Residents gather in June in the town of Xintang in southern China's… (AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Beijing — In a country with zero tolerance for public displays of disaffection, the 77-year-old retired doctor went very public with her anger over the demolition of her property in a booming Shanghai neighborhood: She stripped naked on the steps of a courthouse.
This might well be called the season of discontent in China. People, many of them middle-class homeowners, have been taking to the streets across the country in the last few months to air their grievances. At times, the protesters have turned violent — overturning police cars or smashing windows with baseball bats — but more often, they are engaging in civil disobedience.
Unlike 1989, when calls for democracy ended in carnage at Tiananmen Square, today's demonstrations lack an overarching political theme. Protesters for the most part are not demanding radical changes in the status quo of one-party rule.
In fact, anonymous calls over the Internet for pro-democracy demonstrations in sympathy with Egypt and Tunisia received little public support and were quickly stamped out by the government. But single-issue protests are raging throughout China.
These demonstrators have a narrow agenda and concrete demands: Farmers want a stop to confiscations of their land or to get better compensation for lost property. Homeowners want to stop demolitions. People want cleaner air and water and safer food. Truckers and taxi drivers want relief from soaring fuel prices.
The increased number of protests does not necessarily reflect fragility in the system as much as a pragmatic approach by the Communist Party to grievances, said Ding Xueliang, a professor of sociology at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
"If there is no channel for people to express their anger, they will come to the conclusion that it is the political system that is repressing them," Ding said. "You need to leave some room for collective action. You can't just open fire every time people come out on the streets."
The protests have been localized, with virtually no coordination between them, one reason the government has been relatively tolerant. But the risks for Beijing are not insignificant: There is a danger that people will be inspired by example, because the issues are the same throughout China, and that the "micro-protests" will coalesce into something bigger.
The number of reported "mass incidents" rose from 8,700 in 1993 to more than 90,000 in 2006, according to the Chinese Police Academy. A professor at Tsinghua University, Sun Liping, has told Chinese reporters he believes the figure last year was up to 180,000.
To some extent, the exponential increase is because of improved reporting of incidents that once would have been buried by the state press. Nowadays, the minute a window is smashed, somebody will whip out a cellphone camera and shoot a video that quickly is posted on a blog. The surge also reflects a public that is better informed and more active in seeking redress for grievances.
"People are getting braver," said Liu Baojun, 45, a farmer who was among protesters who lay down in a cornfield in front of tractors that were clearing the land for a highway in northeastern China in May. "In the past, whatever the government told us, we believed and we would do what they said. Now we have information. We have books."
Many of the new protesters are homeowners or middle-class professionals. Doctors at Tongren Hospital in Beijing staged a one-hour strike in mid-September to demand better security after one of their colleagues was stabbed and critically injured by a patient.
At a demonstration in the northeastern seaport of Dalian to demand the closing of a chemical plant that allegedly was spilling toxic substances into the sea, most of the 20,000 protesters were middle-class homeowners concerned about their property values and their children's health, much like the not-in-my-backyard protests so familiar in the United States.
Not only did police exercise restraint, some offered directions to protesters on how to reach the demonstration. Municipal authorities quickly responded to the pressure, announcing within days the closure of the offending factory, which produced paraxylene, a highly toxic ingredient in the production of polyester.
"It will be written into the history books," Qian Wenzhong, a history professor at Shanghai's Fudan University, crowed on his blog the day the closure was announced. "From today on, the rulers will understand that they can never neglect people's will anymore."
In China, it is impossible to go to court to get a temporary restraining order if, for example, a factory is spewing harmful sustances into the water supply or somebody starts building on your land. Petitioning, an archaic practice dating to imperial times, requires the aggrieved to travel to Beijing and wait for months, if not years.
Rioting gets results. Quickly.