Recent reported police killings of protestors in the southeast Chinese villages of Panlong and Dongzhou raise serious questions about China's struggle for a more sophisticated strategy to contain mounting unrest. For now, mass protests don't threaten the government's survival, but the specter of chronic unrest is haunting Beijing's leaders and affecting vital policy initiatives, including relations with the U.S.
Since Tiananmen Square, China's leaders have fought to avoid having to face the stark choices that produced that massacre — major concessions or bloody suppression. But by the late '90s, police statistics showed that rising numbers of citizens were taking their resentments into the street, with the number of protests — officially called "mass incidents" — increasing from 8,700 in 1993 to 74,000 by 2004. Enraged at massive layoffs, plundered pensions, confiscated land and corrupt officials, many Chinese hope protests will attract the attention of senior Party leaders and thereby frighten local bureaucrats into making concessions. This often happens, prompting even more protests as word spreads that officials are caving in to demands.
In 1998, Beijing began groping for better carrots and fancier sticks. No longer able to prevent protests, officials concluded they could contain unrest by minimizing the police violence that risked turning small, peaceful protests into mass movements or riots. Police were increasingly instructed to "be cautious in using force," cordon off nonviolent protests, and wait until later to round up organizers. China also redoubled efforts to quash activist social organizations, using informants and intimidation to turn organizers against each other. As a carrot, local Party officials and police were ordered to keep a sharp eye out for grievances and try to resolve them before frustration spilled into the streets. Even the new term for demonstrations, "mass" rather than "counterrevolutionary" incidents, is a modest Marxist nod to the legitimacy of many protestors' grievances.
Beijing hopes it can persuade the great majority of apolitical citizens that the Party can provide economic growth and clean, responsive autocracy, while using disciplined repression to drive a wedge between average citizens and the minority who try to promote systemic change. Beijing also encourages angry citizens to blame local officials, rather than the system itself, for abuses. But as Dongzhou and Panlong illustrate, the government is still far from making its new strategy work. Citizens who dare use the legal petitioning system to resist official abuses frequently suffer detention and beatings at the hands of local officials. In Dongzhou as elsewhere, officials failed miserably to address citizens' problems, and demonstrations raged on for months before turning violent.
Efforts to professionalize policing are proving uneven. Unable or unwilling to contain protests peacefully, police attack with tear gas, belts, batons and stun guns — further enraging demonstrators. Local officials have deployed hired thugs rather than uniformed police to harass protestors. In Dongzhou, where citizens protested the confiscation of good farming land for a power plant, 20 demonstrators perished when police fired what were officially described as "warning shots." In Panlong, local officials claimed that a 13-year-old girl allegedly beaten to death by police had actually suffered a heart attack.
There are signs that peaceful resistance is rising, though such trends are hard to monitor. Some dissidents have circumvented efforts to censor Internet discussions of the Panlong case by discussing a classic story of another young girl slain by former Nationalist Government troops. Others have posted messages bearing witness to the Dongzhou killings simply saying, "I know."
Other forms of resistance are less passive. While police insist that the overwhelming majority of protests remain peaceful, police statistics indicate that violent social-order offenses — brawling, armed fights, obstruction of public work — are rising sharply, and violent and confrontational protests are also reportedly increasing. Dongzhou reflected an increasing toughness in protestors, as they continued their petitioning despite detentions of their leaders, multiple tear-gassings and even violent scuffles with police.
In Zhejiang province last April, police tried to suppress elderly demonstrators who were trying to shut down chemical factories they claimed were killing crops, causing stillbirths and turning local water "the color of soy sauce." But police actions backfired, sparking a riot that left up to 50 police wounded.
In Mao's time, attacks on police were virtually unheard of, with an average of just 36 officers dying annually in the line of duty. Since 1990, more than 7,000 have died on duty and nearly 1,000 were reportedly killed (and 30,000 injured) in deliberate attacks. That average — about 67 police killed per year — outstrips by 10 the number of officers "feloniously slain" in the far more heavily armed U.S. in 2004, according to FBI figures.
Fear of exacerbating instability is already shaping Beijing's responses to problems, rendering many seemingly bold diplomatic departures more superficial than substantial. For example, China can organize the Six Party Talks and deliver North Korea to the table. But many of Beijing's senior experts privately admit that its fear of instability and refugee flows to its northeast — where protest rates are among the highest — severely limit Beijing's willingness to pressure Pyongyang. China can officially free up exchange rates, but fear of unemployment and unrest is a major reason the renminbi still trades in a very narrow band. In Central Asia, China's fear of Muslim unrest is causing it to back repressive regimes and could even backfire by bringing it into conflict with pro-reform Muslims. And perhaps the most ominous question is how Beijing's fear of nationalist demonstrations might limit its flexibility in easing tensions with Taiwan and Japan.
For protests to threaten the regime's survival would require several conditions that do not yet exist. These include a major public split in the Party leadership, a massive failure of the security forces, or the rise of a Solidarity-style dissident organization. Alternatively, popular resistance might be galvanized by a major symbolic issue or event, such as corruption, anti-Japan or -Taiwan nationalism, or perhaps the violent deaths of protestors. It is this last scenario that the new security strategy was designed to prevent. Dongzhou and Panlong demonstrate just how far Beijing still has to go.
Mr. Tanner is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in Wall Street Journal on February 2, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.