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
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.