Southern China’s Unwanted Masses

Officials in the southeastern Chinese province of Guangdong are learning that hiding a problem isn’t the same as fixing it.

As readers may recall, the Guangdong city of Shenzhen in April evicted 80,000 people it considered “high risk” ahead of an upcoming international sporting event. Now residents in nearby Dongguan are irked that many of those thrown out of Shenzhen – including former inmates, vagrants and the mentally ill – appear to be resettling in their town.

Police in Dongguan, a sprawling manufacturing center located roughly 60 kilometers northwest of Shenzhen, are under fire from residents who claim the city has seen an uptick in robberies and violent crimes recently. The wave of complaints reached such a crescendo that city police this week held a web chat to discuss the problem with concerned netizens.

Dongguan authorities haven’t outwardly criticized Shenzhen’s program (open feuding between local governments is rare in China). But during the online chat, police officials did make a reference to the neighboring boomtown’s human clean-up effort ahead of the upcoming Summer Universiade: “The Shenzhen authorities are running a thorough check on those who violate the law and all types of criminals. That will indeed push some of the highly dangerous social groups to Dongguan,” local media quoted the Dongguan police as saying.

Experts on China’s public security apparatus, which is in the midst of its harshest crackdown on political dissent in more than a decade, are starting to question Shenzhen’s moves as well.

“Some of those evicted have no criminal records. Their dignity and rights were compromised for the sake of the Universiade,” said Wang Dawei, a professor at the Chinese People’s Public Security University, according to a report Thursday in the Communist Party-backed Global Times. “Forcing them out without proper settlement might have caused more social problems than it solved.”

The Belgium-based International University Sports Federation organizes the Summer Universiade, an international athletics event for university students held every other year in cities around the world. Multiple calls to the organization’s headquarters rang unanswered Thursday.

This isn’t the first time authorities in China have taken questionable steps to make sure a big event runs smoothly. Security officials in Beijing quietly removed political activists and others they deemed potential party-spoilers ahead of the Olympics in 2008.

It’s somewhat surprising, however, that such an effort would be undertaken in Shenzhen, a city that’s considered the cradle of China’s early economic reforms and a well-known laboratory for political experimentation. City residents, including a massive population of migrant factory workers, are among China’s most rights-conscious, as evidenced by a number of protests over unfair labor practices in recent years.

But in a bid to maintain stability, Shenzhen has even taken aim at the workers, issuing a ban this month on public petitioning for unpaid wages. In what’s turned into public relations disaster for the city, Shenzhen’s government has taken a bruising from state-run media.

“In the past, Shenzhen has always pioneered economic and social reforms. It is supposed to be open-minded, tolerant, and pluralistic,” an editorial published this month on the website of the Global Times read. “The public outcry over its relentless management strategy will hopefully teach the local government a lesson.”

As Xu Xiaonian, a prominent Chinese economist said of the eviction plan in on his Weibo account in April: “It creates 80,000 grievances.”

Now it appears you can add residents of Dongguan to the list of those aggrieved by Shenzhen’s new approach to security.

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