Yu Jianrong: Rigid Stability: an Explanatory Framework for China’s Social Situation (1)
Dr. Yu Jianrong was born in 1962. He received a Ph.D. in Legal Studies from Huazhong Normal University in 2001. He currently serves as Professor and Director of the Rural Development Institute’s Social Issues Research Center at the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences in Beijing, China, and is a Visiting Scholar with the Harvard Yenching Institute at Harvard University. His published works include:
Politics of Yue Village: Changes in the Political Structure in China’s Rural Villages in the Transition Period
Organized Peasant Resistance and it Political Risk: A Survey of H County, Hunan Province
Rural Organized Crime and the Retreat of Local Sovereignty
Contemporary Chinese Peasants’ Activism Through Law
Social Conflict in Transitional China: Observations on the Rights Advocacy Activities of Workers and Peasants in Contemporary China.
Thanks to David Kelly, researcher at the University of Technology Sydney, for translating the following text:
Yu Jianrong: Rigid Stability: an Explanatory Framework for China’s Social Situation
Time: May 9, 2009
Location: China University of Administration and Law (Jimen Campus)
Moderator: For today’s 31st “Yanshan Lecture,” we invited well-known scholar Yu Jianrong. His areas of concern, from peasant rights to worker rights, have adhered always to an academic position of standing at and speaking for the baseline. His research on social conflict and household churches are new and revelatory.
Today’s topic: “Rigid stability – an explanatory framework for China’s social situation”; I invite the professor.
Yu Jianrong: Good afternoon, everyone.
My topic today is work I began earlier this year; I gave a presentation on it at Waseda University, in Japan. 
Today I want to provide a theoretical framework, adding some theoretical analysis.
Among scholars there are two completely different points of view about China’s current social situation: the first is that Chinese society is in turmoil, and many would argue that since 2008, with the financial crisis, Chinese society is full of problems.
Meanwhile, a completely different theory is that while there are many problems with China’s stability, there will be no turbulence; Chinese society is on the whole the world’s most stable and most active system of government, which shows precisely the superiority of the Chinese socialist system. There are mainstream scholars of late who may often be heard saying that China is a model late developing country. What is the actual state of Chinese society now? I would like today to make an analysis of China’s political and social stability.
My view is: a number of social conflicts are going on in China today, but there has been no change in its overall political unity or effectiveness of social control; this stability of Chinese society is a rigid one, bearing very great social risks. To prevent greater social turmoil occurring in China, a series of changes needs to be made.
I want to discuss three issues related to this: (1) what is actually taking place; (2) how to understand China’s current rigid stability; (3) what is to be done?
First, I would argue that Chinese society is on the whole stable. In it, rights defence activities triggered by conflicts of interest, and incidents of social venting arising from social psychological imbalances, have a certain impact on the social order, but these events do not fundamentally undermine China’s political unity or the effectiveness of its social governance.
The term “social stability” is generally used with reference to mass incidents. These are generally thought of as illegal and liable to lead to changes in the social order. According to relevant state agency provisions, mass incidents involving less than 1,000 people are deemed large; during the course of last year, group incidents significantly increased in number. Let’s start with a simple analysis.
Group incidents in Chinese society include rights defence by workers and peasants, social anger-venting events, and riots.
The main demand of these groups’ rights defence, on analysis, will be found that, in the peasant group, the issues are mainly about land, land issues are the focus of rural rights defence protests, a large number of studies have found that issue of Chinese peasant land accounts for more than 60% of rural issues; different to the demands of peasants right defence, wages are the main demands of workers rights defence conflicts; for urban residents, the main topic of rights defence is homeowner rights.
There are several characteristics of these rights defence struggles. First, they are over interests, not power.
In other words, the current peasant problem in China is mainly a matter of interests, rather than power. I have mentioned in many places Guangdong Party Secretary Zhang Dejiang’s judgment regarding the rights defence issue at present. Zhang said in a report to the national leadership on 8 May 2007 that a lot of problems had occurred in Guangdong, but they were all contradictions among the people. What are contradictions among the people? They are ones that can be resolved using money. This may not sound nice, but he was right, the rights defence struggles of workers, peasants, and townspeople are at present struggles about interests, not power struggles. They are not trying to gain the power of the ruling party, but want you to give him interests.
Second, awareness of rules [guize 规则 — trans.] outweighs awareness of rights. This point of view was not proposed by me but by Elizabeth Perry, a professor at Harvard. In 2007 she wrote a very influential article saying that we have for many years formed a view that China would collapse: why then hasn’t it done so?  It’s because we don’t understand China, don’t know what the people of China are up to. Many problems found in China are different from the West, because Western people are on about the law, while Asians are on about rules; in the eyes of ordinary Chinese people awareness of the rules outweighs awareness of rights.
Let me give you an example. What does the Chinese man in the street want to go tell the government about? He would say, “You said you’d give me 10 yuan, how can you only give me 5? Your government has no principles [guize], what you say can’t be counted on.” A Westerner would not talk like this, but would say, “How can you give me only 10 money, according to human rights, you should give me 100 yuan.” These are two completely different ways of thinking, one is based on existing principles of law, on ideology and innate human rights. Professor Perry’s view changes the whole Western judgment of Chinese society, she says that the ruling party wants people to be happy with what they have; if you don’t talk to Chinese people about rules [guize], but start talking about natural rights, then your troubles will be greater. Chinese people now do everything according to the government’s rules, which it does not observe. There are so many problems now precisely because the Government does not observe the rules, what it says can’t be counted on. This is the reason Chinese society maintains stability, without developing fundamental change. In July 2008 Professor Perry invited me to Harvard, where we had a discussion on “China’s political tradition and development,” explaining why the kind of unrest hadn’t happened in China as Western scholars assumed.
Third, being reactive outweighs being proactive. It seems to me that the people of China will not go looking for trouble from the Government, it is indeed the government that goes looking for trouble from the people, who feel “your inaction or chaotic actions cause problems,” he [the man in the street] is thus forced to take action, and the problems of peasants workers and townspeople are all related to this.
Fourth, simultaneous legitimacy of objectives and illegitimacy of actions.
I simply sum up these four characteristics of rights defence. A most important feature of so many present issues in China is, we would argue, rights defence.
The second type of group events is like the Weng’an incident that happened on 28 June 2008, which I term “social anger venting.”
I coined he term at a lecture I gave in an American university on October 30, 2007, when I really could find no term to sum up the “Weng’an incident.”
I think that there is a special kind of group incident that may be called anger venting incidents. They have a number of characteristics: (1) their occurrence is quite fortuitous, with no general process as in petitions or administrative litigation; (2) the most critical problem is that there are no obvious organisers, the vast majority of those taking part have no actual stake, mainly seeing injustice in the street, then seizing upon this opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with society mainly in order to give vent to it; (3) new media play a significant role in the process, such as networking and messaging; the fourth characteristic is incidents of beating, smashing, looting, burning and otherwise violating Government agencies and other facilities. If you study social anger-venting events, you will find all the issues have clear targets in terms of claims; while with the third type there is no such disturbance, nor need it have a clear target.
In the conflict in Jishou in September 2008 over illegal fund-raising, the violence involved shops and other social facilities; on National Day in October 2008 all the stores in Jishou City were closed. Rights defence, anger venting and turmoil are thus not the same.
The fourth type is ideological social conflict. This is mainly manifested in religious and ethnic issues. This type of conflict has a very important feature, namely that it has a certain degree of organisation.
We simply present the four-fold categorization of social issues. Going through this brief introduction, you will find that 80% of group events in China currently are over rights defence, having a very clear interest demand; the public authorities and infringers are targeted, and not necessarily with violence; in the case of anger venting incidents there are clear interest demands, aimed again at public authorities and infringers, with violence; in the case of riots the demands are complex, the public authorities and infringers are targeted, with violence; in the case of religious conflicts there are clear political demands, the public authorities and infringers are targeted, and they are definitely violent.
We are, in fact, very confused about many of the problems in China today. In the television to see demonstrations and a lot of problems taking place in other countries, this is street politics, which China does not have. China has rights defence, and there are riots, but no street politics, why do we say this? I think relatively speaking, someone protesting against government, inaction or random action, is in order to resolve some practical interest problems, but there are no clear political demands, and it is not in order to overthrow the government and replace it.
At present there are many human rights organisations in China, but as yet without genuine organised political force. Each incident is isolated; it is difficult to form a national social movement. The generally judgment about a social movement, not only must it have organisation, objectives and discourse, but also fairly detailed sustainable activiy, again not found in China. These issues are influential in China’s current politics, but it cannot change our political structure, nor would it fundamentally affect the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of government rule. China’s political unity has not shaken today, so I think it is a relatively stable country.