Violent Migrant Protests in Guangdong: The Latest in a Wave of Chinese Social Unrest

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Take a map of China, and begin pressing thumbtacks into it for each spasm of violence: an eruption of ethnic Mongol anger against majority Han citizens in the northern region of Inner Mongolia a few weeks ago; bomb blasts set off last month by disgruntled citizens in eastern Jiangxi province and northwestern Gansu province; and demonstrations by more than 1,000 people last week in central Hubei province, where a local official investigating a questionable real-estate transaction died while in police detention.

Then last Friday, a bomb detonated at a government building in the northeastern port city of Tianjin, set off by a man who was intent on seeking “revenge on society,” according to Chinese state media. Finally over the weekend, a scuffle between migrant street vendors and security personnel near China’s southern metropolis of Guangzhou sparked a series of riots and 25 detentions. Bloggers, social-media contributors and journalists from nearby Hong Kong reported that at least 1,000 migrant workers had coalesced in support of the vendors, setting fire to police vehicles and offices.

That map of China? It’s pockmarked with thumbtacks.

As China prepares to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party on July 1, the nation has been inundated by a wave of social unrest. Although each case appears isolated and tied to specific local grievances, the proliferation of protests and violence nationwide must surely spook China’s stability-obsessed leaders, who have already unleashed a crackdown on dissent that has netted dozens of activists, bloggers, journalists and other independent-minded types.

Earlier this year, the central government approved a budget of $95 billion, nearly a 14% annual increase, for “internal security”—a fuzzy designation that covers everything from salaries for security forces to the building of prisons. Maintaining social stability is such an important goal that local leaders can have their promotions tied to keeping the lid on any unrest. Chinese web censors work overtime to prevent search words related to protests from turning up sensitive information. In recent days, for instance, banned keywords have included “Inner Mongolia” and “Tianjin bombings.”

Yet a sociologist at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University has said that some 180,000 so-called “mass incidents” took place last year, a significant increase from the 74,000 reported in 2004, the last year that the government officially released such figures. Many of these incidents were small eruptions. But cellphones and social media have helped to broadcast local grievances on a national stage. Official reaction to the instability typically has been both swift and harsh. In Linchuan, Hubei, where the local legislator died on June 4, residents have used domestic microblogging sites to describe and post photos of a state-of-emergency-like situation, with military vehicles rolling through town and riot-gear-clad forces lining some streets.

In other places, the courts have sped into action. In the case in Inner Mongolia, where Mongols feel that the Han majority has disproportionately enjoyed the returns from lucrative mining concessions, the Han driver of a vehicle that ran over a Mongol herder activist trying to stop the destruction of grasslands has already been sentenced to death, just a month after the collision. In Linchuan, Hubei, a handful of government officials have been suspended in connection with the local councilor’s death. But for Chinese fed up with local corruption and growing social inequality, these justices may feel like too little, too late. More thumbtacks, surely, will be needed for that map of China.

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