These are volatile times in China. Last Friday, there was a ‘terrorist’ attack in Jiangxi province. Qian Mingqi, 52, set off three bombs at government buildings in the city of Fuzhou. Two bystanders were killed, as well as Qian himself.
Then on Monday, riot police sealed off part of the city of Hohhot, following the worst ethnic strife in the resource-rich Inner Mongolian region in two decades.
Protests by students had erupted after a Han Chinese coal truck driver ran over and killed a Mongolian herder. A news blackout was ordered in the Chinese media.
On Tuesday, Xinhua then reported that President Hu Jintao had called a high-level meeting to “discuss how to improve social management and keep society stable”, which is being interpreted as a signal that the government wants to show that it is responding to the two, very different events.
The bomb attack by Qian resulted from his “discontent” with the local government over a lawsuit, Xinhua reported.
What was more surprising was that many high-profile internet commentators showed a degree of sympathy for Qian on their weibo (a Twitter-like service used by 145 million Chinese). Who was ultimately to blame for the bombing, some asked: Qian or the Fuzhou government that drove him to it?
Even the Global Times observed that Qian’s grievance was a topical one that many Chinese felt empathy with. As WiC has reported on several occasions, many householders have been angered by venal and heavy-handed local government demolition campaigns designed to free up land for property developers (see WiC45 for our first mention of the topic – in that case the aggrieved party set herself on fire in protest). All across China homes are daily seized, profiting local government finances – but dispossessing ordinary folk, who are paid a derisory sum to get out.
Qian had kept his own weibo blog and in earlier posts complained that his own home was “illegally demolished”, and he he was inadequately compensated.
He had penned a total of 300 posts about being wronged by officials, and on not being able to get a fair verdict when he brought a lawsuit over losing his home.
His final message hinted that he would do something explosive saying that he’d been “forced to step onto a road I didn’t want to step onto”.
Xinhua – the official state news agency – alluded to his motive: “Qian might have set off the explosions as an act of revenge against the local government.”
Commentator Ran Xiang (with a weibo following of 120,000 readers) noted: “To stop people committing crimes, the government should first stop committing crimes! China’s real problem is how to manage local government officials.”
But Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the Global Times (with more than a million readers of his own weibo) attacked those who seemed to show some sympathy for Qian. “Regardless of whether he was wronged, the Chinese community should unhesitatingly condemn him,” he wrote. “Those who applaud him should also be condemned. Their comments should be blocked.”
Xiao Shu (with 235,000 weibo followers) sees the episode as part of a broader problem: a political and legal system that gives wronged individuals little right of redress. Lacking other options, what else could Qian do to make a political statement but resort to violence?
Xiao warned that an increasing number of Chinese feel like Qian. The word ‘revolution’ is even used. Whilst careful not to advocate it himself, Xiao says “revolution is the last weapon of the people” (WiC has noted before that Party leaders are sensitive that this year is the centenary of the 1911 revolution that brought down the monarchy). Instead, Xiao suggests “peaceful evolution” as the better option, and points to the recent trend of weibo users putting themselves forward for election to China’s annual parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC).
Xiao’s view: “action makes citizens, voting dismantles bombs”.
In fact, the trend he mentions is turning into one of the most significant developments of the year so far. WiC first reported on it in issue 107 – citing the ‘revolutionary’ case of Liu Ping who put herself forward as the first independent candidate for election to the NPC. A poll by the Changjiang Daily found that 97% of respondents would have voted for Liu, given the chance. But the local government in Xinyu wouldn’t allow her name on the ballot, and went through the usual backroom channels to appoint its delegate.
But Liu’s stance seems to have sparked national debate on independent candidature.
“Citizens 18 years of age and older… have the right to vote and stand for election,” law professor Ji Yaping confirmed to the Southern Metropolis Daily, and weibo users soon began proposing Liu as ‘Person of the Year’ on leading website Sina.
Liu’s own candidacy came about after feeling aggrieved by her wrongful dismissal by her former employer, a steel plant.
But if it was Liu who lit the tinder, it was the announcement of Li Chengpeng that turned an isolated case into a more influential trend. Encouraged by Liu’s example, Li announced on his weibo that he would also run as an independent candidate for the NPC, this time for the major city of Chengdu.
Unlike Liu, Li is already a well- known figure. His weibo has 2.9 million readers and he is a popular writer. But he first came to prominence in 1996 when he exposed match-fixing in Chinese football.
“I must win the election to boost others’ confidence,” Li told the Daily Sunshine newspaper, insisting that he is not affiliated to any political grouping nor trying to be a “troublemaker”.
Instead, he has formed a 10 person advisory group of lawyers, scholars and celebrities to aid his campaign (supporters include top film director Feng Xiaogang and popular novelist Han Han).
Li says that according to the law he has the right to be elected.
In the wake of Li’s campaign, the 21CN Business Herald reports that close to 50 further independent candidates have announced that they want to be on the NPC electoral ballot too. A 31 year-old who wants to be elected in the city of Beijing has even put all of his financial records online in the interest of standing as a “transparent” candidate.
The trend has become so newsworthy that 21CN even put out a special edition about it this week. It also drew a connection with the “tragedy” of the Fuzhou bombing and said that China needs an institutionalised channel for its citizens to vent their frustrations. The newspaper also noted that it was the right time for a “society of voters”. Without it, “social risks will probably increase” it commented.
A Global Times editorial followed a similar theme, noting that Chinese society is now in a “confrontational mood” and that the political system “needs reform”. It even thought that independent candidates could “add vitality to the country’s political life”.
Of course, none of this would have been possible before the internet – and particularly the weibo blogging phenomenon, which the candidates have used as the platform to announce their intention to stand.
But how the political leaders in Beijing will respond is unclear. They have some time to consider how to act: the Chengdu election Li hopes to contest won’t be held until September.
Should he and a few others get elected to the NPC (for more on which, see WiC98), they won’t have much of an immediate impact – there are 2,987 delegates in total. The independents will be a tiny percentage of the parliament.
But grass-roots activism of this type could signal a landmark moment for political reform in China – and perhaps defuse some of the volatile mood now surfacing among some of the more disgruntled members of society.
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