New York Times
December 31, 2004
WANZHOU, China, Dec. 30 - The encounter, at first, seemed purely pedestrian. A man carrying a bag passed a husband and wife on a sidewalk. The man's bag brushed the woman's pants leg, leaving a trace of mud. Words were exchanged. A scuffle ensued.
Easily forgettable, except that one of the men, Yu Jikui, was a lowly porter. The other, Hu Quanzong, boasted that he was a ranking government official. Mr. Hu beat Mr. Yu using the porter's own carrying stick, then threatened to have him killed.
For Wanzhou, a Yangtze River port city, the script was incendiary. Onlookers spread word that a senior official had abused a helpless porter. By nightfall, tens of thousands of people had swarmed Wanzhou's central square, where they tipped over government vehicles, pummeled policemen and set fire to city hall.
Minor street quarrel provokes mass riot. The Communist Party, obsessed with enforcing social stability, has few worse fears. Yet the Wanzhou uprising, which occurred on Oct. 18, is one of nearly a dozen such incidents in the past three months, many touched off by government corruption, police abuse and the inequality of the riches accruing to the powerful and well connected.
"People can see how corrupt the government is while they barely have enough to eat," said Mr. Yu, reflecting on the uprising that made him an instant proletarian hero - and later forced him into seclusion. "Our society has a short fuse, just waiting for a spark."
Though it is experiencing one of the most spectacular economic expansions in history, China is having more trouble maintaining social order than at any time since the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989.
Police statistics show the number of public protests reached nearly 60,000 in 2003, an increase of nearly 15 percent from 2002 and eight times the number a decade ago. Martial law and paramilitary troops are commonly needed to restore order when the police lose control.
China does not have a Polish-style Solidarity labor movement. Protests may be so numerous in part because they are small, local expressions of discontent over layoffs, land seizures, use of natural resources, ethnic tensions, misspent state funds, forced immigration, unpaid wages or police killings. Yet several mass protests, like the one in Wanzhou, show how people with different causes can seize an opportunity to press their grievances together.
The police recently arrested several advocates of peasant rights suspected of helping to coordinate protest activities nationally. Those are worrying signs for the one-party state, reflexively wary of even the hint of organized opposition.
Wang Jian, a researcher at the Communist Party's training academy in Changchun, in northeast China, said the number and scale of protests had been rising because of "frictions and even violent conflicts between different interest groups" in China's quasi market economy.
"These mass incidents have seriously harmed the country's social order and weakened government authority, with destructive consequences domestically and abroad," Mr. Wang wrote in a recent study.
China's top leaders said after their annual planning session in September that the "life and death of the party" rests on "improving governance," which they define as making party officials less corrupt and more responsive to public concerns.
But the only accessible outlet for farmers and workers to complain is the network of petition and appeals offices, a legacy of imperial rule. A new survey by Yu Jianrong, a leading sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, found that petitions to the central government had increased 46 percent in 2003 from the year before, but that only two-hundredths of 1 percent of those who used the system said it worked.
Last month, as many as 100,000 farmers in Sichuan Province, frustrated by months of fruitless appeals against a dam project that claimed their land, took matters into their own hands. They seized Hanyuan County government offices and barred work on the dam site for days. It took 10,000 paramilitary troops to quell the unrest.
Also in November, in Wanrong County, Shanxi Province, in central China, two policemen were killed when enraged construction workers attacked a police station after a traffic dispute. Days later, in Guangdong Province, in the far south, riots erupted and a toll booth was burned down after a woman claimed she had been overcharged to use a bridge. In mid-December, a village filled with migrant workers in Guangdong erupted into a frenzy of violence after the police caught a 15-year-old migrant stealing a bicycle and beat him to death. Up to 50,000 migrants rioted there, Hong Kong newspapers reported.
Wanzhou officials initially treated their riot in October as a fluke. They ordered Mr. Hu to declare on television that he is a fruit vendor, not a public official, and that his confrontation with Mr. Yu was a mistake. The police arrested a dozen people and declared social order restored.
But the uprising alarmed Beijing, which told local officials they would be sacked if they failed to prevent recurrences, according to Chinese journalists briefed on the matter. Luo Gan, the member of the Politburo Standing Committee who is in charge of law and order, issued national guidelines warning that "sudden mass incidents" were increasing and calling for tighter police measures.
More than a dozen people interviewed in Wanzhou, part of Chongqing Municipality, described the city as tense. All said that they still believed that Mr. Hu was indeed an official and that the government concocted a cover story to calm things down. They say the anger excited by the riot awaits only a new affront.
The Chance Encounter
Like many farmers in the steeply graded hills along the Yangtze, Mr. Yu, 57, supplements his income hauling loads up and down city roads - grain, fertilizer, air conditioners, anything that he can balance on a bamboo pole and hoist on his slender shoulder. Sweaty and dirty, porters put their low-paying profession on parade. They are often referred to simply as bian dan, or pole men.
Mr. Yu's lot is better than some others. He has another sideline collecting hair cuttings off the floors of beauty salons and barber shops, packing them in big burlap bags and selling them to wig-makers down south.
On Oct. 18, he spent several hours collecting hair from upscale salons along Baiyan Road, a busy shopping street that runs near the government square downtown. His load was light - two bags of loose locks - and he scurried down the sidewalk to lunch.
"Hey, pole man, you got dirt all over my pants!" he heard a woman shout. When he turned to face her, the man by her side, Mr. Hu, was glaring at him.
"What are you looking at, bumpkin?" Mr. Yu recalls Mr. Hu saying.
Mr. Yu is mild mannered, with a slightly raffish grin stained yellow from chain smoking. Mr. Hu, wearing a coat and tie and leather shoes, looked like he might be important. Mr. Yu said he should have let the moment pass. He did not.
"I work like this so that my daughter and son can dress better than I do, so don't look down on me," he recalled saying. Then he added, "I sell my strength just as a prostitute sells her body."
Mr. Yu said he was drawing a general comparison. Mr. Hu and his young wife, Zeng Qingrong, apparently thought he had insinuated something else. She jerked his shirt collar and slapped his ear. Mr. Hu picked up Mr. Yu's fallen pole and struck him in the legs and back repeatedly.
Perhaps for the benefit of the crowd, Mr. Hu shouted that it was Mr. Yu, sprawled on the pavement, who was in big trouble.
"I'm a public official," Mr. Hu said, according to Mr. Yu and other eyewitnesses. "If this guy causes me more problems, I'll pay 20,000 kuai" - about $2,500 - "and have him knocked off."
Those words never appeared in the state-controlled media. But is difficult to find anyone in Wanzhou today who has not heard some version of Mr. Hu's bluster: The putative official - he has been identified in the rumor mill as the deputy chief of the local land bureau - had boasted that he could have a porter killed for $2,500. It was a call to arms.
Mr. Hu's threat, spread by mobile phones, text messages and the swelling crowd, encapsulated a thousand bitter grievances.
"I heard him say those exact words," said Wen Jiabao, another porter who says he witnessed the confrontation. "It proves that it's better to be rich than poor, but that being an official is even better than being rich."
Xiang Lin, a 18-year-old auto mechanic, had seen China's rising wealth when he worked near Shanghai. But when he returned home to Wanzhou, he felt frustrated that his plan to open a repair shop foundered. He was drawn downtown by the excitement.
"Don't officials realize that we would not have any economic development in Wanzhou without the porters?" Mr. Xiang asked.
Cai Shizhong, a taxi driver, was angered when the authorities created a company to control taxi licenses, which he says cost him thousands of dollars but brought no benefits. The police also fine taxi drivers left and right, he said.
"If you drive a private car, they leave you alone because you might be important," Mr. Cai said. "If you drive a taxi, they find any excuse to take your money."
Peng Daosheng's home was flooded by the rising reservoir of the Three Gorges Dam. He was supposed to receive $4,000 in compensation as well as a new home. But his new apartment is smaller and less well located, and the cash never arrived.
"The officials take all the money for themselves," said Mr. Peng, who spent eight hours protesting that night. "I guess that's why that guy had $2,500 to kill someone."
It took the police more than four hours to remove Mr. Hu and Mr. Yu from the scene. The crowd surrounded police cars and refused to budge, afraid the police would cover up the beating, and even punish Mr. Yu.
"People knew the matter would never be resolved fairly behind closed doors," Mr. Yu said.
Even after the police formed a cordon around two cars - one for Mr. Hu and his wife, another for Mr. Yu - the crowd smashed the windows of the car carrying the couple. It was nearly 5 p.m. before the vehicles crawled through the assembled masses.
A Loss of Control
The police may have hoped that removing the main actors from the scene would defuse the tension. Instead, the crowd rampaged. At 6 p.m., a police van was surrounded and the policeman inside was beaten with bricks. Seven or eight people tipped the car over, stuffed toilet paper into the gas tank and set it ablaze, according to witnesses and a police report.
When a fire truck arrived, the fire fighters were forced out and their truck commandeered. A driver smashed it into brick wall, then backed up and repeated the move to render the truck immobile.
"They lost control at once," recalled Mr. Cai, the taxi driver, who wandered through the crowd that day. "Suddenly the police were nobody and the people were in charge."
The local government never published an estimate of how many people took part in the protest. But unofficial estimates by Chinese journalists on the scene ranged from 30,000 to 70,000, enough to stop all traffic downtown and fill the government square.
By 8 p.m., the rally focused on the 20-story headquarters of the Wanzhou District Government, with its blue-tinted windows and imposing terrace facing the square. The crowd chanted, "Hand over the assassin!" Riot-police officers in full protective gear - but carrying no guns - held the terrace. Officials with loudspeakers urged the crowd to disperse, promising that the incident would be handed according to law.
But the mob now followed its own law. An assembly line formed from a nearby construction site. Concrete building slabs were ferried along the line, then shattered with sledgehammers to make projectiles. Front-line rioters hurled the rocks at the police - tentatively at first, then in volleys.
Under the barrage, the police retreated. Protesters charged the terrace, shattered the windows and doors of government headquarters and surged inside.
Official documents were scattered. Protesters dumped computers and office furniture off the terrace. Soon, a raging fire illuminated the square with its flickering orange glow.
Li Jian, 22, took part in the plunder. A young peasant, he had found a city job as a short-order cook. But he longed to study computers, said his father, Li Wanfa. The family bought an old computer keyboard so the young man could learn typing.
"He wanted to go to high school but the school said his cultural level was not high enough," Mr. Li said. "They said a country boy like him should be a cook."
The police arrested young Mr. Li scurrying through the melee with a Legend-brand computer that belonged to the government, according to an arrest notice.
Yet even at the height of the incident, rioters set limits. They did not attack any of the restaurants or department stores along the government square, focusing their wrath on symbols of official power.
By midnight, the crowd dwindled on its own. When paramilitary troops finally arrived on the scene after 3 a.m., there were only a few thousand hard-core protesters left.
"Most people went home," said Mr. Peng, the man whose home had been flooded by the dam. "But the armed police were fierce. They beat you even if you kneeled down before them."
The Tensions Persist
The local government praised its own handling of the riot. An assessment published three days afterward in The Three Gorges City News, the daily paper of the Wanzhou Communist Party, also declared the uprising had no lasting ramifications.
"The district government displayed its strong governing ability at a crucial moment," the report said. "This incident was caused by a handful of agitators with ulterior motives who whipped up a street-side dispute into a mass riot."
The uprising did dissipate as quickly as it emerged. Baiyan Road now bustles with afternoon shoppers. After work, dancers bundled against the damp chill use government square as an outdoor ballroom, a synthesized two-step beat filling the night air.
Yet the underlying tensions did not disappear.
When the Wan Min Cotton Textile Factory declared bankruptcy in mid-December, scores of policemen occupied the factory grounds to prevent a riot. The next day, a handful of workers from the factor went to city hall to protest. Several hundred uniformed police surrounded them.
Mr. Xiang, the auto mechanic, was arrested for throwing stones and taken into custody. One day, returning from the cold showers inmates were required to take in the unheated jail, guards told him to kneel. One elbowed him in the back and several others kicked him in the gut.
As he lay prostrate, a prison supervisor said: "Nothing happened to you here, did it? You're a smart kid."
He could not eat for two days.
"We were all brothers inside," he said of his fellow detainees. "The officials despise the ordinary people and are not afraid to bully them."
Then there's Mr. Yu. He missed the riot that occurred in his name, but has been under pressure ever since. The government kept him isolated in a hospital for nearly two weeks, even though bruises on his legs and the stitches he needed above his eye had healed.
His daughter and son were told to take a vacation, paid by the government, to avoid contact with the news media. "They told us not to talk or it would hurt the city," Mr. Yu said in his first interview.
Yet he said what really shook him was the reaction to the statement he made to Wanzhou television on Oct. 20, two days after the riot. The government told him to appear - he was still under guard - and had prepared questions in advance.
"They told me to emphasize the importance of law and order," he said. "I was told just to answer the questions and not to say anything else."
What he said on the evening news sounded innocuous enough. "Let this be handled by law," Mr. Yu told viewers. "Everyone should stay at home."
So he was unprepared for the backlash.
Relatives of those arrested criticized him for propagandizing for the government, saying their kin felt betrayed. Neighbors warned him not to plant rice this year because his enemies would just rip it out. His wife says she wants to move because she has heard too many threats.
Mr. Yu is understandably confused.
"First an official tries to break my legs because I am a dirty porter," he said. "Now the common people want to break my legs because I spoke for the government."
Chris Buckley contributed reporting for this article.