Monday, October 27, 2008

Article - Rumors and riots

Riot in Weng’an (Guizhou)

International Herald Tribune

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Tens of thousands of mass protests and riots take place each year in China, but the most recent and publicized riot, which occurred on June 28 in Weng'an, a poor county in Guizhou, must be deeply unsettling to the Chinese authorities.

Erupting roughly 40 days before the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, the riot, captured on YouTube, clearly bothers a government that wants to showcase China's prosperity and stability. The riot was also one of the largest (involving more than 10,000 people) and most violent in recent years. Rioters set fire to the headquarters of the local Communist Party and the police and caused widespread property damage

The riot was apparently triggered by the local police's inept handling of a recent case in which a teenage girl was allegedly raped and murdered. Instead of conducting a thorough investigation, the police reportedly closed the case as a suicide and beat up some of the victim's classmates who went to the police headquarters to protest the decision. Incensed, thousands of ordinary people besieged the police headquarters and unleashed their anger.

The Weng'an riot, however, is by no means unique or isolated. In fact, its cause and violent manifestation are eerily similar to other mass riots.

On Sept. 7, 2006, a mob of several thousand surrounded the local government buildings and the police station in Tangxia township near Rui'an (in Zhejiang Province). They were infuriated by the local police's investigation of the death of a female school teacher under mysterious circumstances.

After the victims' colleagues and students went to the local police station on Sept. 6 to contest the authorities' conclusion that she committed suicide, hundreds of riot police dispersed the protestors by force. Infuriated and aggrieved, thousands of the township's residents, coordinated by cell-phone messages, besieged the local government offices the next day. They also went to the factory owned by the victim's husband, a rich entrepreneur who was rumored to have murdered the woman and bought off the police. Once there, they set cars on fire and destroyed the factory's equipment.

According to Chinese researchers, similar riots account for roughly 5 percent of all the "mass incidents" that occur in China each year. Because the Chinese government no longer releases reliable data, the best estimate, based on 2004 data, is that such violent large-scale riots number roughly 3,700 a year (or about 10 a day) in China).

Although riots are quickly suppressed and do not constitute an immediate threat to the Chinese Communist Party, Beijing needs to learn several important lessons from incidents similar to the Weng'an riot so that it can more effectively address the root causes of mass grievances.

While corruption and social injustice have often been correctly identified as two of the main structural causes of such riots, two important factors that often play a more immediate role in triggering public anger are often ignored.

First, local Chinese authorities have repeatedly demonstrated their incompetence in handling incipient crises.

Typically, a mass riot has three phases. During the first phase, a local government agency fails to meet the demands of aggrieved citizens to perform its legally mandated duties. In the second phase, aggrieved citizens peacefully petition the local authorities, but are treated with indifference or, often, violent suppression by the government. In the third phase, the mistreatment of the peaceful petitioners incenses ordinary citizens, setting off a mass riot.

Second, the Chinese government is paying the price for the lack of a free press in China. Without a free press that enjoys public credibility, ordinary people distrust the government but believe rumors.

Common to nearly all the reported mass incidents were two striking facts. Local government officials' words carry no credibility, while rumors, spread by the Internet and cell-phones, create a cascading effect that further inflames public passions. (The Chinese government may have the world's most effective system of censoring the Internet, but even such a system seems incapable of filtering out rumors.)

There is one solution that would mitigate the effects of poor official responses and low government credibility - more press freedom. A freer press can force local officials to be more responsive and careful in handling the grievances of ordinary citizens, thus removing the immediate causes of mass riots. A freer press can also counter rumors and help repair the government's tattered public credibility, a prized asset in preventing mass riots.

In its bid for the Olympics, Beijing implicitly pledged to expand press freedom. While international visitors to Beijing would definitely welcome such a step, the Chinese government should see that genuine press freedom is not just something to impress foreigners with. It is an effective treatment for many of its social ills as well.

Minxin Pei, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, is the author of "China's Trapped Transition."

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