How can we find the boundaries of propriety in managing mass incidents?
Huang Huo: In the past few years, a contagion of “maladjustment” to mass incidents has been plaguing local governments. Examples of bad judgment and inappropriate handling are ubiquitous. Yet recently, local government’s standards for handling problems have improved with regards to mass incidents. Whether it’s the rationale behind the handling of the problem or the methods themselves, there has been a certain amount of change, demonstrating an “aptitude for learning.”
For example, on the level of open access to information and guidance of public opinion, the government had always remained silent in the past. This led to the propagation of rumors and false news. Now, the local governments distribute information much more quickly, transmitting their own voice, as in the “Weng’an Incident” and the “Yunnan Menglian Incident.” Moreover, these local governments have gained valuable references on civilian livelihood and conflict from the handling of such cases as the “Chongqing Taxi Driver Strike” through the information age.
Although they have improved to a certain extent, some localities are still learning many lessons in how not to handle mass incidents. The lesson that stands out is that of local governments have not fully understood their duties, and have not held strictly to a principle of “unbiased government” in the midst of market capitalist struggle. On the contrary, they bound themselves to powerful interest groups. They transformed the motto of “ruling for the people” into “serving the boss” and “serving capital.” They then went as far as to use heavy-handed measures against civilians during the mass incidents. The “Yunnan Menglian Incident” is a classic case.
Another lesson involves cadres being willing to speak the truth and to face contradictions. This requires a systematic acculturation and evaluation of cadres.
The central government has admitted that this is a “period of outstanding contradictions;” but on the way from implementation to concrete acts of execution, many local governments also ask the lower levels to “remain incident free” and to avoid mass incidents. Having no appeals to high-level authorities, no one travelling to Beijing to make demands: this is called “stability.” It has also become an important measure of the cadre’s performance and promotion record. Because of this, the lower level officials do not dare reveal problems to their superiors or speak the truth. Instead, they do all in their power to suppress negative information and move mountains to obstruct those who would make appeals to the central government. Only when the problem becomes too big do they report to their superiors.
If “stability” becomes a kind of “social control,” then in terms of practical execution it becomes a matter of: “keeping things under control is stability, pacification is ability, having no incidents is real skill, and compromise is harmony.” This naturally causes mass incidents to follow the expansive pattern of “small to big, big to explosive.”
Zhong Yuming: Local governments need to be particularly careful to avoid “drinking poison to quench thirst”: In other words, in the name of quickly achieving peace, they will pay off whoever needs to be paid off and release whomever it is demanded they release. The letter and procedure of the law are thrown to the four winds. This results in the amelioration process of mass incidents turning into “anti-legalization precedents.”
Currently, there is a tacit “gold standard” for some local governments dealing with mass incidents: to disperse the crowds as quickly as possible. They do not query too deeply into the issue of whether or not the methods are legal, or what effects they might have on social management thereafter.
In order to “quench their thirst” quickly, some local governments do not follow legal procedures in dealing with mass incidents in the name of efficiency.
With this kind of temptation, the crowds are more likely to “follow justification” instead of “following the law”: if my interests have suffered, then I have “justification” and I am allowed to create havoc as I please. The government must immediately satisfy my demands.
The more quickly the government satisfies mass demands, the more irritable the public psychology becomes. It becomes a mentality of expecting near “instant gratification.” The people worry that as soon as the gathered crowd disperses and the media attention moves to its next target, the government will simply become indifferent. Even matters such as the reform of rules concerning taxis and a crackdown on illegal cars, matters that require a colossal investment of human and material resources, there is an expectation for immediate effectiveness. When certain medical accidents set off a mass incident, there are objective limitations to the method of solving of the case. Sometimes exams take half a month to run; but the media will often express dissatisfaction with words such as: “It’s been four days since the incident occurred, and the case has still had no developments.”
In order to quickly “quench the thirst,” the “rich governments” spend money to buy the peace, forcing “poor governments” and enterprises to face difficulties. For example, when the Hejun toy factory in Zhangmutou township, Dongguan closed down, the boss ran away. The local government immediately promised to step up and pay the entirety of the workers’ salary. The workers were extremely satisfied, and immediately demanded compensation beyond the owed salary. Zhangmutou happily paid, and the media reported on it shamelessly. Before this, the Hejun toy factory had built a second factory in the Guangdongshan zone, and it also closed down. While the “example” of Dongguan sat before the workers’ eyes, the Shan zone government was not as well-endowed as Dongguan and was filled with worry. In order to “quench the thirst” quickly, they use violence against mass incidents, and some locales turn a blind eye to violations of relevant national laws. The state departments’s “Letters and Visits Decree” has lost legitimacy. The stipulation of “recommending five representatives” has been ignored. Some local police departments would detain a number of the violent participants, and the crowd would immediately add “release the prisoners!” to its “demands,” declaring that “we won’t leave until you release the prisoners!” As a result, in order to avoid “not having a good exit,” the police departments are hesitant even in the matter of detaining violent actors. In disputes over state-expropriated land, some people obstruct construction and destroy equipment, or attack government and construction workers. We don’t hear often of these people being subjected to the law.