Reporters without borders report

Everythings FINE Here

Singapore

Population : 4,183,000

Internet users : 2,100,000 (2002)

Average charge for 20 hours of connection : 9 euros

DAI* : 0.75

Situation** : difficult

The government is everywhere, censorship rules and civil society is weak in Singapore. Such state control does not however include the excesses or violence found in China or Cuba. The leaders of the city-state warn that economic prosperity has to be paid for with freedom. The Internet in Singapore is almost devoid of political discussion and dissent only occurs on websites and discussion forums run from outside the country.

“I’m often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yet, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today.” This remark by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew sums up the policy of the country’s longtime ruler – that civil liberties were never a priority and that a good citizen should remember the national interest is always more important. This has remained the government’s attitude since Lee partly handed over power to his successors in 1990 after ruling for 31 years.

The Internet is censored along with the traditional media, but the government was one of the first in the world to realise its importance as a means of dissent by civil society. It began regulating Internet activity in 1999 and the 11 September 2001 attacks speeded up an already advanced process.

ISPs under control

The government pushed through two major computer and Internet laws in 1998. One, the Computer Misuse Act, gave police wide powers to intercept online messages and said the authorities could decode encrypted messages in the course of investigations and under supervision of a prosecutor. The other law, on e-commerce, allowed police to seize and search computers without a warrant to do so. The two measures added to a series of laws cracking down on individual freedom, especially the Internal Security Act (ISA).

Since the late 1990s, the Internet has been under the control of the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA), which monitors website access and content and calls for observance of a charter defining “responsible” Internet activity.

It requires ISPs to block any sites containing material that supposedly undermines public security, national defence, racial and religious harmony and public morality and more than 100 sites considered pornographic are thought to have been blocked. ISPs have to follow a code of conduct and must have an operating licence. They must also install filters on their systems, which block most pornographic material but are also used to bar access to political content, especially at election-time.

Employers are legally allowed to monitor the e-mail of their workers, who have no means of appeal if they are sacked as a result of an intercepted message.

Political and religious websites must be registered with the Media Development Authority (MDA), which was set up in 2002 through a merger of several media supervisory bodies and requires ISPs to block access to about 100 sites considered undesirable.



Open-ended power to monitor the Internet

An amendment to article 15 (a) of the Computer Misuse Act was passed by parliament in November 2003 to authorise complete surveillance of an Internet user through real-time software and the person’s arrest before an offence is committed. Cyber-criminals can now be imprisoned for up to three years.

Member of parliament Ho Geok Choo said the amendment was “very much like the cyberspace equivalent” of the ISA, which was passed to fight classic crime. The ISA, which dates from the time of independence, has long been used by the regime to make arbitrary arrests of political dissidents.

Some MPs criticised the vague phrasing of the law and Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, said it was just an excuse for the government to control Internet activity.

The law does not say what kind of body or organisation the home affairs (interior) minister can authorise to monitor the Internet or what action the minister can take in the event of “imminent attacks.” No independent body to review such decisions is mentioned.

Discussion forum under attack

The online forum Singapore Review, which carries criticism of the government, was hacked into on 6 October 2003 by someone who flooded the Yahoo-hosted site with up to 600 bogus messages an hour, driving 200 participants out of the forum.

The website, which calls itself “an alternative” to the country’s “propaganda media,” carries articles from the world press and reports by international human rights organisations. Its editor, who uses the pseudonym Melanie Hewlitt, encourages participants to speak their mind, which she says the country’s media are incapable of doing.

Links

The online forum Singapore Review

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Sg_Review

The Southeast Asia freedom of expression group Think Centre

www.thinkcentre.org

Site of James Gomez, expert on freedom of expression issues in Singapore

www.jamesgomeznews.com

The regulatory Media Development Authority

www.mda.gov.sg

Reporters Without Borders

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Mother begs for drug smuggler’s life

SAVE A LIFE

Australian

July 27, 2004

SINGAPORE

By Kimina Lyall

“PLEASE forgive him.” This was the singular plea from Melbourne mother Nguyen Kim yesterday as she clung to her last thread of hope that the Singapore Court of Appeal would yet overrule her son’s death sentence.

Nguyen Tuong Van, 23, was sentenced to hang by the Singapore High Court in March for attempting to smuggle 396 grams of heroin. He was caught during transit in Changi airport on a trip from Cambodia to Melbourne in January last year.

His fate as potentially the first Australian to be executed by a foreign government in a decade now rests with the thoughts of three of Singapore’s most senior judges on a technical point regarding the weight of the drugs.

Ms Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who gave birth to twin boys in a Thai refugee camp before migrating to Australia when they were babies, travelled to Singapore in the belief that the judges, who had received written submissions from lawyers, might make their final ruling on whether her son goes to the gallows later this year. But after hearing legal arguments for 20 minutes, the three-judge court of appeal, led by Chief Justice Yong Pung How, reserved its decision.

A pale Nguyen, who had told officials that he had smuggled the drugs to help pay the debts of his twin brother, stared without expression at his tearful mother as he was led away from the hearing yesterday.

His life appears to rest on whether the judges overrule the High Court’s decision to admit as evidence his own statements to narcotics officers after he was caught with the drugs, along with the drugs themselves.

Nguyen was convicted in April largely on the basis of the elaborate explanation he gave to narcotics officers who discovered a plastic bag of heroin strapped to his back when he passed through security checks as he was preparing to board a Qantas flight to Melbourne.

His lawyers say the story, which detailed how, where and why he bought the drugs, was not a confession as he had not been informed of his rights to have legal representation before he spoke.

They also question the integrity of the drugs themselves. According to evidence at the earlier trial, the two bags of drugs were not immediately sealed after their discovery, and were removed from the investigating officer’s cabinet during the night.

The lawyers also point out that the two bags of drugs weighed less than an initial measurement when they were tested in a laboratory. One of them weighed more than the other in one test, while the difference was reversed in a second test. They argue the discrepancy – amounting to eight grams – raises doubts about the integrity of the exhibits. If the drugs, and Nguyen’s statements admitting he carried them, are ruled inadmissible, they believe the prosecution has no case.

Nguyen’s lawyers also believe Singapore’s mandatory death sentence is unconstitutional because it removes the power of judges to take into account individual circumstances of a case. Under Singaporean law, anyone convicted of carrying more than 15 grams of heroin must be hanged.

Amnesty International says Singapore has the highest rate of government-sanctioned executions per capita in the world, killing more than 400 people since the law was introduced in 1975.

If Nguyen loses his appeal, only a presidential pardon can save him from the gallows. Singapore has never executed an Australian. Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer has written to his counterpart arguing compassionate circumstances should be considered in the case.

For now, Ms Nguyen is relieved the judges appear to be considering the arguments of her son’s lawyers.

“I have a little bit of hope still,” she told The Australian after yesterday’s hearing.

MUMBO-JUMBO HDB REPLY ON FLAT PRICING

by See Leong Kit

23 July 2004

[ Note for Readers: Please circulate this analysis as widely as possible, especially to HDB flat owners/buyers — who have been “taken for a ride” for all these years!!! If anyone knows Mr Chow, please alert him as well.]

1 Mon 12 Jul 04 ST Forum Page letter “How does HDB price its flats” by Mr Douglas Chow Tuck Kheong.

Mr Chow had rightly asked the HDB to explain why new four and five-room flats are priced at $200,000 upwards when the construction cost per unit is only about $50,000 — i.e. a whopping difference of $150,000.

2 Fri 23 Jul 04 HDB reply “What goes into pricing of HDB flats” by Tay Boon Sun [HDB Snr Public Relations Officer].

The two main “nonsense” arguments in HDB’s mumbo-jumbo reply and my compelling rebuttals in brackets:

(a) The construction cost per unit figure of $50K provided by Mr Chow did not take into account other construction-related costs, such as piling works, consultancy and project-management fees.

[ EVEN if the related costs are included, it CANNOT account for the whopping difference of $150K!!! We, Singaporeans, Not Stupid! We were not born yesterday and we are not 3-year old kids. So the HDB had better stop insulting our intelligence with such stupid arguments! ]

(b) HDB sells flats with a “market subsidy” by pricing NEW flats “below” the price of comparable RESALE flats i.e. since comparable resale flats are selling for around $240K (say), the HDB then decides to “pluck from the air” the round figure of $200K as the selling price of the new flats!!! So that our beloved PAP Government can then boast to its people and the whole world that each HDB flat-buyer is getting a big fat $40K so-called “market subsidy”!!!

[ WOW, since when did the HDB, as a government agency set up to “supposedly help” its citizens own their homes, thought of such a “clever” approach to “suck monies” from the people??? ]

3 In the PRIVATE SECTOR, the selling price of private property is based on the following cost-plus approach:

Selling Price = land cost + construction cost + misc costs (admin,marketing,financing,etc) + developer’s profit margin (anything from a few percent to say 20 percent, depending on market conditions)

To be fair to its flatbuyers, the HDB should thus be following such a “cost-recovery” approach. And if the PAP Government is really SINCERE and GENUINE in helping our people regard Singapore as HOME (both literally and figuratively), it should adopt such an approach to compute the selling price of HDB flats with the following provisions:

(i) Impute land cost on a nominal basis rather than market value (which will then provide a “true subsidy” ). While private developers have to recover full land costs, the Government [as owner of some 90% of the land in Singapore] can do this. After all, HDB land are all on just 99-year lease.

(ii) No developer’s profit i.e. sell the HDB flats AT BREAK-EVEN COST.

THROUGH THE ABOVE APPROACH, the Government is then really “helping” the people purchase their own homes “at the lowest possible cost” through reaping the economies of scale in the large-scale development of HDB estates. The HDB flatbuyers will then be getting a “true subsidy” and the HDB will not be “making profits out of the buyers” [In essence, the HDB will be something like a big housing co-operative, providing a “home building service”]

4 HOWEVER, THROUGH THE CURRENT “MARKET SUBSIDY” APPROACH as stated in the above HDB reply,

(i) HDB flatbuyers are not really getting a “TRUE subsidy” but an “INVISIBLE market subsidy”

(ii) The HDB is also actually making “big fat profits” out of its flatbuyers.

[ Taking the example given by Mr Chow,

actual construction cost $50K + construction-related costs + nominal imputed land cost + misc/admin costs = break-even cost (say, $80K?)

Against selling price of $200K, HDB’s “big fat profit” = $120K FOR EACH FLAT!!!

——————————————————————————————

http://www.newsintercom.org/index.php?itemid=43&catid=2

HDB: Taking away your lifelong savings?

Posted by DEARCHER in the Sintercom Forum:

HDB leased flats – our personal asset or liability? Provision of a

home is an asset, the overcharging is a liability that eats away your

retirement fund and puts you in debt.

Calculation of HDB’s OBSCENE profit – new flats and resale levy:

There is only one word to describe it – evil!

Between 1991 – 2001, HDB built 280,826 new flats [see below].

Assuming each flat average $100k net profit for HDB, they would have

amassed S$28.0b net profit from sale of new flats. Using statistics

(1998-2001) showing that for every single new flat sold, 1.7 resale

flats would have changed hands, the Resale levy would have raked in

at least S$19.0b (flats built x 1.7 x $40k*) into HDB coffers for

doing NOTHING. All these billion$ are deducted from our CPF savings

within PM Goh’s first 11 years in office.

{Total net income to HDB not less that $47b in just 11 years! – where

does this money come from? Our savings!)

*S$40k being average 20% levy on a average flat sold for a

conservative $200k assumption.

** Note: Construction cost per 5-room flat is below $80k.

** Note: The $28.0b will be the CPF savings you had paid to HDB, plus

your future *debt* if you are still paying installments.

** Mortgage interest not factored into purchase calculation.

** Tenancy lease depreciation (99-year lease) not accounted for.

This explains why we have to work our asses off our lifetime, just to

pay for the pigeon hole, and why you can never have enough left

behind in CPF for retirement use. What happened to the $b’s in HDB

profit, as I didn’t see it in the HDB surplus account published last

month?

Comments?

STATS: WWW.HDB.GOV.SG

2001/2 Yearbook – Dwelling Units.

1991 / 10452 units built

1992 / 18482 units built

1993 / 17888 units built

1994 / 25987 units built

1995 / 26185 units built

1996 / 27484 units built

1997 / 31312 units built

1998 / 36609 units built, Resale units 60459

1999 / 34836 units built, Resale units 57955

2000 / 27678 units built, Resale units 38828

2001 / 23913 units built, Resale units 41059

Stats prior to 1991:

1960-1965 / 53777 units built

1966-1970 / 63448 units built

1971-1975 / 110362 units built

1976-1980 / 130981 units built

1981-1985 / 189299 units built

1986-1990 / 119708 units built

This message was forwarded to you from Straits Times Interactive (http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg) by mellaniehewlitt@y…

Comments from sender:

Singapore Govt’s idea of “subsidised housing take the form of the worlds most

expensive pigeon holes.

By artificially inflating the price of land sold to developers, the Singapore

Government has also contributed to escalating cost of living.

New HDB 5-room flats too small for their price

I DISAGREE that HDB five-room flats are too big (‘Why buyers shun 5-room, exec

flats’; ST, March 18). The new flats in Sengkang and Punggol are being shunned

precisely because they are too small for their price.

I am the owner of a five-room flat in Punggol that measures a miserly 110 sq m,

compared to my parents’ flat in Clementi, which is spacious at 130 sq m.

I live with my parents-in-law and my sister-in-law, which makes the average

living space per person only 22 sq m. Should a baby come along, we would have

to move to a larger flat in a mature housing estate.

Many friends I know would rather settle for a four-room resale flat than a flat

in Punggol, as the size of a four-room flat is about 95 sq m, only slightly

smaller than a 110 sq m five-room flat. The flats are going for about 60 per

cent of the price of a new five-room flat, but are smaller by only 14 per cent.

And they are often in mature estates with better amenities.

Another complaint about flats in Punggol and Sengkang is the out-of-this-world

layout. One friend’s Sengkang flat has a living room framed by five walls, and

a triangular kitchen.

As the new five-room flats are so small, they should be sold at a price

slightly higher than that of four-room flats.

ELIZA YEONG (MRS)

Singapore defers judgment of Australian drug trafficker

2004-07-27 / Associated Press /

Singapore’s appeals court reserved judgment yesterday in a death-penalty case against an Australian convicted of smuggling heroin, saying it wants more time to look at evidence – especially why the drugs had different weights when tested by police and a lab.

The decision by the three-judge panel to defer judgment against Nguyen Tuong Van – who faces the gallows if his appeal fails and the president doesn’t grant clemency – means legal proceedings will be extended days or weeks in a case that dates from December 2002.

Chief Justice Yong Pung How told the court that the discrepancy in drug weight “has never happened before” in such a case.

“Admittedly it is only a marginal difference, but we have to be very careful,” Yong said.

Nguyen, 23, a salesman from Melbourne, was arrested December 12, 2002 at Changi International Airport in transit between Cambodia and Australia. During a routine passenger search, officers found Nguyen was carrying two packets of heroin, one taped to his back and a second in his bag.

When weighed at the airport by police, Nguyen’s two packets weighed 381.66 grams and 380.36 grams, according to the written judgment of Judge Kan Ting Chui, who heard Nguyen’s case.

But when weighed later at a lab, the packets weighed 361.64 grams and 370.94 grams respectively, according to the same written judgment, dated March 20, 2004.

“We will wait and see what happens,” Lex Lasry, Nguyen’s Australian attorney, said outside the courtroom.

Singapore has some of Asia’s toughest anti-drug laws, including a mandatory death penalty for anyone convicted of possessing more than 15 grams of pure heroin.

Chief Justice Yong heard the appeal yesterday, along with judges Chao Hick Tin and Lai Kew Chai. Among those watching was Nguyen’s mother, Kim, who fled Vietnam in 1980 by boat.

Nguyen’s Singapore lawyers, Joseph Theseira and Tito Isaac, had submitted on July 15 written arguments detailing why Nguyen’s conviction should be overturned.

In court yesterday, Theseira summarized these, including the issue of the drugs’ differing weights, and Singapore’s use of the mandatory death penalty.

Nguyen’s case – should he lose his appeal – could complicate ties between Canberra and Singapore, which normally enjoy a close diplomatic relationship.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has called for Nguyen’s life to be spared.

Singapore’s government routinely defends the country’s use of the gallows although it has yet to comment on Nguyen’s case. It argues hanging criminals convicted of serious offenses sends a strong message to other would-be offenders.

Battle to stop a hanging

Yet again the death penalty and the proceedings surrounding such a court case disappear in the local Singaporean press. The death penalty in Singapore IS clouded in secracy. We have to go to the international press to hear about the decisions that are being made under our very noses. Singapore Press Holdings and the so called journalists who work for them in Singapore have become sick with fear.

Norrie Ross

law reporter

24jul04


A YOUNG Melbourne man due to hang in Singapore for drug crimes will get one of his last chances to save his life next week.

Nguyen Tuong Van, 23, will appeal against his conviction and sentence in Singapore’s Court of Appeal on Monday, in a hearing that is not expected to last even the day.

Nguyen, a former salesman, has been on death row for five months since he was convicted of importing nearly 400 grams of heroin in December 2002.

He was arrested at Changi International Airport while boarding a Qantas flight to Australia with the drugs strapped to his back and in his backpack.

He was in transit from Cambodia, and his trial heard he told police he carried the drugs to repay $30,000 in debts accumulated by his twin brother.

One of his Melbourne lawyers, barrister Julian McMahon, said yesterday the legal team had one aim. “Our objective all along has been to save his life, and that remains our objective,” he said.

Mr McMahon said Nguyen was bearing up as well as could be expected in the circumstances, though his family was very distressed.

There is a mandatory death penalty in Singapore for anyone aged over 18 convicted of carrying more than 15 grams of heroin.

If Nguyen’s appeal fails, his last chance of avoiding the gallows would be to try to win a plea for clemency to Singapore’s president.

Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer has already told Singapore that Australia does not want Nguyen to be hanged, but most clemency appeals fail.

Nguyen’s other Melbourne lawyer, Lex Lasry, QC, said the appeal would focus on deficiencies in the evidence against his client and a challenge to the constitutional basis of the death penalty in Singapore.

Mr Lasry said Nguyen was a first offender and, because of his age, if he committed the same offence in Australia his sentence would typically be between five and 10 years in jail.

If Nguyen is hanged, he would be the fourth Australian to be executed in an Asian country on drug charges.

In the most notorious case, Brian Chambers and Kevin Barlow were executed in Malaysia in 1986.

Queenslander Michael McAuliffe was hanged in Malaysia in June 1993 after serving eight years in jail.

© Herald and Weekly Times

Singapore bans film with gay theme



Thu 22 July, 2004 08:43

SINGAPORE (Reuters) –

Sex and the City may be all right for audiences in Singapore, but censors have drawn the line at Taiwan’s highest-grossing film this year, banning the teenage romantic comedy for its gay theme.

“Formula 17”, which has grossed double the $100,000 (55,000 pounds) it cost to make, was banned, despite an appeal from its distributor, because it encouraged homosexuality, Singapore’s Films Appeals Committee said on Thursday.

It said panel members thought the film “creates an illusion of a homosexual utopia, where everyone, including passersby, is homosexual and no ills or problems are reflected”.

“It conveys the message that homosexuality is normal, and a natural progression of society,” the panel said.

Strict Singapore has loosened some of its stuffy social controls in recent years, partially relaxing a ban on chewing gum in January, allowing some bars to stay open for 24 hours and ending a ban on the U.S. sitcom “Sex and the City” last week.

But many tough rules remain. “Playboy” magazine is still banned, while oral sex remains technically illegal under a law that says “whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animals” can be fined and jailed up to 10 years, or even for life.

The government said in January it plans to review its sex laws, and oral sex would most probably be decriminalised — but only between men and women.

The panel said it took into account the findings of a recent survey that more than 70 percent of Singaporeans are not receptive to homosexual lifestyles.

“Formula 17”, directed by a 23-year-old, has been a sensation in Taiwan, its box-office earnings making it the most successful homegrown film this year, the island’s media say.

China’s days of protest

Singapore is heralded by some as the model that certain countries, such as China, are trying to emulate. But the following article strikes me as important because it should touch each unhappy Singaporean worker who feels powerless and atomised. In China the penalty for dissent is much greater than in Singapore and yet the Chinese workers feel the fear and refuse to let it control them.

China’s days of protest

Anonymous author

17 – 6 – 2004

Beneath China’s booming economy lies immense social inequality and seething worker discontent. A western observer witnesses a minor but now unexceptional popular convulsion.

By the second night, the onlookers outnumbered the demonstrators; but at the height of the protest 6-7,000 textile workers had occupied People’s Square, chanting and singing outside the government buildings. None of them had been paid in months, and now they were being laid off.

Their demonstration was tolerated up to a point. If the authorities had wanted, it could have been over in minutes. All the same, three were hospitalised with broken limbs when police in riot gear subdued protestors. One pregnant woman miscarried after being beaten.

At lunchtime on the second day, with the thermometer climbing over thirty degrees, workers in blue overalls occupied every patch of shade in the park. They had takeaway boxes and bottles of ice tea. For a moment it could have been a works’ outing picnic.

“People are saying we must go and support them,” a local man told me. “We must take water and food for them.”

This was the story of the demonstration: not the chanting of the workers, but the solidarity of the crowd that came to see them.

A fragile miracle In the west, the speed of China’s conversion to capitalism has been more marvelled at than questioned. The business leaders who queued to meet the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, on his May 2004 tour of European capitals are entranced by relentless growth of over 7% per year.

These figures convert into the apartment buildings rising across China’s city skylines like a bar chart. But also to the squalor of the migrant labourers building them. Leaving their families and travelling thousands of miles from the poor provinces of Henan and Shaanxi, they are shunned by locals and sleep in crowded dormitories or the shells of the unfinished buildings they work on by day.

Here is one of their destinations: a factory reached through the middle gate of a new archway, the name of the company spelt out in shiny letters overhead. Inside, the compound is a self-contained village with apartment buildings, shops, a clinic, all built around the factory itself. Despite the impressive entrance and a smart office block half way down the central avenue, the paint is peeling on most of the buildings and at the far end weeds push through the tarmac. In the late morning, men and women stand talking on corners or sit under the trees. Most have nothing else to do.

This is where the blue-overalled workers marched from, along Petroleum Artery to the city centre. As state employees, they once had job security, access to free medical care, education and welfare. What remained of that stability was cut away when the factory was sold to a private company. Then, at the beginning of 2004, their salaries stopped being paid. Some said the new owners had begun selling off equipment. The factory may simply have failed to compete in a free market, but most believe they are victims of corruption.

Corruption itself is not new in China. But what alarms many, even among the middle classes, is the way it has fused with the new market practices. As long as enterprises remained owned by the state, even local officials who feathered their nests had an interest in preserving social stability – if only because any signs of unrest would invite punishment from Beijing. By contrast, private owners are seen as irresponsible, ready to disappear if they can take enough with them.

“Before, our country was at one extreme, now we seem to be rushing to the other,” one small businessman told me. “There should be somewhere in the middle.”

The official line is that economic progress is the precondition of improving social conditions; the faster change happens, the better for all. The sufferings of the workers are the birthpangs of a new age, China’s own industrial revolution.

How far down such optimism runs – within individuals and within society – is hard to gauge. In any case, for many of those whose labour is laying the foundation of economic growth, the benefits are hard to see.

China’s workers stand up

According to China’s ministry of public security, 2003 saw 58,000 “mass incidents”, the government’s preferred term for public protests – a rise of 15% on 2002. The causes given are a checklist of the side-effects of economic reform: wage disputes, social welfare issues, restructuring of state-owned enterprises, and evictions.

At one extreme are the unpaid migrant workers in Beijing who have taken to staging, and sometimes completing, suicide bids as a negotiating tool. One member of a team will climb the building and threaten to jump unless the employers pay up. With no clear legal channels available, some feel this is their only option.

More common are sit-ins outside factories or local government headquarters. Workers respond to the failings of private employers by calling on the state for help. Sometimes, a protest becomes a riot. A recent dispute over evictions in the southern city of Shenzhen ended with building workers pelting officials with bricks. In 2000, it took police three days to regain control of Yangjiazhangzi, a town in Liaoning province, after 20,000 sacked miners went on the rampage.

The textile workers had promised, without local government action, to walk 400 kilometres over the mountains to the regional capital. But after a week, some kind of deal was reached. Rumours suggested that the authorities “bought” one of the leaders and arrested others. Workers involved in the protest have been summoned to police and security bureau interviews. Then, just to remind everyone that Beijing is watching, the city got a surprise visit from a top party official.

“You shouldn’t worry,” someone told me. “The situation has been resolved.” Many who had supported the workers were glad of a settlement, even if it seemed heavy-handed. “You can’t look at China through western eyes.”

What stays with me, though, is the sense that for all the flashiness of the new China, the brash wealth of its elite, the authorities here could not count on the kind of support in facing down the workers that underpinned the economic reforms of Thatcherism in Britain during the 1980s. Sheer power may be a brittle as well as a brutal substitute.



The next convulsion

The power of the Communist Party and its capacity to infiltrate all areas of life make it unlikely that organised workers’ networks will emerge in China. Independent trades unions are banned and labour activists receive long prison sentences. The media is instructed not to refer to protests, so news spreads by rumour. The protests themselves seem to be spontaneous rather than coordinated.

The monopoly of power stifles political argument and social dissent alike. The extension of the franchise in Britain was a major factor in defusing the class tensions of Victorian society. The economically disenfranchised of today’s India can punish their government at the ballot box. No such release exists for their counterparts in the world’s most populous nation.

But could persisting economic inequalities one day trigger demonstrations on a scale that would destabilise China’s system? This certainly worries the government. Its new, “fourth generation” leaders have tried to identify themselves with the workers and address the concerns of migrants and the rural poor. Their officials estimate that economic growth must stay above 7% to prevent a breakdown of public order, yet the mechanisms for generating growth are themselves socially corrosive. So the stability of this emerging superpower depends on its continuing to defy economic gravity.

Most of China’s adult population was raised on a blend of nationalism and workers’ solidarity. It may be a mistake to assume that the swift pace of economic change and the Orwellian reorientation of the Communist Party leadership have been accompanied by a deep-seated shift of mentality among the people.

Meanwhile, the demonstrations come and go, here and across the country. A British academic once said that he spent the first fifteen years of his career trying to persuade colleagues that Marx didn’t get it all right, and the next fifteen arguing he didn’t get it all wrong. Irony would be too weak a word if, should China’s economic miracle begin to falter, the People’s Republic were overthrown by a proletarian revolution.



Copyright ©Anonymous author 2004. Published by openDemocracy Ltd.