Yu Jianrong (于建嵘): Maintaining a Baseline of Social Stability (Part 7)

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 7 of the CDT translation, here are part 1. part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 6:

Based upon my work dividing mass incidents into categories and describing their characteristics, I have come to the following conclusion. Currently, Chinese society as a whole is stable. This can be seen by the fact that China’s politics and rulers are united and that there have not yet been actions directed towards opposing the central government. We political scientists researching politics first [look at] the ability of the central government powers to control local governments. Someone came up with the conclusion that currently China’s central government is weak, and this and that about China. Let me tell you another way to analyze the situation. As of now, there has not been a single local leader who has dared step forward and oppose the central government. If you look at all of China’s local leaders, all the central government has to do is hold one meeting. Then, even if [the local leader] could not be more opposed [to the decision made at the meeting], even if they could not be more upset [at the decision], they will still make a statement that they resolutely support the central government’s decision, that they are firmly united behind such and such a person. They don’t dare not make this statement. If they don’t make the statement then they lose their position. This is a necessity of our political community; now nobody dares to openly say that the central government is wrong.

Furthermore, social controls are still effective. Don’t look at the fact that a lot of problems are happening today; the Communist Party still has the ability to keep society under control. [Consider] for example the cases of SARS and swine flu. [Also consider] the case where [the country] wants to hold a National Day celebration. We in Beijing understand this problem the most. [The government] can deploy all [its] powers to “defend public order.” With one word, those old ladies wearing red armbands are out there standing in the intersection [blocking streets off for events], [yelling], “Who do you think you are!” and then it all begins. You can’t say, what if all the people say they’re not going to take it. [There may] truly be that day, but now [the government] still has this ability [to organize society even when it causes annoyances]. We all know that during the National Day holiday, whoever dared walk forward one step would be immediately hauled off by those old men and old ladies. The Communist Party is still able to fight the people’s war. Therefore, I came up with this first conclusion. For now, Chinese society should still be stable.

However, my second conclusion is that this type of stability is rigid. “Rigid stability” is a term I invented this year, borrowing from natural sciences and especially from engineering. I feel that it has three characteristics. First, true social stability is about long-term social stability; it’s about the long-term stability of the nation’s laws. However, our [stability] is not like this. All of our stability is centered around a single goal: maintaining a monopoly on political power. In other words, the ultimate goal of all the Communist Party’s goals is how it can hold a monopoly on political power. This is what is called “Adhering to the Leadership of the Party.” It is the “Four Adheres,”* nothing else is essential; what is essential is that one adhere to the leadership of the Party. Everything else can be changed; only this cannot be changed. Why? The key characteristic currently of our regime is its monopoly on power. Its monopoly on power and sealing off of its power, its refusal to allow others to gain access, its refusal to allow people to engage in any actions that challenge the government’s monopoly on power—this makes up the baseline of the Communist Party. This baseline shows why our stability is different than the stability of Western nations. Social stability in the West is about how to protect the long-term stability of the constitution, how to protect the long-term stability of the laws. The government can be changed, this person or that person can act as president, but you cannot change the nation’s basic system of constitutional governance. Here [in China], the situation is that no one cares what you do to the basic system as long as you do not change the power of our Communist Party. Therefore, the first characteristic of “rigid stability” is that there is this monopoly on power.

The second characteristic [of “rigid stability”] is that things that would ordinarily be considered regular social activities can all be seen as “elements of instability.” For example, demonstrations, labor 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.” A lot of local government documents all say that currently “elements of instability” primarily include the petitioning of higher levels of government. Those who petition higher levels of government are [a source of] instability, whatever method they use to petition is [a source of] instability. Actually, petitioning higher levels of government is your constitutional right; it is a right provided for by the Regulation on Complaint Letters and Visits. Why has it also been labeled as unstable? It is because [local governments] think that any assault on local power is a type of instability. It is not that just an assault on central government power [is considered a source of instability], it is that an assault on any power is [considered a source of] instability. So this is an extremely important problem.

Third, 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. Therefore this type of stability is rigid. Supposing you were to measure indicators of social stability, China’s social stability would far and away be greater than the social stability of Western countries. Why? Because our stability is extremely rigid. However, “rigid stability” brings with it an enormous danger. Currently, [funds spent on maintaining] stability have become one the nation’s extremely significant expenditures; [maintaining stability] has become an enormous burden. For so-called stability, local officials are all running up to Beijing to catch people, running up to Beijing to set up offices. This type of stability has thrown the entire nation into disarray. Therefore when the issue of social stability is brought up we run into the biggest problem; once the local government says that something implicates “stability,” then forget whatever views you may have held. Social stability has now become the highest goal of the nation’s politics. All reforms, everything, is being overwhelmed and restricted by [this goal]. Therefore, in order to “avoid distress” we sacrifice reforms. Therefore, we sacrifice peoples’ rights endowed by law, because those rights offend so-called stability. And what is the only goal of this stability? It is not only those present here today that see what this [goal] is, the reality is that a lot of people see what [this goal] is. Why has a sort of pessimistic feeling become so common now? Does everybody all feel like this kind of stability can last? Let me tell you that it cannot. This kind of stability will certainly bring about massive social catastrophe.

So then what should be done about it? Secretary-general Hu Jintao during the 17th National People’s Congress considered many, many measures. The Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Public Security, the Headquarters of the People’s Armed Police, the courts, and the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, all considered many measures. The core approach of these measures is to control in society all so-called actions challenging government power. Are these measures sufficient? I’ve mulled this over [and think that they] will not be sufficient. So what’s to be done? What is it that is needed before there will be stability?

Recently I’ve been telling a story a lot, a story from when I was visiting with people in Taiwan. In 2004, Taiwan Mainland Affairs Council invited me to visit and give a lecture at Taiwan’s Chengchi University. They provided me fifteen days of room, board and entertainment. At that time I proposed to them, “How about this, after I give my lecture, you give me a map and a driver. Wherever I say to go, you have me driven there according to the map.” They said, “What do you want to do?” I said that I wanted to take a look and see what Taiwan’s ordinary people were doing and thinking. They said, “No problem, you can freely take a look at Taiwan, you can freely ask what ordinary people are thinking.” But I said there’s one more thing. “You have to send someone along to pay the tab because [this trip] has to include meals and lodging.” (Laughter) “No problem, we’ll send someone to pick up the bill.”

After I gave my lecture, they drove a car; wherever I said to go they would take me there. I asked ordinary Taiwanese people the same question: if a local official without your approval demolished your house, what would you do about it? 99% of Taiwanese people answered, “Impossible, how would he dare demolish my house? Impossible!” I said, “But supposing that it was demolished what would you do?” Ordinary Taiwanese people would say, “I would go to court and sue him. The judge would severely punish this government official who tore down my house without gaining my approval. If I agreed to it he would have to pay me 100,000; if I didn’t agree to it he might have to pay 1,000,000.”

I then asked: what if the judge did not accept your case or did not judge your case according to law? Ordinary Taiwanese people would again answer, “Impossible, how would he dare not accept my case? (Laughter) Because my problem is really simple; I have a certificate of ownership; he doesn’t have a contract [granting him the right] to demolish my house. He is wrong; he must make compensation. Impossible.”

I said, “But supposing that this problem occurred, what would you do?” Ordinary Taiwanese people would tell me, “I would find my legislator and tell him. My legislator would come and investigate. After his investigation he would hold a news conference. At the conference he would say that this local official’s and this judge’s days were over. [They] couldn’t [keep on] working.

I then asked, what if this legislator doesn’t care about your problem? What if he doesn’t come and perform an investigation? When I got to this question Taiwanese people all started to get annoyed at me saying, “You mainlander, how can you ask so many hypotheticals? How can any of these hypotheticals actually happen? (Laughter, applause). This is not something that I want to make the legislator do, this is something that the legislator himself wants to do. The legislator dreams and hopes every day that this kind of thing will happen (Laughter, applause). How could he not come? Impossible!”

I said, “It’s possible.” They answered, “No that would be impossible.” Ordinary Taiwanese people have this telephone card with the contact information of their legislator. So [they say], “try it out, give him a call.” I said, “That’s impossible [that he would come].” They answered, “It’s possible.” [If one were to] call on the phone, and [if] that legislator were nearby, he would be extremely excited about receiving the call and rush right over. (Laughter) He would ask, “What’s the matter? What’s the matter?” He would be so excited! Because all the legislature has to do is investigate this matter and he would be promoted to a county-level legislator. He might even be promoted to the National Legislative Yuan. He might even be the next “A-Bian”**! (Laughter) But me, I was still not satisfied. So I continued asking, I said, “Supposing that he just doesn’t come, what then? People told me, “It’s quite simple. If he doesn’t come then the next time he is running for reelection, when he comes by my house asking for my vote, when he’s there asking for my vote, I’ll splash him with filthy water. Then do you think this legislator will still be able to be a legislator? No! Therefore, this is a very simple matter.”

I got this [same] conclusion traveling from Taipei to Tainan. Today I told the story of when I was in Taiwan. Actually, I’ve asked this question to people in many countries, including: Japan, Germany, France, and America. I’ve been to many countries and asked many of their people. Basically, their answers are all about the same. The basic logic and conclusion are all the same. Why did I speak about Taiwan? Because we share a common culture with Taiwan. People often say that Western institutions are not suited to us in China. No matter, don’t you also say that Taiwan is a part of China? Since Taiwan is also China, why was that group of people able to answer “impossible” [to the questions of whether the government could demolish their house without their approval, whether a judge would not accept their case, and whether a legislator would refuse to make an investigation]? We should not [just] look at China Central Television saying today that the Taiwanese are fighting, or saying tomorrow that Taiwan is cursing Ma Yingjiu. It doesn’t matter. Taiwan’s society, on the ground level, is extremely harmonious and stable.

I went to the Taichung area and stayed at a rural farmer’s house, an old farmer who grew flowers. He was really excited at the time because he had never met anyone from the mainland. He said, “Today I’ll treat you to dinner. How about we don’t eat at home; let’s go into town and eat at a restaurant.” I said, “Sounds great; of course I’m happy to eat at a restaurant as long as I don’t have to pick up the tab.” He said, “How could I let you pay; of course I wouldn’t let you pay.” He drove with me in his car. The car had flowers in the back and places to sit in the front. So we started driving and had driven about 200 meters when I said, “Stop, there’s a problem.” He said, “What problem?” I said that when we left, “I was the last to leave and forgot to shut the door. The main entrance door and the side door both aren’t shut.” He said, “What’s the problem with not shutting the door?” I replied, “Aren’t there things in the home?” He said, “Don’t worry about it; our house has installed an electronic video camera. If someone comes in I just have to consult the video camera and I’ll know what he took. Then after I come back he’ll return it to me and it’ll be all right.” I was thinking to myself, “Where I’m from, by the time you got back, even your electronic video camera would be gone.” (Laughter, applause)

So I’ve been thinking a lot about this question: Taiwan has the same kind of culture as we do; why do they have so many “impossibles”? I’ve mulled this over and wondered what is it about a society that makes it harmonious? First, [the society’s] property rights are clearly defined. If this thing is mine, then it is mine. If it’s not mine then it’s yours. Does China have clearly defined property rights? No. Today let’s ask; suppose a local official demolishes your house; what are you going to do about it? China’s ordinary people certainly wouldn’t think to say that it would be impossible for this to happen. You go out to buy some steamed buns, you come back and your house is gone. Hasn’t this all happened before? Which rural farmer would say, “This is my land, [the government official] wouldn’t dare sell my land?” Who is going to say this? No one is going to say this. If only [the government official] can think of a way, your plot of land is gone, and you’re not going to beat him if you sue. If they want to demolish your house and you don’t agree, then they’ll think of a way. They’ll say your house was constructed in an illegal manner. We don’t have clearly defined property rights. It is very difficult to say that this property right belongs to me.

* The “Four Adheres” are adherence to Marxism and Leninism, socialism, leadership of the Communist Party, and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
** A-Bian is the nickname for Taiwan’s former president Chen Shui-bian.

[To be continued]

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