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The Daily Need

As activist detentions wind down in China, a wave of unrest poses a new challenge

Chinese security personnel face off protesters on a street of Xilinhot in northern China's Inner Mongolia province on May 23, 2011. Photo: AP/Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center

Update | June 22 Xinhua reports that Ai WeiWei was released today on bail “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from.”

It’s been nearly four months since Chinese authorities initiated a sweep of detentions of human rights lawyers and activists in China for fear of an impending “Jasmine” revolution inspired by protests in the Middle East. As the number of activist arrests has slowed to a crawl and detainees are gradually released to return home or to face trial, the Chinese government has focused its energy instead on tackling a new wave of unrest in Tibet, Mongolia and southern China.

The organization China Human Rights Defenders reports that out of nearly 50 people detained in China since February, when an anonymous call for “Jasmine” protests began to spread on Twitter, 32 have been released (22 of whom are on bail and awaiting trial), while nine were formally arrested, three were sent to re-education labor camps and four remain in detention. The group notes that at least ten other activists are still missing.

One of the most high-profile arrests was that of renowned artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei, famous for his design of the “bird’s nest” Olympics stadium in Beijing and his art installation of 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds. In early April, Ai was detained for “economic crimes” as he was boarding a flight to Hong Kong, and is believed to be held under residential surveillance. Last month, Ai’s wife was able to pay a brief visit to him, noting that he appeared to be in “good physical condition” but otherwise receiving no information about how he was being treated in custody. Other former detainees reportedly underwent beatings while in detention, including activist Liu Anjun, who participated in an interview about Egypt’s revolution in February, and Wei Qiang, who photographed police clearing out crowds at the site of the proposed “Jasmine” protest in Beijing.

Despite fears of mistreatment for the other detainees and missing activists, it seems that, overall, the sense of paranoia that enveloped the Chinese government in the wake of the Arab Spring has largely subsided. In its place, however, is the emergence of a series of unsettling and at times violent clashes flaring up far from the major urban centers of Beijing and Shanghai. In March, a monk from the Kirti monastery in Tibet died of self-immolation in protest against Chinese rule of Tibet, sparking mass demonstrations. As a result, the Chinese government reportedly detained 300 monks to quell the protests.

Shortly afterward, authorities entered inner Mongolia to tackle some of the largest protests in decades, triggered by the death of a Mongolian herder who was run over by a Han Chinese truck driver transporting coal over grazing lands. Most recently, a series of clashes involving migrant workers has sprung up in southern China. In the city of Zengcheng, a manufacturing town in the export province of Guangdong, a pregnant young hawker stall owner was asked to move her cart away from the entrance of a supermarket. Authorities reportedly pushed her to the ground as they attempted to clear her from the road, and news of the incident spread, leading other migrant workers to throw stones at police, overturn security vehicles and set fire to buildings. The incident ultimately resulted in 19 arrests.

Handling popular grievances in a complex country like China has always been a tricky business. While ethnic tensions between Han Chinese, Tibetans and Uighurs in western China have been major issues for years, the problems of migrant workers’ rights and social services for the poor are becoming more and more visible throughout the country. The government’s usual iron-fist strategy of blocking communications and detaining those who complain vocally has traditionally worked to keep mass protests at bay. But the fact that singular incidents have been able to spark such widespread demonstrations in different parts of the country is a testament to the volatility of these regions and tensions constantly boiling beneath the surface. If the unrest continues, the government may eventually be forced to seek out an alternative method of enforcing stability.

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