By Sam Crane, Sam Crane teaches Chinese politics and philosophy at Williams College and is the author of "Aidan’s Way." He blogs at www.uselesstree.typepad.com.
EARLIER THIS month, Chinese police shot and killed as many as 20 protesters (the numbers are in dispute) in Dongzhou village, near Hong Kong. The use of lethal force was unusual, but the underlying grievances were commonplace: powerless townspeople demonstrating against local government practices that endanger their meager existence.
Economic inequality is growing in China. It is fueling an increasing number of desperate attempts by poor farmers and workers to hold on to what little they have. In 2004, there were, by government accounts, about 74,000 public disturbances nationwide, an increase of about 20% from 2003. This year, several instances of government repression of popular protests captured the world media’s attention. In Taishi, Guangdong province, villagers exercising their right to recall corrupt local officials were beaten and harassed. In Huankantou, Zhejiang province, two elderly women were killed when police suppressed a demonstration against a polluting factory. In Shengyou, Hebei province, thugs bused in by party bosses set upon townspeople protesting a land grab by an electric power company.
Things will probably worsen next year because China’s legal and political systems cannot respond effectively to the injustices generated by greed and corruption.
In Dongzhou, local residents pressed government officials for adequate compensation for land taken to build a power plant. A stalemate was reached in October, when villagers rejected an offer that prompted one to say: "To put it bluntly, that’s not even enough to buy toilet paper."
Residents began a series of sit-ins and demonstrations that culminated in a standoff with riot police. They never stood a chance. They were outgunned by authorities and outmatched by a legal system that does not recognize nor protect their rights.
In China, farmers do not have secure title to their land. They may gain long-term land-use contracts, but government and party functionaries can easily circumvent them. Should a farmer try to sue, he will find himself in a court that lacks independence. As Human Rights Watch reminds us: "Party and government officials routinely intervene at every level of the judicial system in favor of friends and allies."
The underlying problem is that China’s legal orientation is Leninist. Law is used in the manner of the old Soviet Union: It is a tool employed to maintain the ruling party’s prerogatives. Law is not a shield for the individual against government tyranny; it is a sword brought down against anyone who stands in the way of state power. Without the law to protect them, the people of Dongzhou — and many other Chinese — have no recourse except public demonstrations.
The problem is political as well. Farmers and workers cannot organize independent of government agencies. They cannot form political parties to define and defend their interests. The ruling Communist Party strictly limits their right to vote in fair and free elections. In short, they cannot bring political pressure to bear on corrupt officials who use their positions to take land and run roughshod over individual rights and interests.
In the absence of political accountability, the government can evade responsibility for growing inequality and injustice.
In Dongzhou, the first official response (no longer available on Chinese media websites) blamed a few bad "instigators." No mention was made that farmers and laborers have no political voice, no means for redress of grievances. The police commander responsible for giving the order to shoot has been detained for investigation. But even if he is held accountable for his actions, he will be little more than a scapegoat. The solution for Dongzhou is not better police work, though that would help. A real resolution must include thoroughgoing political liberalization.
A comparison with India is instructive. India is poorer than China, but its resources are spread more equitably across the population. China began its extraordinary economic reforms in 1979. India did not turn to reform until 1991. Since then, however, inequality in India has declined, while it has increased in China. Looking forward 10 years, it is probable that the plight of the rural poor will improve in India, especially given its economic growth of recent years, while life for farmers in China will remain dire.
Democracy is a big part of this difference. In India, everyone can organize and vote and, if they choose, defy national leaders. This was most evident in last year’s surprise election victory for the Congress Party, which was returned to government on its promise to respond more directly to the nation’s poor. This does not mean that all the country’s problems will be solved. But it does illustrate the influence that otherwise powerless workers and farmers can exercise in the political system. Poor Indians can wield a bit of clout against ruling groups.
Citizens of Dongzhou — and Taishi and Huankantou and Shengyou — have no such choice. They cannot bring effective legal action against their corrupt overlords. They cannot organize politically to change national policy. All they can do is take to the streets to let Beijing and the world know that they are being excluded and deprived. That is what other powerless Chinese will do next year. And more of them will be killed for it.