On January 3, the International Herald Leader, a publication of the Xinhua News Agency typically focused on international issues, published an interview with two leading experts on social problems in China, Professor Yu Jianrong, director of the Center for Studies on Social Conflicts at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Rural Development, and Wang Yukai, a political scientist who serves as secretary general of the China Society for Administration Reform.
In this interview (translated in full below) the two experts discuss the negative effect that the Chinese government’s current focus on “maintaining stability” is having on Chinese society. They suggest that the time is right to rethink reliance on “stability above all else” and open up alternative channels to resolve conflicts in society. In so doing, they make a strong case for the universality of individual rights and the importance of creating space for autonomous civil society organizations in China.
(Thanks to the China Media Project for first bringing this article to our attention.)
Escaping the Stability Quagmire Starts with Desensitization
Reported by Liang Yifei & Gao Li
International Herald Leader
January 3, 2010
In 2010, “maintaining stability” became a keyword of Chinese governance. For each major event or important period, governments at all levels become highly tense. For example, during the Shanghai Expo or the Asian Games in Guangzhou, ensuring social stability was the first priority of local government. It is hard to estimate the amount of money being spent on maintaining stability.
The subtext of all of this emphasis on maintaining stability is that society is unstable. But is Chinese society really at the point of extreme instability? Many researchers say that it is, but they target their criticism at the government’s efforts to maintain stability. There are even scholars who say that the source of the social instability is the government’s [efforts to] maintain stability.
In the eyes of many, stability maintenance has become a fig leaf for some local governments, even acting as a protective shield behind which some local officials hide abuse of power and bend the rules for personal interest. The facts are right in front of our eyes. In August , when high levels of carcinogens were found in Jin Hao tea oil, local government departments in Hunan hid test results on the grounds of social stability. In September, a tick-borne disease led to 18 deaths in Shangcheng County, Henan, but the local government there refused to release a list of the dead, again on grounds of stability maintenance. Some localities even call violent property demolition and relocation “maintaining stability.”
Clearly, these current methods of maintaining stability cannot continue. The idea of “stability above all else” must be updated.
Excessive Use of Methods to Maintain Stability Counterproductive
International Herald Leader [IHL]: Recently, central and local governments alike have been emphasizing maintaining stability. What’s the special social background for this?
Yu Jianrong [YJR]: Since the 1990s, as reform has progressed, social problems such as the gap between rich and poor, the urban-rural divide, poverty and inequality, and vulnerable groups have become increasingly prominent. There has been a sudden increase in mass incidents, especially exceptionally large-scale mass incidents.
Wang Yukai [WYK]: This is because sources of instability in society are increasing and tensions within society are coming to the surface at what appears to be an intensifying pace. The number of mass incidents increases each year, and a clear evolution is emerging. Before, most people used legal methods to protect their rights and pursue their interests; lately, this has turned into social dissatisfaction, which at its most extreme erupts into mass rioting.
In other words, in the past the public used more moderate methods to pursue their interests; now, their methods are more radical. This social background is the reason why the government is placing such emphasis on stability maintenance.
IHL: Lately, the government has been putting a great deal of effort into stability maintenance work. Why, then, is society becoming increasingly unstable?
YJR: In response to these risks [to society], governments often employ various methods to maintain systemic stability, which ends up forming a rigid stability structure. The departure point for maintaining stability at present is maintaining a rigid stability in society.
Rigid stability is when, taking absolute social peace and stability as the goal of control, [authorities] treat all protest as disorder and chaos that need to be suppressed and controlled by any means. Under rigid stability, the methods of social control are always simplified and absolute.
In many instances, local government can even hold the central government for ransom in the name of “maintaining stability.” Sometimes, in the name of “maintaining stability,” even if the actions of lower-level government are illegal, higher levels of government are forced to forgive it. One can say that [the extent to which] local governments use “maintaining stability” as an excuse to violate people’s lawful rights and undermine the most fundamental social rules has reached an extremely serious level in China, and the threats to society this has produced are very great.
WYK: The biggest mistake governments make in the course of maintaining stability is over-reliance on police force and external measures. I believe we shouldn’t be thinking this way about maintaining stability, but this is currently the dominant way of thinking about stability within the government. [The number of] public security and armed police officers is increasing extremely fast, and the cost of maintaining stability is rising sharply.
Actually, the root of many mass incidents in society is the unfairness and injustice of policies. If new policies increasingly benefit the rich and monopolies, then there will be less benefit in policies for disadvantaged groups like workers, farmers, and laborers. If these disadvantaged groups, who make up the great majority of the population, don’t have the right to express themselves or channels to express their interests, how can our society be stable?
Don’t Treat Stability Maintenance and Rights Defense as Antagonistic
IHL: When so-called “mass incidents” occur overseas, such as the labor strikes in France [in 2010] or British students’ protests against rising education fees, those governments don’t talk about “maintaining stability.” How are these situations different from that of China?
WYK: In other countries, such incidents are seen as ordinary expressions of interests, [part of] people’s freedom. They’re not so-called mass incidents, nor is there any concept of “maintaining stability.” We have demonized mass incidents. Actually, many popular expressions of interest are normal, and we shouldn’t use the notion of stability maintenance to suppress people’s pursuit of their interests. I believe that the idea of maintaining normal social order is better than the idea of “maintaining stability.”
IHL: If the government wants to maintain stability and the public wants to defend their rights, aren’t the two in conflict with each other?
WYK: On the surface, the two are in conflict, but they are essentially consistent. This is because maintaining stability must proceed on the basis of protecting ordinary people’s individual rights, otherwise there is no foundation for maintaining stability. Ordinary people are the possessors of rights in society, the masters of the state. Government exists to serve those who are rightful subjects. Governance only has a legal foundation if it protects the rights of ordinary people. Only when we talk about harmony on the precondition of protecting individual rights can we have a truly harmonious society. Maintaining stability and preserving social order are aimed at attacking behavior that undermines the public interest, not [activities] that can undermine public interest as collateral damage. Therefore, rights defense is the foundation of maintaining stability and maintaining stability is the purpose of rights defense. The two complement each other and are essential to constructing a harmonious society.
YJR: In this transitional period in society, a great number of what would ordinarily be considered “normal” collective action in expression of popular goals gets deliberately twisted by local government into “illegal activity.” Governments could ordinarily take a very “detached” position, but influenced by the technical problem of handling contradictions and systemic pressure, they end up in a control dilemma. The consequence is that governments must directly face these “illegal incidents” and are left with no buffer or room to maneuver, not to mention any opportunity to make use of social intermediary organizations to mediate conflicts and resolve disputes.
IHL: Why does the government presently make more use of coercive methods of maintaining stability?
WYK: Yes, the government is too tough in the process of maintaining stability. It doesn’t seek to persuade with policy but rather uses repression and police, which creates confrontation between the public and the government. Not only is this not helpful to resolving the problem; it complicates the problem. Given the speed with which [information is] disseminated on the Internet, it’s easy for a small problem to become larger.
YJR: Rigid stability is based on a system of pressures. The central government demands that local [governments] maintain peace and stability. To this end, it uses all sorts of accountability systems and makes social stability the principal factor in determining the promotion or demotion of local officials. For this reason, whenever grassroots social protest becomes an “incident,” some local power-holders feel the pressure of these various accountability systems and, in the interest of their own political [futures], use violence or buy people off without principle in order to resolve the issue.
IHL: Is it necessary to rethink the government’s “stability above all else” concept of social control?
YJR: For a long time, our work has been guided by the idea of “stability above all else.” It is now time we rethink this notion. I’ve continually called for the ruling party to rethink the concept of “stability above all else.” This is an idea that Deng Xiaoping put forth at a particular period in our nation’s history. At the same time, Deng also said “reform above all else” and “development above all else.”
Now, we’re overlooking other problems because of “stability above all else.” In the name of stability, we’re willing to sacrifice people’s livelihood. In the name of stability, some places have even revived “Cultural Revolution”-era practices such as parading and public denunciations. In the name of stability, we’re willing to abuse police authority. “Stability above all else”—what, in the end, is the “else”? [Stability] takes priority over people’s livelihood, over human rights, over rule of law, over reform, but it hasn’t done away with corruption, with mining disasters, with illegal demolitions and relocations.
China Needs to “Desensitize”
IHL: How can we escape this dilemma of “maintaining stability”?
WYK: First, we must change our entire way of thinking about maintaining stability. We mustn’t treat expressions of interest by members of society as expressions of social instability.
Second, there may be gaps in our stability-maintenance policies themselves. The real way to reduce social contradictions and conflicts is to revise policies to integrate the structure of society’s interests and enable the expression of interests.
Finally, besides channels for expressing interests, [we need to] establish institutions to balance the structure of medical care and education between urban and rural areas—we cannot have dual-track policies. Policies concerning the requisition of land and demolition and relocation must protect farmers’ rights in order to protect the interests of the entire society.
YJR: Chinese society has too many “sensitive” things, “sensitive” people, “sensitive” topics, and “sensitive” periods. We even treat issues concerning national welfare and people’s livelihood as “sensitive” issues. Everyone avoids [these issues] and doesn’t dare face them squarely and discuss them. In fact, this is nothing but government overreaction and a serious display of lack of confidence. I believe that an important task for China at this moment is “desensitization.”
What’s more, we need to open the gates of the judicial system and resolve conflicts and disputes through the law. In theory, petitioning is only one of many administrative remedies, including administrative litigation and administrative review. Judicial remedies are the most important way for citizens to remedy [infringement of] their rights. We should note that one serious consequence of using administrative remedies to replace judicial remedies is the diminution of the authority of the state’s judicial institutions, the basis of social control in modern societies. Our courts find themselves in an embarrassing situation at present, where “the Party secretary controls posts, the mayor controls the purse, and the political and legal committee controls the cases.” The localization of the judicial system is an increasingly serious [problem].
At the same time, we can set up full-time people’s congress deputies and put petitions under people’s congresses at each level in order to have representatives of the people oversee the work of the government, the procuratorates, and the courts. And we should establish organizations for the expression of popular interests. I’ve discovered that people’s congress deputies have a particular trait: they dare to “curse your mother.” When they encounter “rascals” who deliberately stir up trouble, people’s congress deputies can give them a good scolding and the person being scolded won’t mind too much. This shows that a full-time people’s congress institution can act as a buffer between the government and society.
Reform can start at the county level. For example, we can select a few counties and experiment with reforms for a few years and see what happens. If the results are good, expand to the provincial level and experiment for a few more years. In this way, we can at least trade “time” for “space.” If the reform fails, at least it won’t have much of an impact on the overall situation.