The people have spoken

The fight against official corruption turns violent in China

When China executed British national Akmal Shaikh on Dec. 29 for trying to smuggle four kilos of heroin into the country, there was a massive outcry from British officials. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was “appalled” that Beijing refused to heed a clemency request for Shaikh, who maintained he was manipulated as a drug mule. Shaikh’s family, who claim he suffered from a mental disorder (they suspect bipolar disorder), lashed out at the British government for not responding strongly enough: “Did the British government pull out its diplomats in protest? Did it have a hard-hitting strategy to persuade the Chinese authorities to change their decision? This is an example of Britain’s powerlessness in the world.”

Or of China’s power to do as it pleases. On human rights issues, Beijing is famously unwilling to budge, no matter the objections from the West, or the threats to reduce or even cut off trade completely. The Shaikh case is only the latest example. The only ones who may be able to change China are the Chinese themselves—and there are signs the people are sick and tired of government corruption, and willing to turn to violence in order to bring the misconduct of their leaders to light.

Late last month, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the country’s top think tank, released its annual “Blue Book” outlining the state of Chinese society. Significantly, it noted growing civil unrest and a massive upsurge in crime—between January and October 2009 there were more than four million criminal cases, an increase of about 15 per cent from the previous year.

According to professor Anthony Saich, director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University, three factors account for the uptick in crime: fallout from the global financial crisis, growing social unrest, and Beijing’s campaign to rein in corrupt government officials.

China instituted an anti-corruption campaign last year, in an effort to promote social stability. That has begun “to filter its way through the system,” says Saich, with local officials turning in their colleagues (in some cases, to avoid taking the fall themselves) for criminal prosecution. But Beijing’s efforts to crack down on corruption don’t account for that significant a portion of the increase in reported crimes: according to Saich, the program has been “somewhat ineffective thus far,” though “at least it gives people hope for down the line.”

China has also been hit by a post-Olympic hangover. Many Chinese who were hired in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics lost their jobs when the Games ended—Saich says there has been a palpable “slowdown around Beijing.” According to CASS, while GDP per capita could rise from US$3,500 in 2009 to US$4,000 by the end of 2010, rural Chinese will realize much less of that growth. Urban residents can expect an increase in income of 10 per cent, while rural people can only expect a six per cent increase, highlighting a growing disparity between wealth in cities and poverty in rural areas.

Perhaps the biggest cause of increased crime is social unrest—though whether there is more turbulence or simply better reporting of previously existing troubles is a matter of debate. “I think there is a correlation between perception of government malfeasance and crime,” says Saich, but at the same time “social unrest that was easily covered up in the past is now [making its way] online.” Saich believes local authorities are finding it more difficult to sweep social problems under the carpet.

So why are the Chinese only now rising up to fight against corruption? According to the Blue Book, a major reason is the rise of the Internet and micro-blogging: CASS estimates that 26 per cent of the Chinese population has Internet access, more than the average global rate. And while Beijing has clamped down on what its citizens can read and write online, many people are finding ways to get their anti-government messages out anyway. According to CASS, 30 per cent of the top stories about abuses and official failings in China over the past 12 months were first published on the Web.

The Blue Book suggests that Twitter has played a large role in uncovering social unrest and corruption. According to CASS, microblogging was especially active in 2009: “Micro-bloggers can publish their thoughts, emotions, opinions and what they see anytime, from any location, through cellphones or Web pages . . . One does not need someone’s agreement to follow him/her on a microblogging platform. Some opinion leaders on Twitter have more then 10,000 ‘followers,’ and have extremely powerful influence and capacity for incitement.”

One thing is certain: unhappy Chinese are speaking—and acting—out. The question is, are China’s leaders getting the message? The answer may lie in a headline from the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, on Dec. 22, one day after CASS released its report. “Most residents in China satisfied with their lives,” it read.

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