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Date Posted: 00:52 12/07/2005

A riot by any other name

…is still a riot. Or is it?

AND SO, yet another report appears about the “mass incident” in Chizhou in Anhui Province last month. Three suspects involved in the beating of a young cyclist on June 26 have now been apprehended, says the local media. The incident, as we have seen, led to an attack on a local police station, the burning of vehicles, the looting of a local supermarket, and umpteen articles in the foreign press suggesting that the whole country was on the verge of collapse.

On to a related matter. Last week, Li Jingtian, the vice-head of the Communist Party's Bureau of Organization, held a press conference for the first time, fielding questions from a variety of domestic and overseas reporters. When Reuters asked him about the spate of riots that had taken place in China’s countryside in recent months, and the methods the Chinese Communist Party was using to handle the problem, Li began his reply emphatically. “We call these things ‘mass incidents’, not ‘riots’,” he said.

Language, as ever, is crucial. The official designation of such incidents is perhaps related to the role played by the official historic record in political life, and also to the symbolic value that dissidents attach to the idea of the “reversal of verdicts” - the overturning of the official line on, say, the crackdowns on Tian’anmen Square in 1976 and 1989. It may explains why former Premier Li Peng is so anxious about putting the record straight by attributing every controversial decision he was involved with to his boss, Deng Xiaoping.

Communism, particularly in its Chinese form, has always been based on the idea of a potentially perfect and harmonious society forever threatened by rogue elements, be they antagonistic contradictions, poisonous weeds, counter-revolutionary cow-demons or revisionist running dogs. It is, like most ideologies, about drawing the line between who to include and who to exclude. Society is divided, sometimes arbitrarily, into elements that fit with dogma, and those that don't. In the rigid, rigorous era of Maoism, that required the almost permanent mobilization of the masses, as well as the permanent elimination of enemies (the inevitable logic of the dialectic requiring, above all else, a constant cycle of the victorious and the vanquished). However, in the more flaccid and flexible post-Mao age, considerably more leeway is permitted, and the sliding scale between revolution and counter-revolution has been widened accordingly.

It seems, then, that these recent “mass incidents” somehow remain within the ambit of 'acceptable' social behaviour. After all, as Li Jingtian went on to suggest in his reply last week, these incidents were caused by the sort of “conflict” that the Communist Party is now doing its utmost to alleviate, and are therefore on the right side of history. “Of course, the abilities of some of our grass roots officials is probably not high,' he admitted, 'and the abilities of some of them to resolve conflicts is not strong, leading to this sort of mass incident.” Thus, he blamed failures in Party management rather than the outbreak of counter-revolutionary chaos.

A Google search for the Chinese term 'quntixing shijian' ('mass incident') yields a number of results, including a piece about 'preventive measures for mass incidents in an open society'. Try to do the same with “saoluan” (“riot”), however, and the results appear for a split second before dissolving, shrivelling under the nation’s firewall.

Switching to the respectable domestic search engine, Baidu, we conclude that in the official press, a mass incident somehow remains within the purview of the Communist Party, a non-antagonistic contradiction that is being addressed by the progress of history represented by the Party itself. A riot, on the other hand, either happens to other countries like Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan and Argentina, or else involves mindless acts of football hooliganism and racial violence.

One source relate the details of racial tensions in Shandong Province. Last week, 500 Uighur and Han Chinese students at the Shandong Institute of Technology in Zibo were involved in a “conflict” resulting from a basketball game, wielding knives, stools and wooden sticks at one another, and eventually requiring the intervention of the local armed police. So how, indeed, is this sort of conflict – and also the mayhem aimed at the Japanese community earlier this year – interpreted by the authorities? This sort of riot may indeed be the antagonistic contradiction the government finds most difficult to keep a lid on.

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