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Chinese slowdown lowers social unrest

Date

John Garnaut, Guangzhou

THE slowdown in the Chinese economy is producing an unexpected reduction in violence and social conflict, according to a senior Chinese security official.

Falling land prices and fewer transactions have reduced the number of forced land appropriations, which had accounted for an estimated two-thirds of the 187,000 ''mass incidents'' reported for 2010.

The number of mass incidents - a rubbery official category encompassing everything from small protests to riots - had more than doubled in the previous five years.

The official, who is a deputy head of a provincial security ministry, told The Sunday Age the number of such incidents peaked in 2011 and has since fallen throughout the country. He pointed to a reduction in land disputes, which he credited in part to a shift in official focus away from GDP growth, and also a less confrontational approach to resolving social disputes.

Activists, lawyers and other officials have also observed a reduction in the frequency of violent conflict this year - excluding Tibet and Xinjiang - which they say could be explained by a reduction in land transactions regardless of deliberate government policy.

China's economic and social-political challenges have intersected in a battle for land since the abolition of agricultural taxes in 2004.

Professor Sun Liping, a leading public intellectual, warned earlier this year that China's ''hyperactive'' and ''malformed'' development model - premised on ''demolishing buildings everywhere'' - had fuelled the rise of vested interests and driven a shift in government policy away from reform and towards ''stability preservation''. At its essence, the ''malformed'' development model involves local governments appropriating land from peasants and urban households and transferring it to developers or government investment vehicles, where it is then used as collateral for loans or subdivided to fund ongoing construction costs.

The model depends on rising land prices and growing levels of coercive force to hold down compensation.

Last year, 4 million rural families had their land taken by local governments, which was nearly triple the number from four years earlier, according to a survey by China's Renmin University and the Seattle institute, Landesa.

The average mark-up between what officials gave the dispossessed and what they sold the property for was 4500 per cent, it found, despite regulations requiring market-value compensation.

This model of economic development has led to extraordinary domestic security build-up on one side - increasingly relying on subcontracted thugs - and an increasingly bold citizen rights movement on the other.

Some analysts have warned of the ''mafia-isation'' of local government.

There have been frequent reports of landholders being crushed under bulldozers, tortured, sterilised or even thrown into cement mixers.

A report by Amnesty International released on Friday, Standing their Ground, documented 41 cases of self-immolation by landholders in three years between 2009 and 2011, compared with only 10 cases in the decade before that.

The rising power and resources of the security apparatus has reduced President Hu Jintao's ''harmonious society'' platform, unveiled in 2004, to a term of double-speak in public discourse.

The slogan has been overshadowed in official circles by the term ''stability preservation''.

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