Are China's Dissidents Becoming Violent?

In the central Chinese city of Taiyuan last Wednesday, seven nearly simultaneous explosions killed one person and injured eight others, according to official reports.

“At the time of going to press, there was no indication that Wednesday’s serial blasts involved terrorism,” the Global Times, the Communist Party–run newspaper, wrote on the day after the incident. The suggestion of terrorism, however, was unmistakable, even then. Police had found fragments of circuit boards at the sites of the detonations, an indication that they were the result of homemade devices. Also, “finger-length long nails” and ball bearings littered the scenes, conclusive proof of an intention to harm passersby.

From the beginning, state media tried to downplay the events in Taiyuan. And there is no mystery why Beijing was so concerned. The first bomb was placed in a flowerbed almost directly in front of the Communist Party headquarters of Shanxi Province. The explosions, therefore, appear to have been directed against China’s one-party state.

On Friday, the authorities apprehended their suspect, Feng Zhijun. The Ministry of Public Security maintains that the 41-year-old confessed, saying he “wanted revenge on society.” Perhaps the authorities got their man, but the lightning-fast arrest looked suspiciously tidy.

For one thing, Feng was the perfect culprit from the government’s point of view. He had served time for theft, and as a common criminal he would be less likely to garner sympathy as recent bombers have. Moreover, he was a loner, thereby making it hard for others to question his involvement. “If the police want to find a scapegoat, a man known by few people might be the best candidate,” observed Li Maolin, a dissident in Shanxi. Feng was not known to have held a grievance against the state.

And it is not clear he had the skills necessary to pull off bombings, either. The scale and sophistication of the incident suggests it was the work of a conspiracy, not a single individual. In any event, Feng Zhijun’s “confession” ensures there will be no trial that will convince the Chinese public that he is culpable—and that he is the only one involved.

The Communist Party is now working hard to control the narrative about discontent in society. “There is no need to exaggerate the influence of the explosions,” the Global Times wrote in an editorial. “We should avoid creating illusions that the bomb-planters carried out an earth-shattering event.”

The Shanxi bombings didn’t shatter the earth, but they nonetheless rocked China. Why? Taken together, they were the second attack on a “government symbol” in less than two weeks (the first being the car incident in Tiananmen Square in late October in which five died and 38 were injured).

Moreover, the Shanxi incident continues a recent trend of bombings of government offices in China. For instance, in May of last year there was an explosion at a housing office in Yunnan Province. Four died, and 16 were injured. In May 2011, a government building in Fuzhou, in Jiangxi Province, was bombed. Three died, seven were wounded. 

The bombings are just the most dramatic instances of turmoil in China. Beijing has stopped releasing statistics on the number of “mass incidents,” the euphemism for large demonstrations, but it appears they increased from tens of thousands a year last decade to as many as 280,000 of them in 2010. Yet the numbers are not the most important story. The most important story is the increasingly violent nature of protest. Today, China has not only protests and demonstrations but also riots and insurrections.

On November 1st, the Friday before the Shanxi blasts, 200 laid-off workers staged a demonstration on the very street where the detonations occurred. We should not be surprised by the symbolic progression from protest to violence in the center of China this month. The Communist Party rarely tolerates public expressions of discontent. It accommodates grievances only when it is forced to. Its first instinct is to coerce, not cajole, mediate, or compromise. Most of the time, it maintains only the appearance of order.

In the past, the party had been skilful in punishing peaceful protest, but this tactical success is looking more and more like a strategic disaster. Not just Shanxi is becoming violent. 


Photo Credit: Julien Lozelli 

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