Since most of my readers are outside of China, a quick backgrounder: last week, roughly 2000 residents of Longnan, a town in China’s Gansu Province, rioted over plans to demolish their downtown neighborhood. The LA Times has a good account of what happened; China media project gathers together additional sources, and some detailed background.
But the most remarkable documentation consists of a set of photos, now circulating on Chinese blogs, depicting the riots. The venerable ESWN has run a good sample that can be viewed here. For various reasons, I’m not going to republish them on my blog (though the photographer appears to have released them into the public domain). But I do want to comment on one striking aspect of these images: it appears that the police and military who responded to the riots were outfitted with little more than helmets and broomsticks with which to confront rioters who – various accounts suggest – were armed with axes, chains, and iron bars. Even more curious, various photos show both respondents – police and military – throwing stones at the rioters.
Of course, the fact that there are no published images of soldiers and police wielding guns or other weapons should not be taken as proof that such weapons weren’t present at the riots. But, then again, the fact that at least some military responders resorted to throwing stones doesn’t exactly suggest that they were backed by artillery (or tear gas grenades).
What to make of this? I really don’t know. On one hand, this could be viewed as laudable restraint by whomever was in charge of quelling the unrest in Longnan (and the fact that Chinese law enforcement generally refrains from carrying firearms is a choice that – I believe – reduces violence in China). Certainly, the use of guns or other weapons could only deepen the conflict (and the memory of the conflict) for those who must, ultimately, resolve it (including the disgruntled petitioners). On the other hand, I am struck by how primitive this sticks and stones response looks as compared to, say, the (gun-less) methods used to quell riots at the recent Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. In one case, sticks and stones; in the other, well-armored police working in formation, covered by the coordinated use of tear gas. It’s a modern army v. a primitive one.
I bring this up because, in the US particularly, there is much teeth-gnashing about the money being spent on the modernization of China’s military, and what it means (James Fallows had a couple of interesting posts on this subject earlier this year). The Longnan photos, I believe, are an interesting addition to that discussion.
[Correction: As Chris points out in the comment section, I incorrectly identified the personnel in olive green fatigues as Chinese military (PLA). For the most part, they are not: they are, instead, PAP (People’s Armed Police), an internal security force associated with the PLA (many of its units are PLA on domestic security assignments). In any event, there are personnel in the linked images who definitely appear to be PLA, but Chris’s point is well-taken. My point – in regard to the poorly equipped and trained personnel – still mostly stands, though, obviously it must now be applied to the PAP and its complicated relationship with the PLA. My bad.]