- The Washington Times - Monday, December 12, 2005

The bloody crackdown of a protest in China highlights one of the main challenges Beijing faces in its drive to becoming a world power. The corruption of local Chinese officials, combined with villagers’ lack of recourse, could make the violence of Dec. 6 increasingly common, at a cost to its stability and development. While much of the world remains prudently vigilant of the potential consequences of a rising China, the international community should also be aware of a destabilized China. Clearly, officials in Beijing are worried about the latter scenario.

Police in China opened fire on a group of villagers in Guangdong province that were protesting land seizures resulting from the building of a power plant. The incident, which occurred in a coastal town near Hong Kong, appears to have been the most violent crackdown since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. While Beijing has said three villagers were killed and eight injured, villagers maintain the death count is about 20. The villagers were angered by the minimal compensation that they were offered by local officials in exchange for the seizure of the land they farmed. That grievance is increasingly common in China, where local officials pocket most of the restitutions that Beijing pays out for taking over land for big projects.

Beijing initially blamed the violence on the villagers, which they claimed had attacked police trying to establish public order. Later, Beijing said that it had detained the police commander in charge of the crackdown, and acknowledged he had dealt with the situation improperly, and brought about mistaken deaths and accidental injuries. Officials also indicated they would investigate whether villagers were fairly compensated in the land seizure. More than likely, Beijing changed its tone not out of magnanimity, but a fear the bloody repression would provoke a backlash in similarly affected rural areas.

Public protests are on the rise in China. Beijing acknowledged in September that roughly 3.7 million Chinese participated in 74,000 protests last year, 10 times the numbers of a decade ago. The discontent is in part due to growing inequality. According to state-run Xinhua, last year average urban disposable incomes were 3.2 times those in rural areas. That inequality only intensifies frustration with local corruption.

Beijing is wary of social malaise spreading through the countryside. It has relaxed restrictions on farmers moving to cities for employment, boosted subsidies to agriculture, ordered an end to taxes on crops and implemented a law aimed at guaranteeing 30-year land-use rights to farmers. Officials have also made high-profile attempts to rein in corruption.

But at the same time, Beijing has stepped up its repression, cracking down on media coverage of rural discontent and attempts to establish greater religious freedom. China’s State Security Ministry set up special anti-riot squads to deal with protests. During President Bush’s recent visit to Beijing, the government failed to even symbolically release dissidents, as it has done during past visits by U.S. presidents.

Beijing faces a considerable challenge in curbing graft and mismanagement in its far-flung provinces. Failing to do so, however, could bring heightened attention from the international community.

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