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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 January 2006, 13:40 GMT
Conflicts mar Guangdong dream
By Tim Luard

Grieving family members on streets of Dongzhou near Shanwei, Guangdong - 12/12/2005
High-profile protests have brought a string of bad publicity
The southern province of Guangdong should be a dream come true for China's leaders.

For more than two decades it has set the pace for China's economic development.

It used its closeness to Hong Kong and the commercial instincts of its people to become the richest province in the country, and the workshop of the world.

But a series of protests, disputes and scandals have turned this glittering jewel in the reformists' crown into something closer to a blot on the political landscape - the grim embodiment of all that is going wrong with China's unique blend of capitalism and communism.

In the latest incident, last weekend, many casualties were reported when police broke up a rural protest over compensation for land acquired for a new road in Sanjiao township.

In December 2005, villagers in Dongzhou said that as many as 30 people died when paramilitary police opened fire during demonstrations against the seizure of land for a power plant. Officials said only three villagers were killed.
If you give (Guangdong) a green light, it goes as far as possible. If you give it a red light, it goes round it
Joseph Cheng

Just a few months earlier, in Taishi, a petition against a village chief suspected of embezzlement also ended in violence, mass arrests and international headlines. The clumsy handling of these incidents by provincial authorities has been sharply at odds with President Hu Jintao's professed policies of greater openness, accountability and social harmony.

But is Beijing willing or able to bring Guangdong to heel?

"This is the really big question", says Dai Qing, a prominent activist based in the capital.

"The central government is not as strong as in Mao's era," she said.

"Provincial governments are getting stronger and more corrupt, as they get together with the local 'black societies', or mafia. And Guangdong is strongest and most corrupt of all".

Bad books

As the birthplace of many of China's past revolutions and the gateway to the outside world, Guangdong has a long history of ignoring official instructions, whether from the emperor or the party centre.

"More than any other province, Guangdong is always in the bad books of the Chinese leadership", according to Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong.

"If you give it a green light, it goes as far as possible. If you give it a red light, it goes round it".

The province's economy is still booming, in spite of the recent political embarrassments. Foreign investment continues largely unabated, according to political risk analyst Steve Vickers.

"It's true there has been a series of highly-publicised screw-ups, from bird flu to the village shootings", he said. "But other provinces have riots and confrontations too - it's just that we don't often hear about them."

Crime and corruption generally are worse in Guangdong than elsewhere, he said, due to the "get-rich-quick, apolitical attitudes" of local people .

"But the local Party leadership has good connections and remains very much in control".

Powerful friends

As for ignoring central edicts, that's become a national hobby
David Wall

Guangdong's level of economic activity and exposure to the outside world may make it harder for the authorities to stop unwelcome news from getting out - though not for lack of trying.

When the Sars virus hit in 2003, the senior provincial leader - Communist Party Secretary Zhang Dejiang - promptly banned all reporting on the subject.

China's health minister and Beijing's mayor were later both dismissed for covering up the outbreak, but Zhang, 59, hung on to his post.

He also survived another scandal later that year, when a migrant worker was beaten to death in police custody.

Dai Qing
Hu is not powerful enough to deal with him
Dai Qing

More recent mishaps have brought at least some signs of high-level displeasure, including the dismissal of various policemen and junior officials; the recording of a "demerit" against a vice-governor, over a mine accident; and new orders making land requisitions more transparent.

But the party secretary himself appears to be immune from censure.

Possibly this is because of his links with President Hu's predecessor (and continued rival), Jiang Zemin.

"Zhang Dejiang is an old-style propagandist trained in North Korea who belongs to the Jiang era", said Dai Qing.

"Hu is not powerful enough to deal with him, even though he would like to have his own man in Guangdong because it's such an important place".

Others say the new Beijing leadership may feel ready for a confrontation with the Jiang faction by the time of next year's Communist Party Congress, when they expect a regional reshuffle.

But most analysts agree that in China the doctrine of accountability does not count for much - at least when it comes to senior members of the ruling Politburo such as Zhang.

To be sacked, you would have to be threatening Communist Party rule itself, according to David Wall, former head of the Asia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

"Corruption alone is not enough, and as for ignoring central edicts, that's become a national hobby", he said.

In Joseph Cheng's view, events in Guangdong are a good illustration of the tremendous limitations of China's strategy of simply trying to minimise social friction while refusing to dilute the party's power.

"You can't keep postponing political reform, in the hope that economic development will solve all problems.

"In the absence of a free media and effective checks and balances there will be more and more corruption, abuse of power and - in communist terms - sharpening of contradictions," he said.

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