China and India: heartlands of global protest

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The exponential growth of the economies of China and India has won for these Asian giants a position of global economic and political prominence. But this process has been accompanied by profound internal discontent, some of which takes violent forms. The respective domestic experiences may be very different, but there are enough commonalities to suggest a lesson for the dominant economic model to which both states now adhere.

The east's far west

The killing of sixteen police officers and the wounding of sixteen others in an operation in the western Chinese oasis city of Kashgar on 4 August 2008 was the most severe incident of anti-authority political violence in China for many months. The precise responsibility remains to be established, but it is likely to have been perpetrated by a separatist Islamist group which sees itself as acting on behalf of the majority Uighur population of Xinjiang region (where Kashgar is situated). The timing, in the very week of the opening of the Olympic games in Beijing on 8 August - and following an apparently coordinated attack on two buses in Kunming in the southwest province of Yunnan on 21 July which killed two people - further suggests a political motivation.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

The nature and timing of these incidents have guaranteed widespread media attention in the ensuing days, both in China itself (where a year marked by the Tibet riots and the Sichuan earthquake has seen more open coverage in the official media, partly a result of its unofficial proliferation) and internationally. This is welcome insofar as greater discussion of such security issues can aid the search for understanding and solutions. At the same time, it is important not to extrapolate too far from the Kashgar attack, as it is a (still) relatively isolated example of paramilitary violence rather than in itself evidence of a long-term campaign.

Moreover, amid the understandable focus on the incident it is easy to forget that China is already host to far more numerous, collective and large-scale explosions of major social unrest. These have persisted for a number of years and continue to cause grave concern to national and local governments alike.

China: a tide of protest

China's economic growth over almost two decades has been impressive. It has also been heavily concentrated in the major conurbations, especially on or around the east and southeast coasts. As the economic divisions have widened, so frustration has grown, often taking the form of disputes over land (see Li Datong, "The next land revolution?", 8 August 2007) but an even more common phenomenon has been the incidence of bitter anti-authority activism in the wake of individual incidents.

Three incidents in July 2008 alone indicate the pattern:

* a huge demonstration and riot in Guzhou province, southwest China. As many as 30,000 people mobilised in response to claims that police had covered up the alleged rape and murder of a teenage girl; cars and government buildings were set on fire (see Li Datong, "The Weng'an model: China's fix-it governance", 30 July 2008)

* a three-day demonstration by hundreds of migrant workers in Zhejiang province, eastern China. The protest began on 10 July after the arrest of one of their number by police

* an attack on a police station and local administrative offices on 17 July by more than a hundred people near Huizhou, Guangdong province. This was sparked by rumours that a motorcyclist had been beaten to death by the police. In the confrontation, one person was killed and ten injured.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed

These are just a handful of many thousands of examples of violent social unrest in China each year. The great majority is directed against police and government officials, and only a few of them are reported in the media outside the country. There is no one specific cause, but behind the phenomenon often lies intense frustration at the disabling effects and profound inequalities that China's remarkable economic growth has generated.

The level of discontent was already so high in 2005 that the government established 600-strong elite police squads in thirty-six cities to respond to riots and other disturbances. Each squad is equipped with helicopters, armoured cars and a range of weapons, and is ready to respond at short notice to protests that - as many do - erupting suddenly and without warning. As one journalist commented at the time:

"People are becoming bolder in voicing their grievances in a society in which economic liberalisation has created a yawning gap between urban rich and urban poor, and under an authoritarian system that offers numerous opportunities for officials to get rich through corruption" (see Jane Macartney, "China creates crack unit to crush poverty protests", Times, 20 August 2005).

Some western observers argue with a degree of justification that these tensions are clear indications of the low degree of democracy and accountability in China. This factor must indeed be part of the overall assessment, but a comparison here with another huge country undergoing rapid economic and social change in the context of a wider globalisation suggests that it cannot be the only or even the most decisive variable. For India too - China's great neighbour, sometime strategic rival and economic competitor - is also experiencing a wave of social protest triggered by (for example) environmental degradation and land seizures; equally significant, a sustained campaign of organised political violence in India now affects more than half of the country's twenty-eight states.

India: an arc of insurgency

India's high-powered economic growth in the 2000s has been as impressive if not quite as sustained as China's; equally, its results have been most beneficial to the urban middle-classes in the country's urban centres rather than to the rural poor. A striking and largely unexpected feature of these years, however, has been the continued and increasing vigour of the rebellion by the Naxalite guerrilla movement (see Ajai Sahni, "India and its Maoists: failure and success", 20 March 2007).

The Naxalite rebellion, named after one of the original villages involved (Naxalbari in West Bengal) originated in 1967. Its political leadership developed its ideology and strategy from Maoism, though its appeal to its militants and supporters may often have owed more to its defence of their rights and interests rather than to its propaganda. In any event, it was long regarded as being more a persistent but barely effective irritant rather than a serious threat - until a few years of surprisingly rapid expansion; to the extent that India's prime minister Manmohan Singh described the Naxalites in April 2006 as "the biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country".

Indeed, a detailed analysis by PV Ramana finds that the rebels are active in 185 districts in seventeen out of India's twenty-eight states (see "Red Storm Rising", Jane's Intelligence Review, June 2008). The government has imposed legal measures against the Naxalites' political leadership and actions seen as in support of it, as have states most affected by the movement (such as Chhattisgarh); but these have often proved ineffective or counterproductive.

Much of the reporting of incidents of violence in India has focused on armed attacks on urban centres, such as the bombings in Mumbai, Bangalore, Jaipur, Ahmendabad, and other cities (see Ajai Sahni, "India after Ahmedabad's bombs", 29 July 2008). Some analysts highlight the relative poverty of Indian Muslims as a systemic factor that contributes to India's social instability (see Pankaj Mishra, "Violence runs through this 'stable' India, built on poverty and injustice", Guardian, 7 August 2008)

A by-product of this attention is the comparable neglect of the Naxalite rebels, whose rural bases in an expanding "red belt" in eastern India and support from great numbers of people in marginalised and poor communities has made them both less accessible to media attention and less high-profile as a topic of investigation (see Suhas Chakma, "India's war with itself", 2 April 2007).

The remoteness of the movement from the lives of urban Indians is diminishing, however, for a significant trend in the Naxalites' thinking is the evolution of a more cohesive national strategy. An important development in this respect was the merging of several Naxalite groups into the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-M) in 2004. This enabled it to evolve a central strategic direction, valuable for a movement that had hitherto been very dispersed.

The new strategy has as one of its elements a targeting of India's economic infrastructure. In July 2008, for example, Naxalite paramilitaries blew up a stretch of railway track on the Patna-Howrah route; they then waited until it had been repaired and destroyed it again at another site on the same route. All this despite a large security presence less than a mile away.

This focus on vulnerable points of the modern economy's network is facilitated by India's rapid urbanisation; it is also aided by the authorities' inability to ensure consistent supplies of basic services - oil, electricity, transport links - to many of India's people. The combination of an expanding economy and failures of delivery leaves an economy such as India's with very little margin for error in terms of underlying support. The Naxalite insurgents appear to have recognised this.

In addition, the enormous expansion of megacities such as Mumbai and Kolkata has been marked by massive settlements of new arrivals living in precarious conditions and working in the informal economy. The political activists in and around such communities can find a ready response among at least a section of this population, especially when they emphasise the acute divisions of wealth and poverty in modern India.

A model of instability

The social unrest in India and China differs in its details and its appearance. India's has more integrated organisation, China's is characterised by more random and unpredictable outbreaks. There is a common feature, however: both countries are experiencing protracted "revolts from the margins" at the very time that they are being hailed as examples of successful economic growth rooted in free-market liberalisation.

In one sense, however, India's troubles can be seen as more intellectually disruptive. This relates to the point made earlier about the lack of democracy and accountability in China. For if (from a dominant western perspective) many of China's problems can be attributed largely to its autocratic governance, then a different approach would seem to be required in explaining why a functioning democracy such as India should incubate a challenging movement such as the Naxalite guerrillas. Indeed, a wider perspective might see what is happening in both countries as representing a direct challenge to prevailing economic orthodoxy.

More important is that the two most populous countries in the world are, in the midst of intense and accelerating economic and social change, experiencing serious internal-security problems - and this before the effects of environmental limitations have begun to have their greatest impact.

In the 2010-2030 period, critical energy shortages and a deteriorating climate will each have profound effects on India and China (see "Melting Asia", Economist, 5 June 2008). These will in turn create the conditions for even greater social unrest than has occurred so far. This is the largely unrecognised significance of India's Naxalites and China's diversifiying social protests. In this generational light, the argument that unrestrained economic growth will open the way to a shining future is fantastical; and far less realistic than the argument for a transformation towards global equity, freedom and sustainability.