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China's Rage
A string of mysterious bomb blasts punctuates a growing restiveness all across the country, fulfilling the worst fears of officials trying to keep a lid on dissent


China's leaders are not alone in seeing the fall of dynasties in portents--floods, shooting stars, earthquakes. But their response to such omens often displays a singular crudeness. In the heart of Beijing, authorities have blocked off historic Tiananmen Square until July--ostensibly to replace its concrete with pink granite, but also no doubt to prevent crowds from congregating there on the 10th anniversary of the massacre of democracy activists this June 4. They have also decided that nearby Changan Avenue should be purified, cleansed of neon signs advertising the likes of Kodak and McDonald's, and that two neighborhoods populated by Uighurs--Muslims from China's northwest who are often blamed for separatist violence--be razed. New regulations ensure that anyone who dares report an earthquake without official permission can now be arrested.

Yet the rumblings are now loud enough for all to hear--louder perhaps than at any time in the past two decades of reform. Already this year has seen dozens if not hundreds of protests across China: from investors angered by lost savings to workers distraught over being sacked to peasants--thousands of whom confronted armed troops in rural Hunan last month-- squeezed dry by corrupt officials. In 12 different incidents in January, crude bombs have been set off or discovered; 33 have died and more than 100 have been injured. Not all these explosions had political targets, and none seems to have any connection to the others. But they are likely only the tip of the iceberg. Only recently the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences revealed that an astonishing 2,500 bomb blasts were recorded in the first nine months of 1998. Together they speak of a worrying discontent--an uneasiness shared by leaders in Beijing, who may feel that their worst fears are beginning to come true.

They have reason to worry. More than 5,000 protests reportedly roiled the mainland last year, enough to tax even China's extensive security network. On Jan. 8 troops from Changsha, the provincial capital, rushed to Daolin township in southern Hunan to confront up to 10,000 angry farmers; one protester bled to death after being struck by a canister of tear gas. Only a few days earlier, another violent protest was recorded in Jiangsu province. And around the same time, 1,000 peasants reportedly challenged local elections in Shaanxi province. Smaller demonstrations have taken place in several other cities as laid-off workers demand compensation. The incidents are all the more unsettling precisely because they are so disconnected: the bombings--both far-flung (from Tibet to Fujian province) and mysterious (officials have blamed everything from jealousy to robbery)--point to a sense of random and widespread anger.

Taken individually, the protests often have quite limited aims. "Most of these cases are very local," explains a Beijing academic. "The rural population has no way to complain so they take extreme action." The Daolin riot was sparked by fury over the crushing tax burden (nearly twice the legal amount) levied by the local government--and by its wanton waste of that money. More common in cities are demands for unpaid wages and anger over corrupt management. So far, few protests have directly targeted leaders at the national level, or the Communist Party itself.

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February 15, 1999

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This edition's table of contents | TIME Asia home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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