China now sees 30,000 to 50,000 so-called mass incidents every year, Chen Jiping, a former leading member of the party’s Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs, said yesterday. Increased use of mobile phones and the Internet has allowed protesters to show their anger more effectively, he said.
“The major reason for mass incidents is the environment, and everyone cares about it now,” Chen told reporters at a meeting of the Chinese People’s Political and Consultative Conference, where he’s a member. “If you want to build a plant, and if the plant may cause cancer, how can people remain calm?”
First thing to note is that 30-50,000 figure is a lot lower than others I’ve seen, which tend to cluster in the 180-200,000 range. The mass incident definition I’ve been working on is the one involving forceful protest by crowds of 500 and upwards. In other words, your baseline is an angry village. Maybe this has been adjusted for some reason.
The second thing is in the definition of what causes a mass incident. Let’s say that village authorities out in Landgrab County seize communal land to set up a polluting factory. Farmer Li makes it clear that he thinks this is a lousy idea. The cops beat Farmer Li to death. All of these things could be the cause of an incident, or rather be causal within it. Any one of them could be the flashpoint which causes routine protest to boil over, mass incident style.
Now let’s look at it another way. Farmer Li’s fate might get his family, friends and neighbours protesting: no small thing if it’s a single surname village but limited to a circle of personal acquaintance or kinship. A landgrab enforced by officials might have the whole village improvising weapons and generally meeting force with counter-force. The dark, satanic cadmium mill, affecting people well beyond the immediate area, could have large population centres up in arms, assuming the means of communication exist for them to mobilize. Hence Mr Chen’s references to mobile phones. This is also an issue because of the way that China is urbanizing, with previously isolated villages infilling with new housing and industrial units, while still being under the rules governing the allocation of land in rural areas.
So it would be reasonable to assume that Mr Chen’s 50,000 upper band for mass incidents is low because it consists of those that he considers constitute a direct security threat; that environmental issues provide the mobilizing impetus for large groups of strangers; and that, as one would expect, they use the available communications technology to mobilize. In other words, as we’ve talked about from time to time here, we’re seeing the migration of mass incidents upwards to the cities on a significant scale.