December 21, 2005

December 21, 2005 | Commentary on Asia

China's Rulers And State Violence

Tibetans have known for over 16 years that Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Jintao is no wimp. And now, so do most Chinese. As several instances of violence against anti-government protesters during the past year demonstrate, Hu is both a true believer in, and an effective practitioner of, Mao's dictum that "political power comes from the barrel of a gun."

Some China watchers have taken all this violence--including, most recently, a bloody confrontation between locals and police in the coastal village of Dongzhou--as evidence that the Chinese Communist Party is vulnerable. But I see it as the opposite: not a sign of the Party's weakness, but rather an indicator of its continued strength. State (or imperial) violence has been an effective way of controlling China's unruly population for centuries, and has developed into high art under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. The state's unabashed use of violence against protest has simply become a routine reminder to the populace that Communist leaders are unafraid to kill their opponents. There is nothing new about this strategy. It has worked well in the past; and there is, unfortunately, little reason to doubt that it will work well in the future.

Years ago, in February 1989, Hu was the Communist Party's chief in Lhasa, Tibet during the 30th anniversary of the Chinese army's brutal occupation of that country. On February 7, as the anniversary approached, masses of protesters proudly paraded under Tibetan exile flags through the streets of Lhasa. Hu ordered police to restrain themselves, but by February 13, more processions appeared, and with each day, the demonstrators were more emboldened. Three times, Hu placed calls to Beijing and spoke directly with Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, himself under attack from the hardline wing of the Party for letting political expression in China become too free--especially among students and workers. And three times, Zhao urged his Tibetan Party chief to let the Tibetans blow off their steam, to "overcome the hard with the soft."

Hu allowed another week of protests and demonstrations, but the situation in Lhasa and in Tibet's other large towns slid toward chaos. On February 20, Hu ordered 1,700 paramilitary People's Armed Police to march through Lhasa in tight formation as a show of force to discourage further unrest. Then, on March 5, the demonstrations turned into a full-fledged uprising and police opened fire on the civilians, killing ten. One policeman also died. At least 40 Tibetans were killed in bloody rioting by police in the days that followed. At Hu's request, the Chinese Premier declared martial law in Tibet on March 7; and by March 8, regular army units had locked down the city of Lhasa and ordered all foreigners to leave. Before long, 170,000 army troops had occupied Tibet, keeping the region quiet through the rest of that spring and summer--including during the Tiananmen massacre of June 4. Hu was one of the first provincial-level party leaders to send a congratulatory telegram to Beijing following the events in Tiananmen Square.

Hu's readiness to use force to suppress the Tibetan demonstrations were cited by Chinese leader Jiang Zemin himself in March 1998 as a key factor in the Party's decision to promote Hu to the Politburo Standing Committee. Later Hu would become China's vice president and Jiang's heir apparent. And since his September 2004 elevation to supreme power--Hu holds the country's top three positions as chairman of the Central Military Commission, general secretary of the Communist Party, and President of China--Hu hasn't let his backers down. Most China observers agree that Hu has done more to suppress freedoms of expression, assembly, dissent, religion, labor organization, and even procreation than any Chinese politician in the last fifteen years.

So Hu's penchant for sanctioning state violence is not new; and neither is Beijing's. Indeed, police violence, whether by uniformed Chinese cops or informal thugs, has long been the standard way of enforcing the the Chinese Communist Party's rule at the local level. After thirty years of observing China, I am persuaded that police violence in the country is a sign of the regime's successful domination of the populace, not weakness.

Protests such as this month's riots in Dongzhou have become routine. But if the protests are routine, so is the Communist Party's skill at suppressing them. A case in point: In July, 584 villagers in a small town in wealthy Guangdong province (where I served three years in the U.S. Consulate) filed a recall petition against the village Party chief in order to protest a land deal. Villagers had their signatures notarized two separate times--in accord with a demand from Party functionaries at the county level (a demand which was, by the way, illegal). A Guangdong newspaper run by the provincial party apparatus actually published an editorial praising the villagers' efforts to go about recalling their leader "in the manner prescribed by law."

Yet when there was no response from the local election commission overseeing the recall, villagers staged a sit-in in the town office. Shortly, a Party inspection committee descended on the village and, with veiled threats, persuaded 396 of the villagers to withdraw their signatures. A local newspaper account of this episode indicated to me--reading between the lines--that all the villagers had been persuaded of was that there wasn't going to be a recall of the party chief and that they had better resign themselves to it. "When I was told what the true situation was," one disillusioned villager told a reporter for the local Panyu Daily, "then I knew what to do." Later, an activist from a neighboring province, accompanied by a reporter for the British newspaper The Guardian, visited the village to see what had happened, and was beaten to a pulp by uniformed security officials. (The unfortunate Guardian journalist, a veteran of Darfur's genocide, was apparently so rattled that he prematurely reported the death of his contact--a fact that Beijing's foreign ministry gleefully used to discredit the entire story.)

The pattern repeated itself this month when at least three, but probably more like fifteen or twenty, villagers were killed in the coastal town of Dongzhou, also in Guangdong province. To construct a power plant, the local government had seized croplands from farmers and planned to landfill a tidal inlet used by fishermen. Villagers protested that the project both deprived them of livelihoods and cheated them out of fair compensation for their lost land use (all land in China is legally the property of the state). On December 6, thousands of villagers gathered to protest the arrest of three village leaders who had petitioned the authorities against the project. Provincial level paramilitary police and anti-riot units immediately appeared in town. Villagers tossed explosives (normally used to stun fish) at the police, who were not amused. According to The Washington Post, police retaliated with "sustained pistol and automatic weapons fire." The scene was repeated the following evening. By Thursday, townspeople reported that thousands of police and riot troops had cordoned off the area, and the now submissive crowds were reduced to beseeching police for the return of the corpses of their loved ones. One 14-year old girl, interviewed by an Associated Press reporter, said, "I am afraid. I haven't been to school in days. ... Come save us."

The single report in the state media spent four dense paragraphs explaining why the entire onus of the incident belonged directly on "an extremely small number of provocateurs." Thousands of police still patrol the town, and reportedly still refuse to turn over the remains of dozens of victims to next of kin. Almost as an afterthought, the official press report stated that the commander who ordered police to open fire on the protesters at Dongzhou was detained for questioning. But my guess is that Wu Sheng, who was identified in the Hong Kong press as the deputy police chief of Shanwei county, will simply be transferred elsewhere, escaping punishment. Or perhaps he will be promoted like Hu was after the 1989 shootings in Tibet.

These incidents are far from anomalous. Throughout this past summer, newspapers and wire services reported dozens of significant protest incidents in China's relatively prosperous coastal provinces. At a high-level meeting in July, Communist Party Politburo and Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang announced that the number of "mass incidents" rose from more than 10,000 in 1994, to 58,000 in 2003, to 74,000 in 2004. Two weeks after Zhou's presentation, People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party Politburo, published a front-page commentary placing all responsibility for maintaining "stability" on citizens. "The continual deepening of reform naturally impacts the adjustment of interest relationships, and it is difficult to avoid a situation where different people and different groups enjoy the fruits of reform and development to differing degrees," the paper wrote. (In other words, there are winners and losers in our system, and if you're a loser, live with it.) All complaints and grievances, the paper continued, should be "handled according to law" and "no behavior in violation of the law will be permitted, and all such violations will punished to the full extent of the law."

By August, the state media announced that China was establishing a new force of riot police in large cities--equipped with helicopters and armored vehicles--to deal with the increasing number of protests. The Financial Times speculated that Zhou "may have been able to make a case for funds for a new force." Clearly, Zhou sees value in hyping the threat to the Party's leadership posed by civil unrest. But does the government's approval of Zhou's request mean the Communist Party is vulnerable? Or does it simply mean that Hu remembers the lesson he learned in Tibet in 1989: that state violence remains an effective way to keep dissent from spinning out of control?

None of this is to say that the Politburo is blind to the possibility of civil unrest getting out of hand. In his July speech, Zhou warned about "international elements" as a factor in discontent, although he said, at present, "domestic factors are predominant." His implication was that foreign powers may seek to take advantage of the situation. Also, he said that when incidents become "more political than economic," or when they become "more clearly organized," or when they begin to "spontaneously generate some organization," or when "there appear some clear leaders"--then it may be time for the Communist Party to worry.

But not yet. Saddled with a ruthless regime that does not hesitate to suppress dissent with violence, China's underclasses, perhaps 80 percent of the population, find it exceedingly difficult to influence their government. For the indefinite future, they face the same choice that Hu essentially gave Tibetans in 1989: Put up with it, or else.

Mr. Tkacik, a retired U.S. diplomat who has served in Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, is now senior research fellow in Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.


John J. Tkacik Jr. is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in The New Repulic Online