Published June 17, 2011
On Wednesday, authorities rushed in reinforcements to quell disturbances in Taizhou, a city in coastal Zhejiang province. Riot police fought with villagers on Tuesday following a dispute over compensation for the taking of land for development. Hundreds of residents in Rishanfen village had surrounded a gas station that had been the center of the dispute and blocked an airport expressway.
The Taizhou protests have followed a string of violent anti-government incidents in Chinese cities over the last three weeks. Many of the recent riots have taken place in prosperous portions of the country. For instance, the incident in Taizhou came on the heels of three days of violence by well-paid migrant workers in Guangdong province in Zengcheng, the “Blue Jeans Capital of the World.” The disturbances started when government-hired thugs knocked down a pregnant 20-year-old peddler.
These incidents contradict the dominant narrative that China’s citizenry is increasingly content due to continually rising living standards. Three decades of double-digit growth has certainly lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but the country has only become less stable over time.
We should not be surprised. Change, in general, is tough for reforming regimes. There is nothing so destabilizing as modernization, which can radicalize even the beneficiaries of progress—and especially them.
Those wanting to know the future of China may want to brush up on Tocqueville, who noted that peasants in pre-revolutionary France detested feudalism more than their counterparts in other portions of Europe, where conditions were worse. Discontent was highest in those parts of France where there had been the most improvement. Moreover, the French Revolution followed an economic advance as rapid as it was unprecedented. So, as Tocqueville notes, “steadily increasing prosperity” doesn’t tranquilize citizens. On the contrary, it promotes “a spirit of unrest.”
As we saw in 18th century France—and as is now evident in 21st century China—further growth does not stabilize a turbulent society. In fact, it seems to promote even more discontent. If there is one unifying theme for unrest in China today, it is the desire for justice, the demand to be treated fairly. That’s a hopeful sign for society in general but not for the ruling Communist Party.
Beijing is adept at creating growth in its government-guided economy, and senior officials can take pride in many of their achievements. Yet justice is the one thing the Communist Party’s aging one-party state cannot provide. That’s why the country’s season of discontent will not end until the Chinese people have rights and a meaningful say in their lives—in addition to prosperity.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of "The Coming Collapse of China" and a columnist for The Daily. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.