Major episodes of social unrest are breaking out throughout Mainland China. Such “mass incidents” – officially defined as unofficial gatherings of 100 or more people – range in nature from peaceful protests to spontaneous riots. But what is causing them and who is to blame?
In recent years the number of recorded “mass incidents” in China has increased steadily, from 32,000 in 1999 to over 180,000 in 2010 – since when there are no official statistics. Chen Jiping, a member of the Chinese People’s Political and Consultative Conference, told reporters “The major reason for mass incidents is the environment, and everyone cares about it now… If you want to build a plant, and if the plant may cause cancer, how can people remain calm?”
Meanwhile, according to the recently-published Blue Book on the Rule of Law from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which examined events that occurred between January 2000 and September 2013, “amongst mass incidents of more than 100 people, the primary cause is labour disputes, followed by improper law enforcement and land acquisition”. Labour protests were reported to account for roughly a third of all mass incidents.
These somewhat contradictory accounts of social unrest may stem from a lack of full access to official data. For example, a recent article in Guanchazhe (“Observer”) reports “a significant decrease in mass incidents last year” without giving any actual figures on social unrest.
Unlike many other politically sensitive phrases, the Chinese term “mass incident” is not blocked by the hugely popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo. For example, a popular post from Weibo user He Weifang complained of an inefficient fee system in Beijing, which results in customers gathering in long lines. He Weifang wrote very directly “I don’t understand, are you not afraid a mass incident will occur?”
Several recent, well-documented examples highlight the transformative power – and potential violence – of mass incidents. April also saw a large-scale riot in Cangnan County of Wenzhou municipality. After a scuffle broke out, hundreds of local residents gathered to beat up the Chengguan –unpopular law enforcement personnel charged with maintaining order in cities.
The altercation began after the officers roughed up a street vendor. The chengguan (who, according to some reports, were not actually chengguan but rather temporary hires used to clear the street) then beat a man for taking pictures of them with his cell phone. In the ensuing melee five chengguan were nearly killed, and the riot lasted several hours.
Violent images of the event elicited widespread support for the local residents and condemnation of the chengguan in Chinese social media. Sina Sichuan even published an editorial calling for reforms of the chengguan system, saying “before enforcing the law, oneself must first be magnanimous”.
Protests in China over environmental concerns have been well documented by international media, from Xiamen in the southeast to Xinjiang in the far northwest. However, economic concerns now appear to be the primary drivers of mass demonstrations in China.
A massive labour dispute is underway in southern China, which has seen tens of thousands of employees of shoe manufacturer Yue Yuen strike and protest across two provinces for greater access to social insurance. In response, several activists of the pro-labour NGO Shenzhen Chunfeng Labor Justice Service Department have been detained for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”.
Structural issues within the Chinese economy may give further impetus to these popular frustrations. Along with a housing boom, one of the main drivers of China’s recent rapid economic growth has been manufacturing. But the rapid increase in wages over the last decade is leading many manufacturers to leave China and set up shop in lower-cost countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh.
Changes in the labour market have empowered workers to launch organized campaigns. Geoff Crothall of China Labor Bulletin told China Outlook: “They (Chinese workers) know that strike action and collective action can be effective, especially in factories, where there’s been a labour shortage for many years…Workers know that whereas in the past they were just lucky to get a job, now the factories are lucky to have them. There’s been a shift in the balance of power.”
However, the increase in wages has led to new troubles for workers. As Mr Crothall told The Guardian: “… a lot of factories are closing down or relocating, or changing ownership … Five years ago, [strikes] were all about wage increases. But the focus of workers’ concerns now is very much on what happens if the factory closes down. What kind of payments do we get? Do we get the social insurance that we’re legally entitled to?”
Economic unease may be spreading from factory workers to China’s middle class. A mass incident recently broke out in Taizhou, a city not far from Wenzhou in Eastern China’s Zhejiang province. The offices of a property developer were besieged by dozens of buyers after the company cut prices on new units by a third. Scuffles broke out between private security forces and angry protesters – who never believed the value of their new homes could plummet in China’s real estate market. One of the protesters, Guan Enwei, told the Australian Financial Review, “The apartment across the hall from mine is now selling for 600,000 yuan ($105,000) less than I paid. The developer needs quick money. We think the company is in trouble.”
Many cities in Zhejiang province have seen a deflating housing market, with home prices in Wenzhou, once scene of a huge speculative boom, having dropped 60% since 2010. There are fears of a housing bubble throughout urban China, the bursting which could lead to widespread anger amongst buyers who are only used to prices increasing. Riots broke out in Shanghai in 2011 after prices fell.
A tape was recently leaked of Mao Daqing, the vice-chairman of Vanke Group (China’s largest developer) speaking of real estate woes. Mr. Mao warned of dangerous parallels between China’s real estate boom and the 1990s bubble in Japan: “Overall, I believe that China has reached its capacity limit for new construction of residential projects. Only those coastal Tier 3/Tier 4 cities have the potential for capacity expansion…I don’t see any possibility for a rise in home prices, especially in cities with large housing inventory, unless the government pushes out another few trillion.”
As China faces a period of economic adjustment – and the potential for serious economic peril – there is some discussion in state-sanctioned media on how to deal with the outbreak of “mass incidents”. Of course, there is always the heavy-handed method of shows of government force – the “Observer” featured a photo series showing Beijing police drilling in preparation for mass incidents amongst burning debris and Molotov cocktails.
However, there is also an awareness of the need to address the pressing issues that give rise to social unrest. The Blue Book on the Rule of Law points to “lazy governance” as an important source of popular protest, saying, “the reason (for mass incidents) is usually lazy exercise of regulatory obligations or inaction, which results in workers taking extreme actions”.
The report also called for a change from the development model that focuses excessively on GDP while ignoring environmental issues, and said with regards to issues such as land appropriations and evictions “officials should also change their way of doing things”.
Many aggrieved Chinese citizens see mass demonstration and rioting as their only method for challenging perceived injustices. Given the numerous environmental, political, and economic problems facing China, “mass incidents” are likely to remain a common feature of Chinese society. The Chinese government is responding with both massive spending on domestic security and incremental reforms to deal with demonstrations by addressing popular grievances. However, such efforts may have limited effects if many people feel politically voiceless and economically insecure.