Published on, 25 October 2007

751px-2008_Summer_Olympics_logo.svgChina is in the mood for harmony.

Ever since Chinese President Hu Jintao floated the idea of “building a harmonious society” — an attempt to tackle myriad domestic problems brought about by China’s unrestrained growth — “hexie,” or harmony, has become one of the most beloved words in the Chinese communist vernacular, suggesting anything from social stability to world peace. With the Beijing 2008 Olympics, China is seeking to demonstrate to the world its penchant for harmony.

In March of next year, Beijing will launch the Olympic torch relay under the theme “the Journey of Harmony.” The longest in Olympic history, the relay will see torch-bearers transport the Olympic flame across five continents.

The route is planned to traverse through an estimated 20 international cities and 113 more than 100 cities on mainland China, together with a side trip to the peak of Mount Everest from the Tibet side. Torch-bearers will carry a scroll-shaped torch adorned with the traditional Chinese xiangyun, or “lucky cloud” that symbolizes harmony.

But as genial as China appears to be, some critics are not impressed. They are determined to embarrass the Olympic host.

Before the relay begins, it has already courted controversy. The dispute centers on the plan to include Taiwan and Tibet in the domestic route of the torch relay. Critics have slammed the route as Beijing’s cunning ploy to legitimize its claims over the two regions — Taiwan is considered by Beijing to be a renegade province — and some are threatening to boycott the relay.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, responsible for the self-ruled island’s relations with mainland China, refuses the route and dismisses it as “a brazen attempt [of Beijing] to downgrade Taiwan to a part of China.”

In the case of Tibet, pro-independence activists outside China have mounted similar attacks on Beijing; last April the Chinese authorities briefly detained a small group of American activists after they staged a protest at Mount Everest against the torch relay route.

“China is embarrassed, and so it should be,” says Lhadon Tethong of the U.S.-based Students For a Free Tibet, which organized the protest. “If they don’t take any step toward resolving the issue, they will only see more protests as a platform to shame them.”

But so far as the torch relay is concerned, it may not be just Tibet and Taiwan that are the areas of embarrassment for China. Recent surges of social unrests plaguing China may also disrupt the theme of harmony.

While its economy is growing at a remarkable rate, China has in recent years seen a sharp rise in large-scale — and often violent — protests, demonstrations and petitions across the country. Many of these incidents have been triggered by illegal land grabs, inadequate compensation for land requisition, official corruption or closure of state-owned factories. The majority of protesters are poor rural workers and peasants, who until a few years ago have been a relatively quiet lot.

According to official statistics from China’s Public Security Bureau, the number of “mass incidents” — an official euphemism for any social disturbance that involves 100 people or more — totaled 87,000 in 2005, up 6.6 percent on 2004 and 50 percent in 2003. While the bureau recently said the figure had dropped by 16.5 percent in 2006, reports on violent protests and public clashes with the authorities continue to flood the media.

In Chongqing in western China, for example, three large-scale protests erupted in the space of merely four weeks between June and July. The first outbreak saw 10,000 locals clashed with police after city inspectors beat a flower seller to death. Three weeks later, 10,000 villagers protested outside a government office against the authorities’ alleged failures in a school murder case. This was soon followed by a violent protest, in which more than 5,000 residents, dissatisfied with a land compensation arrangement, confronted 1,000 armed police. One man was reportedly killed.

In many other regions, public protests were just as bloody. One reported incident was a three-month standoff that began in July 2005, when residents from Taishi village in Guangzhou sought to oust a corrupt village chief. Later, about 1,500 villagers clashed with riot police. Reporters, lawyers and academics going to the village were reportedly beaten up.

According to Hong Kong-based China scholar Willy Lam Wo-lap, the sharp rise of protests across China points to an uneven justice system in the communist country.

“After nearly 30 years of reform, China is divided into various power blocs … and classes. Some are preying on the weak and defenseless, such as peasants, rural workers or the urban unemployed. There is no level playing field and no resort to justice,” he says.

Wu Zhong, China editor of Asia Times Online, claims the absence of fair play, coupled with China’s insatiable appetite for economic growth, has helped fuel Chinese society with anger.

“The performance of local officials is judged by the GDP of their localities,” says Wu, citing the country’s environmental degradation. “This drives them to push for economic growth at the expense of people’s interest. They don’t care if people live or die. There is a lot of anger in society.”

To restore social stability, Chinese President Hu Jintao proposed in 2004 the notion of “building a harmonious society,” which covered such areas as democracy development and a better relationship between the people and the government. A series of measures then ensued, including the abolition of the 2,600-year-old agricultural tax and education subsidies for poor rural children.

“However, laudable these policies are, they cannot solve the basic problem: there is no level playing field. There are built-in, institutional injustices in the system,” Lam says.

With less than one year to go before the torch relay begins, Lam believes Beijing will go to great lengths to stifle social unrest because the Hu leadership “can’t afford to lose face.”

“More than a year ago Beijing set up a system of security [featuring] electronic surveillance systems to snuff out seeds of dissent,” Lam says. “The chances for large-scale outbreaks of disorder during the torch relay or the Games itself are small.”

But Wu says the time has changed and “mass incidents” during the torch relay or the Games cannot be ruled out. “Ordinary people in China today are not as easy to manipulate as before. They may make some noise just to let outsiders know [their plight].”

As for the controversy over Taiwan and Tibet, Wu believes it will die down eventually.

“The pro-independence force doesn’t have much impact on Tibet today… And I reckon Taiwan and Beijing would eventually reach some kind of agreement,” he says. “After all, this is China’s first Olympics. It is eager to do a good job.”