security] must take care of the concrete details,” said Zhou (China News Service, May 14; Xinhua News Agency, May 3). As in the case of law-and-order lapses in Tibet and Xinjiang in recent years, police and state-security officials seem to be passively reacting to events instead of pre-empting them.

It is also clear that there are limits as to what security personnel can do to prevent society’s desperadoes from taking out their frustration on innocent victims. Premier Wen Jiabao admitted that “deep-seated reasons” lay behind the chilling slayings. He indicated that apart from boosting patrols and other law-enforcement measures, different departments must “tackle a certain number of social contradictions, defuse conflicts and beef up reconciliation [mechanisms] at the grassroots.” MPS spokesman Wu Heping also acknowledged that the serial attacks on school kids were symptomatic of socio-economic malaise. “Some contradictions have not been resolved in good time,” he said. “These contradictions have been exacerbated. Civil conflicts have morphed into criminal cases, while criminal cases of a general nature have worsened into atrocious ones, including using extremist measures to retaliate against society” (Guangzhou Daily [Guangzhou], May 14; Reuters, May 13).

What are these “deep-seated contradictions”? Beijing-based sociologist Tang Jun said the killers had picked on children because “this will have the largest negative impact on society.” He continued, “The attackers did not know their victims personally, so the assaults must be an expression of their dissatisfaction with society”. Hu Xingdou, a well-known social critic at the Beijing University of Science and Technology, said the horrendous crimes reflected “the sense of hopelessness” among lower-class citizens “whose rights of petitioning [the authorities] and judicial redress have been denied.” “These attackers know they can’t [sic] reach the powers-that-be that ride roughshod over them—so [they] take retaliation [against society] by picking on defenseless kids.” Professor Hu expressed fear that as the rich-poor gap yawned wider, such actions might become more frequent (The Globe and Mail [Toronto], May 12; Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], May 13).

There are signs that the Hu-led Politburo has become more aware of the time bomb ticking away. In his Government Work Report to the National People’s Congress (NPC) last March, Premier Wen pledged that “the [economic] pie will be divvied up in a more equitable fashion.” He also pledged to ensure that all Chinese “can live with dignity.” President Hu indicated in his May Day address that workers should be able to engage in tianmian laodong, or “dignified work.” Some solid steps have been taken to help those Chinese who have trouble eking out a living (Xinhua News Agency, March 5; China News Service, May 2). For example, the minimum wages of more than a dozen provinces and directly administered cities have been raised since the spring by up to 10 percent. Minimum monthly wage levels in Shanghai, Guangdong and Zhejiang have breached the 1,000 yuan ($146.4) mark (CCTV Net, May 15; Xinhua News Agency, May 16). There is no denying, however, that socio-economic polarization is becoming more severe. Just-released figures showed that in the past 22 years, the wages of Chinese workers as a percentage of GDP had slipped by 20 percent. Another set of statistics indicated that the richest one percent of families held 41.4 percent of national wealth, making China one of the worst countries in terms of discrepancies between haves and have-nots (China Youth Daily, May 13; Xinhua News Agency, May 13; China News Service, May 21).

Moreover, channels for members of disadvantaged sectors to air their grievances have become less accessible. For example, regional and grassroots administrations have taken draconian steps to prevent apparent victims of social injustices from taking their petitions to top-level party and government departments in Beijing. In light of the politicization of the courts, citizens are not optimistic about seeking redresses through the judicial system (See “The CCP strengthens control over the judiciary,” China Brief, July 3, 2008). Apart from the killing spree in schools and kindergartens, social harmony has been disrupted by a plethora of labor incidents. Foremost among them is the serial suicides this year of 11 workers in the Shenzhen plant of Taiwan-owned Foxconn Technology Group, one of world’s largest manufacturers of consumer electronics. In addition, the suicide attempts of at least 20 other employees in the same factory have been foiled. Beijing officials have pinned the blame on the inadequate management style of Taiwanese business executives. In fact, however, frustration among laborers over issues such as exploitative working conditions and the ban on the formation of non-official trade unions has been on the rise nationwide (Financial Times, May 24; China Daily, May 17; Bloomberg, May 17).

Beijing’s outdated and undemocratic institutions—which underpin the unjust social order—have adversely affected the nation’s quest for quasi-superpower status. According to a report on international competitiveness compiled by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China ranks last among the G20 countries in the area of “social management,” which includes law enforcement and law and order. The country’s rankings in “social system” and “public [administration] system” are respectively 13th and 14th among the 20 states (Ming Pao, April 27; Sina.com.cn [Beijing], April 27). It is understood that in the run-up to the pivotal 18th CCP Congress in 2012, the Hu leadership is reluctant to experiment with potentially destabilizing political and institutional reforms. This stubborn refusal to tinker with the status quo, however, carries huge social costs and risks that could undermine the country’s long-term modernization goal.