Unraveling social unrest in China
The biggest question the world is asking about China is how well can its polity handle social unrest?
The other day, I was talking to a former US official who had been part of the Copenhagen negotiations. He mentioned how China had, in American eyes, double-crossed Barack Obama by going back on a pre-summit deal the two countries had worked out.
“Why are they doing this?” I asked.
“Feeling their oats. Hu Jintao is heading for a difficult succession. Diverting attention from social unrest. All three. No one knows,” he said.
In many ways, that is the 300 kilogram in the room when anyone tries to make sense of China. How fearful is the leadership of the rage of the farm and the street? And how much do they feel they have to do to assuage it?
India has no shortage of demonstrations and worse. But it also has a democratic structure that absorbs this by providing an independent judiciary and giving everyone the right to “vote the bastards out of power.”
China doesn’t, obviously, allow this given its one-party structure. So the state finds different ways to divert this anger. It buys peace with prosperity. It provides the equivalent of the Roman circuses by promoting popular culture, fun and games. It occasionally arrests and executies erring officials. It also positions itself as the protector of Chinese nationalism, standing up to the foreign barbarians and the rebel provincials.
If all else fails, it jails and shoots its people.
I came upon a speech by Yu Jianrong, a leading expert on domestic unrest at the China Academy of Social Sciences, given in December which I found frank and enlightening.
Yu says China is, overall, a stable society. But it is what he calls a “rigid stability” and therefore has inherent weaknesses. He points out such stability has three, all dangerous, characteristics.
The first characteristic, he says, is that its driven by “the ultimate goal of all the Communist Party’s goals” which is “how it can hold a monopoly on political power.”
The second characteristic “is that things that would ordinarily be considered regular social activities can all be seen as ‘elements of instability.’ For example, demonstrations, labour strikes, transportation strikes—these activities are all being seen as ‘unstable.’ Now, even petitioning higher levels of government has been turned into an ‘element of instability’.”
The third characteristic is that “to control society [and achieve] ‘rigid stability’ does not primarily rely on the judiciary and primarily relies on the following: state violence, ideology, and controls on societal organizations.”
This results in a society that under many indicators, like crime and so on, is more stable than many other nations of comparable or wealthier per capita income.
But it is a society that has a certain tinderbox quality about it. Small things can spark conflagrations and the state tends to overreact to all small irruptions.
China has handled a lot of these blowups by simply shelling out lots of money.
Give the people what they want – in material terms. And fortunately the Chinese system has piles of money.
“Currently, [funds spent on maintaining] stability have become one the nation’s extremely significant expenditures; [maintaining stability] has become an enormous burden,” says Yu.
All the evidence is that social unrest has continued to rise and rise. Definitely hasn’t gone down. So what is Plan B?
The answer, at least under Hu Jintao, is to position the party as the protector of Chinese nationalism. In theory, communists are not nationalists. That is a bourgeouis concept. But the Chinese Communist Party is nothing if not practical.
Which raises the question if that is why Beijing has become so belligerent.
Arresting Rio Tinto executives and yelling at the Australians. Humiliating Obama not once but about four times. Getting into some ugly diplomatic exchanges with India over Arunachal and the Dalai Lama. And so on.
As one Western diplomat said to me, “They are not only assertive. They are becomingly unpredictably assertive.”
Of course, this is not a particularly sensible way to do things. Nationalism is a potent political force but extremely hard to control. A government often finds itself riding a tiger. The use of nationalism in a militaristic cast to paper over domestic social divisions was exactly what drove Wilhelmine Germany and arguably Tojo’s Japan into world wars.
So far, China seems to have tried a few tentative stabs in this area. Especially given that Hu Jintao is in pretty bad political shape as he enters the last year or so of his term. Playing the Don’t Mess with the Middle Kingdom card is also what ensured there could be no compromise between Beijing and Google.
However, such actions could make things only worse in the long term.
Yu, who also described what he calls “venting incidents” – forms of social protest driven by class resentments, says one reason for these happening “is that there is no source of authoritative information” in China.
People distrust the state and therefore all its appendages, including the media.
“Ever since the internet and text messages, modern China no longer has a source of authoritative information,” he says.
And sending Google packing has only made it all that much harder for Beijing to serve as a bridge over troubled waters.