- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2008

BEIJING | A string of strikes and violent protests is unnerving China’s Communist Party leadership as it struggles to contain the fallout from the global economic slowdown that appears likely to sharply increase unemployment.

In the latest instance of unrest, hundreds of protesters stormed the gates of a toy factory in southern China that supplies U.S. toy maker Hasbro Inc. on Tuesday and Wednesday, smashing police vehicles, wrestling with security guards and breaking into management offices to destroy computer equipment.

The incident occurred as the World Bank announced that it was cutting its forecast for China´s 2009 growth rate to 7.5 percent from 9.2 percent — further evidence that a slump in demand for Chinese exports is hitting the country hard.

Only a week ago, a crowd of about 2,000 demonstrators used axes, chains and iron bars to attack police in Longnan, a city in the northwestern province of Gansu, after a protest over an unpopular urban redevelopment program spiraled out of control.

But the act of rebellion that is likely to cause the greatest anxiety among the party´s top ranks is a series of strikes by taxi drivers that have rippled across the country since the beginning of November.

Starting in Chongqing, a huge metropolis in Sichuan province in the southwest, the strikes have spread to Shandong province in the east, Gansu in the west and Guangdong in the south, as drivers bemoan financial pressures brought about by competition from unlicensed drivers, high fuel costs and rising rental fees.

Hundreds of taxi drivers fought with police in Guangzhou, near the border with Hong Kong, on Monday after they claimed one of the drivers had been beaten up by a local official. On the same day, cabbies in Zhouxi, a county in Shaanxi province, gathered in the main square to protest unlicensed vehicles robbing them of business.

It is the apparent copycat nature of the strikes that worries the central government. Official statistics reveal that tens of thousands of “mass incidents” — the propaganda department´s euphemism for civil unrest - occur in China every year but, unlike the taxi strikes, they are usually unconnected.

“The regional dispersion of the protests, coupled with the short time frame in which they have occurred, raises concerns in Beijing,” said Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence company based in Texas, in a report on the labor actions.

These strikes “represent a different sort of challenge” to the authorities than an isolated rural protest, said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, and author of “Global Shanghai: 1850-2010.”

“The party´s strategy in recent years has been to crack down hard on any protest that seems to have the potential to unite people of different social classes or link the disgruntled in different places, but to be readier to compromise or at least use less repressive tactics when the unrest is local and only involves people in one group.

“What raises interesting questions for this strategy now is protests in different places that do not seem to be linked organizationally yet mirror each other,” he said.

Singapore’s ambassador to the United States, Chan Heng Chee, told The Washington Times on Wednesday that there are 60,000 demonstrations or other protests in China every year. “There will be instability in China” because of the economic downturn, said Mrs. Chan, whose grandparents came to Singapore from southern China.

“The Chinese are worried about it but they will manage. … They have a track record of navigating themselves out of their problems.”

Responding to the strikes, Chinese authorities have put into practice a media control strategy propounded by President Hu Jintao in a speech in June.

Rather than burying bad news in terse, vague reports on the back pages of newspapers while rumors rage on the Internet, the propaganda ministry has told state media to be the first to report negative news so as to “actively set the news agenda” and control what details are released into the public domain.

The day after 2,000 people rioted in Longnan, a detailed report from the official Xinhua news agency appeared on the front page of the local party newspaper, Gansu Daily.

And in a country where subtle shifts in semantics are telling, Xinhua for the first time used the word “strike” to describe the action taken by taxi drivers in Chongqing. It previously used the deliberately ambiguous term “ceased operation.”

Chinese academics such as Shi Anbin, a professor of media studies at Beijing´s Tsinghua University, called this loosening of censorship significant progress.

“The government has changed its mentality. Before the Sichuan earthquake and the Olympics, it adhered to media control. Now it has accepted the idea of news management and is learning the techniques of political communication and PR used by Western governments in times of crisis,” Mr. Shi said.

“This is a groundbreaking notion. Rather than respecting the party´s interests, it is respecting the principle of news communication,” he said.

But David Bandurski, a researcher at the China Media Project (CMP) at the University of Hong Kong, said the new spin control strategy operates “as an open hand that deals a backhanded slap to the news.”

Referring to the reporting of the Longnan riots in an analysis on the CMP Web site, he argued that the party´s more active approach to delivering news through official channels is narrowing the coverage in more liberal newspapers.

“We are all … consuming and transmitting the same ‘authoritative´ [Communist Party] facts,” he wrote.

Photographs of the Longnan riot widely circulated on the Chinese Internet appear to highlight official state media´s economy with the truth. They show elderly protesters with bloodied faces and members of the People´s Armed Police dishing out beatings, none of which was reported by Xinhua.

However, the Chinese government has shown a pronounced willingness to portray itself as more accountable to its people in light of the unrest, which some Chinese analysts said heralds more transparent governance.

After the taxi strikes in Chongqing, Bo Xilai, the city´s top official and a member of the Communist Party´s Politburo, sat down with protesters to discuss their grievances in a live online broadcast and agreed to meet the majority of their demands.

In recent days, central government officials have reiterated the need for more people-centered politics to preserve stability.

“More channels should be opened to solicit the people´s opinions and local government should spare no effort to solve their problems,” Xinhua quoted Zhou Yongkang, the Communist Party secretary of the public security ministry, as saying.

The problem for the government is that these efforts to accommodate the public´s concerns appear to have legitimized the right to protest.

However, there is still a limit to how far people are prepared to protest in the knowledge that the government has not undergone any fundamental change, said Xujun Eberlein, an American Chinese writer and author of “Apologies Forthcoming.”

The Chinese people “know the risks and possible adverse consequences of mass actions. Generally speaking, unless problems are severe and the potential benefits are bigger than the risks, they will probably not take mass actions. There is a reality check that plays an important role here,” she said.