China Power

Why is China so Afraid of a Small Protest?

Drought and corruption cause a brief protest in Jixi County. China’s Propaganda Department panics.

A minor protest in Anhui Province has grabbed the central government's attention in China.

According to Radio Free Asia, on August 10, two thousand protestors laid siege to government offices in Xuancheng City in Anhui’s Jixi County, in the Jingzhou Township. The crowds overturned cars, smashed the windows of a government office, and assaulted government officials.

Reports on this incident went relatively unnoticed, partially because the Central Propaganda Department (also known as the Publicity Department) got ahead of the story by issuing a stern warning to state media outlets.

The statement, which was later released by  China Digital Times, reads: “Regarding the recent incident in which villagers from Xuancheng, Anhui Province assembled at the local government [offices] and overturned official vehicles: if reporting this, the media must use standard sources; do not speculate or exaggerate; and do not independently investigate, report, or comment.”

State media outlets regularly receive directives from the authorities dictating what reporters can and cannot report on, and sometimes are told what to “emphasize” and what to “downplay.” Some of these directives get leaked to foreign media.

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The borderline riot was spurred by a recent drought in the region and what residents deemed to be a lack of a sufficient response from the local government.  Jixi County has suffered a terrible drought and heat wave this summer despite relief efforts. Preliminary statistics alone indicate that the drought has affected 35.42 million people.

While drought seems to have been the impetus for the troubles, local villagers were also agitated by other reasons such as intentional blackout rumors, demands for cloud seeding, unaccounted  drought relief resources, and local government corruption and embezzlement.

Another reason the locals were angry was because of the deceptive media coverage. While the state media proudly flaunted their drought relief chops – with personnel numbering 800,000 people and 50 million RMB to fight the drought – those who were actually on the ground weren't seeing the effects. Online sources and RFA have suggested that a black out was initiated to prevent outsiders from watching local TV news reports on the drought, some of which showed officials watering walnut trees.

However, the local government denies these claims, saying that the blackout was caused by the heat wave. People's Daily blame the violence on "social idlers" spreading rumors that the blackout was intentional.

China Gaze (看中国) quoted an insider as saying, "The people are very angry, emotional, and out of control." The mid-August droughts have been tough on the area with 78 rivers and 12 small reservoirs running dry. After the protests, the villagers got what they wanted; cloud seeding began the next day.

Directives from the propaganda authorities are extremely common, and this highlights the fact that water usage and weather problems in China are a hot topic this year. In particular, China will continue to grapple with the PR problems surrounding the Three Gorges Dam, landslides, floods and the usual array of environmental woes.

At least in this case, the panic over water seems to be over. It rained yesterday morning in Xuancheng, dropping their month long heat wave to 27 degrees Celsius (80.6 degrees Fahrenheit). This small area of China (also known as Hu Jintao’s hometown) dodged a delicate situation, and the Propaganda Department's directive likely only exacerbated what should have been a more minor incident.

Tyler Roney is a Beijing-based columnist for China Power and an editor of the magazine, The World of Chinese.