Making sense of 'mass incidents'

Source:Global Times Published: 2009-5-30 20:13:40

By Wang Weilan

Police in the city of Jieshou, Anhui Province, practice riot control procedures on August 6, 2008. Photo: IC

As “mass incidents” inevitably rise in China, both independent experts and advisors to the Chinese government are arguing for more enlightened measures to handle them.

“Mass incident” is the official Chinese euphemism for a protest, riot, demonstration or mass petition. According to official figures, 8,700 separate incidents occurred in 1993, and that number rose ten times to 87,000 in 2005 and to over 90,000 in 2006. The riot in Weng’an of Guizhou Province in July last year is widely recognized as one of the most violent and influential.

In his book New views on mass incidents – lessons from the Weng’an incident July 28 published in April, Liu Zifu, former director of Guizhou Bureau of Xinhua News Agency, explores the many local and larger reasons behind the riot and his experiences in dealing with it.

China’s most important thinktank – the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), an institution affiliated with the State Council – also published a report on Chinese legal developments last month, in which the authors analyzed the causes of last year’s mass incidents. They strongly advocate caution in dealing with them.

When there is widespread hatred of the rich and the empowered, Weng’an or similar incidents will occur sooner or later, according to a commentary by Li Deming on the People’s Daily website.


To explore countermeasures against mass incidents is an important topic for the ruling party and the government. It would be meaningful for Party members and government officials, especially at grass-roots levels, to solve social conflicts and deal with public crises, wrote Ma Ya in Phoenix Weekly magazine.

Mass incidents on the Chinese mainland can be broken into two types, according to a CASS sociologist and researcher. Some are sparked by minor events, said Shan Guangding. An example might be a fight or a traffic accident between a government official and an ordinary citizen that then escalates into something involving thousands of people.

This type of incident has no obvious specific purpose or premeditated organization. Mostly such moments simply offer an excuse to unleash pent-up anger or resentment, according to Shan. The Wanzhou incident in Chongqing in 2004 in which 10,000 rioted after an official and his wife had beaten up a humble porter or a “bang bang”, was of this type, according to Shan.

Then there was the other kind: not sudden, not disorganized, and often involving long-term economic interests. Ninety thousand demonstrated in the city of Hanyuan in Sichuan Province after they had been ordered to vacate their homes to make way for construction of a new hydroelectric plant. They demanded better compensation.

The Weng’an incident was a hybrid mixture of the two, he concluded. For that reason and others, Weng’an is destined to be remembered as a model of how the Chinese Communist Party deals with a typical “mass incident”, said Liu.

“It seems accidental, but in fact it was inevitable,” said Shi Zongyuan, Party Secretary of Guizhou Province. About 30,000 were involved in the protest on July 28 in Weng’an over an official mishandling of a 16-year-old schoolgirl’s death.

Protestors set fire to 160 offices of the local Communist committee and government buildings, looted official property and destroyed 22 police vehicles.

Li Shufen had been found dead in a river midnight, July 22 last year. The girl’s family believed she was raped and murdered by two men accompanying her that night before being thrown into the river. One of the men was said to be the son of a local official.

Unsatisfied with the police report which concluded Li had committed suicide by drowning herself, relatives blamed the police for a corrupt, shoddy investigation. Li’s uncle, local teacher Li Xiuzhong, was beaten when he questioned the police. The riot occurred on July 28, the same day as police asked Li’s family to remove her body from the riverside.

Authorities rounded up 234 people accused of taking part in the riot and arrested 117. Several local officials, including Weng’an’s Party chief, have since been dismissed for breach of duty.



Party secretary Shi, an important figure in Liu’s book, said that behind the girl’s death simmered unaddressed, deeper problems including disputes between mine owners and farmers, between local government and migrants in Weng’an. These issues, deep and with profound implications, would escalate into a full-scale riot involving more than 30,000 people.

Weng’an’s GDP had doubled between 2000 and 2007. Fiscal income increased almost three times during that period, according to Liu. Mining entrepreneurs and local government officials grew rich at the same time as local people lived on in misery, failing to benefit from any improved economic largesse, Liu claimed in the book.

Mining in Weng’an also blocked the villagers’ drinking water, forcing them to drink water drawn from ditches tainted with garbage. In response, the local government in May 2007 spent 700,000 yuan ($102,500) on a new drinking water project, without any results.

Mining near the villagers’ houses caused cracks in their homes, but only 70 of 1,000 affected households were reportedly compensated. The mining company repaired a dozen.

Villagers also had to borrow money at high interest to pay for their children’s schooling, said Liu, a veteran journalist based in Guizhou for over two decades.

Liu cited an official who had been transferred from Longli County to Weng’an: for every 10 Weng’an officials, the official said, seven or eight were involved in business or setting up a business.

Economic unfairness and growing social inequality were the root causes of a growth in protests, both Shi and Liu agreed.

“China has entered a golden age of economic development,” said Liu. “Meanwhile it is also a peak time for societal contradictions.”

The Gini coefficient measures the widening gap between the rich and the poor. China’s figure since 2000 has been higher than 0.4 percent, the international alarm level. When the coefficient hits alarm levels, social stability is endangered, said Li Yingsheng, a sociology professor with Renmin University of China.

Hatred towards the rich among everyday Chinese people reflected a hatred for unfairness in society, according to Mao Shoulong, professor at Renmin University of China.

Land grabs

Local governments who sequestered land or property from their own people were the spark behind many a mass incident, the report found. Local governments often overemphasized ecnomic development at the expense of their public service responsibility, it concluded.

The academy report mentioned more than 30,000 illegal land grabs involving more than 220,000 hectares last year. Land disputes have become the prime problem affecting the stability and development of rural areas.

Conflicts over land requisitions and the operating rights of contracted land as well as disputes between capital and labor will become increasingly significant, said Yu Jianrong, a researcher with the Rural Development Institute at CASS.

“Only when things become big trouble are problems solved in China,” said Ding Gang, a senior editor at People’s Daily in Beijing. “That proves something is wrong with the management mode.”

China’s “social management mode” – the official euphemism for government’s handling of society – should be reformed, said Ding. Government should research problems to prevent them escalating into mass incidents.

To reduce complaints, government should switch its focus from economic development towards the welfare of its people, Liu suggested.

Liu advocated democratic supervision to reduce mass incidents.

“The absence of effective democratic surveillance caused the accumulation of a large number of complaints,” Liu reportedly said in an interview with Phoenix Weekly.

“Power without supervision surely produces corruption. The ruling party should have their rights effectively supervised,” he said.

“Bureaucrats shield one another, and Criminal Law should not be applied to senior officials” is part of ancient Chinese officials’ culture, Liu wrote in the book.



To prevent officials ignoring or damaging people’s interests, the people should become involved in selection of officials, Liu also suggested.

“Only when people are fully involved in the selection of officials will those selected officials be responsible to the people,” he said.

Neither Liu nor CASS saw mass incidents as overtly political in nature, meaning there was nothing premeditated against the central government or the leadership of the Communist Party.

Most mass incidents were targeted at companies, “the haves” or the improprieties of local governments. Unrest was isolated and uncoordinated, said Shan.

Stereotyped methods of tackling mass incidents – defining protestors as “anti-government” or “anti-Communist Party” – are wholly discredited according to these policy advisors.

“Many of the protestors were only making justified demands. The majority of those involved have no such political purpose as subverting the Communist Party or the Government at all,” said Liu.

Shan attacked the time-honored practice of regarding all protestors as malicious or misled, all protests as premeditated political movements, saying these approaches provided political cover for local authorities wanting to crack down on dissent.

Conflict escalated when authorities adopted an overly tough approach or suppressed information. The CASS report cited Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu as saying that in dealing with mass incidents, the police force, weapons and enforcement measures should be exercised with caution, and the flow of information should be improved.

Both Yu Jianrong and Shan predict more mass incidents in 2009 and beyond.

“We should be fully prepared for more mass incidents in China,” said Shan. “Complaints about social inequalities, criticism of official corruption and hatred towards the unscrupulous rich are still so intense in many regions.”

Report defines main causes of mass incidents

Causes of “mass incidents” such as the Weng’an riot are outlined in a recent Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) report.

According to the report, most riots occur for six key reasons:

1. local government snatching land or property from its local populace;
2. China’s widening gap between rich and the poor;
3. dissatisfaction over unfair distribution of wealth and its associated unjustified richness;
4. violation of people’s economic interests and democratic rights;
5. individual inability to find a method of effective arbitration for protecting their interests;
6. inflexibility of “social management mode” – government’s handling of society – allied to an increasing popular awareness of democracy.

Posted in: In-Depth

blog comments powered by Disqus