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China cracks down as turmoil grows

Signs of growing social tensions in China continue to mount, revealed by the jailing of an activist for documenting shoddy construction work to a decision in one province to assuage workers’ growing anger with a 13% pay rise.

Tan Zuoren has been jailed for five years for “subversion”, according to his lawyer this week. Ostensibly, the sentence was for emailed comments denouncing the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. But as no one has gone to prison for such an “offence” for over a decade, the state’s motives lay elsewhere.

And you don’t have to look too hard. Tan’s removal from the scene coincided with his plans to publish a report on the collapse of school buildings during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which more than 80,000 people died. Parents were angered by the fact that relatively new school buildings collapsed like a pack of cards and staged anti-government rallies in protest.

Tan’s trial in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, was adjourned without a verdict in August last year. His lawyers said that they were unable to present their defence or call witnesses to testify on his behalf. Remember Beijing’s “bird nest” stadium? Well, its internationally acclaimed designer Ai Weiwei came to testify about the poor construction of school buildings – and was promptly beaten up and detained. He underwent emergency brain surgery in Germany.

“I think this is a very important case for China, more important than that of Liu Xiaobo,” said Ai, referring to a Chinese dissident jailed in December for 11 years for online essays calling for civil rights and multi-party elections. It shows the Chinese legal system has taken a big step backwards. Tan’s ‘crime’ was entirely one of speech, of conscience.”

Ai remains a prominent target. Two of his Google e-mail accounts have been hacked into and state security agents have rifled through his bank accounts. The designer, who has lived in America, has also been told he could be deported if he doesn’t stop his criticism of human rights abuses.

The authorities’ extreme nervousness comes as China’s attempt to sustain its export-based economy stumbles. Inflation is rising following a massive stimulus programme while the major importers of its products in Europe, North America and Australia continue in recession with plummeting consumer demand.

Eastern Jiangsu province, which exports more than Brazil and South Africa combined, raised its monthly minimum wage rate 13% from about £80 a month to Rmb960 (£90) last week. Other provincial authorities are expected to follow suit. The settlements reflect not just a shortage of labour – many of the 20 million sacked last year have stayed in the countryside – but increasing militancy by workers who still earn a pittance. Nevertheless, manufacturers are certain to pass on wage increases in prices which will further dampen export prospects.

Meanwhile, intense security remains in force in Xinjiang and Tibet. Controls on the internet have been tightened in the past few months. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been blocked. By all accounts, their role in Iran’s recent upheaval spooked China’s leaders.

The 74-million strong Communist Party which has overseen the turn to a capitalist economy, is dominated by those who joined to get a job or get on in the state machine. It only just survived Tiananmen intact. Since then, inequality and corruption has grown at an unstoppable pace. The collapse of the school buildings in Sichuan was undoubtedly the result of “skimming” by local authorities. How long the party itself can withstand the underlying social turmoil in China is no longer an academic question.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
9 February 2010

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