Stability Preservation in China

The Chinese government puts the maintenance of social stability as a paramount task. Social unrest, or what is called mass incidents in Chinese, have been increasing. Officially, the number of mass incidents in 1995 was just more than 10,000; by 2006, the number was more than 60,000. The real figure is probably higher. Just last month in Kunming, what appeared as a dispute between unlicensed street vendors and law-enforcement officers, or chengguan in Chinese, escalated into a full-blown rampage by concerned citizens, leaving dozens of people injured and 10 vehicles damaged.

There are many reasons why mass incidents are increasing both in number and intensity. On one hand, people are now more aware of their rights, but proper channels to express them are lacking. On the other hand, government officials’ high-handedness in dealing with the public only makes the matter worse. Many scholars and intellectuals argue that enforcing this ‘rigid stability’ is not sustainable. Here we translate some extracts from three recent pieces written by Leung Man Tao, a recognized media professional and ‘public intellectual’ from Hong Kong, Du Guang, a veteran Central Party School scholar, and Sun Liping, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University.

Du Guang: the seed, soil, water and sunlight for instability

Du first shares his personal experience of being harmonized by the state in the name of stability, which he feels is excessive:

A few old people, once classified as rightist elements, were preparing to have a reunion on 27th March. But this was forcibly cancelled. On the 28th, another planned meeting for reunion and discussions was cancelled. Before the 27th planned meeting, about 20-30 of the invited comrades and best friends were warned by their units not to attend. According to one of my old friends, his unit’s leader told him that they were acting in accordance with instructions from the Stability Preservation Office.

What the hell is the Stability Preservation Office (SPO)? Even personal meetings of old people in their 70s and 80s fall under their oversight! There is a saying: you can control everything but not shitting and farting. Now they are controlling eating and drinking. Will they control shitting and farting some day?

As you can tell form the name, SPO is for the maintenance of social stability. It is clear that our meeting was ‘stabilized’. We can only stay at home and be stable. I think this is what they intend to do.

In recent years, several of my meetings faced similar fate, but I never linked them to the need for stability. This time, I discovered this new concept of being ‘stabilized’. Well, at least I learned something this time. I also want to mention what happened after the cancelled meetings. On the 30th, I published six articles in my column on blogchina.com. The next day, only two articles remained; four were ‘harmonized’.

He then went on to discuss why there is the feeling of instability in China, as shown by the prevalence of mass incidents. He thinks there are three elements – the sower of the seed of instability, the soil for its growth, and the water and sunlight for its spread:

Currently, who is the sower of the seed of instability in China? It is incredible that the SPO regards us old people as the causes of instability. They must be blind, or else still hold old views like ‘class struggle’ and ‘enemy forces’. In fact, they do not need high intelligence to see that the seeds of instability are corrupt officials, and the businessmen linked to them. Which mass incident is not caused by them? The Chinese people are among the most dutiful, peaceful and tolerant. They will not risk confrontations with the government, unless they are faced with extreme exploitations and oppressions.

What is the soil for the growth of instability? It is an authoritarian political system without checks and balances. ‘Insisting on Party’s leadership’ means the party is above everything. This will evolve into unsupervised power which finds no boundary. Anyone who holds power can abuse it, inventing all kinds of tricks to exploit ordinary people’s wealth, sowing the seeds of dissatisfaction and instability.

What is the water and sunlight for the strengthening of instability? It is this system’s guiding thoughts and policies. After reform and opening, ‘class struggle as the guiding principle’ was being criticized. However, when implementing policies, officials still use the framework of class struggles to analyze problems. Any opposing thoughts and unapproved things are automatically regarded as enemies of the system. Just look at how they handle citizens fighting for their rights, Christian families and advocates for constitutional reforms.

Leung Man Tao: is there such a thing as ‘citizenship’ in China?

In his article on the Southern Metropolitan Weekend, Leung explores what the ‘rights defending’ (weiquan) movement means. In effect, the Chinese people are saying to the government, ‘hey! Can you see us? We are citizens, and we have our rights too.’ It is a demand for the recognition of the identity of citizenship, and the obsession with ‘rigid stability’ is a rejection of this demand:

Some scholars are saying that the government should not be too rigid in tackling the weiquan people. They are only fighting for their rights, and there is no need to raise the conflict to a political level. While I agree with this, I think that weiquan cannot be analyzed in a non-political framework. This is because the weiquan movement is based on the recognition of the citizenry; those activists request the state to recognize this identity and its implied rights.

‘Stability preservation’ is a rejection of elements which are thought to be destabilizing. If people fighting for their rights are regarded as negative elements, they cannot be regarded as ordinary members of the society. It’s like the cancerous cells of the body, which must be eliminated.

Therefore, ‘rights defending’ and ‘stability preservation’ are in opposition; the latter is a rejection of the former. The former emphasizes the rights enjoyed by citizens; the latter rejects certain people from the community, and at the same time claims that their requests are unlawful. If you over-emphasize ‘stability preservation’, that means you are not willing to listen what the other side has to say. They are not making troubles or revolting; they just want to be seen, be listened and be recognized. If they are the enemies, why would they want to be recognized? Responding to ‘rights defending’ with ‘stability preservation’ is a negative way of addressing a positive request. Many ‘rights defenders’ are already victims themselves. Even if their actions are at times extreme, they deserve our sympathy.

Sun Liping: the biggest risk is not instability, but social decay

Finally, Sun suggests that the government’s pre-occupation with social conflicts is missing the point. The biggest risk is not instability, but social decay. What he means is that as official power is unchecked and corruption is uncontrollable, the society is paying a heavy cost. We conclude with a few paragraphs from his article:

  • Our society has lost the ability for long term thinking. The vested interest formed under authoritarian capitalism is very short sighted. They neither have the responsibility that a monarch would have, nor the detachment and spirits that nobles possess. There is a tendency in our society to amplify short term problems and turn a blind eye to long term issues. We panic on immediate problems, but are not serious on social issues which have a bearing on our future generations. We over-exploit our resources and environment. Short-term-ism and procrastination are the features of our institutions.
  • The reason for this decay is the formation of authoritarian capitalism. In the past, people view power and markets as mutually exclusive. Today, we see them combined together in China […] We used to think that official intervention will hamper the growth of market. Now it is the emergence of market which provides a huge platform for official power to be exercised.
  • Stability preservation has now become a tool to advance the aims of the vested interests.
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0 thoughts on “Stability Preservation in China”

  1. This is a terrific, important post and just the sorts of things that you guys should be translating. Very useful selection of valuable viewpoints. I love what Du Guang wrote – “…the seeds of instability are corrupt officials, and the businessmen linked to them. Which mass incident is not caused by them?” Well put indeed. He’s absolutely right. Nearly all the mass incidents I can think of are protests against some manifestation of corrupt official-backed crony capitalist mischief.

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  2. Great Post, Thanks for calling attention to these pieces. (whatever professional China observers would have done without bloggers, I really dunno).
    It seems to me that What Leung describes is the unavoidable conflict that’s yet to come in China. It was (maybe still is) tactically smart of some weiquan defenders and protesting Laobaixing to declare themselves apolitical, but evetually the answer to their their grieviences has to be found in political reform. Personally, the curiosity to find out how China is going to square this circle is what’s keeping me here. (along with few more personal reasons)

    As for what Sun Liping says: the problem he talks about is by no means unique to China. “Our society has lost the ability for long term thinking. The vested interest formed under authoritarian capitalism is very short sighted” – this rings true for most developed democracies, too. sadly.

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  3. GREAT piece, Andy, and good work tracking all this stuff down. I agree completely with Du (and Kaiser) the corruption is the root of the problem here. I did some research while I was in college into post-1989 “mass incidents” and found that nearly 100% of them were over some local issue, generally election fraud, injustice at the hands of local officials, or corrupt bosses of a company who won’t pay out wages. Obviously, the stats I found are a bit outdated at this point, but I’d be shocked to hear that anything has changed. There are no more “mass incidents” in the name of “democracy”, they are all about some specific local issue.

    Yet the government seems so preoccupied with locking up democracy activists and folks like Liu Xiaobo that the corrupt officials causing real instability are still running around free.

    Again, fantastic piece.

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  4. Andy, this is an excellent post. Great job bringing together different writers on the same topic.
    I’m not sure if it’s Chinese people’s own opinions or reflection of successful government propaganda, but I always hear people say things like “at least the country’s stable now.” Compared to the previous couple centuries, China has become much more stable. One of the problems that all three writers address is the government’s freedom to define stability however they want. I’m curious as to how long they can maintain a monopoly on this term. My guess is for a long, long time.

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  5. Prof. Sun Liping’s piece is interesting, but not particularly recent. In fact, it first appeared more than a year ago, after which the folks at China Digital Times prepared a complete English translation (in 2 parts, links below).

    (Part 1)
    http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2009/03/sun-liping-%e5%ad%99%e7%ab%8b%e5%b9%b3-the-biggest-threat-to-china-is-not-social-turmoil-but-social-decay/

    (Part 2)
    http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2009/03/sun-liping-%e5%ad%99%e7%ab%8b%e5%b9%b3-the-biggest-threat-to-china-is-not-social-turmoil-but-social-decay-part-ii/

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  6. the last three bullet paragraphs perfectly describe america …

    and i question the “more than 60,000 number” … 165 a day? where?

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  7. @ gregorylent,

    Actually, the last publicly released government figures were 87,000 “mass incidents” (for 2005 or 2006, actually, I think). Leaks to the Hong Kong media put the number for 2008 at 127,000. Bear in mind, too, that these are only incidents involving over a 100 people or something like that—not the small protests of a dozen folks or someone threatening suicide to get his wage arrears you sometimes run across.

    Andrew Wedeman’s research suggests that the largest single category was workplace disputes (see: http://papers.ssrn.com/Sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1451828). So, I’d say that while corruption is a big source of anger, abuses by businesses are at least equally important. The two run hand in hand, of course…

    Where do they happen? All over. My guess is that they happen a lot in the export processing zones and urban construction sites where migrant worker are most dense, in small-sized cities where corruption seems especially bad (and where land grabbings are especially bad), and still in the countryside over a range of issues.

    Anyway… yes, those bullet points describe the U.S., too, to some degree, as they do all kinds of countries. What’s your point?

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  8. This is on spot with my view on situation in China. What authors missed to mention is “separation of power” and control over “monopoly on force”. At this moment, there’s no centralized control over police and para-police forces, with chengguan’s rampaging trough cities. Leninism introduced concept of avantgarde and permanent revolution as theoretical basis for this kind behavior. As consequence, local officials have easy access to means of power and abuses political power.

    I can’t agree that class struggle is outdated framework. It is problem with identifying classes. In ’60s, some Yugoslavian politicians identified rising bureaucracy in communist countries as new class, opposed to working people. To be worse, now ruling elite (on lower layers) cooperate with holders of capital, effectively abolishing paramount of classical Marxists theory , which is workers as holders of means of works and political power.

    Current state of human rights in western world is obtained by 3 centuries of left (socialist, communist) forces. We could expect that in communist state, human rights will be on higher level, but that is not true. Leninist theory explains that any sacrifice in human rights is justified until final victory of socialist revolution is won.

    At this moment, I see politburo as very bitter place. There’s hard liners, old forces, new forces,… This situation, when State trying to obtain status quo, is easily explainable by presence of fractions, lack of vision, fear of new,… in power structures in China.

    China is changing fast. Their top officials everyday faces new situation (there’s nothing stable in Chinese society) that they must to cope with. If there’s one Chinese characteristic that I hate most, it is that when they face new situation/problem they just panically freeze, or burs in rage. We facing this situation now.

    What should China do? They should cut any influence of lower officials to means of force (police or thugs). Any abuse of force should be punished. Only in that way Central Government will gain the trust from people again. Petitioner requests should be resolved in no-time (two weeks). Any misbehaving official should be banned from official positions for life. Free speech and state protection for journalists. Abolishing gaokao.

    Anyway, I have strong belief that China heading in good way and that time will do most of the job. I’m predicting that in 10-15 years, situation will be much better. Post-90’s gen will getting political power, most of hard liners will pass, and politicians that carry Hu’s and Wen’s legacy will rule the China.

    As I said, west needed 3 centuries to reach this state of human rights (and still violating some of basic one). It is unfair to expect or force China to reach same state in 30 years.

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  9. @ easteuropist,

    I don’t know that the discussion about what is fair / unfair to expect of China is very useful. Is the right starting point the West’s hundreds of years of struggle to achieve liberal democratic rights? What other, non-Western countries’ histories can we use as a better comparative measure of China’s progress? Japan? India? Brazil? South Korea? We can argue over those questions all day.

    China is China, so we might as well just say what we hope will happen there and, more importantly, HOW we hope it will happen and build the discussion from there. But I agree with some of your other points.

    The problem as I see it with the central government taking power back from local authorities is that Beijing needs those authorities’ support. If it alienates thousands of small town tyrants, then it wins the support of some citizens, but it loses its eyes and ears at the grassroots level—and potentially mobilizes thousands of new, powerful enemies with vast guanxi networks. So, Hu and Wen are, as you say, paralyzed.

    Maybe that’s an overly pessimistic view…

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  10. @Old Tales Retold

    After reading your comment, it comes to me that you are right about fairness of comparing development of human rights in different cultures.

    What I wanted to stress is importance of changing attitude towards China. We need more dialog and less confrontation. In last 100 years, powers introduced various kind of sanctions and pressures toward other countries that doesn’t compile with their interest. We also see that in most cases, that kind of pressure just made totalitarian regimes stronger and give a reasons for extended confrontation with powers and purging domestic opposition.

    Your pessimistic scenario is very realistic, actually. Another lesson from history we taught says that taking power from lover tiers will cause resistance. Easiest way to pessimistic scenario is to launch full scale crackdown campaign, with slogans, press coverage… in the way Chinese love to do. Solution is in long term action, I guess. They should process one or two official at the time, almost silent, but well covered in media (middle pages).

    I would like to hear more practical ideas for China, not just critics.

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  11. @ europist,

    I think, actually, cleaning up and strengthening local elections could do a lot of good in terms of corruption. If you’re in Zhongnanhai and you’re worried about losing your eyes and ears at the grassroots level and about empowering a new opposition (laid off local officials and their friends), then the best thing to do, besides not doing anything, is look for a new set of eyes and ears and empower a new constituency: voters. That was the whole reason the Party experimented with rural elections in the first place. Remember, the reforms were originally driven by so-called “conservatives” like Peng Zhen, who thought elections could bring rural areas back on target with family planning, grain quotas, etc.

    Right now, village elections have run up against a) the power of local clans and businesspeople, b) interference from the township level and c) an unclear division of power between local Party branches and local elected representatives. These things need to be sorted out and it won’t be easy. But without some sorting out, I’m afraid just quietly knocking off one corrupt official after another won’t be enough.

    I agree that confrontation isn’t always the best strategy. But I feel like that’s a foreign relations questions, not a question of what’s best internally for China.

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  12. @Old Tales Retold

    You made a quite good point. It seems that your knowledge about China is deeper than mine (which isn’t hard, thou 🙂 ) and your comments supplemented my comments in areas where they’re weak.

    This just shows complexity of situation. West have history of “one-size-fits-all” solutions, and that solutions cannot be applied to diverse country as China. Westerns (including those from East Europe) tends to look at thing in one way and to force one solutions according to their views.

    And there’s a foreign relations. I’m from country that spent 10 years under dictatorship after fall of communism. Our president used foreign relationships as justification for number of thing: taking money out of country, suppressing a freedom of speech, jailing political opponents, indoctrination,…
    Sad thing is that sometimes he was right.

    Btw, one short note about myself: My political view are socialist, in Marx’s way. I’m using Marx’s methods to observe and analyze society. I’m not approving any of real-socialism regimes in East Europe, as I believe that they suppressed human rights which is in collision with original socialistic thought.

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