China's response to latest unrest follows pattern

June 1, 2011 - 7:42 AM
China Inner Mongolia Unrest

In this photo taken May 29, 2011 and released by Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, paramilitary police water cannon trucks are parked in Hohot in northern China's Inner Mongolia province. China has responded to more than a week of surprising protests in Inner Mongolia with its well-honed strategy: deploy overwhelming force, keep potential protesters from gathering and pledge to address at least some grievances. (AP Photo/Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center) EDITORIAL USE ONLY

BEIJING (AP) — China has responded to more than a week of surprising protests in Inner Mongolia with its well-honed strategy: deploy overwhelming force, keep potential protesters from gathering and pledge to address at least some grievances.

Protests that started early last week appear to be sputtering this week, with no confirmed demonstrations Wednesday. A protest occcured Monday in the regional capital, Hohhot, though there were conflicting accounts on its size. A rights group said several hundred students protested Tuesday, but the account could not be confirmed.

Meanwhile, security remained high across cities and some towns in Inner Mongolia, a vast region of pasturelands and coal seams running across northern China bordering on Russia and the independent country of Mongolia. High school and university students were largely confined to campuses, to keep them from joining or leading protests for ethnic rights, as they did last week. Internet access was spotty at best, and text messages were often blocked, residents said.

Beijing's tactics have been refined in quelling protesting Tibetans and Turkic Muslim Uighurs, as well as in dealing with the tens of thousands of large-scale disturbances by people in the country's Han Chinese majority. They are constantly revised to adapt to new challenges and technologies, and reflect a growing realization that attacking some of the root causes of discontent — especially grievances about unpaid wages and other pocketbook issues — is the best way to maintain stability.

The government's Xinhua News Agency reported that Inner Mongolia's coal industry bureau ordered local safety inspectors Wednesday to make sure mines protected the environment and respected the welfare of local residents — key complaints of protesters.

"There's a greater sense that protests happen for lots of different reasons," said Beijing-based political analyst Russell Leigh Moses. "Authorities acknowledge you can have a balance between a clenched fist and an open hand."

The tactics have defects. Squashing even peaceful protests may in some cases lead to violent outbursts. In both Tibet and Xinjiang, deadly rioting, looting and arson were preceded by mild demonstrations over civil and religious rights that were shut down by police.

Blocking the Internet, meanwhile, can increase fear and mistrust because it cuts off access to accurate information. Instead of restoring calm, "blocking the flow of information just encourages the spread of rumors and falsehoods. It is counterproductive," Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement issued Tuesday.

The Communist Party leadership began searching for better, non-lethal ways to deal with protests after it unleashed the military on democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The assault killed hundreds, alienated many people and pitched China into diplomatic isolation and economic malaise.

The protests in Inner Mongolia come just ahead of the 22nd anniversary of the start of the Tiananmen crackdown on June 3 and 4 — a time when the authoritarian government is extra-vigilant about unrest.

The protests seemed to build slowly, with the first occurring more than a week after the triggering events: two clashes between ethnic Mongols and Chinese in mid-May that left two Mongols dead. While the clashes were over Chinese coal-mining and coal-hauling operations, protesters' demands grew to encompass justice for the dead, environmental protection and minority rights.

Initially surprised, authorities quickly turned to overwhelming force, dispatching paramilitary People's Armed Police to the remote towns where the first protests erupted and sealing off streets leading to government buildings. In Hohhot, armored cars equipped with water cannon were parked along side lanes though there were no reports of them being used.

The Chinese government also typically detains known activists, targets ringleaders — often by identifying them from surveillance footage — and discourages ordinary people from joining in.

In a striking example, hundreds of intellectuals have disappeared or been questioned or detained by authorities since February, when online calls for protests similar to those in the Middle East and North Africa began to circulate on the Internet. No such protests have taken place.

In Inner Mongolia's case, police have zeroed in on identified ethnic nationalists. The New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center reported that Almas Sharnud, an activist in Tongliao city, was able to leave his home only with approval and that two police officers followed him.

Authorities also focused on universities and high schools, issuing notices to schools in Hohhot on Monday informing them that students and teachers would be confined to campus for an indefinite period and guards were posted to ensure enforcement.

Increasingly, policing the Internet and mobile communications to keep people from networking has become just as crucial as police on the streets. When the Central Asian buffer region of Xinjiang exploded in deadly riots between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese two years ago, China took the region offline — for 10 months.

Commerce regulators in Hohhot issued a notice to Internet cafes this week advising them that service would be suspended through June 6, said an employee at the New Blue Sky Internet Cafe.

"The Internet is down. This is the third day. Actually the Internet is down at all the Internet cafes across the city," said the employee, who would only give her surname, Li. "You have problems sending out mobile text messages too. It keeps telling you the message-sending failed."