China: Surge in protests

Political reform is likely to be high on the agenda of a closed-door meeting of China’s communist leaders amid growing strains between a population demanding more rights and a bureaucracy increasingly using illegal means to maintain its grip on power.

Like most of the topics for discussion during the central committee’s annual four-day gathering, which ends Friday, it is unknown whether the beating inflicted on the civil rights campaigner Lu Banglie in Taishi village last weekend would be raised by any of the 354 delegates. But even if his case is overlooked, countless other examples of unrest and violence have called into question the government’s authority and the sincerity of Beijing’s promise to move towards greater democracy and respect for the rule of law.

The government says 3,6-million people took part in 74 000 “mass incidents’’ last year, an increase of more than 20% on 2003. Most of these protests were sporadic and centred on local issues, typically land ownership rights, official corruption and environmental destruction.

But they have alarmed the authorities.
At last year’s central party meeting, the leadership called rural unrest a “life or death’’ issue for the party, which pledged to make itself more responsive to the concerns of the people.

But plodding political reforms have failed to keep up with rising expectations among the public. According to the local media, the most ambitious proposal on the agenda this year is to allow towns in three provinces to vote for their own mayors. The main thrust of the reforms is to maintain communist party rule.

Civil rights activists say this is out of touch with public opinion and a rising grassroots democracy movement. “There is growing coordination among activists,’’ said Hou Wenzhou, director of the Empowerment and Rights Institute. She said that while the number of activists was still small, they had increased sharply in the past three years. The Taishi case, in which outside activists supported the locals in their attempt to impeach their mayor, showed they were becoming more organised.

“Because of the [Tiananmen Square] crackdown in 1989, people are very cautious about joining a formal organisation, but there are more lawyers and scholars willing to speak out and offer support to each other.’‘

The government has responded with a policy of repression during the past 18 months. Arbitrary detentions have increased, new curbs have been placed on petitioners and controls on the Internet have been tightened.

Human rights campaigners say more local authorities are also using hired thugs to deny people their legal rights. Nicolas Becquelin, of Human Rights in China, said some local governments have their own militias, often comprising relatives of officials and police officers. “It is becoming more and more dangerous to be a rights activist because of the increase in intimidation using unlawful means,” he said. The problem, he added, is that Beijing makes promises about improved democracy and legal rights that it fails to fulfill. “This creates a very volatile and dangerous situation.’’—Â

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