reflections

Geopolitical Diary: Monday, Dec. 19, 2005

4 MINS READDec 20, 2005 | 12:00 GMT
The official English-language China Daily ran a front-page article Monday discussing the Dec. 6 Shanwei shootings. Citing the official Xinhua news agency, which in turn cited a local Shanwei government official, the China Daily said the shooting was brought on by three individuals, and that one of them named Huang Xijun was the principal instigator. According to the report, Huang ran in the local election in June for village Party director — and, fearing that he would lose, had exploded fireworks inside a ballot box to throw off the vote count. After the election, Huang rallied protests against the local government and the power-plant project to cover up his vote-tampering. With his two associates, Huang Xirang and Lin Hanru, Huang then instigated the series of escalating protests and demonstrations, eventually leading to the violent confrontation with police Dec. 6. The origin of the China Daily and Xinhua articles was the local Guangdong paper, the Nanfang Daily, which ran the official Shanwei government version of the incident. The article laid the blame for the violence squarely on the protesters and the instigators, noting, among other things, that security officials acted in a proper manner and that, while the killing was unfortunate, it avoided additional bloodshed. The local official cited in the story added that a full account of the incident would be released after order had returned and an investigation was completed. The Chinese spin on the shooting is telling. Although the policeman who ordered the use of deadly force was initially detained, reports now suggest he was freed three days later. Chinese officials, however, have arrested Huang and his associates, and there are reports that several other people in and near the area have been detained. Official government reports indicate three people were killed, while other reports place the number closer to 20, and still others — mostly from opposition Chinese media outside China — place it as high as 70. Beijing itself has remained largely mute on the incident, responding to questions by saying that an investigation is under way. But the official state media has run reports, nearly always simply citing local Guangdong media, that lay the blame squarely on the protesters — or more precisely, on the few "instigators." Chinese leaders are worried about the depth of unrest in the country and the rising boldness of protesters. At the same time, the central government hopes to avoid a violent crackdown if at all possible — because, whatever economic reforms may be under way, the steady flow of foreign investment monies and exports is needed to keep the economic mismanagement of the past from catching up. Thus the semidetachedness from the Shanwei incident. But the message to protesters is quite clear: The protests must stop. Those involved in ongoing demonstrations have the option of backing down now — after all, it is not the entire population of disgruntled Chinese the government is targeting, just the few instigators. But if protests should turn violent, Shanwei might not be the last time deadly force is used to ensure order. The Nanfang Daily cited a Shanwei city official as explaining that, "The situation was very critical and police had to take immediate actions to put a stop to the riots and disperse the crowd or the lives of police and villagers at the scene would have been at risk." Three dead in the interest of the greater good. And, as added "encouragement" of peaceful behavior, Beijing has subtly posed this question: How do people know the motives of those stirring unrest? After all, if the Chinese press is to be believed, Huang was no better than the officials he claimed to be fighting; He was simply a disgruntled candidate who couldn't win a seat in office and stirred unrest to cover his own crimes — and that type of individual is likely just as corrupt as the officials in office. But the days of Beijing sitting back and trying to let protests simply burn themselves out appear to be nearing an end — China's leadership cannot tolerate the rising civil unrest. And while the government will continue to crack down on corruption in the bureaucracy — not coincidentally, Han Guizhi, a former Heilongjiang provincial official, was given a high-profile death sentence for corruption last week — protesters are no longer immune from a similar penalty.

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