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Fuse being lit to spark China's future

In this story:

Sideline business

Anti-corruption campaign

'Decadent' influence

THE CHINKS in the armor are gaping wider. Grave defects in China's vaunted internal security apparatus are becoming evident -- and they have momentous consequences for the future of the country's reforms.


Last week's series of explosions in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, in which more than 100 people were killed, has confirmed the increasing frequency and severity of bombings and other quasi-terrorist activities.

Just six months ago, a criminal in the same city blew up a couple of buildings and then blackmailed the local government for more than US$1 million.

Apart from activities by criminals and gangs -- at least a few thousand "triad societies" have been identified by police -- the law and order situation is threatened by vicious incidents such as the blast earlier this month in a Jiangxi Province primary school.

Sideline business

Some 50 pupils in a rural county were killed when tons of firecrackers -- which were being assembled on school premises as a sideline business -- were detonated accidentally.

Diplomats in Beijing have reported at least two recent blasts in Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces that were caused by disgruntled soldiers who wanted to protest against unfair disciplinary actions and layoffs.

If labor unrest, peasant riots and demonstrations by the Falun Gong sect are also taken into consideration, China observers may agree with a recent posting in the chatroom of the website of a Beijing newspaper: "China has entered into an era of terror and chaos."

The failure of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership to maintain order is all the more glaring because of the emphasis that the administration of President Jiang Zemin has given to upholding social stability.

Just consider a few examples. Immediately upon becoming premier in March 1998, Zhu Rongji set about trimming bureaucratic fat. Staff in many party and government departments have since been cut by 50 per cent or so.

Personnel in the three units responsible for law and order -- the Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of State Security and the People's Armed Police -- however, have been augmented.

Even before the Falun Gong became a big headache in early 1999, Beijing had slapped a so-called law-and-order responsibility system on the heads of provinces and cities.

This means that a governor or mayor who fails to curb crime, protests, and other threats to the administration may be demoted or fired.

Moreover, the leadership has in the past year held numerous top-level meetings to hammer into the minds of central and local cadres the highest level of security consciousness.

For instance, at a recently convened meeting in Beijing, the Politburo member in charge of security, Luo Gan, fingered several forces that he said were undermining socialist rule.

They ranged from wild-cat trade unions and the Falun Gong to underground political parties who are allegedly being supported by "hostile foreign forces."

And at a CCP Central-level Work Meeting last month, Jiang called on cadres and party members to "nib all challenges to the administration in the bud."

That the security situation has continued to deteriorate despite the leadership's obsession with ironfisted control could be symptomatic of a larger, more serious problem.

After more than 50 years in power, the CCP leadership seems to have lost touch with reality even as its grip on the bureaucracy and society is becoming tenuous.

Many orders of the Politburo and State Council are not being carried out. And central-level functionaries and local officials pursue personal interests -- such as running businesses -- while hiding the seamy side from Beijing.

That the chain of command -- as well as the flow of information -- has become warped is evident from the fact that to troubleshoot effectively, top cadres such as Jiang and Zhu have to either attend to the flash-points themselves or send high-level plenipotentiaries to supervise the fire-fighting.

Anti-corruption campaign

In 1998 and 1999, Zhu and top aides such as State Councillor Wu Yi made several trips to coastal Fujian and Guangdong provinces to enforce the anti-smuggling and anti-corruption campaign.

Immediately after the Shijiazhuang blasts, Zhu dispatched State Council Secretary-General Wang Zhongyu and Vice-Minister of Public Security Yang Huanning to the scene.

However, the phenomenon described by the famous Chinese adage "you have your policy, I have my counter-strategy" has worsened to the extent that Beijing leaders have to adopt special precautions to avoid being duped.

At the just-ended National People's Congress, Zhu admitted that when he sent six top public security cadres to look into the lethal blasts at the Jiangxi primary school, he asked them to go in the guise of ordinary citizens.

Last year, Zhu and Vice-Premier in charge of agriculture, Wen Jiabao, made separate trips to rural provinces to investigate the plight of the overtaxed, restive peasants.

They found, however, that the farmers they talked to had all been coached by provincial and county-level cadres. Zhu and Wen had to shake off their local escorts and depart from their original itineraries before they could carry out meaningful field research.

Zhu found out, for example, that intermediaries had skimmed off a good chunk of the procurement prices that state purchasing agencies were offering the peasants; and that in addition to paying state taxes, peasants were burdened with dozens of other "fees."

No wonder that hardly any Chinese believe the official version -- even one coming from the respected Zhu -- that the Jiangxi explosion was the work of a deranged local resident.

And among the first postings in the chatroom of the People's Daily website after the Shijiazhuang detonations was this remark: "Don't tell me it's the work of a madman."

Indeed, many local residents and journalists are convinced the blasts at Shijiazhuang were caused by disaffected workers and soldiers -- not the deaf criminal who is wanted by police.

One side-effect of Beijing losing control is that the CCP leadership may roll back the reforms, particularly those seen as exacerbating social problems such as employment.

Political liberalization, in the sense of power sharing by the CCP -- or substantial popular participation in politics -- will also be jeopardized.

'Decadent' influence

As a party veteran put it, whenever social instability rears its head, conservatives in the CCP have a field day preaching the values of tightening state control coupled with weeding out "decadent" foreign influence.

This is despite the perception by liberal party members and academics that only by opening up the system -- and being responsive to the gripes of disadvantaged sectors such as the unemployed -- can Beijing minimize the number of explosions and bomb blasts.

At the just-ended National People's Congress, however, Zhu ruled out "Western-style" political reforms. He only promised to keep track of public opinion partly through asking civil servants to do a good job of attending to the petitions of and visits by society's downtrodden.

"We should pay close attention to correspondence from the people and their personal visits," the premier said at the NPC.

The measures Zhu has recently taken to avert multiple domestic crises harks back to dynastic China.

In those dark eras, the emperors often dispatched ambassadors and ombudsmen to the grassroots to hear the masses' grievances, while serf-like peasants trekked thousands of miles to the capital to submit their petitions to the imperial court.

Times, however, have changed. Resentment against Beijing spreads much faster on the net -- and miniscule, high-precision bombs could make quasi-terrorist acts and other violent protest actions that much more devastating.

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