Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Translation: The Machinery of Stability Preservation

There is widespread agreement in China, from high officials to ordinary people, about the importance of maintaining social stability. There is rather less consensus, though, about how best to ensure and promote stability. Considering the costs, both fiscal and human, of continued pursuit of the policy of "stability above all else," some have begun to question whether, perhaps, the effort might actually be counterproductive.

In a recent article (translated below) posted on the website of
Caijing magazine, two reporters who have been covering China's social stability problem offer an excellent introduction to the organizational structure behind China's stability management effort. Their detailed portrait of this structure as it exists at both the central and local levels leads into a trenchant analysis of China's paradoxical pursuit of stability and a look at how that structure actually undermines that effort. Their conclusion—that the only escape from this paradox is to accelerate the pace of political and judicial reform—is a clear articulation of an aspiration that is gathering momentum in China but that will still have to overcome much resistance if it is to be realized.


The Machinery of Stability Preservation
Caijing reporters Xu Kai & Li Weiao
June 6, 2011

It was five o’clock in the morning, and the sky had just begun to turn light. After driving 17 hours non-stop on the Beijing-Zhuhai Expressway, a beige, medium-sized passenger bus with Beijing license plate “AF1217” had just entered Chibi, Hubei Province.

Liu Hua, who was on the bus, recalls that there were 28 other passengers on that 19-seater bus, which had no operating license. Besides 11 petitioners from Changsha, there was one driver, three petitioning officials from Changsha, and 14 security guards from Beijing. All the way from Beijing to Hunan, the bus drove along at speeds above 100 km/h.

After passing through the Chibi toll booth, there was a loud crash as the bus rammed into a truck from behind at almost 60 km/h. The driver went into shock and eight others suffered serious injuries.

This was March 8, 2011, the time when the national “two meetings” were being held. Before the accident, Liu Hua had gone to Beijing to petition for a fourth time. He and the more than 10 other Changsha petitioners had visited the petitioning office of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission to report on illegal activities by local government. They were told their issues would be resolved appropriately but that they could not stay in Beijing during the “two meetings” period. That day, personnel from the Changsha Capital Liaison Office took them to a location in the south of Beijing and a young man who said he was from the “Beijing Security Unit” escorted the petitioners onto the rented bus.

After the accident, those who could continued home on their own. The eight who suffered serious injuries received short-term treatment at the Chibi People’s Hospital and then were escorted away by government officials from their localities. After Liu Hua returned to Changsha, the deputy head of the Xueyuan Subdistrict Office where he lived in Tianxin District came accompanied by patrol squad officers to take him to a place called the “Carefree Mountain Villa” until the conclusion of the “two meetings.” These patrol squad officers, who belong to the subdistrict office’s comprehensive social order management unit, are the most basic-level personnel [responsible for] stability preservation.

In their four round-trips of petitioning between Beijing and Changsha, Liu Hua and the other petitioners came into contact with each level of the national stability-maintenance system. At the central level, they were looked after by the National Office of Letters and Petitions and the Central Discipline Inspection Commission’s Office of Letters and Petitions. At the local level, they were looked after by the Changsha and Tianxin District governments, as well as the Xueyuan Subdistrict Office and its comprehensive social order management unit. In between, they were transported by the Capital Liaison Office and security companies.

In the summer of 2010, Liu Hua became acquainted with Shen Youbin, who was petitioning the Changsha government because he did not accept a court decision. If Shen Youbin’s story offers a glimpse at the financial structure of the stability-preservation system, then Liu Hua’s story offers a view of that system at each level.

The Central Hub

Ever since the idea of “preserving social stability” was put forth, there has been a steady expansion of the relevant government agencies concerned with this work. This can be clearly seen in the history of the vertical system of politico-legal committees.

The Politico-Legal Committee of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (hereafter, CPLC) is a functional department through which the Central Committee leads and manages law-enforcement work. Its primary tasks are to preserve social stability and guide, coordinate, supervise, and inspect the work of public security, the procuratorate, the courts, judicial administration organs, and state security. Committees are established at the central, provincial, prefectural, and county levels, but generally they do not exist at the grassroots township level or within [other] institutions.

Maintaining stability is one of the most important functions of the CPLC. In 1980, when the Central Committee first established the CPLC, Peng Zhen was its first secretary. It was briefly abolished in at the beginning of the 1990s.

In April 1991, the Central Committee issued a “Circular on Strengthening Law Enforcement Work for Maintaining Social Stability” (hereafter “Circular”), making clear that preserving stability is a political task of utmost importance to the entire Party and to all people of the nation and that strengthening law-enforcement work plays an important role. The “Circular” announced the re-establishment of the CPLC and made appropriate adjustments to its responsibilities and tasks. Law-enforcement leadership organs under each local party committee were enhanced and given the uniform name of politico-legal committee.

At that time, stability preservation was primarily seen in the coordinated “strike hard” effort of public security, the procuratorates, and the courts. Each of the three large-scale “strike hard” campaigns from 1983 to 1987, from 1996 to 1997, and from 2001 to 2002, were all led by the CPLC.

In July 1999, party committees added a “610 Office,” operating under the same roof as the politico-legal committees. From that time on, preventing and dealing with cults became a focus of stability-preservation work.

Thereafter, in order to preserve social stability, the Central Committee also set up a Central Leadership Small Group for Stability Preservation. This is one of the coordinating bodies of the Central Committee and operates within the CPLC. There is also the Central Comprehensive Management Committee, which also operates within the CPLC and is primarily responsible for domestic public order.

Ever since the CPLC announced its “Three Key Tasks” (social conflicts resolution, social management innovation, and clean and fair law enforcement) in 2008, central-level stability preservation work has turned towards the construction of a stability-preservation network and the search for new modes of stability preservation.

Some of the things that have been explored include: mechanisms to manage and provide social services to migrant populations through “[temporary residence] permits, rental agreements, and workplaces”; a risk-assessment system for social stability; new grid-based models of [population] management and social-service provision; placement, help, and education provided to those released from prison and re-education through labor; cracking the “two new organizations” (new economic organizations and new social organizations); and management of virtual online communities. By the end of 2010, 35 prefectural cities and counties (including county-level cities and districts) had been selected by the central government for national pilot studies in comprehensive social-management innovation.

In summary, at the central level the CPLC is the leading organization for stability preservation, with supreme authority given to the Central Leadership Small Group for Stability Preservation. Through attached bodies such as the Central Comprehensive Management Committee, it exerts unified management over law-enforcement organs such as public security, the courts, the procuratorates, and state security.

Organizations for the Preservation of Social Stability in China (Chart)
[Image] Organization Chart
Click on the image to enlarge

The Local Network

Compared to the central level, local governments are on the front lines facing social conflicts and thus [their stability preservation system] exhibits a more complex structure. In the subdistrict office in Tianxin District, Changsha, where Liu Hua lives, there is a comprehensive management unit for social stability that is specifically in charge of these matters. There are similar institutions at the grassroots level of government throughout the nation, not just in Hunan. Take as an example Yun’an County in Guangdong Province, which has a comprehensive stability preservation network featuring “three levels of defense” at the “county, town, and village” [levels].

In Yun’an County, this comprehensive stability preservation network specifically consists of: a county-level office for comprehensive management of petitioning and stability that handles “difficult issues”; town-level offices for comprehensive management of petitioning and stability in eight towns that handle “major issues”; and village-level centers for comprehensive management of petitioning and stability in 121 villages and neighborhoods that handle “minor issues.”

Yun’an County has more than 6700 individuals, including village cadres, who receive budget allocations; more than 1800 of them are involved with stability preservati
on. There are around 20 fixed employees at the county office, as well as a 200-plus-strong emergency response team to coordinate the response to mass incidents or emergencies. There are more than 10 persons at each of the eight town stability-preservation offices. Wang Shuxiong, deputy secretary of the county party committee, concurrently heads the county stability-preservation office.

Personnel numbers for each village stability-preservation center are determined according to population. For instance, in Yalou Village, Qianfeng Town, which has 1380 people in 345 households, there are four people responsible for [stability-preservation] work. One is village committee member Kang Mulin, who heads the center.

“Development is the top priority, and stability is the top responsibility,” explains Wang Shuxiong. Development is a strategy, and stability is a tactic, but as far as the actual operations of the party committee and government, stability has actually already become the number one task.

In Yun’an County, they rely on external fiscal allocations to run the government. This agricultural county in western Guangdong has a population of 317,000, of whom about 80,000 are not involved in agriculture). In 2009, GDP in Yun’an was 4.03 billion yuan, with local general budget revenue of 199 million yuan and 80 million yuan in annual fiscal allocations from higher levels of government. Even so, each year there is dedicated funding for stability preservation: in 2010, the county office received 600,000 yuan, the town offices received around 288,000 yuan, and the village centers received more than 30,000 yuan. There is also investment in fixed-capital: in 2009, there was a one-time investment of 1 million yuan, which went toward the purchase of vans, motorcycles, computers, and office furniture for the eight town offices.

In addition, Yun’an employs a rewards incentive policy used widely by local governments. When the village office successfully handles an incident, it will be awarded 50 to 100 yuan; for the town office, the reward is 200 to 300 yuan. If there is no destabilizing incident in the whole year, the rewards grow larger. Wang Shuxiong says that this incentive system is a good way of generating enthusiasm among village and town cadres.

In 2010, Yun’an County issued around 20,000 yuan in rewards. On the surface, it would seem as if this was an extra expense for the local government, but in reality, it saves money. “It costs at least 20,000 yuan to deal with a single petitioning case in Beijing,” says Wang Shuxiong. “Sometimes much more.”

The Gray Market

As Wang Shuxiong, deputy party secretary of Yun’an County, says, as soon as someone goes petitioning in Beijing, the costs start to increase.

In response, local governments have at least three ways to “spend for stability.” The first is to dispatch personnel to Beijing to intercept petitioners. For a long time, this work has been centered in the capital liaison offices, where the funds and personnel of local governments and courts go to support stationing people for this purpose. On three of Liu Hua’s four trips to Beijing to petition, he was escorted home by personnel from the [local] capital liaison office.

The head of a basic-level court told Caijing that all young, male judges in his court have to take turns being stationed in the capital, where their primary task is intercepting petitioners at the petitioning office of the Supreme People’s Court.

But capital liaison offices created management and administrative headaches in Beijing, leading the central government to abolish them. As of today, besides the 50 connected to provincial-level and special-economic-zone governments and 296 connected to prefectural-level governments, another 625 local and institutional capital liaison offices have already been closed.

The abolition of capital liaison offices has obviously made it more expensive for local governments to send personnel to intercept petitioners, leading them to pursue a second method: contracting out petitioner interception to security companies. For example, the Anyuanding Company once had petitioner-interception contracts with the relevant departments of 19 provincial-level governments.

Security companies set out clear and detailed fees for intercepting, detaining, and transporting petitioners on behalf of local governments: 200 to 400 yuan per person for stability control and 200 to 400 yuan per person for restraining measures. Fees for transport vary according to the method of transport, the number of individuals to be transported, and the distance involved.

And if interception is unsuccessful and the petitioner manages to register [a complaint] with the relevant authorities, local governments need to pursue a third path: “payoffs.”

When a petitioner registers a petition with higher-level agencies, the petitioning office will establish a file record that can be tallied. According to public records, in 2009 Hebei had the most petitioners go to Beijing of any province (15,700 petitions), followed by Henan (5,700) and Liaoning. But since 2009, the relevant authorities changed their rules and no longer report [statistics for] ordinary petitioning. Instead, they report figures for “abnormal petitioning” and deliver national rankings to provincial party committees and governments.

These rankings are closely connected to assessment of local government performance, but their impact on political evaluations can be taken care of if the right payments are made.

On March 14, 2007, the politico-legal committee secretary of Song County, Henan, said in a work conference on stability-preservation: “From now on, you must pay for any petitioning. Payoffs are only an economic expense, but failing to make payments will damage one’s political future.” Correspondingly, [he continued]: “From January to March of 2007, there were 25 incidents involving 65 petitioners going to Beijing. One of these managed to register [a complaint], placing us ninth in the ranking of all counties and districts in the prefecture. There were 41 incidents involving 55 petitioners going to the provincial capital to petition. Seven of these were registered, placing us third (actually, first) in the ranking. There were also 30 incidents involving 111 petitioners at the prefectural level and 216 incidents involving 1180 petitioners at the county level.”

Local governments’ fear of petitioning has led to a huge stability-preservation “market” that includes capital liaison offices, security contracts, and “payoffs” and results in all types of rent-seekers, brokers, and thugs out foraging for themselves. Appetites whetted by the favors that can be had in this rent-seeking arena, the capital liaison offices, security companies, and petitioning officials all [seek ways to] protect and expand the “stability-preservation pie.” As this “market” continues to grow, even things that have nothing to do with “stability preservation” can be categorized as “stability preservation” in order to “collect more rents.”

The Petitioning Paradox

The stability-preservation system is itself largely to blame for this gray market of petitioner-interception, security contracts, and payoffs. For example, if we look at the way that petitioning is actually conducted, its original purpose of reporting information up through the government gets canceled out, whether through “interception” or “payoffs.” However, if we look to the way the system is set up, we see that the system is in a paradoxical position because of the delicate relationship between the central and local governments.

According to the analysis of Ying Xing, chair of the Department of Sociology at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law, the (Draft) Provisional Regulations for Letters and Visits Work in Party and Government Organs passed in 1982 marked a transition in the petitioning system. Unlike during the era of Mao Zedong, when the petitioning system was in service to mass mobilization and class conflict, the purpose of the petitioning system in the new era was to serve the overall goal of economic development, peace, and unity.

In Ying Xing’s view, the problem of “stability preservation” inevitably surfaced as [society] transformed from [one focused on] mass mobilization and class conflict to [one focused on] economic development, peace, and unity. Since many local governments are driven by economic development, when it comes to the burden on farmers, land disputes, laid-off state employees, or compensation for housing demolition and relocation they pursue their own interests rather than acting as representatives of public interest. For this reason, they inevitably come into direct conflict with the interests of affected parties.

At the same time, as the communes were dismantled and state-owned enterprises underwent reform, the ability of grassroots work-units to control people began to weaken and both urban and rural residents increasingly had the ability and space to articulate their personal interests. Even more important, as reform and opening has progressed, citizens have become more cognizant of their rights, and the administrative measures of the past seem to have lost their effectiveness.

Ying Xing believes that, on the one hand, petitioning highlights the need for stability, unity, and order and demands that conflicts remain at the grassroots level. On the other hand, as a way for the central government to check [the activity] of local grassroots government, petitioning also encourages the “rightful resistance” of petitioners under certain circumstances. These two conflicting goals put petitioning in a paradoxical situation in which it is difficult to justify itself: on the one hand the central government retains the petitioning system because it wants a path whereby the masses can oversee local [government]; on the other hand, it calls on local governments to strictly control petitioning and “nip sources of instability in the bud” at the local level so as not to negatively impact the work of the central government. With “obstruction” foremost and no effort made to open up new paths to resolve conflicts, whenever there are destabilizing incidents like collective petitioning, local governments are forced to resort to extraordinary measures.

Yu Jianrong believes that the petitioning system’s lack of procedure and legal force make it difficult for it to end conflicts and disputes effectively, but the deeper reason lurking in the background is the arbitrary nature of political power. At the same time, the conflict resolution mechanism of the judicial system is weak and ineffective because it is controlled by political power.

The “stability-preservation” system has adapted to the problems faced by China in transition, expanding in response to the intensification of social conflict. In order to escape the vicious cycle of “stability preservation leading to more instability,” we must do as Tsinghua University Professor Sun Liping suggests: transform the function of government to establish a limited government, improve rule of law mechanisms to resolve conflicts and disputes in society, establish mechanisms to balance interests under the conditions of a market economy, and promote the development of civic organizations.

The most essential of these is rule of law. Ruling by law and creation of a socialist rule-of-law nation were part of the political reform agenda set out in the report of the 15th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. On March 10, 2011, National People’s Congress Standing Committee Chairman Wu Bangguo announced that the socialist system of laws with Chinese characteristics had been established.

But the pace of political reform—especially reform of the judicial system—needs to speed up. If you want society to be truly stable, you must first promote reform of the judicial system. Society’s “pressure valve” is a judicial system that is just, highly effective, publicly trusted, and able to check public power. If we promote reform of the judicial system and enable courts to truly carry out their role independently in accordance with the law, social conflict can come within the orbit of the law.

Second, we should gradually expand democracy. Democracy means that citizens are in charge. Matters as great as the changing of administrations and as small as the price of water all get decided at the ballot box or through participation in public hearings. With the right to vote and channels for expression, the great majority of sources of instability can be eliminated naturally.

Finally, the ruling party ought to change its thinking and enhance its abilities as far as governing is concerned. Based on the experiences of the countries of the world, social conflict in today’s society is not only difficult to avoid but also a natural phenomenon of a healthy functioning society. On the one hand, the government should make a personal commitment not to exceed its bounds, violate the law, or create elements of instability. On the other hand, civic organizations should be set free and civil society fostered so that, when there are conflicts, there are courts to adjudicate independently and non-governmental organizations to mediate independently. This will naturally lead to peace and unity and long-term social stability.

With the establishment of a socialist system of laws with Chinese characteristics, we have reason to hope that the law will not only become a “shield” for people but can also turn into a symbolic representation of a peaceful, stable society.