Sat, Aug 02, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Boomtown lives in shadow of HK

ECHOES Shenzhen has been at the forefront of China's experiment with economic and political reforms but has witnessed only faint stirrings of democratic spirit


Xiao Ding has heard nothing about the march by half a million protesters next door in Hong Kong, but he and about 6,000 other Shenzhen taxi drivers pulled off something of a political coup themselves in May.

The cabbies staged a rare one-day strike, forcing the city government to order taxi operators to cut monthly rentals by 1,800 yuan (US$217) for five months to help them ride out the SARS outbreak which had dented business.

"Victory? We had no choice. We were not making money and were using our savings to pay the monthly rental," Ding said.

The Hong Kong protests, which forced two despised cabinet members to resign, delayed a controversial security bill and sparked shouts for more democracy, have China's leaders worried that the sentiment could seep into the mainland.

Shenzhen, a proving ground for many of China's reforms where the 4.7 million residents share the same dialect, culture and even television programs as their Hong Kong cousins, seems an obvious place for the contagion to start.

But analysts say a similar protest on the mainland is unlikely. In China, voices of dissent are splintered, fighting independent battles, while the rest of the population -- particularly in Shenzhen -- remains focused on business.

"Hong Kong is Hong Kong and China is China," said a Shenzhen-based political analyst who asked not to be identified.

"Many Chinese are practical. What goes on in Hong Kong has no direct impact on us. Our priority is to make money," he said.

"Our idols are billionaires, not democracy fighters."

Protests have become a common sight across China in the past decade, but are rarely aimed at the Communist Party's top leadership and involve mostly have-nots -- disgruntled laid-off state workers and peasants -- fighting for their rights.

"Currently, there is no single theme that all sectors of Chinese society are boiling with resentment about," Beijing-based political commentator Liang Kezhi said.

"The Communist Party has prevented the sectors from ganging up by addressing their concerns individually," Liang said, referring to entrepreneurs, intellectuals, peasants and workers.

The Shenzhen cab drivers' ire was aimed, for instance, not at China's top leaders, but at local officials.

Having monopolized politics since 1949, the Communist Party has given ordinary Chinese more freedoms in the past two decades, but remains resolute in retaining its grip on power.

With 65 million members and tentacles extending to every corner of society, the Communists have ruled unchallenged by stoking nationalist sentiment and relying on rapid growth.

Every day, petitioners flock to government complaints offices throughout the country to air grievances and seek redress. But the Party would not hesitate to nip in the bud any threats to its power, analysts said.

In Hong Kong, protesters marched through the streets noisily chanting anti-government and pro-democracy slogans. In Shenzhen, most of the striking taxi drivers stayed quietly at home.

Hong Kong protest organizers remain free to organize another march. But eight Shenzhen strikers were taken into police custody and accused of smashing cabs of those who refused to join them.

To be sure, while political accountability and universal suffrage remain distant dreams in Shenzhen, the southern boom town has been at the forefront of China's bold experiment with economic and political reforms and witnessed faint democratic stirrings.

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