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Can China's New Leadership Cope with Increasing Domestic Challenges? - 2003-03-12

As a new generation of leaders prepares to assume power in China next week, it will face an unprecedented challenge from growing social unrest due to poverty and massive unemployment. The next Communist Party government has pledged to relieve hardships brought about by major restructuring to create a market economy. But their promises may not be enough.

Bulldozers tore down Mr. Wu's 20-year-old convenience store in downtown Beijing several months ago, in a government campaign to polish the city's image.

Mr. Wu, who does not wish to be identified further, said he was given little warning of the demolition, and no compensation. He said the store was also his family's home and his sole source of income. But when he resisted the bulldozers, he said, police beat him and detained his wife and brother for almost two weeks.

Mr. Wu is speaking out about his plight to send a message to China's leaders, now meeting in Beijing for the annual legislative session of the National People's Congress.

Mr. Wu said he wants Chinese lawmakers to explain why the country doesn't give small businesses the same rights as large, state enterprises. He said, "Why don't the police protect people like me instead of attacking us? How do we seek justice?" he asks.

China's leadership faces questions like these every day, from disgruntled people across the country. Public frustration is rising over forced relocation, to mass unemployment, to burdensome rural taxes, and official corruption - all challenges to the more than 50 years of rule by the Communist Party.

Tens of millions of workers have been laid off from failing state enterprises and they have no safety net, no jobs waiting and no official venue to make complaints. This is only going to get worse as China's entry into the World Trade Organization brings more wrenching social and economic changes.

China's new leaders, who will be approved at the end of the two-week congress next week, have promised to address the plight of the poor and the dispossessed. They have pledged to crackdown on official corruption, to allow the rural poor to seek new jobs in the cities and alleviate unfair taxes - among other things.

Yet some analysts say the leadership's promises are not enough to quell growing public anger and frustration.

Wu Guoguang is a professor at Chinese University in Hong Kong and a former Communist Party official. He believes the new government is not prepared to implement real solutions - because some are political rather than economic.

Mr. Wu said that if China's new leaders were truly interested in giving more rights to the masses, they would introduce political reforms and give people more freedom of speech and assembly.

Substantive political reform, however, is not on the legislature's agenda. Police in Beijing have tightened security to ensure that no protests take place and dissidents are immediately taken into custody. In recent months, China has responded to growing workers' protests by jailing labor leaders. Independent labor unions will remain banned.

Han Dongfang, head of the China Labor Bulletin, a monitoring group in Hong Kong, said he thinks China's refusal to allow workers to express their grievances is likely to backfire in the long run.

Mr. Han calls the government's strategy "killing the chicken to scare the monkey." He says that by arresting labor leaders the government wants to frighten future workers from organizing protests, which it fears could threaten its hold on power.

But Mr. Han says Chinese workers realize they cannot receive compensation unless some organizers step forward to represent their interests. He says people are slowly gaining more courage to demand basic rights.

Yet there are no solid signs that political change is on the horizon in the face of ever-bolder challenges to the government. Fred Teiwes, a China expert at the University of Sydney, said Chinese leaders will not risk any reforms that may weaken the one-party system and expose it to potential overthrow from below.

"Certainly there will be some elements of the top leadership interested in pursuing some aspects of political reforms. But if the last five or 10 years have shown anything, whenever a challenge is perceived, there's almost this reflex action to crack down on it," Mr. Teiwes said.

He and other analysts predict the new generation of leaders is likely to wait to consolidate their positions before on any bold or risky reforms.