The Chinese government, which has battled a surge of social unrest in recent years, reported Wednesday that there were 39,000 cases of “public order disruptions” in the first half of the year.
The Ministry of Public Security said that represented a 2.5% decrease in the number of protests from the same period in 2005, though it offered no explanation of how it had come up with the figures.
China is in the midst of dramatic social and economic transformations that have created a two-tier society separated by a widening gap in incomes. Social discontent has been on the rise in recent years, fueled by income disparities, land disputes, pollution problems and an inadequate legal system that is widely seen as failing to address people’s needs.
Beijing is normally reluctant to disclose negative information, especially about public disturbances that could tarnish China’s international reputation and undermine one-party control. But in recent years, the central government has grown increasingly concerned about the effect of unrest on economic development and social stability.
President Hu Jintao has made the promotion of a “harmonious society” the cornerstone of his administration, hoping to strike a tone of balance in a country grappling with lopsided growth and a rising sense of inequality.
“This society is anything but just and harmonious,” said Robin Munro, research director at China Labor Bulletin, based in Hong Kong. “The government is just now turning its attention to this problem.”
When Beijing began to announce protest figures in recent years, the statistics were surprisingly high. Last year, the government reported 87,000 cases of public disturbances, up 6.6% from the previous year and up 50% from 2003, when the figure stood at 58,000.
Although some critics believe the true numbers are higher, the statistics were enough to make authorities sit up and take notice.
“The government would rather not publicize these numbers,” Munro said. “But they are so alarmed by the protests, they felt compelled to issue them as a wake-up call, especially to local government officials, telling them you must do something about this issue and not focus simply on economic goals.”
It was not immediately clear why the number of protests for the first half of this year reportedly had gone down. Observers point out that Chinese government statistics are notoriously unreliable and officials are prone to manipulating numbers to suit their needs. Because no information was given on what constituted public protests, their size or their purpose, it was difficult to determine the accuracy of Wednesday’s report.
Even though much of the social unrest probably goes unreported, especially protests in remote regions, critics of the communist government note that the 39,000 official incidents in six months still suggest a high level of public dissatisfaction percolating under the surface of China’s economic boom.
Illegal land grabs are a major source of tension. In December, paramilitary police opened fire on villagers in southern China’s Guangdong province who were protesting what they said was insufficient compensation for land appropriated for a new power plant. The government said three villagers were killed.
Labor unrest also appears to be increasing among laid-off state workers in the cities and rural migrants working for private companies. In July, more than 1,000 factory workers making toys for McDonald’s and other international companies rioted in southern China over low pay and poor living conditions, according to labor rights groups.
The dire state of China’s environment also has been a rallying point for residents across the country tired of drinking tainted water, breathing filthy air and eating poisoned crops.
Last year, villagers in one coastal region were so angered by contamination from nearby chemical plants they said were killing their crops and sickening their children that they rioted and clashed with police, overturning and smashing cars.
There also have been spontaneous outbreaks triggered by more isolated issues. In July, about 2,000 people in a southwestern city attacked officials and smashed offices and cars after a 14-year-old student was beaten by officials.
Thousands of petitioners make their way to the Chinese capital each year, hoping to present their grievances to higher authorities. Last month, a rights group said a farmer set himself on fire in Tiananmen Square, the political heart of the nation and a magnet for protesters hoping to draw attention to their causes.
“It is possible that there has been a slight drop in public protests since the Chinese government has indeed been doing more to moderate conflicts and prevent official abuse,” said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “But to make these conflicts go away completely, they need to get to the root of the problem.
“That is a lot harder,” Hu said, “because that means permitting things like more legal reform and press freedom so people have a proper outlet for their problems.”