Those of us who have been sceptical of China’s ability to maintain its heroic rates of economic growth normally look at environmental issues, or its financial infrastructure (a theme of Will Hutton’s), or burgeoning inequality. Recent reports suggest that the last of these is causing political instability.

China’s inequality is well documented – its gini coefficient is well above the level at which it would start to cause concern, and rather higher than that of the United States. Income levels also differ sharply by region, with wealth being skewed to the coastal areas. This week’s report of a clash in a border region distant from Beijing is only the latest in a series of clashes with the authorities, helpfully recorded by Open Democracy. Some disputes are over land – others just take the form of violent confrontation with the authorities

In a recent article in OD by Paul Rogers suggests that the violence is the production of frustration at “the disabling effects” of growing inequality. As he writes:

Three incidents in July 2008 alone indicate the pattern:

* a huge demonstration and riot in Guzhou province, southwest China. As many as 30,000 people mobilised in response to claims that police had covered up the alleged rape and murder of a teenage girl; cars and government buildings were set on fire (see Li Datong, “The Weng’an model: China’s fix-it governance“, 30 July 2008)

* a three-day demonstration by hundreds of migrant workers in Zhejiang province, eastern China. The protest began on 10 July after the arrest of one of their number by police

* an attack on a police station and local administrative offices on 17 July by more than a hundred people near Huizhou, Guangdong province. This was sparked by rumours that a motorcyclist had been beaten to death by the police. In the confrontation, one person was killed and ten injured.

These are just a handful of many thousands of examples of violent social unrest in China each year. The great majority is directed against police and government officials, and only a few of them are reported in the media outside the country.

Li Datong, who writes regularly for Open Democracy on China, notes that the Chinese media uses the phrase ‘mass incident’ for incidents which have to be quelled using the police. How many such incidents in a year? Almost impossible to verify, because of Chinese restrictions on reporting such incidents, but estimates say it could be as high as 80,000, an astonishing figure, even given China’s size. (If Britain had a comparable level of incidents per head of population, we would have around 5,000 incidents a year, or a hundred a week.)

Li Datong notes the extent to which rapid economic growth has been built on the state’s monopoly of violence, but reports a recent occasion where the governor of a province ended up apologising to the people after a large scale riot in Weng’an. In a sense, this is a story about the limits of state power. He argues that the authoritarin model can’t persist, for three reasons:

First, citizens have more access to information and freedom in circulating it than ever before. The fact that so many members of the public knew that the authorities’ version of events in Weng’an was untrue or deficient, and were able to post their own stories and experiences, means that the total monopoly of information that was a bulwark of state power no longer holds (see Geoffrey A Fowler & Juliet Ye, “Chinese Bloggers Score a Victory Against the Government“, Wall Street Journal, 5 July 2008).

Second, the Weng’an riot is revealing in that none of the rioters were themselves affected by the incident which sparked their protest. After all, the death of a girl in suspicious circumstances directly affects at most a few families. At a deeper level, however, an environment where public anger and frustration have been bottled up for a long time can lead to any available incident becoming the occasion for an eruption of mass fury. The commentator Xu Zhiyong, who said that “Weng’an could be any county in China”, was right.

Third, local governments often act with wanton disregard for the law and public opinion. In the past the central government has chosen to tolerate this situation in order to maintain a united front. This has meant that the actions of some local officials have come to reflect on the government as a whole. The inevitable result – evident in Weng’an in the disparity between initial and eventual official reactions – is a crisis of governance.