Over the last few months, the world’s attention has understandably been focused on the events rocking the Middle East. The West has been kept busy with diplomatic efforts in Egypt and the Gulf states, with a war in Libya, and the possible descent of Syria, a major geopolitical player in Middle Eastern politics, into civil war. While the world has been watching the Arab world, however, other oppressed peoples have also been rising up.
No doubt to the surprise of many, this includes slow but steady reports of mob violence in major Chinese cities. China continues to present itself to the world as a superpower in waiting, as a country ready to stand alongside the United States as joint masters of the world. But unless they can get their social problems under control, though they might not follow several Arab regimes into disgrace and exile, they certainly will struggle to command the international legitimacy they clearly crave.
China is a country obsessed with being seen to be powerful, and constantly worries about losing face. Examples abound. China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics, for which no expense was spared, was a coming-out party for all the world, showing that China had arrived. Before the party began, China carefully gave its capital city of Beijing a makeover, deporting laborers, erecting modern facades to conceal old neighborhoods, investing billions in new sports facilities, and virtually shutting down major industrial regions so that the infamous smog Beijing is known for would clear out. Even spitting in public was banned.
China has also pursued a manned space program, aggressively sought to develop (some might say colonize) Africa, and recently announced it will soon launch an aircraft carrier. The carrier, Chinese officials note, is intended to showcase China’s power. “All of the great nations in the world own aircraft carriers — they are symbols of a great nation,” Lieutenant General Qi Jianguowas said while announcing the carrier. And, of course, the growing economic power of China cannot be understated.
But all these admitted triumphs, carefully stage-managed by a Chinese regime eager to impress and fearful of international embarrassment, are threatened by the protests sweeping the country. The causes of the protests differ from place to place. Some are religious, others, ethnic (sometimes it’s unclear where one begins and the other ends). Many protests concern Chinese citizens feeling that they have been unfairly compensated for land now being used for industrial or commercial ventures that are making other people rich. Some seem to be simply based on the clash of interests between China’s pampered ruling class and its hundreds of millions of poor. But whatever their cause, the protests reveal plainly that despite China’s financial and military might, it is a country facing serious issues.
The latest report of mass violence emerged last week from the city of Zengcheng, and reportedly began after security guards beat a pregnant migrant worker. This sparked a riot, with migrant workers attacking government buildings. China has responded with overwhelming force, sending in troops, extra police and armored vehicles into areas beset by violence. They are not necessarily seeking to crush the protests, but to smother them with a display of power. They are also apparently willing to make concessions to the mob — the firing of corrupt officials, replacing unpopular local leaders, and the like. It’s the classic carrot-and-stick approach: Yes, we understand your frustration and will remove this crooked cop, they might say, while also moving thousands of paramilitaries with heavy weapons into the city in case the conciliatory gestures aren’t enough.
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