Rumors and Riots

Written by Minxin Pei, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, from the International Herald Tribune:

First, local Chinese authorities have repeatedly demonstrated their incompetence in handling incipient crises.

Typically, a mass riot has three phases. During the first phase, a local government agency fails to meet the demands of aggrieved citizens to perform its legally mandated duties. In the second phase, aggrieved citizens peacefully petition the local authorities, but are treated with indifference or, often, violent suppression by the government. In the third phase, the mistreatment of the peaceful petitioners incenses ordinary citizens, setting off a mass riot.

Second, the Chinese government is paying the price for the lack of a free press in China. Without a free press that enjoys public credibility, ordinary people distrust the government but believe rumors.

Common to nearly all the reported mass incidents were two striking facts. Local government officials’ words carry no credibility, while rumors, spread by the Internet and cell-phones, create a cascading effect that further inflames public passions. (The Chinese government may have the world’s most effective system of censoring the Internet, but even such a system seems incapable of filtering out rumors.)

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