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China's Buried Problems Exploded in 2001

Society: A handful of bombings by individuals with personal grievances contrasts with the nation's high-profile achievements.

January 04, 2002|CHING-CHING NI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHANGHAI — The year 2001 ended with the Chinese leadership boasting a banner year of achievements: gaining membership in the World Trade Organization, winning the right to host the 2008 Olympics, qualifying for the World Cup soccer finals, hosting an Asia-Pacific summit.

But the year also wrapped up with a series of events illustrating the reasons for China's fears about social instability.

In mid-December, a blast at a McDonald's restaurant in the northern city of Xian killed two people and injured at least 30 others. Then, a homemade bomb blew up in the parking lot of a French-owned supermarket in the coastal city of Qingdao. Car windows were shattered, but no one was hurt.

Also in mid-December, more than 20 near-simultaneous explosions jolted the southern cities of Zhanjiang and Jiangmen in Guangdong province across from Hong Kong. The blasts killed five people and injured seven more.

The government attributed most of the crimes to personal grudges. In Zhanjiang, Lin Guojian, who was among the five who died, was said to have set off the bombs using electronic pagers to avenge his brother-in-law and other business partners.

Officials also blamed an individual for explosions in March in the northern city of Shijiazhuang. Jin Ruchao was found guilty of blowing up four buildings and killing 108 people in an attempt to kill his ex-wife and relatives. He was executed in April.

Beneath the veneer of progress and prosperity, China is a society struggling under the weight of unprecedented social change. The violence is a symptom of rising social tensions and a lack of proper avenues to address grievances, foreign and Chinese analysts say.

"Unrest is increasing, and it's going to get worse," said Dan Lynch, a China specialist at USC.

This year is a particularly sensitive time as Beijing prepares to shuffle its top leadership. Both President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji are expected to step down. A smooth transfer of power depends on maintaining stability.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks on America and the subsequent war on terrorism, China has tried to draw attention to its own fight against Muslim separatists in the far western region of Xinjiang.

But an economy in flux is bringing potentially explosive problems much closer to its population centers. China has weathered the global economic slump better than most of its Asian neighbors, but it cannot escape the effects, which already are hurting the country's exports.

The World Bank says China needs to create between 8 million and 9 million jobs a year for the next decade, mostly to cope with growing numbers of laid-off workers from restructured state-owned enterprises.

In addition, there are challenges brought on by WTO membership, which means greater competition and fewer jobs both in cities and the countryside.

But China was able to generate only about 6 million jobs a year, even with the economy growing recently at an average annual rate of about 8%. Some economists argue that growth figure has been inflated by the government by at least two percentage points. And if the economy worsens next year, it would only mean more desperation for the rising number of unemployed workers.

"Granted, some people are going to do better than others, but the issue is whether people perceive the rules of the game to be fair," Lynch said.

The answer often is no. Those without connections cannot do well. Those with grievances have no place to go.

"When these people feel mistreated, they tend to take matters into their own hands or go to extreme measures," said Liu Hua, an expert on law at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

This growing sense of frustration among people and insecurity about their lives have also led to a surge in mental health cases. A study by Beijing University says that more than 200,000 people turn to suicide every year to end their troubles, some of them dragging innocent bystanders along with them.

The scale and frequency of these incidents suggest that the problem is much more than just personal.

Last year's headlines included deadly blasts at illegal coal mines, patients' families killing doctors to resolve malpractice disputes and lethal explosions at fireworks factories, all pointing to the failure of the system to protect its citizens and enforce the law.

On Dec. 30, another series of explosions flattened a fireworks factory in the same county in Jiangxi province where a blast last March killed 42 people, most of them children. This latest incident could prove another embarrassment for Beijing. Zhu offered an apology on national TV last year after the explosion at a school, promising to step up enforcement of public safety.

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