Rural Violence: A Problematic Symptom of Change

Travelling the Silicon RoadBetween year-end deadlines and the MidWest and Appalachia getting hammered by an early Winter, I haven’t been posting here as much as I had planned, but that’s neither here nor there. In the course of conducting interviews for year-end stories that will be appearing on Electronic News over the course of the next few weeks, almost invariably people want to pick my brain about China, or just hear first hand about my trip.

That’s not really surprising, nor have peoples’ own various impressions of China at the moment, which have run the gamut. But recent civil unrest in a southeast China town, and the subsequent handling of it by the Chinese government, illustrates what I’ve been saying in this space and elsewhere: China has a lot of domestic issues to address on its way to becoming an economic and political superpower, many of them tied to its emerging middle class.

The story also brings to light a side of China that most Western business travelers, especially those that never make it beyond Shanghai, don’t see and perhaps don’t even realize exists. If one travels to Tiananmen Square in Beijing today, and sees the hordes of fashionably dressed Chinese tourists, the bloodshed of June 4th, 1989 seems far away, a seemingly long time ago.

But its memory bubbles just underneath the seemingly placid surface, I think. And while the student demonstrators in Beijing back then and the rural protesters of today have different motivations, the bigger issue is the same: dealing with the ever-quickening pace of social and economic change.

For those of you that haven’t been following the news, let me fill you in briefly. Last week residents of the village of Dongzhou in Guandong Province protested — or rioted, depending on which side of the fence one resides, I suppose — over land seizures. Specifically, Dongzhou residents were upset over compensation for land taken to house a coal-fired power plant. This is a growing problem in places outside of large urban areas as China’s staggering economic growth clashes with a still largely rural and agricultural countryside.

Official government reports say three villagers were killed when police opened fire during the clash; witnesses say as many as 20 people were killed. Nine were subsequently arrested for inciting rioting. But what is equally startling — in a good way, perhaps — is that the government on Sunday announced that the local police commander was in detention and that his “wrong actions” were to blame for the deaths.

Earlier the government had said that the deaths were justified, stating that the three people killed turned on police after attacking the coal plant armed with knives, spears and dynamite. The government also said it would address local land seizure grievances, and that it was sending in medical personnel to treat those wounded in the clash.

So where does the truth lie? Only the people actually there know for sure, but I suspect it lies somewhere in between “wrong actions” and justifiable killing. But the fact that the government feels the need to mollify the villagers perhaps illustrates just how problematic rural unrest has become. For all the many news reports of this phenomenon that have come out of China in recent years — a country where the media is still by and large state controlled — I wonder about how many of these protests and riots have taken place that we have not heard about.

But the larger issue here is the rapid pace of change in China. As it seeks to maintain its phenomenal growth, it has realized that it needs to improve the economic lot of its rural population; in fact it is depending on it. No less than Premier Wen Jiabao acknowledged in a recent speech that China must expand economic consumption on the part of its more than 800 million rural residents, because it is relying on that consumption to push economic growth.

In turn the government has relaxed requirements for citizens wanting to relocate to cities, in search of jobs. But this is naturally a two-edged sword, as China’s sprawling cities deal with the problems associated with exploding urbanization — and rural land is seized for development.

It’s a Tricky Thing, to Say the Least

And this is why I firmly believe that while China is destined to eventually become an economic powerhouse — many would argue it already is, and justifiably so — on par with the West, or its fellow Asian countries, such as Japan or South Korea, it is not destined to take over the world economically and reduce the rest of us to financial serfdom, as some pundits here fear.

As I’ve observed before, China doesn’t really seem interested in that, because it realizes that in the decades ahead, it has the difficult task of managing phenomenal growth coupled with the largest population on earth, a population in which many people live below the poverty line, by Western standards.

A population of 1.3 billion people, one in which half of them don’t have a cell phone or a land line, and yet the other half is depending on that first half to eventually buy a cell phone, in order to keep them employed and enjoying their disposal income. Granted, that’s a glib generalization, but one with a rather large grain of truth, as the premier’s statements attest.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaIt’s a tricky thing, indeed. But then, as I’ve also observed before, the Chinese can be a very pragmatic people, and their culture has lasted for thousands of years for a reason. I think they will be able to manage these changes.

But as Dongzhou illustrates, it will not be easy. And China’s political leaders may have to eventually accept some social changes along with economic ones.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.

Original Comments

Editor’s Note (slight return): D’oh! Once again, when I downloaded the Silicon Road microsite, Adobe Acrobat didn’t manage to grab the 13 comments that were attached to this blog entry – it grabbed more than a thousand other pages (most of them empty; I guess it’s an inexact science), but not that one. Damn.

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