Growth In Interest Groups Challenges Beijing

Zhao Lianhai i i

Zhao Lianhai, who helped organize the parents of children who became sick after drinking tainted milk, waits outside court in Shijiazhuang in China's Hebei province on Thursday. Stiff sentences — including death — were handed down to people involved in the making and distribution of the tainted milk. Imaginechina via AP hide caption

itoggle caption Imaginechina via AP
Zhao Lianhai

Zhao Lianhai, who helped organize the parents of children who became sick after drinking tainted milk, waits outside court in Shijiazhuang in China's Hebei province on Thursday. Stiff sentences — including death — were handed down to people involved in the making and distribution of the tainted milk.

Imaginechina via AP
Local residents and police surround taxis parked in Chongqing i i

Local residents and police surround taxis parked along a street in Chongqing in Sichuan province on Nov. 4, 2008. The previous day, taxi drivers smashed car windows and police vehicles in protest of increased operating costs, shortages of natural gas and high traffic fines. Imaginechina via AP hide caption

itoggle caption Imaginechina via AP
Local residents and police surround taxis parked in Chongqing

Local residents and police surround taxis parked along a street in Chongqing in Sichuan province on Nov. 4, 2008. The previous day, taxi drivers smashed car windows and police vehicles in protest of increased operating costs, shortages of natural gas and high traffic fines.

Imaginechina via AP

In 2008, China saw a proliferation of interest groups, from the victims of tainted milk to cab drivers protesting fee hikes.

Experts are warning that the economic downtown could trigger social unrest this year — and that how China fares will depend on how it deals with these groups and their demands.

Zhao Lianhai heads up one of these groups. Zhao's 3-year-old son is one of about 300,000 children who have gotten sick from tainted milk powder.

Zhao has organized hundreds of victims' parents who are not satisfied with government compensation. They have continued protesting, even after courts sentenced two men to death Jan. 22 for their role in making and selling the tainted milk; the court also handed down stiff prison terms to others involved in the scandal.

Zhao says the authorities have made his work difficult.

"It's impossible for us victims' family members to get together. Either our communications are interrupted or we are physically prevented from meeting," he says, adding that the group's Web site has been blocked as well.

Other groups — including taxi drivers striking against high fees charged by their companies, and parents of children killed under collapsed schools in the May 12, 2008, earthquake — also have been fighting back.

The government may not be directly responsible for all the problems but, says Zhao, Chinese citizens will judge them on their response to these groups.

"It's been a double disaster for us. The first disaster was the poisoned milk. The second was the way the whole affair was handled. Our rights have been infringed upon twice," he says.

Ding Xueliang, a scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that the government has acceded to some of the different groups' demands.

He adds that over the past three decades, Beijing has learned much about handling the social tensions that come with the transition to a market economy.

"In a normal society, people are bound to find ways to express themselves when their interests are severely infringed upon. I think that in recent months, China has become more normal in this regard. I hope this normalization will continue," he says.

Of course, calling for compensation is one thing. Making demands for political reform is another. Last month, hundreds of activists, scholars and lawyers signed the 08 Charter, a 19-point document calling for a federalist system, democratic elections and the end of the Communist Party's monopoly on power.

The signatories have few illusions that the party will listen. But, says veteran economist Mao Yushi, who signed the document, they had to state their goals just the same, if only for the historical record.

"The 08 Charter was just meant to provide some impetus. Although I participated in it, I don't really believe its goals can actually be achieved. It's just meant to push the government to move ahead," he says.

Police have interrogated scores of charter signatories. Only one of them, veteran dissident Liu Xiaobo, remains under police detention after more than a month. He has yet to be charged with any crime.

Many observers see Beijing's response to the charter as a preview of a year full of sensitive political anniversaries, including the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

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