Talking Back to Power: China's 'Haves' Stir the 'Have Nots' to Violence
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The Great Divide | Talking Back to Power: China's 'Haves' Stir the 'Have
Nots' to Violence
December 31, 2004
By JOSEPH KAHN
WANZHOU, China, Dec. 24 - 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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
Mr. Hu's threat, spread by mobile phones, text messages and
the swelling crowd, encapsulated a thousand bitter
"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
"Don't officials realize that we would not have any
economic development in Wanzhou without the porters?" Mr.
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,
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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.
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
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
"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.
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