Seventeen parcel bombs exploded in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region last Wednesday, and there was a further explosion on Thursday. There were ten deaths, more than 50 casualties, and photos of a five storey building partly collapsed.
The story did make international news, but only just, and by the weekend it had faded, including from the homepage of China Daily Mandarin edition.
Global reporting was slim; clearly agencies do not have correspondents in South China or much background about Guangxi. The first reports gave the number of bombings, listed targets in Liucheng County (they included a government building, a residence at Liucheng Animal Husbandry Bureau, a hospital, a prison, markets, and a bus stop), and reported that one man, a quarry owner with the surname Wei, had been arrested. Then on Thursday came questions as to whether that arrest had indeed taken place. On Friday, South China Morning Post reported that Wei had been killed in one of the Wednesday blasts (taking the death toll to 11). An article in China Daily's online Mandarin edition reported that local police had confirmed Wei's death through DNA testing, leaving open the question of who perpetrated Thursday's bombing.
There was also the question of motive, with Chinese authorities initially saying that some people have personal grievances against government departments. Some doubted this was a lone perpetrator taking extreme action over an everyday grievance, and hinted at Uyghur militants. American geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, for example, published an article speculating about Uyghurs. Major news outlets in both English and Mandarin avoided this inflammatory line.
Later, a journalist spoke to Wei's brother, who explained that, after locals marched on Wei's quarry in 2013, rendering its machines inoperable and ruining the business, Wei became upset because 'repeated requests to local government departments to resolve the dispute ended without success.' Luizhou City Police confirmed to journalists that Wei was involved in a quarry dispute with villagers.
Extremism can arise not only from big issues like ethnic conflict but from small ones like financial losses and bureaucratic disputes. Guangxi is certainly not immune from these problems. The region is known to have extremely high levels of government corruption compared to other Chinese provinces. That an abuse of government power could tip someone over the edge is therefore not incredible.
Another factor might be frustration over unequal distribution of economic resources. This could contribute in two ways: either, because it has left government departments in Guangxi under-trained and under-resourced, perhaps causing inept rather than abusive government dealings; or because it provided the spark that ignited the tinderbox of anger of both Wei and the villagers.
Guangxi has long been poorer than its industrialised eastern neighbour, Guangdong Province. Around the turn of the century Guangxi was the region with the highest out-migration as China reorganised its labour force. In recent years, the Chinese Central Government's 'Open Up the West' campaign to spur growth in Western China has also targeted Guangxi, and even more recently Guangxi has been promoted as a bridge in China-ASEAN integration, with the China-ASEAN Expo hosted in Guangxi's capital, Nanning, in May. But some areas of Guangxi, including Liucheng County, remain poor, and institutional measures to regulate economic development have not developed as quickly as economic activity.
So it is also credible that villagers would feel disenfranchised over what they see as unregulated business. Nor is it hard to imagine that a business owner, in debt after two years of no income, unable to start over due to government inaction, and who believes local authorities are corruptly picking which businesses to support, would become cynical about government claims that it is helping spread economic development.
While tough times don't assuage the moral or criminal culpability of the bomber, nor justify smashing up a quarry, recognising the extreme frustration, stress and social unrest that uneven economic and institutional development can provoke is important in understanding politics and security in China. Bombings don't happen every day in China, but there are commonplace civic and worker protests, and occasionally violence, borne of financial pressure and frustrations with government, not over issues that grab international interest such as democracy or human rights, but over mundane bureaucratic interactions that go wrong. The Guangxi attacks are best not glossed over as an isolated incident. Festering and obvious inequality is a cause of unrest similar in strength to ethnic conflict. (And ethnic conflict is often also about material disadvantage and government unresponsiveness.)
It seems the villagers, aggrieved by explosions at Wei's quarry and the alleged failure of the business to gain proper licenses, took matters into their own hands. Then Wei, angry about the destruction of his business and government failures to remedy what he saw as unfair losses, took matters into his own hands and targeted state institutions.
While bombings are an unhinged reaction, local, regional and central governments should nevertheless reflect on how his dispute was mishandled so as to provoke such desperate anger. How did it come to this?
The key questions are about the system: why villagers and the bomber didn't seek non-violent means of dispute resolution, and whether resolution mechanisms are inaccessible, untrustworthy, or simply non- existent. Higher security and high-profile condemnation of the bombings may go some way to prevent further such incidents, but if the violence stemmed from inadequate means to alleviate the burdens of economic development and social re-structuring, then civil institutions in Guangxi need to take note.
The second half of this analysis will examine ethnic tensions in the Guangxi region.
Ed. note: the headline for this article originally referred to Guangxi as being in western China, which is not correct. The error was made in the editorial process.