Behind the shimmering skyscrapers

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The Independent Online

It makes for a sobering contrast. Just as the British government was frantically attempting to broker a deal with a Chinese company to take over a bankrupt British car maker, China itself was facing unprecedented unrest among its own workforce. Thousands of villagers in the eastern village of Huankantou rioted after two elderly women protesting about pollution from a local factory were run over by a police car during efforts to disperse them.

It makes for a sobering contrast. Just as the British government was frantically attempting to broker a deal with a Chinese company to take over a bankrupt British car maker, China itself was facing unprecedented unrest among its own workforce. Thousands of villagers in the eastern village of Huankantou rioted after two elderly women protesting about pollution from a local factory were run over by a police car during efforts to disperse them.

This outburst of popular fury coincided with large demonstrations in Beijing and Guangzhou against the Japanese education ministry's approval of a school textbook that whitewashes Japanese atrocities in the Second World War. Few doubt that these demonstrations were orchestrated by the government. They must be viewed in the context of China's military rivalry with its neighbour and its economic ambitions in the region. But there is, nevertheless, a link between the two demonstrations.

By stirring up nationalist agitation, the Chinese government is attempting to distract attention from domestic grievances - the chronic corruption, the vast disparities of wealth and the rampant pollution that blight modern China. It is playing with fire. Confected nationalist demonstrations are increasingly turning into anti-government protests, which then have to be swiftly repressed. And as the rioting in Huankantou shows, demonstrations now occur spontaneously - something unthinkable in the years after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

None of this is to say that China is on the verge of a revolution. The state apparatus is still too powerful for that. But it should serve to remind the rest of the world of the magnitude of the change that China is undergoing - and that behind the shimmering skyscrapers, many of its 1.3 billion citizens live in impoverished misery. The country's astonishing economic growth has improved average living standards. But industrialisation has inflicted great hardship too. More than 100,000 people die each year in work-related accidents and suffer pollution-related illnesses. Whole villages have been forcibly relocated by dam construction. And political repression and religious persecution remain as strong as ever.

China is in flux. Modern technological developments mean it is more difficult for the government to block news and suppress dissent. And runaway economic growth is creating massive - and often unpredictable - strains. In this sensitive time, the world has a duty to maintain pressure on the Chinese government to cease its human rights abuses and widen political freedom. The West must not simply regard China as a colossal business opportunity.

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