Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 5

The last quarter of 2004 witnessed major riots in Anhui, Guangdong, Henan, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Sichuan and Zhejiang provinces. In dealing with these incidents of social and economic unrest, the Chinese declared martial law and deployed thousands of regular and paramilitary People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops to aid failing police. As before, these riots were quickly propagandized as “ethnic” by the Chinese government, which resulted in a stringent media blackout. While the official view has always elected to blame ethnic frictions to justify such forms of social unrest, there is more to this instability than has been revealed.

Pains of Economic Transition

Possibly the worst in recent years, these riots were only the tip of the iceberg of mountainous tensions between different communities suffering from the massive erosion of social cohesion that has come along with the current transformation of China. As the country undergoes a painful transition from socialism to quasi-market economy under the rigid system of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), not everyone is able to adjust to new socio-economic realities as easily. Former President Jiang Zemin made it possible for the first time for entrepreneurs to join the CCP only in 2001, thus effectively legitimizing “socially upward mobile classes” who have since been able to enjoy the new freedom to grow rich.

His successor, Hu Jintao, himself a native of Anhui which witnessed some of the recent riots, appeared as a gentler fourth-generation leader when visiting poor areas of the countryside (especially during the SARS crisis) with his Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. This may have insinuated that help for those left out by economic reforms would follow. Subsequent calls for sustainable development further nurtured speculations that Hu’s agenda essentially aimed at repairing some of the problems he inherited as a consequence of his predecessor’s policies. Those included favoring Shanghai and other coastal cities at the expense of the less-fortunate inland provinces, and increasing the GDP without spending too much time on sustaining social cohesion – a problematic approach especially when coupled with what was clearly an obsession with patron-client relationships.

New Order of Priorities

To the disappointment of many, little progress appears to have been made since – and as the latest riots have demonstrated – arrests of protesters against China’s growing corruption and social inequality indicated that little would inspire Hu’s government to address the root causes of social injustices. Instead, preserving the image of the all-powerful CCP must prevail and any objection, no matter how justified, must be silenced. However, the reasons are not to do with Beijing’s customary oppressive style of governance.

Hu’s current priorities may be centered upon “saving” the CCP and enhancing his country’s power and influence on the international stage, which are dreams shared by many Chinese. Nevertheless, this is not the right order of priorities for many of the 800 million who make up China’s rural population and whose experiences of reform do not match those of their urban(ized) countrymen and women. The problem is usually portrayed by the state controlled media to be one of economics and ill-distribution of wealth. This misrepresentation has dangerous ramifications as it diverts attention away from what looks set to tear away at one of the very foundations of this socialist country: its multi-ethnic harmony. Consider, for instance, the case of the Hui.

Ethnic Harmony vs. Tension

Until Beijing’s harsh treatment of Buddhists in Tibet and Muslims in Xinjiang made international headlines, China has been able to showcase the peaceful coexistence of its 55 ethnic minorities with the Han majority as a sign of social cohesion. A model example of assimilation has been that of the Hui minority which makes up some 10 million of China’s 1.3 billion inhabitants, and whose members live in several provinces in central and western China, some of which have witnessed riots recently. Practically indistinguishable from the Han majority except for distinct religious customs, their ancestors were Silk Road traders, largely of Arab and Persian descent, who first came to China in the 7th century and through intermarriages with the Hans had become China’s largest Muslim community. However, the days of harmonious coexistence with their fellow Chinese are but old memories.

Ethnicity was not the sole cause of tensions-turned-riots in the reported incidents of 2004. While tensions experienced in rural and semi-urban China may be economic in nature, old rivalries are still alive despite more than 80 years of CCP rule. Indeed, minor incidents are often sufficient to spark cross-community violence that brings such rivalries back to life. As unemployment continues to rise, tension grows among the Chinese Han who feel that Beijing’s policy of favoring minorities, such as the Hui Muslims, with job opportunities – a long-standing practice designed to pacify otherwise oppressed members of different religious groups – reduces their chances of keeping their own jobs. With economic hardship biting, it takes little friction for protests to turn riotous, especially when coupled with the mass frustration at the corruption of party officials and sluggishness of a system that is meant to redress ever-growing socio-economic grievances but rarely does. Time and again, minor incidents boil over into violence, demonstrating that quelling the discontent of the have-nots may prove more than Beijing’s cosmetic policies can handle.

A Recipe for Socio-Economic Disaster

Since the media is tightly controlled, it often takes little time for the rumor mill to spread the bad news of mass riots thus enhancing the chances for a spread of violence that usually follows. Not only does this make the job of restoring order that much harder for government troops, it also makes keeping the lid on such incidents nearly impossible. In today’s China, the quasi-market economy has produced various forms of discontent over disputed layoffs, uncompensated land seizures, (mis)use of natural resources, misspent state funds, forced immigration, police brutality, unpaid wages and corruption.

On the one hand, as the system often fails to redress such grievances, minor provocations are often sufficient for major violence to erupt, much more rapidly so when parties to the dispute happen to belong to different religio-ethnic backgrounds as the latest riots have shown. On the other hand, as the gap between the poor and the rich in China rapidly increases, old prejudices and stereotypes, of which many have their roots in public misperceptions of religious identity, gain lives of their own. Once frustration with the harsh economic reality is thrown into the mix, it takes little time for rumors to create massive riots that quickly boil over into violence.

In the face of such rapidly developing socio-economic realities, Beijing appears convinced that its old iron-fist methods remain the most effective. This is a miscalculation that must not be underestimated nor seen as a domestic problem for the CCP to solve. The post-9/11 syndrome of discrimination against Muslims all over the world has reached China where even moderate Huis have suffered marginalization, notwithstanding the former, generally tolerant, official and public attitudes towards them.

Marginalization of communities such as the Hui would only lead them down the path of radicalization – well trodden by many frustrated politicians who eventually made their careers as high ranking members of religiously motivated terror organizations. In today’s world, it could only be a matter of time before the effects of “ethnic” clashes of China’s communities are resonated elsewhere. Lessons could be learned from the way in which ruthless oppression of dissent at the hands of certain governments had created the Abu Sayyaf Group, al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, al-Jihad, the Armed Islamic Group, al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hizbullah to name but a few of better known groups today.

Considerations for Policy Reform

Fearing possible snowballing effects of social unrest may barely justify imposing media blackouts and tough security measures in attempting to handle such incidents. Nevertheless, Beijing must consider addressing the social and economic root causes of grievances that had created this tension before intra-minority clashes become unquenchable. To achieve this, Beijing needs not look further than its own problems in Xinjiang where dissent among previously apolitical Uyghur Muslims continues to rise in the face of ruthlessly oppressive policies, which, had they been effective, would have worked by now.

It is but a myth that the wheel of reform is grinding unobstructed in China. A year ago, according to Chinese police statistics, some 60,000 public protests have taken place – roughly 160 per day. This indicates that Beijing’s policies have failed yet another set of tests, perhaps more soundly than they did in 1989 at the height of the Tiananmen Square challenge to its authority. Army tanks and absolute brutality may have silenced the democracy campaigners then, but it will take a wholly different approach to calm those frustrated with the ever growing divide of fortune for which, perhaps deservedly, the CCP with its cosmetic policies and corrupt officials is to blame.

It is high time for Beijing to examine the root causes of Chinese discontent. This is, by far, much more important than tending to its obsession with enforcing social stability as a sign of unopposed CCP authority and power. Reform must include Beijing’s policies and practices should it ever hope for a less painful transition, and that will not be an easy task. However, until socio-economic wrongs are righted, no haphazard policy to window dress every riot as ethnic would silence those who have little, or nothing, left to lose.

Ahmad Lutfi is a New York based political and terrorism analyst, and a Middle East specialist.