Social Unrest and the 60th Anniversary of the PRC
September 2009

by Ryan Pyle

With three weeks to go until China's 60th birthday party on Oct. 1, many of us Middle Kingdom watchers are wondering if China is splitting at its seams prior to its anniversary.

Look back to last March when a group of Tibetans rose up and torched Lhasa, laying waste to shops and killing innocent Chinese migrants from eastern China. The government's response was mass jailing, closing the province to outside observers and journalists and dealing with this "splitist" problem under a veil of secrecy.

© Ryan Pyle
Past examples of government control: During the Olympics, big screen television in a small public square posts a message telling people that they will not show the opening ceremonies and that people should not gather in this public space, Aug. 8, 2008. Many watched on their own televisions. The Olympics had caused much fanfare since 2001 when Beijing was officially awarded the games. The city went through many transformations before it was considered ready to host the games.
Just this past July a native Uigur-led protest in Urumqi saw over a thousand protesters ransack businesses and, yet again, kill innocent Chinese migrants from eastern China. The government's response, although there were large numbers of protesters tossed into jails, was much more open. As international photojournalists rushed onto the scene authorities seemed to give them an unusually free hand to report. Will photojournalists now have an easier time working in the country? Had anything changed in the year between the protests to change the government's response? No, in fact, "change" is the wrong vocabulary altogether.

After the two massive riots in regions that cover almost one-third of China's physical territory in which majority Han Chinese migrants were killed, one might think that a change regarding race relations or minority rights would be in order for government officials in Beijing. But alas, all that seems to be on anyone's mind is "social stability" ahead of the 60th anniversary of the PRC.

While China rushes to short-term fixes – the virtual marshal law in Xinjiang and Tibet as well as blocking social networking sites – the government refuses to admit that they have a problem brewing. With a deaf ear on problems "out west," preparations for a momentous military parade, a full-length feature film (on the founding of the PRC) and Olympic-style security are full steam ahead for the Oct. 1 celebrations.

© Ryan Pyle
Past examples of government restrictions: Locally the Beijing Olympics were dubbed the "No Fun Olympics" and here a young child may have been wondering why a public square is closed off during the Opening Ceremonies on Aug. 8, 2008.
What might one expect in the run-up to the Oct. 1 anniversary? Forget about Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – they have ceased to exist. Visas for everyone, including photojournalists, will be nearly impossible to obtain in September and residents of Beijing will be subject to document checks, police registration and restrictions on movement that were synonymous with the Olympics last August. And, it won't stop there.

Xinjiang has seen a complete Internet blackout. Hotels, residences and even universities have had their access cut; mobile phone text messages have also been blocked in an effort to keep groups from organizing and causing any resemblance of social unrest. The region has been thrown back into the dark ages in order to celebrate 60 years of progress: this is just deeply ironic.

But it is important that you don't walk away from this dispatch thinking that China just has a problem with its minority peoples. In fact, problems run much deeper than that and as China turns 60 it is not taking any chances with issues like freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of information. All this will continue to mean that working freely as a journalist in China will still be difficult.

Will there be an easing of government pressure after the Oct. 1 holiday passes? Most likely, yes. But after watching Iran implode after elections this summer and, more importantly, how Iranians organized themselves online, the Chinese government is more fearful of technology now than it ever has been. The bottom line is that instead of much needed political and legal reforms, what we'll see from the Chinese government after the anniversary is more of the same that will, in turn, lead to more frustration and alienation. And so the vicious circle continues.

© Ryan Pyle

Ryan Pyle, an award-winning photojournalist, graduated with a degree in International Politics from the University of Toronto in 2001. He realized a lifelong dream and traveled to China on an exploratory mission. In 2002 Pyle moved to China permanently and began taking freelance assignments in 2004. The next year Pyle, based in Shanghai, became a regular contributor to The New York Times covering China. More recently he has branched out into mostly magazine work for Time, Newsweek, Outside Magazine, Sunday Times Magazine, Fortune and Der Spiegel.

To see more of Ryan Pyle's images and his blog:

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