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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Beijing flicks the safety switch

July 10, 2008

By Wu Zhong, China Editor
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
July 8, 2008

HONG KONG - Shifting from an overtly idealistic agenda to a much more
pragmatic approach, the Chinese government has quietly softened its
public aspirations ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympics next month.

Original slogans such as "To hold the best Olympic Games in history"
and "The harmonious Olympics" are seldom, if ever, shouted these
days. In their place, one hears "Hold a safe and sound Olympics" and
"Hold a fruitful Olympics".

"To be fruitful" is a safe enough aspiration for any sports event in
which competition is required - just consider the Olympic motto:
"Faster, Stronger, Higher".

And the slogan, "To hold a safe and sound Olympics", also speaks for
itself. Beijing is - understandably - now placing safety as top
priority and setting aside more vainglorious concerns. It is rumored
that President Hu Jintao himself ordered the "safety-first" mantra.

There are plenty of reasons for Chinese leaders to be worried about
safety. International terrorist organizations may see the Olympics as
a prime opportunity to launch attacks, and they might not necessarily
be aimed at China. Beijing is also worried that pro-Tibet activists
or Xinjiang province's Uyghur separatists may try to steal the
spotlight with acts of Olympic-sized sabotage.

There are also growing concerns among Chinese officials about other
potential internal threats. Some Chinese residents, discontent with
the government for various reasons, may create incidents on the
sidelines of the Games in an attempt to highlight their respective
problems or demands. Such activists have learned that once a
complaint by Chinese citizens receives wide coverage in the Hong Kong
media, it is generally dealt with promptly by local authorities.

In fact, Beijing may be better prepared for external threats, which
are comparatively more visible and easier to track. Domestic issues
are more difficult to discern and much less predictable; they could
come from anywhere at any time, especially given the widespread
public discontent over various problems, particularly those related
to abuse of power by officials.

Chinese authorities now use the term "mass incident" to describe
public protests. According to official statistics, there were 74,000
mass incidents in 2004 with 3.7 million Chinese citizens taking part.
In 2005, the number of mass incidents with at least 15 participants
totaled 87,000. In addition to the mass incidents, lone individuals
are increasingly causing "incidents".

A series of mass and individual incidents over the past two weeks may
be proof that concerns about potential domestic problems are not unfounded.

* On June 28, the police headquarters and county government office in
Weng'an county of southwest China's Guizhou province were assaulted
and torched by protesters. A 15-year-old junior high school student
had been pulled from a river on June 22 and found dead. Her family
and residents believed she was raped and drowned, and were
dissatisfied by a police report claiming the young woman leapt into
the river to commit suicide. The woman's relatives and friends were
joined in a street protest by some 30,000 protesters. Chaos ensued as
rioters smashed the police and government buildings and several police cars,

Subsequently, Guizhou provincial authorities concluded that the riots
had been instigated by local triad (criminal)gang members. So far,
dozens of alleged triad society members have been arrested.

Meanwhile, provincial Communist Party secretary Shi Zongyuan admitted
the incident was a result of "deep contradictions" in Chinese
society. In plain words, it was the explosion of public discontent
with the local government. And just days after the incident,
Weng'an's police chief and political commissar were sacked for
"dereliction of duty". Later, authorities agreed on reopen an
investigation into the young woman's death.

* In the morning of July 1, 28-year-old Beijing resident Yang Jia
arrived at a police station in Shanghai's Zabei district. He threw
several Molotov cocktails through the entrance and stormed the
building brandishing a dagger. He proceeded to stab policemen until
he was subdued, killing five and injuring three.

The incident shocked Shanghai, considered one of the safest cities in
China, and reverberated around the nation. Many observers were
puzzled by the ease with which Yang assaulted so many policemen
inside their own station. Others asked, "If the police cannot protect
themselves, how can we expect them to protect us?"

Yang's motives are unclear. According to Chinese media, he came to
Shanghai for a tour last October and rented a bicycle. But he was
quickly arrested because the bicycle he had rented was stolen. After
he was proved innocent, he demanded compensation of 30,000 yuan
(US$4,375), but the Shanghai police were allegedly unfriendly and
only agreed to half the sum. Many have concluded that he was seeking revenge.

Interestingly, some Chinese bloggers have expressed their sympathy
for Yang despite his brutal attack. This online response is
indicative of how police are often disliked by the public.

* One day later, in Zhangjiajie city, a well-known tourist spot in
central Hunan province, a resident drove a vehicle with two burning
gas containers into the local government complex out of anger at
officials who had forcibly demolished an allegedly unauthorized
building he had constructed. Twelve people were injured, five
seriously, and the suspect was soon arrested.

These three incidents are independent and isolated. However, they are
linked in an unsettling way for the government: when people feel
bullied by officials, and find they have no recourse for complaint,
they resort to extreme measures to vent their rage. Violence can
never be justified, but a lack of channels for ordinary people to
file complaints is a serious problem in China.

"In general, Chinese people are very tolerant," a sociology
researcher in Beijing told Asia Times Online. "But for any person,
tolerance has its limits. When one's discontent or anger grows to a
certain degree, it will explode. Just like in a pressure cooker, you
need a valve to let the steam go out or it will explode like a bomb."

As both "mass" and "individual" incidents escalate, Beijing must
consider opening up more avenues for people to lodge grievances. For
instance, the media should be allowed to take individuals' complaints
about alleged wrong-doings of officials and do investigative reports.
This would also help the government monitor local officials.

All levels of government have an office for hearing complaints, but
most are merely perfunctorily. Not empowered to investigate any
cases, they can at best pass on complaints to higher authorities.
Often, complaints are passed directly to those who have been
complained about. This is like asking the government to supervise
itself. In the end, such self-supervision is no supervision.

Another way to monitor the government externally is to empower
deputies of the National People's Congress and local parliamentarians
to deal with complaints. Superior authorities would then be held
responsible for dealing with complaints about their subordinates
seriously rather than perfunctorily.

With Hu's call for a "safe" Olympics, Chinese officials will surely
do their best to prevent any incidents - mass or individual - from
hampering the Beijing Games. But as long as officials can exercise
their powers unchecked, and as long as the people's complaints are
suppressed, incidents of all types will occur.

Until this system is changed, Hu's idea of building a "harmonious
society" will remain a dream.
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