China’s phenomenal economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in recent decades. It has also produced massive social change, dislocation, resentment, and hostility. China’s leaders point to a growing gap between rich and poor as the primary source for unrest. Martin Whyte, a Harvard sociologist, argues that income inequality is not the real problem. Based on a series of national surveys, he believes the main reasons for popular anger are “abuses of power, official corruption, bureaucrats who fail to protect the public from harm, mistreatment by those in authority, and inability to obtain redress when mistreated.” China, says Whyte, is sitting on an “active social volcano.”
Tens of thousands of urban and rural protests take place every year over lost wages, unemployment, land seizures, environmental pollution, the household registration system, crackdowns on religion, discrimination against migrants and minorities, and other issues. These widespread incidents can be attributed to resentment over inequalities in power rather than in income. The targets of popular rage are not the super rich but authority figures, usually at the local level.
A Touch of Sin, a 2013 movie directed by Jia Zhangke, vividly depicts this bleak view of Chinese society. Based on true events, the film presents four separate stories of rage and revenge replete with shocking murders and the suicide of a young migrant worker. In each case, ordinary people have become so profoundly disaffected that they decide to take their destinies into their own hands. The men and women who commit crimes are not apprehended by the police, who are nowhere to be seen. This is an arbitrary society operating in a moral vacuum. Jia says his film is about how we tolerate injustice.” As for the title, “More than anything I think silence is a sin.”
A Touch of Sin has not been been shown in China.
President Xi Jinping, who took office in 2012, clearly understands the threat that social injustice poses for the nation and for the Chinese Communist Party. His unprecedented anti-corruption campaign has been welcomed by Chinese citizens. But a concurrent effort to control information and to suppress opposition to the Party suggests that the problem is so deeply rooted that removing even a large number of bad officials—which already has been done, creating insecurity and opposition within the bureaucracy and military—does not go far enough. Corruption is a symptom pointing to the need for fundamental, structural reforms that would bring much greater transparency and accountability to government. But as Whyte notes, such reforms “would threaten very powerful vested interests among the political elite devoted to the preservation of the status quo.” Meanwhile, a slowing economy is producing more unrest as workers lose their jobs.
Distrust, alienation, anger, and violence are familiar themes for Americans who are experiencing the fallout from globalization, the disruption of new technologies, and are struggling with the injustices of racism. The United States is far from perfect. But China still lacks an independent legal system, adequate protection of human and labor rights, genuine freedom of expression, and predictable means to address grievances. Until such reforms can be accepted in Beijing, resentment will continue to rise and China’s smoldering volcano may eventually erupt.
Featured Image Credit: “Forbidden City” by IQRemix. CC BY SA-2.0 via Flickr