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When people have nothing, they become desperate.  We’ve seen this throughout history and around the world.  Simply speaking, the reason Palestinians blow themselves up in Tel Aviv coffee shops is because it’s better than the alternative: living in dire poverty in a highly-militarized zone with no hope for the future.  It’s why young people have flung themselves from their dorm rooms at Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, and now Chengdu.

Pure desperation can make people do many things they wouldn’t do under normal circumstances, and might be one of the saddest states a human can be in.  The feeling of no hope, no future, no options — nothing.

I imagine this is how Qian Mingqi felt when he strapped explosives to himself and planted car bombs near government offices on Thursday.  According to the South China Morning Post (behind a paywall), the 52-year old farmer alleges his six-storey building, which he owned, was illegally demolished by authorities in 2002 to make way for an expressway.

Despite suffering a loss of more than two million yuan (HK$2.39 million), Qian received only about 252,000 yuan in compensation.

“My house was illegally demolished by government leaders without paying the compensation that was owned me by law,” [Qian wrote on his Weibo account].  “I have petitioned over the case during the past decade but couldn’t seek redress – what can I do?”

Qian found something to do – attempt to blow up Fuzhou’s procuratorate office, Linchuan district government office and the district’s food and drug administration.  The question now is, can we blame him for doing so?

I struggle with this question, because people generally have the view that somebody killing innocent people or inflicting damage against state buildings is a terrorist.  If not a terrorist, they are at least criminals, just like Jared Lee Loughner, who should be put away (if they haven’t killed themselves already).  The difference in this case is that, by all media accounts, Qian didn’t seem like a particularly militant or angry man.  The fact he spent 9 years following up his case speaks volumes of his patience, if not his character.  But when all methods at redress have been exhausted, then what?

The Toronto Star reports, “illegal land seizures are an endemic problem in China, where local officials often collude with developers to bilk locals of their land, then re-sell it at extraordinary markups and split the profits”.  In fact, even young children are aware of it:

Commenting Thursday, on one of China’s most popular social network forums, a 16-year-old high school junior writing under the name of Serein said the incident had touched a national nerve.

“These explosions didn’t just blow up government buildings,” wrote Serein, “they touched a nerve with people all across the country. This tragedy wasn’t accidental — it was inevitable. It’s time to wake up.”

In the past, I would submit citizens may have accepted these land grabs because they were poor, uninformed, or had become used to overt government oppression; today, there is an increasing flow of information from the outside world, more knowledge of one’s rights, and more ways to speak out.  Not only that, through tools like Weibo, Chinese people are more connected than ever before, so they know more than ever before.  Maybe you can call this China’s growing awareness of social justice.

In my early days in China, it used to bother me that people just accepted what the government did, even if they were treated unfairly.  I used to engage in lengthy discussions with both Chinese and other foreigners over whether this was simply an individual personality trait, whether the meek acceptance of decisions made by the government was some kind of Confucian adherence to authority, or whether fears remained from the Cultural Revolution and people felt compelled to display their obedience to the Communist Party.

Increasingly, however, people are speaking out on issues like the trucker’s strike in Shanghai, the food scandals in China, the Li Gang case, and so on.  This is the very beginning stage of a true civil society, one where people are connected and understand their power if they unite in support of a particular cause.  In the past, Chinese people had no fear doing this against companies (just watch the demands for compensation if a flight is delayed), but now the government is finding itself the target more frequently.

While I cannot condone what Qian did, I certainly understand it.  Who, reading this blog post, hasn’t been driven up the wall by a Chinese immigration official, a ticket seller, a waiter or waitress, or a business owner, when you know instinctively that you are being taken advantage of, there’s nothing you can do about it, and nobody cares?  In a society with a rule of law, if you are wronged, you can take your adversary to court in pursuit of justice.  You may not win, but you are given a chance in front of an impartial judge and/or jury.  Not having that option will eventually lead to social unrest, corruption, lawlessness and attacks such as the one in Fuzhou.

As I’ve said repeatedly and written on this blog, more instances of social unrest will occur unless the government creates a mechanism by which people can air their grievances and have them solved in an impartial manner.  The status quo is simply not sustainable.  The people holed up in Zhongnanhai are dealing with a much more restive and interconnected population, and they need to be given a way to decompress.  A civil society is forming, albeit slowly, and it would serve the government well to manage it rather than suppress it.  If not, we may look back at Qian’s attack as the beginning of something much larger.


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  1. [...] chinahotline on June 1, 2011 In another reaction to Fuzhou Bomber Jian Mingqi, Zhongnanhai Blog writes about what could drive someone to bomb three government offices: While I cannot condone what Qian [...]

  2. [...] abuse of human rights.  One thing is certain: with Jasmine Revolutions, inflationary pressures, unrest, and the just passed day-of-which-we-cannot-speak, Shenzhen authorities won’t be taking any [...]

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