China’s unstable stability

The Beijing leadership’s obsession with order and control in face of citizens' search for justice highlights the dysfunctional nature of China’s political system, says Li Datong.
Li Datong
3 August 2010

China has since 1979 been developing at breakneck speed. During this thirty-year period, the growth in government revenues has far outstripped increases in everyday people's incomes. Moreover, political reform has never really made it out of the starting-blocks. This has left China's rigid and deeply traditional political system unable to manage an increasingly complicated set of social transformations (see "Beijing's credibility crisis", 25 September 2009).

The nationwide political opposition in 1989 was a new experience for the authorities. With little idea of how to defuse the situation, they eventually resorted to violence. Since then, China's leaders have been gripped by an almost pathological fixation: maintaining stability. Deng Xiaoping, the architect of reform, rarely missed an opportunity to stress that “stability is everything” “stability comes first”, and that “without stability, we can achieve nothing". The notion has evolved to become one of the highest administrative tenets at every level of government.

The preparedness to use violence has become an increasingly explicit part of the state’s security mechanisms. The military reaction to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 is the most vivid example, but it is illustrated since then in less dramatic ways - for example, the huge growth of China’s security services and the rapid advances in the equipment they use, to the extent that China's paramilitary police are among the most advanced in the world. In several cities, the new-year “festivities” now consist of a street-parade of armed-police vehicles and other marvels of law-enforcement technology (see "Tiananmen: the legacy of 1989", 4 June 2009).

Such ritual displays of power turn real when, in Beijing and elsewhere, large squads of riot-police are deployed to support the demolition of people's homes to make way for redevelopment. And when local governments are faced with one of the tens of thousands of “mass incidents” that emerge in China each year, their first response is to send in the troops. A substantial proportion of these incidents now involves vigorous (sometimes violent) resistance by citizens to the the riot-squads’ depredations.

All these facilities are part of the internal-security budget - which increased by 16% in 2009, and will jump by another 8.9% in 2010. This “stability fund”  is second in size only to military spending in the government’s accounts, but - at 514 billion renminbi (RMB) ($76 bn) - fast approaching parity with it in absolute terms. It is also the twisted offspring of a backward and opaque political system (see Kerry Brown, "China and America: the uses of vulnerability", 8 June 2010).

The cost of control

The distortion reaches to the lowest rung of the social ladder. I know a woman who has petitioned for years to report the corruption of an official, a man from Guizhou who headed the city of Zunyi's representative office in Beijing. She had solid evidence which was confirmed by a Beijing court, so her claim already carried legal weight - yet what should have been a clear case has dragged on for a decade without any conclusion in sight. She told me recently that another Guizhou official offered her 800,000 RMB ($120,000) to drop her suit.

Indeed, the phenomenon of a tide of petitioners converging on Beijing from all corners of the country is one of the most worrisome forms of “instability” for China's local governments. The vast majority is turning to the central government in final hope after exhausting all local avenues. But the state agency responsible for “letters and calls” has no real power to solve problems at the grassroots; the posting of strongly-worded messages, or - at the limit - of administrative inspections to exert pressure on local officials is as much as Beijing can do. The counterproductive effect is to encourage local officials to block would-be petitioners from ever submitting their requests (see Kerry Brown, "China's shadow sector: power in pieces", 17 September 2009).

How big is the budget for blocking petitions? In October 2007, the month of the seventeenth Communist Party congress in Beijing, the province of Hebei sent 5,000 “anti-petition” officials to Beijing in pursuit of its “zero-petition” target. In total, provincial governments sent as many as 100,000 agents to the capital with the express task of keeping petitioners out. A lower-level official from Shandong explains how it works: “When the higher-ups want us to intercept a petitioner, they'll immediately send two or three people to track the person down. It costs about 10,000-20,000 RMB a time because they pay for everything - food, living expenses, even petrol.”

But forcibly returning people home doesn't solve the problem - many make a fresh dash for Beijing the moment their supervision is lifted. This leaves the last-resort solution of throwing money at the problem and hoping it will go away - hence “spending for stability”.

And what spending! The snatch-and-return policy is just one part of a wider public-security effort which (according to publicly available statistics) cost Guangzhou 4.4 billion renminbi alone in 2007 - against a welfare-and-jobs fund its authorities spent 3.5 billion RMB on.

The end of the road

The spectral terror of “instability” has long created administrative distortions at every level of China's government. But here there is a key difference between China and elsewhere. The administration in a normal country has to deal with different sets of competing interests; for a government to survive, it must make sure that constitutional and legal mechanisms are able to handle any clashes between different interest-groups. Thus, the existence of a robust legal system reassures people that in pressing circumstances they have the means to argue their case and receive an impartial ruling.

In China. however, state agencies continue to struggle on in precisely the opposite direction (see Minxin Pei, China's Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy, Harvard University Press, 2008). If a a single area begins to experience a glut of similar cases - say, inadequate compensation-payments for house-relocation - the government will routinely order district-courts to stop hearing that kind of case. The inevitable result is to force people onto the much more arduous path of seeking redress for their grievances on their own initiative and outside formal legal channels.

The imposition of stability via a combination of violence and money creates a vicious cycle, well conveyed in a Tsinghua University report: “People end up with a misguided set of expectations. To resolve a problem, you need to kick up the kind of fuss that's going to 'upset stability’; if you can't threaten stability, then forget about finding any solutions to your troubles” (see New thinking on stability maintenance: long-term social stability via institutionalised expression of interests, Social Development Research Group, Tsinghua University, April 2010).

Again, both groups and individuals are left with no choice but to rely on extra-legal measures - including violence - to vent their frustrations. They translate the official line of “paying for stability” into a straightforward calculus: “cause a riot, problem solved; cause a disturbance, problem partially solved; keep quiet, no solution at all.”

The government is close to spending as much on maintaining stability as on its standing army. The result is a deep black hole. But more than money is being thrown away - so is the Beijing government’s moral capital. China's political way of doing business has reached a dead end.

This article was translated from Chinese by Oliver Lough

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