The Weng'an model: China’s fix-it governance

Li Datong
30 July 2008

A constant feature of the extraordinary social flux of contemporary China is the occurrence of serious clashes between the public and the police. A few examples from May-July 2008 indicate the extent and variety of this phenomenon:

* on 26 May, police in Chengdu arrested people who witnessed them attempting to steal tents meant for earthquake-relief work; this sparked a confrontation between members of the public and the police

* on 28 June, over 10,000 people attacked government and party buildings and set fire to a police station in Weng'an county, Guizhou province; this action was related to a belief that a local high-school girl had been raped and killed by people with links to the government

* on 5 July, family members of a drowned driver in Fugu county, Shaanxi province attempted to seize the body of the deceased from police; this sparked a riot in which three police cars were smashed and seven people arrested

* on 9 July, several police officers in Yuhuan county, Zhejiang province were injured when over 1,000 migrant workers attacked their building; this was related to problems migrant workers had had in obtaining temporary residence permits in the county

* on 17 July, dozens of people were injured when members of the public clashed with the police in Boluo, Guangdong province; citizens had suspected the police of beating a motorcyclist to death

* on 19 July, rubber-plantation workers in Menglian county, Yunnan province held a protest; police opened fire on the demonstrators, killing two and injuring one.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of BingdianFreezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper.

Among Li Datong's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"Xiamen: the triumph of public will" (16 January 2008),

"China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008),

"China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008),

"China: after the quake, the debate" (16 June 2008),

"China's leaders, the media, and the internet" (4 July 2008),

"China's digital nationalism: Kung Fu Panda under fire" (16 July 2008).

When a conflict between the public and police occurs, the Beijing authorities routinely classify the event under the broad heading of "mass incidents". Media workers in China know that the term "mass incident" in fact refers to any incident which has to be quelled using the police. How many such incidents take place in China each year? The estimate for 2007, collated by weighing a number of sources, is 80,000. But this number is hard to verify. The authorities strictly prohibit reporting on where incidents take place, their causes, the extent of casualties and the outcome of the conflicts.

Even if media outlets become aware that such an event is taking place, most will not send anyone to investigate it because they know that their reports will not be publishable. In this light the fact that so many reports on "mass incidents" have seen the light of day in the first seven months of 2008 is a real sign of progress. Of all the incidents that have been reported, the one that has been covered in most detail, and which has been most discussed online, is one of those listed above: the Weng'an incident of 28 June 2008.

A change in the climate

The riot that took place on 28 June in Weng'an county was even more serious than the protests in Lhasa in mid-March 2008. In Weng'an, over 10,000 people directly attacked the party committee and government building, and the local police station. Images of the chaos spread quickly across the internet. The official media - perhaps as the result of some modification of the censorship system - broke with the tradition of covering up such events. At the same time, the news stories that did appear were full of familiar, hackneyed phrases (such as "a minority of people incited the masses, who were ignorant of the true situation" and "attacked the party and government.") The establishment media stuck to this line even though China's netizens all knew that such reporting was inaccurate and thousands posted comments questioning the official story.

After three or four days, however, there was a change in the climate. The Guizhou provincial party secretary Shi Zongyuan made a personal inspection tour of Weng'an and offered his views on the fundamental reasons for the unrest. His comments suggested that these went far beyond the ostensible trigger of the assault on the high-school student: Shi Zongyuan instead cited the way that the process of developing the mining industry in the area, accommodating migrants and relocating residents after their homes had been demolished had repeatedly infringed people's rights.

In dealing with the disputes that these changes had provoked, local officials had acted brutishly, and even made indiscriminate use of police power. The county government's failure to implement strong and fair policies, the party secretary implied, had brought public resentment to boiling-point."Local authorities have failed to pay sufficient attention to the concerns of the public", Shi Zongyuan said. "They have failed to crack down on dark forces and serious criminality. The crime rate is high, arrest rates are low, and this has created an unsafe environment."

Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:

Kerry Brown, "Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (12 March 2008),

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008),

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008),

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008),

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008),

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008),

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008),

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's political colours: from monochrome to palette" (14 May 2008),

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008),

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2008" (4 June 2008),

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "Tiananamen's shifting legacy" (26 June 2008),

Kerry Brown, "China on Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment" (11 July 2008).

Shi Zongyuan apologised three times to the people of Weng'an for the situation in their county. Even more surprising, the primary target of official sanction was not the rioting townspeople but the local officials. The county head, county party secretary, chief of police and commissar were all dismissed from their posts. In the end, even the more senior prefectural party secretary was sacked over the incident.

The significance of Weng'an is that this is the first time that local officials have been the first to come under scrutiny following a "mass incident" (see Simon Elegant, "China Protests: A New Approach?", Time, 4 July 2008). After the initial riot, Hu Jintao himself - general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and state president - issued a memo on how the incident should be handled. This evidence suggests that the highest authorities were dissatisfied with the initial response to events in Weng'an at local level, and demanded an investigation into their root causes. The contrast between the immediate official reaction and what was to follow within a few days shows how the party's style of governance is evolving.

A power beyond law

China's breakneck economic development since the mid-1980s has to a certain extent been founded on the premise that the state's monopoly on violence will protect the government and official institutions even as unfair burdens are imposed on the public. For two decades and more, Deng Xiaoping's mantra of "stability above all else" has been the highest article of faith at all levels of government. Those who protest or petition to the authorities - no matter the cause - can according in principle be accused of "breaching stability", and subject to legal repression.

The most common examples of this are the forced relocation of urban residents whose homes are to be demolished, and the appropriation of farmers' land in the countryside. The lack of any balancing power or democratic accountability has led to officials using ever cruder methods to deal with disputes. At the scene of almost all conflicts, the police tend to be out in force - as an instrument of state rather than of social protection. The use of state agencies as a tool in official hands is reflected in the way that the party secretary of Xifeng county, Liaoning province sent police to Beijing to arrest a journalist at a large newspaper who had written an article that the secretary found offensive (see Edward Cody, "Move to Arrest Journalist Sparks Backlash in China", Washington Post, 9 January 2008) . This is but one classic example of the abuse of police power with no regard for law or principle.

It is obvious that this form of governance cannot persist. Weng'an helps to show why, in three ways.

First, citizens have more access to information and freedom in circulating it than ever before. The fact that so many members of the public knew that the authorities' version of events in Weng'an was untrue or deficient, and were able to post their own stories and experiences, means that the total monopoly of information that was a bulwark of state power no longer holds (see Geoffrey A Fowler & Juliet Ye, "Chinese Bloggers Score a Victory Against the Government", Wall Street Journal, 5 July 2008).

Second, the Weng'an riot is revealing in that none of the rioters were themselves affected by the incident which sparked their protest. After all, the death of a girl in suspicious circumstances directly affects at most a few families. At a deeper level, however, an environment where public anger and frustration have been bottled up for a long time can lead to any available incident becoming the occasion for an eruption of mass fury. The commentator Xu Zhiyong, who said that "Weng'an could be any county in China", was right.

Third, local governments often act with wanton disregard for the law and public opinion. In the past the central government has chosen to tolerate this situation in order to maintain a united front. This has meant that the actions of some local officials have come to reflect on the government as a whole. The inevitable result - evident in Weng'an in the disparity between initial and eventual official reactions - is a crisis of governance.

A new rulebook

The central government will do its best to address the first two points, however difficult this may prove. It also appears to have understood and begun to take action to meet the third - by, in effect, refusing to be held to ransom by local officials. Beijing is conscious that if local officials are not held to account, it will be the object of the public's accusations: it needs to act to defend itself.

Thus, the logic of the central government's demand for an investigation of "the root causes of events" in Weng'an is an examination of the culpability of officials at all levels. Indeed, three government departments have (independently of the Weng'an events) jointly released a set of regulations on punishments for the violation of rules on dealing with petitioning. A close reading of these makes it plain that they aim to lay responsibility for any unrest with local officials. If a "mass incident" develops, the local officials responsible will be punished. A single line speaks volumes: "Those who make indiscriminate use of police power during mass incidents will be stripped of party membership and dismissed from their posts."

The new rules appear already to be having some effect. The media has reported on some meetings between local officials and petitioners. Such gatherings are often extremely crowded, an indication of how deep and complex the task of solving the problems petitioners raise will be. True, neither this new approach nor the specific response to the Weng'an riot can solve all the problems the party is facing. However, the fact that officials as well as the public are now being held responsible for "mass incidents" is at least a step in the right direction of solving China's crisis of governance. 

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