Faced with unrest, wary China flexes muscle

BEIJING, China - China has put on a display of force to quell recent violent bouts of unrest - events that analysts say highlight resentment towards an unresponsive government grappling with economic and social strife.

Protests against local authorities have erupted over everything from social injustices to ethnic tensions, compounding the jitters of a stability-obsessed government already wary about inflation's potential to spark Arab-style unrest.

"There are so many social groups that have become angry. There's a general feeling of tension between the government and people," said Zheng Yongnian, director of the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute.

For more than 30 years, communist China has focused on growth, lifting millions out of poverty and becoming the world's second-largest economy in the process.

But analysts say social and political reforms have not followed suit, sparking a litany of problems such as corruption, government abuses, illegal land seizures, a growing rich-poor divide and pollution.

Inflation, with its historic potential for sparking unrest in the world's most populous nation, has exacerbated the issue. China said Tuesday the inflation rate jumped to its highest level in nearly three years in May.

"Local issues tend to blow up because of increasing concern about other matters, like inflation," Russell Leigh-Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst, told AFP.

On top of this, people do not trust China's judicial system, which pushes them to resort to violence instead of taking their disputes to the courts, Zheng said.

In the latest bout of unrest, hundreds of people including migrant workers rioted in the southern province of Guangdong over the weekend after rumours spread online that police had beaten a street hawker to death.

Hundreds of officers and military tanks have since been deployed in the affected district of Guangzhou, and the rumoured victim was even brought to a press conference organised by the government Sunday to show he was alright.

An employee in the Xinming hotel, located in the restive Xintang area of Guangzhou near Hong Kong, told AFP Wednesday that a tense calm had returned, but that armed police were still on patrol.

The unrest followed another major protest in central China, where 1,500 people clashed with riot squads in Hubei province's Lichuan city following the alleged death in police custody of a local legislator.

Earlier last week, hundreds of people battled police and destroyed cars in another incident in Guangdong, after a factory worker was wounded in a knife attack over a wage dispute.

Late last month, thousands of ethnic Mongols protested in northern China for several days after the killing of a herder laid bare simmering anger over what some perceive as Chinese oppression.

And disgruntled individuals have recently carried out several bomb attacks in different parts of the country, some of them deadly.

China's Communist Party under President Hu Jintao lays great emphasis on the need for stability and social harmony, and analysts say its paramount concern is to be seen to be able to manage unrest - wherever it may occur.

Wary of the possibility of protests similar to those that have swept the Arab world since the start of the year, it is already in the midst of a nationwide clampdown on dissent, with many activists and lawyers detained. Any bout of unrest is rapidly squelched.

But there is still rising concern about China's underlying social tensions, as exemplified by comments made last year by Premier Wen Jiabao.

"Wen has repeatedly emphasised the importance of political reform, but there's no action," Zheng told AFP.

"China is still in a transitional period, so street demonstrations and protests are normal - they're a way for people to express themselves," he added.

"But once you put stability as the highest priority, then government officials will use all kind of methods, including violence, against protests. That will make things worse."