26 Jun 2011

Riots test Communist China’s love of order

Harmony and stability are priorities for the Chinese. But as Channel 4 News Asia Correspondent John Sparks discovered, young people across China are taking to the streets and calling for change.

Ai Weiwei may be the best-known victim of severe crackdown on dissent in China.

After mounting international pressure, the authorities released the celebrated artist on Wednesday after accusing him of tax evasion. He has been effectively silenced by a series of restrictions on what he can say and do.

China’s move to douse any flicker of protest began in February – a response, many believe, to the uprisings in the Middle East.

But human rights groups say that, despite the crackdown, there has been a surge of strikes, protests and disturbances nationwide.

Channel 4 News gained access to one city in the south east called Xintang. It was recently rocked by four days of rioting and is now under police lock-down. But its resident are increasingly willing to challenge the authorities.

Two weeks ago the streets erupted in a city called Xintang. A pregnant woman who ran a stall was beaten by police, say protesters.

In the People’s Republic of China, stability is king. Dissent is forbidden. Yet many of its citizens are unwilling to toe the party line. A younger generation is increasingly frustrated and calling for change.

Two weeks ago the streets erupted in a city called Xintang. A pregnant woman who ran a stall was beaten by local police, say protesters. And the news travelled fast.

In scenes captured on a mobile phone, rioters overwhelmed and destroyed the police headquarters. And such disturbances are occurring more frequently, according to human rights groups.

Read more Channel 4 News reports from China

City under lock-down

We found Xintang under lock-down, with a police unit stationed every 20 metres in the centre of town. They had regained control – no danger of an Arab-style uprising here.

And the city’s residents? Well, they didn’t want to talk. “Don’t know anything,” said one man. “It’s not convenient to talk about it,” said another.

While scared to speak publicly, many here are angry and disillusioned. Migrants work up to 16-hour days in Xintang’s factories, but the rising cost of living in China means they barely make ends meet.

Young workers can’t live a decent life in the city and they can’t afford to send money home. It’s modern-day slavery. Chinese labour activist

One labour activist told Channel 4 News there was no future for young workers. “They can’t live a decent life in the city,” he said, “and they can’t afford to send money home either. It’s modern-day slavery.”

Mr Li, an activist and critic of the Chinese Government, arranged for us to meet some migrant workers. He is frequently targeted by police – so we kept our distance.

He took us to a sweltering flat in an overcrowded block. A group of young people told me they’d had enough. “We’re not free,” one told me. “We’re stuck on the factory floor for hours. And we get so little money.”

Another explained: “Even if we’re paid overtime, we’re still poor. Prices are soaring. We have no quality of life.”

Mr Li worked with a lawyer called Tang Jingling, who took cases on behalf of workers. But in February Mr Tang disappeared, and his wife and mother are thought to be under house arrest.

Read John Sparks's blog: Protesting Chinese workers will mean higher prices

Overwhelming power of the state

In fact, the month of February marked the beginning of most severe crackdown on dissent China in 20 years.

Inspired by events overseas, activists gathered for a protest in Beijing. Like the citizens of Tunisia and Egypt, they used the internet to organise.

But they were met by the overwhelming power of the state. Participants were bundled up and marched through unmarked doors.

Such allegations are firmly rejected by Chinese officials. The head of the regional reform commission has said China is entering a transition phase but that tensions will ease over time.

Harmony and stability are the Chinese Communist Party’s priorities. And many in the country know or care little for revolutions overseas.

But meeting the growing expectations of young people will test the party’s leadership to the limit.