April 27, 2005


Why Beijing May Be Playing With Fire: Protests against Japan could quickly find new targets closer to home (Dexter Roberts, 5/02/05, Business Week)

In China...the winds of protest have a funny way of shifting direction without warning. That's what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when student demonstrators started out commemorating the death of former Party boss Hu Yaobang but ended up demanding democratic change. And on May 4, 1919, protests against concessions given to Japan after World War I exploded into broad demonstrations and spawned a national debate about modernizing China. As the spring wears on, there will be plenty of opportunities for students and workers to voice their complaints: On May 1 there's the international labor holiday. Three days later it's the anniversary of the May 4th Movement. And just a month after that, the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, will have its 16th anniversary. As a sign of just how jittery Beijing has become, the Foreign Ministry on Apr. 19 warned Chinese not to participate in "unapproved demonstrations."

There's no shortage of gripes among China's citizenry. Workers have suffered massive layoffs during the transition to a market economy. They're also feeling more assertive as a result of the new populist stance struck by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. With Beijing pushing to educate workers about everything from overtime pay to occupational safety, laborers are becoming more demanding. According to one mainland magazine, there were 58,000 protests involving 3 million workers in 2003 -- and the true number is probably far higher. "You actually have a labor movement emerging in China today," says Robin Munro, director of research at rights organization China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong. "That wasn't true five years ago." Even veterans of the People's Liberation Army have started demonstrating for better salaries and pensions.

There's more than just labor unrest. China's runaway economic growth has trashed the environment and left hundreds of thousands homeless. Late last year, Beijing was forced to send in troops and seal off a village in Sichuan Province when thousands demonstrated against plans to force them from their homes to make way for a dam. And in the wealthy coastal province of Zhejiang in April, thousands more overturned police cars and threw stones at officers to protest pollution from local chemical plants that had poisoned their fields and water. The problem is, cleaning up the environment or putting the brakes on projects such as the dam could slow economic growth -- which could lead to fewer jobs and more protests from angry workers.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 27, 2005 9:26 PM
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