[Updated] Liu Xiaobo awarded Nobel Peace Prize

Liu Xiaobo

Unbeknown to him, Liu Xiaobo was this afternoon awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel Committee chose Liu for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”

The Twittersphere exploded; from widespread news of the announcement’s transmission being cut in China to netizens’ celebratory meetups being organised (and, in some cases, cancelled for fear of police reprisals). Beijing responded furiously to the news, calling Liu’s win a “blasphemy to the peace prize.”

Quoted in The Guardian, outspoken writer Liao Yiwu said:

As Liu’s best friend, I am so happy I can’t describe what I feel. This is a big moment in Chinese history. It will greatly promote democratic developments in China and it is a huge encouragement to us and our friends.

There has been an influx of reactions to the news, with more likely to seep in. Full reports from The Guardian can be found here and here. At Forbes, Gady Epstein discusses what the prize, Liu himself and China’s other dissidents stand for, while more personal accounts of Liu have been penned by Evan Osnos at the New Yorker, and Channel 4’s Lindsey Hilsum. Over at the Christian Science Monitor, meanwhile, Peter Ford weighs up the possible harm today’s win could cause to China’s other human rights activists.

Charter 08, the pro-democracy manifesto that landed Liu in jail last December, is available to read here.

The social underbelly of China’s school killings

Image from China News Service

This spring has witnessed a series of horrific attacks on Chinese schoolchildren that have killed 15 and injured around 60 others. The discussion over the patterns and motives of the killings has been rampant, with Stan Abrams helpfully summarising much of the conversation here and here. One theme is undeniable: that the attacks are underscored by the growing severity of China’s complex social problems. Fundamentally, they typify the dark side of the China’s glittering economic growth: that it has not come with deeper social and political reforms that must be delivered in order to sustainably manage the country’s growing contentions.

The events appear to have been copycat incidents, with middle-aged men attacking defenceless children. The most recent occurred in Linchang, Shaanxi Province, on Wednesday, when Wu Huanming, a well-liked 48-year-old local man, slaughtered seven kindergarten pupils and two adults. It has since been found that a property dispute between Wu and the school’s administrator, Wu Hongying, triggered his deadly actions.

On the surface, the row was perhaps a trivial one: Wu Huanming had rented a house next to the kindergarten and wanted it to be vacated when the lease expired in April, while Wu Hongying wanted to stay until the summer. Yet, the details of the other attacks – a jobless man allegedly angry over a series of personal and professional setbacks who then slaughtered 29 children and three adults at a Taixing kindergarten, and a 33-year-old teacher on sick leave due to ‘mental problems’ who injured 15 students at a Guangdong primary school – point to a darker, more serious root of social frustrations leading to vindictive actions.

In spite of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms that have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in the past thirty years and created a socially mobile, urbanised middle class, a sizeable pool of disenfranchised citizens has been deepening. Measures such as the hukou (household registration) system continue to limit China’s 200 million migrant workers’ access to basic services in cities, and the urban-rural divide is ever increasing, exacerbated by poor medical service provisions in rural areas and China’s widest wealth gap for thirty years.

The debate has also rippled to a wider discussion on mental health issues in China. Talking to AP, Renmin University’s Zhou Xiaozheng said,

The perpetrators have contracted a ‘social psychological infectious disease’ that shows itself in a desire to take revenge on society. (…) They pick children as targets because they are the weakest and most vulnerable.

The provision of adequate mental health care has long been neglected in the PRC. According to the National Centre for Mental Health, China has around 100 million mental health sufferers, with only 5% actively seeking treatment. When treatment is sought, it is largely insufficient: there are allegedly 11 hospital beds and fewer than two psychiatrists for every 100,000 people in the PRC (the world average currently sits at 43 beds and four doctors). Fundamentally, mental health remains a social stigma, with economic growth having overshadowed any psychological changes that may have come with it, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Friday.

This sombre melange of inequality and inadequate care has created a fertile ground for social contentions to grow. As ChinaBizGov’s Greg Anderson argues, the killings are symptomatic of the disappointment and powerlessness borne by China’s lower classes. Evan Osnos has termed this the ‘marginalisation’ suffered by those disorientated in China’s rapidly changing society.

At a policy level, such fatal contentions are beginning to chip away at the Hu-Wen trajectory of social harmony, raising questions over how such social inequalities can be tackled and what the future will hold for China’s mental health care. The government can no longer avoid dealing with such home truths. As Chatham House Senior Fellow Kerry Brown told me,

China’s more unstable than people think. Economic growth has been the great unifier, and the CCP has the objective of creating a strong, powerful country. This will continue to work in short to medium term, but beyond that, you’re hitting issues of stability, sustainability, equality and social justice. These could become killers in their own right.

It does seem as if this realisation for a more sustainable approach is taking hold. In the first public acknowledgment that Beijing is looking to the root of the problem and not merely increasing school security, Premier Wen Jiabao expressed his anguish over the attacks. He told Hong Kong’s Phoenix network,

As well as adopting vigorous safety measures, we also have to pay attention to addressing some deep-seated causes behind these problems, including dealing with some social conflicts and resolving disputes.

If there ever were a chain of events pushing a changing China closer to the crossroads of the need for deeper social reforms, it has most certainly occurred. It is only too poignant that innocent and vulnerable lives were lost in order to make the CCP realise that society is not, and cannot be, harmonious.

*Updated* – Dealing with Qinghai

Image from china.org.cn

Update: The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore and Al-Jazeera’s Melissa K. Chan have said foreign journalists have been banned from quake zone because it is too dangerous. Moore also says that Chinese blogs have reported road blocks 80km outside of Yushu. For photographs (although very distressing) of the aftermath, click here.

Yesterday a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Yushu, Qinghai province, killing over 500 and injuring around 10,000. Hundreds remain trapped, and according to the Yushu Red Cross, 70% of local schools have collapsed. In the nearby township of Jiegu, 85% of buildings were destroyed. A local spokesperson told Xinhua:

The streets in Jiegu are thronged with panic, full of injured people, with many of them bleeding from their injuries. (…) The biggest problem now is that we lack tents, medical equipment, medicine and medical workers.

The government has dispatched emergency personnel, over 3,000 paramilitary police and disaster response specialists to Yushu county, but infrastructure is damaging the relief work. According to reports from AP and The Guardian, the nearest airport is damaged, the road to Yushu has been blocked by a landslide, and several transmission stations are out of action. Rescue teams have also said they lacked heavy lifting equipment, instead relying on their bare hands to clear rubble, and one army police officer told The Guardian he and his team had no medical equipment.

A lingering thought is how far Wednesday’s quake will be similar to the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008, during which 87,000 died and China came under intense fire for shoddily built schools and restricted media reporting. So far, it has been reported that 56 students in Yushu have died, with tens upon tens remaining trapped. Evan Osnos cites a Xinhua report in which a teacher at Yushu Primary School said: “Morning sessions had not begun when the quake happened. Some pupils ran out of the dorm alive, and those who had not escaped in time were buried.”

Given Yushu’s population density being higher than Wenchuan’s, it is hoped there will be fewer casualties. Indeed, drawing parallels between the two at this stage is largely speculative, as news trickles through and relief efforts continue.

Interestingly, there does seem to be a more open approach to media coverage of the tragedy. Reports have cited Qinghai Propaganda Department head Jidi Majia calling on the media “to be responsible, to strengthen the role of guiding public opinion, strengthen political consciousness in propaganda work. (…) We must be ready to accommodate media from outside the province, and let everyone see the spirit of the Qinghai Province people, see that we are not afraid of difficulties.”

However, searches for the topic on the Baidu post bar initially resulted in the following message: “Sorry, according to relevant laws, regulations and policies, this bar [discussion] is temporarily not open.” According to the WSJ, a subsequent Twitter discussion soon led to searches for Qinghai on the post bar producing results.

For more details of the tragedy, see The Guardian’s interactive guide. Plus, if you would like to donate to Qinghai, click here.