Yu Jianrong (于建嵘): Maintaining a Baseline of Social Stability (Part 5)

Dr. Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), chairman of the Social Issues Research Center of the Rural Development Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences, delivered a speech entitled “Maintaining a Baseline of Social Stability” before the Beijing Lawyers Association on December 26, 2009. This is part 5 of the CDT translation, here are part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.

The third characteristic [of rights defense activities] is that there is a blurry line between the legality of the goal and the illegality of the actions [taken to achieve the goal]. The legality of a great number of rights defense activities of the Chinese people is somewhat unclear. This is a characteristic of more than 80% of China’s current mass incidents related to rights defense activities.
So what was the problem that occurred on June 17, 2009 in Hubei Province, Shishou City? The elite armed guards were beaten by the people until they dropped their helmets and armor and fled pell-mell. What is it that happened? Was what occurred the same as the rights defense activities that I have just spoken about? It was not the same. I call this type of event “a social venting incident.” My giving it this name got me into a great deal of trouble, I was almost placed under shuanggui [Party house arrest].” (Laughter) On October 30, 2007, I gave a speech in America at University of California, Berkeley. I said that China has recently experienced a new kind of mass incident that differed from rights defense activities. That speech was the first time I gave these incidents the name “social venting incidents.” The first characteristic of these incidents is that the participants do not have a material request [to the government]; they are mainly venting to society their feelings of resentment and anger. What are they upset about? They are upset at government powers and at rich people. The second characteristic of these events is that the participants are not organized; the incidents happen quickly and then disperse quickly.

On November 8th right when I got back to Beijing, the problems began. When I turned on my cell phone I saw a text message from the Secretary of the [Rural Development] Institute’s Party Committee telling me to contact him immediately upon returning. So I called him and said, “Secretary, I’m back, what’s the matter?” He said, “Are you back?” I said that I had just gotten off the plane and hadn’t yet gone through customs. He said, “Come back immediately to the work unit [the Rural Development Institute].” I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “It’s very serious.” I asked, “Is it okay if I come tomorrow?” He answered, “No, you must come today, you must rush over first thing.” Our work unit does not require you to be at the office; if you’re not there no one will mind. It’s usually rare for me in the course of a year to show up more than a few times. They often joke and say that I visit the Academy of Social Sciences only if it’s convenient, just if it’s on the way to somewhere else that I’m going. (Laughter) But when [the Party Secretary] said this I had no choice. When I heard this, I felt that there must be something very serious afoot. They pay my salary so I had no choice but to take my backpack and go. Right when I got to my work unit and saw our [Party] secretary, I said, “Secretary, what’s the matter?” Our [Party] secretary took out a sheet of paper and showed it to me. It was a report written to the central government leaders by a department, a department that specializes in tattling to the central government. The title was, “Speech Given in America by Professor Yu Jianrong of the Academy of Social Sciences.” The first sentence was that Yu Jianrong stated that China has experienced some sort of “venting incidents” which refer primarily to dissatisfaction towards government powers and the wealthy. [These incidents] are anti-government and anti-rich. [The whole document] was about 300 characters long. There was a memo written on the side by a leader who had recently risen to the central government from the local government level. His memo was very good, very tactful. He recommended that the Academy of Social Sciences have a talk with comrade Yu Jianrong and that famous scholars should pay attention to the influence [their comments might have]. Then he signed his name. This document was a huge pain.

It was a big deal that this report came to our work unit. The work unit’s senior leaders were not there, and the [Institute’s Party] secretary was very upset. He wrote a memo on the side: “The Rural Development Institute must have a serious talk with Yu Jianrong.” (Laughter) “We are a socialist nation, our people support their government; what could they possibly have to vent about?!” “Since the people have nothing to vent about, how could there be a ‘venting incident?’ You’re talking nonsense. Our leaders have told you not to spout rubbish, and here you go everywhere spouting rubbish. (Laughter) Look, isn’t this a mess?” I said, “What’s the mess?” They replied, “How is this not a mess? The central government leader’s memo says that we must have a talk with you; therefore, we must have a talk with you. Furthermore, our talk will be recorded and sent back to the central government; these are the rules. What are we supposed to do if you don’t have this talk with us?” So I asked our leaders, I said, “Have you seen a draft of my speech?” He said that he had not and added, “You are going all over the place giving speeches and have never shown the leaders any of your speech drafts.” (Laughter). I said, “Have you heard a recording of my speech?” He said that he had not: “You were in America speaking, where am I supposed to go to hear your speech?” So, I said, “Then I’m not having this talk with you.” He asked, “Why?” I said, “Your founding father, Mao Zedong once said, if you haven’t performed an investigation, you have no right to speak. I spoke in the United States for three hours; how can you require me to have a talk with you on the basis of some three hundred characters. I’m not talking with you unless you perform an investigation. No investigation, no talk.” I lay down on the sofa there to fall asleep; I said I had jetlag. The [Party] secretary of ours spoke to me in a gentle voice; “If you don’t have a talk with me then I’ll have a huge mess on my hands.”

Finally, the [Rural Development] Institute’s Party Committee held a meeting. After the meeting the [Party] secretary conveyed to me their decision, “The Party Committee has discussed that it is somewhat reasonable for you to not have a talk with us now, and we, who are engaged in social science research, must be reasonable. How about this, the Party Committee has decided that you can return home today; however, this week you are not to leave Beijing and must return here upon being called.” I said, “Isn’t this the same as placing me under shuanggui [Party house arrest]?’” (Laughter) I waited for five days. The [Party] secretary called me on the phone. Because he knew that I loved to run all over the place—wherever there is problem I always want to go there to have a look—therefore he knew that I was pretty sad being confined in Beijing and not permitted to leave. I said, “Secretary, what’s new? Can we have our talk?” He said, “We’re not having a talk.” I said, “Why are we not having the talk?” He replied, “We downloaded a recording of your talk from Berkeley’s website and had someone who could understand Hunanese transcribe it. (Laughter)* The Party Committee has all looked over it. We feel that you are not at fault. You are a good comrade who is concerned about the country and concerned about its people. (Laughter, applause) After hearing this, if you are interested, you can take a look at my speech given at Berkeley. The Southern Weekend and a lot of papers affiliated with the Southern Daily newspaper conglomerate all covered the speech.
Now, “social venting incidents” is a concept that everyone regularly uses. Xinhua News Agency, The People’s Daily, all use this term. Especially after last year’s “Weng’an Incident” and this year’s “Shishou Incident.” A lot of people joke and say, “Yu Jianrong, you have you have such a gift of prophecy, you invented a new term, a new concept, you’re amazing.” Actually, I don’t have the gift of prophecy; China had already experienced these kinds of problems but nobody had taken notice.

The earliest I became aware of this problem was after an incident occurred on October 18, 2004 in Chongqing. A porter surnamed Yu while shifting his bamboo shoulder pole from one should to another, bumped a woman surnamed Zheng. This woman yelled at the guy surnamed Yu saying, “Are you blind? Can you not even carry a bamboo pole?” This porter named Yu had been at his occupation for many years and thought he would dispel the situation by making light of it. He said, “How can you say I’m blind? My eyes are in the front of my head; you were behind me. So sure, while the eyes in the back of my head might be blind, the eyes in the front of my head are perfectly fine.” Saying this created a big mess; the Zheng woman’s husband came over. Her husband slapped the guy named Yu and said, “You bumped someone and you still refuse to admit you were wrong, you even dare to talk back.” The guy named Yu put his load down, picked up his bamboo pole and said, “How dare you hit people? If I bumped you, caused you injury, sent you to the hospital, poked a hole in your clothes, etc., then I would be happy to pay for your losses; but how dare you hit me?” Then they got into an argument. After the argument started, people began to gather around from all corners. The people were saying, “That’s right, how dare you hit him? You city people are so awful, how dare you hit people!”

Then, this husband said something he’ll regret his whole life. He said, “I am one of the nation’s civil servants, so what if I hit the guy?” (Laughter) There were more and more people then. What was this public servant going to do now? A lot of people had gathered around; the people on the outside couldn’t see what was going on in the inside. When asked what was going on, people said, “It’s terrible, one of the nation’s civil servants has beaten to death one of us Bangbang” (which means “porter” in the local Chongqing dialect). (Laughter) They even said that he was beaten to death for no reason at all: “How can that be okay?” So people came from all corners and surrounded them. The incident moved to the police station; the people surrounded the police station. They demanded that the police station hand over the dead body, and that they hand over the murderer. The police station said, “No one has died.” The people said, “How can you say that no one has died; everyone is saying that someone died.” In the end, they smashed up the police station. After smashing up the police station, they said, “The police station belongs to the government, so let’s simply go and smash up the government [building].” And so they went and smashed up the government [building].
After this incident occurred, Beijing was very shaken. I brought a group of people to do an investigation. At the time we wondered whether in the case of these more than ten thousand people that smashed in the [government building]; whether it was like what I was originally talking about earlier—was there some kind of mafia involvement? But according to our investigation, there was no such involvement, it was extreme happenstance.
The occurrence of this event started with this one small incident. It occurred suddenly; after the smashing was done, everyone left and had a few drinks. (Laughter) At the time, we were also wondering whether [the disruption] had any organizers. Our findings discovered that there was no organization; not only was there no organization, there was also no mafia involvement, nothing—it was just extreme happenstance. The key problem was that this group of people [involved in the disturbance] had no relationship with the precipitating event. At the time some people were taken [by the police]. We went and asked them, “Do you know the porter surnamed Yu?” They said, “We don’t know him.” We asked, “Do you know the woman surnamed Zheng? “We don’t know her.” We asked, “So then why did you smash in the government [building]? They responded, “We were seeking revenge for our dead porter, we were seeking justice for him.” We again asked, “How were expecting to get justice?” They answered, “A government official beat to death one of our people and didn’t even think anything of it. If we didn’t seek justice for these ordinary people, who would?!”
Not long afterwards, a new incident occurred on June 26, 2005 in Chizhou, Anhui Province. There was a boss driving in a car with a Jiangsu license plate.** At an intersection, the car hit a kid. The name of this kid was Liu Liang. The boss’s car stopped; his driver was very upset. But they discovered that Liu Liang stood up. Everyone knows how drivers feel in this kind of situation; first they are very upset, then, once they see that the someone gets up, then they start in with the yelling and shouting. He yelled at this kid saying, “Is this how you cross a road? If I hadn’t just now slammed on the brakes you’d be dead by now.” Liu Liang was a high school student and was large in stature, but he was so scared he started crying saying, “You just ran into me and now this is how you’re treating me?” He then pounced at the car. Two people [who were originally in the car] began tearing him away from the car. Liu Liang pulled at the car’s taillight panel, possibly even pulling it off. Several people who were in the car surrounded him and blocked him off from the car. At this time two people who drove three-wheeled pedicabs came over surrounding them saying, “You ran into someone and not only do you not send them to the hospital to get medical care, what do you do about it, you go and beat them up! The driver said, “It’s not that I didn’t hit someone, it’s just that he’s fine now.” This common person [the pedicab driver] said, “And how do you know that he is fine? Without sending him to the hospital, without taking pictures, how can you know that he’s all right? What if he looks fine now and after a little bit he isn’t fine, then what can be done about it?!” At this time a passenger in the car had this to say, “We didn’t kill the kid, and even if we had, here in your province of Anhui, we would only have to pay 300,000 RMB, what’s so terrible about that?” What a mess this created. There were more and more people; those on the outside asked those on the inside what had happened. [Those on the inside answered], “It’s terrible, a boss from Jiangsu driving his car ran over, and killed one of our kids, he even stamped his foot twice on the kid’s dead body. (Laughter) He even said, “What are Anhui people worth anyways, if you kill one they only cost 300,000 RMB.” This news spread rapidly throughout all of Chizhou. The people were saying, “Anhui people do have value, Hu Jintao is even from Anhui.” (Laughter) “So what should we do about it? Smash up their car, loot everything from a supermarket connected with [the Jiangsu boss], go to the police station and smash up the police station.”

Based upon my investigation of these two cases, I felt some confusion at the time. I wondered whether China’s society had undergone some kind of change. [Some people] when they hear that you are a government official or a civil servant, or when they hear that you are wealthy, are filled with anger towards you. The participants [in the disturbance] had absolutely nothing to do with the [precipitating] event. They knew nothing of Liu Liang and knew nothing about the person driving the car. They knew even less about the person who ran the supermarket. All they knew was that a rich person had run over and killed one of our people, and had insulted us poor folk. After the investigation, I started to think that this type of incident had a very basic distinction from rights defense activities. I wondered if a new term could be used to define this type of incident. After thinking back and forth I thought of the words hate, and indignation. Therefore, I called these types of incidents “venting incidents.”

* The joke here is that Professor Yu gave the talk in Mandarin, and his regional Hunan accent is so thick when he speaks Mandarin, it is as though he is speaking in the regional Hunan dialect.

** This detail is significant because Jiangsu is one of the wealthiest provinces in China and Anhui one of the poorest.

[To be continued]


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