A national conundrum

By Feng Shu Source:Global Times Published: 2012-2-9 20:33:34

A mock protest tests riot police in a mass incident exercise in Yibin, Sichuan Province, on June 30, 2010. Photo: CFP


Taking a break from their daily work, local officials hold a brainstorming session at the Party School of Fujian Province on one of the hottest topics in the country: How to maintain social stability.

"Society isn't facing upheaval, most incidents have been blown out of portion by the media," said a police officer from Fujian Province.

"What if it was your house that was being forcefully demolished, would you still say that?" asked another official.

In a class focused on finding a solution to the dilemma between maintaining social stability and protecting people's rights, Professor Wang Liping of the Party school ignites the debate. To help illustrate his point that forceful demolition can lead to violence, Wang shows a slide of a farmer in Hubei Province who used a home-made cannon to drive away a demolition team in order to protect his land. The class falls quiet.

Wang's class reveals the tough challenge facing government officials at all levels as the number of ordinary people who complain their rights have been violated continues to soar.

Sun Liping, a professor at Tsinghua University, estimates that in 2010 alone, there were around 180,000 protests, riots and other mass incidents in China, three times the number in 2003.

Although official statistics haven't yet been released for 2011, most people believe the number of mass incidents increased last year.

All the Party and government officials in Wang's class seem to understand that social tensions are on the rise. They have all read the case involving migrant workers in Zengcheng, Guangdong Province, who became enraged after security personnel pushed a pregnant migrant worker to the ground without apparent justification. The mob ended up torching government offices.

The officials have used the now famous Wukan incident as a case study on how to properly handle a mass disturbance. The fishing village in Guangdong Province had chased out government leaders and barricaded their town, but a rare, high-profile intervention by provincial leaders defused the tense standoff after villagers received promises that their complaints would be taken seriously.

"Most mass incidents happening in China these days share two things in common: People's complaints haven't been solved fairly and citizens are more aware of their rights," Wang told the Global Times.

While the government publicly extols the virtues of everyone working toward the construction of a harmonious society, it is also investing heavily in the country's domestic security apparatus.

Soaring spending

A report by Caijing magazine in May last year showed the government now spends more on public security than it does on national defense. In 2011, the magazine said, China's public security budget soared past 624 billion yuan ($99 billion) while the national defense budget hovered around 600 billion yuan. The statistics have not been confirmed by the central government.

For local, frontline governments, maintaining social stability is a key priority that consumes the work of officials and local resources. "If someone from our county shows up in Beijing to complain we would immediately be ordered to take this person back. During National Day holidays or during the NPC sessions we allocate a lot of people to keep a close eye on these potential troublemakers, and it's indeed time and energy consuming for us," said the head of a small county in Fujian Province, who declined to be named.

"Every day, we remain on high alert, worrying that even a small row among our villagers might lead to a mass incident if it cannot be dealt with in a timely manner," said the official, who complains that a single serious mass incident in her county could ruin her career.

"In the current mode of maintaining social stability, people's expression of their problems might trigger social unrest that needs to be suppressed. If people's demands can't be dealt with the problem becomes more serious, and efforts to maintain social stability have to be further strengthened," concludes a report published by Sun's team at Tinghua University.

Experts believe most disputes that lead to social unrest center on economic losses to individuals or groups, rather than political disputes targeting the rule of the government in ethnic minority areas like Tibet and Xinjiang. They say most protests center on land grabs by corrupt local officials and developers, or involve strikes by employees seeking a pay rise. Experts say dealing with issues in face-to-face negotiations is the key to effectively resolving them.

"The problems can not be resolved if the only goal is to maintain social stability, we have to figure out ways of solving the larger issues," said Yu Jianrong, an expert on civil unrest at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Counting on the government

"There is nothing to fear when people appeal to the government to have their demands met. It shows they are counting on the government to provide a fair solution to their problems. We can't afford to wait for the day when nobody believes in our government," said Wang.

The quick settlement of the 10-day stand-off in Wukan has stirred a lot of discussion and debate both online and among Chinese academics, about how the government should respond to protests and deal with citizen complaints.

Party School professor Wang uses the Wukan settlement as an example of a new way to deal with mass incidents. Wang says the Guangdong government's recognition of the villagers' legitimate complaints offers an important template for the peaceful resolution of disputes.  "Only when people's basic rights, which are endowed in the Constitution, are well protected, can stability be realized naturally," said Wang.

Wang emphasized that the rise of people's "democratic consciousness" is a natural outgrowth of China's economic reform over the past three decades. He urges government officials to change their attitude and not treat citizens as adversaries. "The key in our treatment of these protests has to be focused on whether the people's basic rights have been infringed," said Wang.

As a long-time observer of social problems, Professor Sun also regards the Wukan case as a new model for solving social disputes. "The true significance of the Wukan incident is that it defines the case for local villagers to pursue their legitimate interests in a more rational way," wrote Sun in one of his recent essays.

Though the resolution of the Wukan protest has received kudos from academics and netizens, some local officials warn that there are risks behind the government's compromise.

"There are some individuals who would take advantage of the pressure we face to prevent unrest by putting forward unreasonable demands," the local official from Fujian complained.

Zhao Dingxin, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, believes there are two ways to deal with the rise in the number of mass incidents. "The authority of law needs to be improved and the government needs to have the courage and ability to fight against illegal mass incidents and suppress them when needed," said Zhao in an interview with Chinese Time Weekly, adding that neither suppressing without bargaining or unconditional acquiescence are answers.

Resort to the courts

Sun believes using the legal framework is a key to a win-win solution to social problems. "The public expression of legitimate demands should be protected, but those who have irrational demands and threaten social unrest should be punished," said Sun.

In 2010 a training base for public crisis management was set up at the Chinese Academy of Governance. It's mainly aimed at helping local officials better deal with the dramatic uptick in mass incidents.

Professor Zhu Lijia, with the Chinese Academy of Governance, said the training should concentrate on how to prevent the abuse of power which is the main trigger of most social disputes.

"Social unrest is largely due to the lack of restrictions on the powerful who play key roles in social governance. We need a series of real reforms immediately to contain their power and to improve social justice," said Zhu.

Many academics suggest the key cause of social unrest is the lack of opportunity for ordinary people to protect their own interests through consultations and negotiations with the government. Professor Sun wants more resources invested in dispute-settling mechanisms that allow people to express their concerns more freely.

"In order to realize a long and peaceful reign, it's very important that we rebuild people's trust in the government through a series of open, transparent and legal procedures," said Sun.

Party School professor Wang wants to see a more open attitude towards advocate lawyers who know the law and legal procedures.

More open debate

"Lawyers can better lead citizens to protect their rights within the legal framework, and as a result, help push forward a peaceful settlement of social disputes," said Wang, adding a more independent judicial system is needed to help safeguard social justice.

Wang admits that there is a gap between his classroom discussions and the real world problems local officials have to face on the frontline but he insists that open discussion and debate are essential.

"If we don't have the courage to openly face our problems, how can we solve them?" said Wang.


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