August 24, 2005


Alarm and disarray on rise in China (Howard W. French, AUGUST 24, 2005, The New York Times)

There is a growing uneasiness in the air in China, after months of increasingly bold protests rolling across the countryside.

For reasons that range from rampant industrial pollution that recalls the shock of Minamata disease in Japan in the early 1960s to widespread evictions and land seizures by corrupt local governments working with increasingly powerful property developers, ordinary Chinese seem to be saying they are fed up and will not take it anymore.

Each week brings news of at least one or two incidents, with thousands of villagers in a pitched battle with the police, or bloody crackdowns in which hundreds of protesters are tear-gassed and clubbed during roundups by the police. And by the government's own official tally, hundreds of these events each week escape wider public attention altogether.

No one is ready to predict that this is the beginning of any great unraveling of an authoritarian state that has, over the last two decades, largely brought social peace and a reprieve from demands for political change by delivering breakneck economic growth.

If oil prices rise everytime a refinery anywhere in the world stops production for an hour, what will they do when the shooting starts in China?

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 24, 2005 9:57 AM

Prices are high now because of new high water mark for demand (China and India economies unleashed.) If you can presume chaos and civil unrest, fighting in streets of China will shut down the economy and demand fall precipitously, then of course you can presume trend toward glut and price drop. But then it gets tricky. Traitors on Taiwan and bastards in Beijing pull Taiwan into China's civil collapse and then price of oil is last of our worries.

Posted by: Geoff at August 24, 2005 10:04 AM

OJ, I totally agree with your frequent observations about China. As you've said, most forces acting on it are centrifugal, not centripital. However, I see this as a long run trend. In the short run, the central government should be able to quell a few uprisings here and there, no?

Posted by: JAB at August 24, 2005 10:15 AM

That's what Louis, Nicholas, Mikhail, etc. thought.

Posted by: oj at August 24, 2005 10:20 AM

The shooting won't ever start in China, the communist dictatorship took the very sensible precaution of taking away the citizens guns. No one needs to defend themselves in the people's utopian socialist parasise because they have the people's army to protect them.

Posted by: Amos at August 24, 2005 10:39 AM

I still give it 10 years.

Posted by: JAB at August 24, 2005 11:03 AM

It's really amazing what can be smuggled out of munitions factories.

Posted by: Sandy P at August 24, 2005 11:04 AM

"No one is ready to predict that this is the beginning of any great unraveling of an authoritarian state that has, over the last two decades, largely brought social peace and a reprieve from demands for political change by delivering breakneck economic growth."

Too bad the NYT doesn't have a better on-line archive. I'm pretty sure this line was plagiarized from a story on the USSR circa 1985.

Posted by: b at August 24, 2005 11:39 AM

Dictatorships fall when the army decides the government is not worth defending. In Iran, the Shah had made several very bad decisions that alienated too many elements of the people despite some economic progress. In the Soviet Union, there was completed economic failure combined with military defeat in Afghanistan and surrender of the Eastern European empire. In Cuba, Batista had overthrown a moderately functioning democratic government and replaced peace with civil war.

The question is at what point will the PLA no longer defend the government? The govt has been very good to them. Since the leaders are unlikely to back the people, is there a chance that regular troops might mutiny? Uncertain. The Mao Dynasty has not yet lost the Mandate of Heaven.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at August 24, 2005 11:40 AM

Chris, certainly a reasonable proposition.

Will the PLA remain loyal? More specifically, will the PLA's rank-and-file soldiers remain loyal to their officers?

In Russia, during its two revolutions in World War One, the soldiers stopped listening to their officers and the governments in power fell. In China today, most of the PLA's rank-and-file still come from the countryside, which is exactly where unrest is now growing by leaps and bounds.

In 1989, the PLA troops sent to quell the Tiananmen demonstrators were kept ignorant of what had been going on in Beijing. Moreover, many of the PLA soldiers were from the countryside, and had no qualms whatsoever about moving against city folks. Today's average PLA man comes from villages that through cell phones are far better informed than back then, and today's demonstrators are more likely to be fellow villagers than city slickers.

So can the regime really be that confident about using the army against the people?

Posted by: X at August 24, 2005 12:22 PM

Regarding Sandy P's point - that was true even for Jews IN CONCENTRATION CAMPS in Nazi Poland:

The Destruction of Crematorium Number Four - Women liaisons were involved in another significant act of resistance at Auschwitz. The setting was the Union Werke factory, which manufactured V2 rockets parts. [...] It took the women over a year to smuggle enough gunpowder to realize the conspiracy's goal: to destroy one of the crematoria. [...] On October 7, 1944 the Sondermen [...] detonated Crematorium Number IV, putting it permanently out of commission.

I'm certain that the Chinese employees of China's munitions and arms factories, (which they have in great numbers, being a major arms dealer to the world), are not as carefully watched as slave labor in Nazi munitions factories.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 24, 2005 12:35 PM

There are a lot of uncertainties and its too hard to call from afar. In some unlikely countries, collapse comes with lightening speed (East Germany, Rumania), while in others (Iran) it doesn't come even when conditions seem ideal. But a fair, general rule of thumb for communist countries and hopefully Islamic theocracies seems to be that after two generations, the masses become thoroughly cynical and no longer believe or offer any genuine loyalty. If that is so, China's time is almost up, as is Cuba's.

Posted by: Peter B at August 24, 2005 12:41 PM

Peter B:

Does that dynamic break down if a nation's people are actually starving and possibly not in any condition to revolt? The North Koreans might like to know the answer.

If that theory holds, we need to slip the Iranians some kind of hurry-up potion before they acquire nukes.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 24, 2005 1:18 PM

As North Korea demonstrates, a sufficiently brutal regime can stay in power as long as it has the will to be brutal. I don't buy the view that it's the support of the army that matters, that can be maintained indefinitely. Even with the Shah, it was more his unwillingness to slaughter his enemies and anyone nearby that brought him down (someone like the ChiComs or Iran's mullahs would have sent an agent off to whack Khomenie).

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at August 24, 2005 1:36 PM


Yes, North Korean style terror and starvation may stiffle any real ability to oppose, but I wouldn't overstate that factor. Being in the hands of the Stasi or KGB was no picnic right up to the end and Rumania was a murderous, Orwellian hellhole to Caucescu's last breath.

Posted by: Peter B at August 24, 2005 1:58 PM

I think perhaps Romania's situation was unusual because it was clear that Soviet tanks wouldn't roll through Bucharest in the event of a revolt. That must have been a tremendous shot-in-the-arm to the oppressed population.

I understand the firing squad didn't even wait for Ceausescu to properly line up in front of them: they just started shooting as soon as he and Elena exited the building to the execution yard. Kinda reminds me of the story about a large portrait (or mural, I forget which) of Pol Pot that hangs in a genocide museum in Phnom Penh -- the eyes of the portrait are black because locals put out their cigarettes in them.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 24, 2005 2:30 PM

Annoying Old Guy, as a dictator, you can't always count on the army.

In 1974 in Portugal, disgruntled officers of the Armed Forces Movement mobilized their tank units against the ruling authoritarian regime, which had been in power for decades. The government searched desperately to see which parts of the repressive apparatus was still loyal and would be willing to use force to crush the uprising. Only the secret police was still on the government's side. The army defected, and the regime fell to be replaced by a new democracy.

Posted by: X at August 24, 2005 4:12 PM

So the NYT gives the old Communists who think they are running China credit for ". . .delivering breakneck economic growth."

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 24, 2005 5:05 PM