Yu Jianrong (于建嵘): Maintaining a Baseline of Social Stability (Part 8)
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 8 of the CDT translation, here are part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, and part 7:
Not long ago something really interesting happened. In Guangxi, the director of an Office of Letters and Visits [in charge of handling petitions to higher levels of government] himself became a petitioner to a higher level of government. His home had been demolished. Who here with us today is willing to stand up and say that his or her rights have been completely protected? No one. That is because we don’t have these clearly defined rights. That is because someone can think up some way to turn your legally protected rights into rights with no legal protection.
Actually there’s nothing terrible about disputes. All modern societies have lots of disputes. However the [key] to whether a society is or is not harmonious is whether there is an authoritative judicial system. It doesn’t matter if you are in the West or in Taiwan; what do they do if there is a dispute? They will tell you that they will go to court and bring a lawsuit. Do our people say this? They don’t say this. If you were to tell them to go to court and bring a lawsuit, ordinary people would say every time, “How would the judge believe me? (Laughter) There’s no way he would believe me!” (Applause) If you were to ask, “Would a lawyer believe you?” they would said, “Lawyers also wouldn’t believe me.” (Laughter) That is because we haven’t been able to make the law our baseline. We don’t have this kind of a system! So ordinary people think, “I don’t care what your courts decide, I’m petitioning the government!”
When they petition higher levels of government, [does the government] believe them? Again, no. There is an American named Julie Harms*. She is a foreigner who came to Beijing to petition the government concerning her Chinese husband. She came by my house to visit me and ask for my advice. I asked her a question, “What would you do in America?” She said, I would definitely go to the court and bring a lawsuit.” So I asked, “Then why here in China are you petitioning the government?” She said, “Because Chinese courts don’t listen; they don’t listen to what the central government has to say. So, I’m going directly to the central government, hoping that the central government will make [the courts] listen.” I asked, “Was bringing a lawsuit effective?” She said, “No. Before I brought the lawsuit they still hadn’t taken him. Right when I brought the lawsuit they took him away. That’s because once the lawsuit was brought the local government said that this problem had become a mess and they needed to [make their handling of the case look] legitimate and [make it look] like a case borne out by ironclad evidence. So they convicted him.” That’s why I say we do not have an authoritative judicial system.
What’s more, do we have a truly representative system [of government]? Again, no. Of the lawyers sitting here today, are there [even] a few of us who have actually gone and voted to choose our [representatives in the] National People’s Congress? None. We don’t know who our representatives are either. Even if we did know, it wouldn’t do any good. People say, “You’re not the representative I elected; I only know “Three Representatives**,” but these “Three Representatives” are nowhere to be found! (Laughter, applause) Why? Because our representative system of government is not whole.
Finally, do we have an open media? No. Don’t think that the internet of today [was meant to] provide us with a space. The reason we have the internet is because they didn’t have a choice. If they did, they would hope that we couldn’t even have the internet. Now isn’t it the case in Xinjiang that you can’t get on the internet? A member of your same legal profession is a very well known person named He Weifang who is a good friend of mine. He is currently in Shihezi [in Xinjiang Autonomous Region]. He told me that the hardest thing is that he can’t keep in touch with us. He can’t get text messages, he can’t get on the web. What’s he to do? I said, “Who told you to get yourself sent to Shihezi.”***
We often say that things are so much more open now. But this is for technical reasons. It is not because of the government itself; it is not because the government’s philosophy on ruling has changed. Faced with this situation, some local governments say, “Go ahead and criticize us.” Some officials say, “Go ahead and criticize me.” But do you really dare criticize them? You can mention some small things that are not particularly aggravating and they might even give lip-service and say they’ll do something about it. But if you really criticize them, then you immediately find yourself laid off from your job and under arrest in a different province! So, as I’ve pondered this over, [I’ve come to the conclusion that] a harmonious society must have clearly defined property rights, an authoritative judicial system, a truly representative system [of government], and it must have an open media.
Because it is very hard for us to do these things today, I especially feel that law is important. (PowerPoint slide) This is a picture taken when I was giving a lecture in Suzhou on [December] 18th. A banner appeared in the street which read, “Down With Lawless Governments.” Why? [Because of] demolitions. This [term] lawless government is quite interesting—a government without laws. Ordinary people now don’t say “corrupt government”; they say that it is a “lawless government.” In my mind, law still might be the baseline of our society. So I have often asked: can our judiciary become the baseline of our society? I think our judiciary should become our baseline, but we have not been able to accomplish this!
Our judiciary currently has many problems. One core problem is that the regionalization of the judiciary is becoming increasingly pronounced. The control of the judiciary by interest groups is becoming increasingly evident. “A political party simultaneously in charge of the judiciary”: this is the view of your Wei Rujia, Esq.. “The [Party] Secretary controls the hats people wear [i.e., what positions people hold], the mayor controls the cash flow, and the Communist Party Political and Legislative Affairs Committee controls the cases.” These are the words of an extremely famous member of your profession and were spoken during a presentation given to central government leaders. Not long after his presentation, China University of Political Science and Law invited me to give a lecture to the students there and talk about land issues. After my lecture I was about to leave when a student proposed an idea, “Professor Yu, can you provide any suggestions for us University of Political Science and Law students?” I said, I’m not famous and I’m not one of the nation’s leaders, what kind of hope or suggestions can I provide?” The student said, “Just offer whatever suggestions you might have.” I said, “Since you want me to offer [suggestions], let me tell you what I think. I feel that here in China, a country that does not have religious beliefs, a country whose government has lost a portion of its legal mandate, a country in which [the] political party’s ideology is already in the process of disintegration, in this country, we in the legal profession must defend the laws, this baseline of society. We must defend the baseline of society, defend the future of society, defend the future of our people, defend the future of our children, our grandchildren and our descendants. (Applause)
After I said this, I grabbed my bag and was about to go when that person—he is currently an important leader at China University of Political Science and Law—got really excited. He grabbed the microphone and said this. He said, “Just now, Professor Yu said that we University of Political Science and Law students should defend the baseline. That’s right but, but can we actually succeed? I don’t think we can!” (Laughter) He said:
Two days ago, our university wanted to hold a school celebration. The Deputy Chief Justice of the Hunan Provincial High People’s Court came to our school. He said, “Professor so and so, the situation now is this way: the [Party] secretary controls which hat people wear. Who is going to be the court’s chief justice? Who is going to be the head of the procuratorate? This all depends on the Party committee [led by the Secretary].” [He also said,] “The mayor controls the money. If your expenditure is in the city; for example if you want to construct a building and the mayor doesn’t agree to it, then there’s no way you can get the money.” [He also said that] the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee controls the cases. So there’s nothing we can do. We have the good intentions but lack the means!
After he spoke, I was thinking, “Forget it,” and grabbed my bag to go. That University of Political Science and Law student stood up again and said, “Professor Yu, can you comment on what the directors just said?” I said I could not comment. When someone invites you to give a lecture and even gives you money, how are you supposed to comment? (Laughter)
The student insisted that I comment so I said, “If you really want me to comment, then I’ll give you my comments.” I said, “I wouldn’t have thought that someone who is called a famous legal scholar would be so unqualified to stand before and speak to students at the University of Political Science and Law. What is he talking about, saying ‘the [Party] Secretary controls the hats people wear, the mayor controls the cash flow, and the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee controls the cases.’ If [it seems] that nothing can be done, then all of us in the legal profession should dare to take off our black gauze caps in resistance****—then we’d be doing something about it.” What a mess [this created]. After I said this I just grabbed my bag and ran because I felt a bit awkward. The second day a post appeared on the internet saying that Yu Jianrong had an angry rant against so and so and that I gave him a thorough tongue lashing. After that, for several years this person ignored me. We usually had meetings together during which he would pretend he didn’t know me. But now our relationship is better. Not long ago there was a case involving land and he invited me to a meeting [to discuss the case.] He said, “Yu Jianrong, tell me what you really feel; was what I said at the time incorrect? You’re a bad influence, you want my students to all take off their black gauze caps, what am I supposed to do when they’re all laid off?”
I replied, “What you said wasn’t incorrect. In China the reality truly is that the [Party] secretaries, the mayors, and the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee are controlling things. But how could you say this in front of the students and cause them to lose their faith! China needs a big group of people who have faith in the law and who defend the law. Our country having a future depends entirely on us holding true to our faith in the law! (Enthusiastic applause) As a teacher, how can you say that kind of thing to your students?” (Enthusiastic applause)
If China is to reform how is to go about doing it? How should China’s political power be reformed? Recently I’ve proposed an idea that big changes are not going to happen. Let’s first not touch the central government, let’s not touch Political and Legislative Affairs Committee of the Communist Party of China, let’s not touch the Supreme People’s Court. Can we start from the ground level? Because ground level courts and intermediate courts are primarily what directly affect the peoples’ interests, is it okay if we start there? Let’s not call it “judicial independence;” how about we call it “judicial checks and balances?” Let’s not say that its checks and balances are directed towards the Communist Party. If I say that I’m going to check and balance you, then you in the Communist Party will be unhappy for sure. How about we say that the checks and balances are directed towards local governments? We support our leaders in the Communist Party, but we use a vertical judiciary to rein in local governments. That is because the local [level] is what directly affects the people’s interests.
That is why I have recently held several forums at which I especially invited many people from the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China to discuss whether we could do [reforms] in this way, but no one paid attention to me. I wrote reports and sent them up [to the government], but no paid attention to me [or] said that this was still not okay. However, I think that China’s problems have truly gotten to this point. That’s why I have repeatedly asked, with China now facing so many problems, what is to be done? I’ve pondered this [and think that the answer] is to rely on the law. Let’s strip ourselves of all ideologies. Let’s not go back again to the era of Mao Zedong, and let’s also not say this and that about the era of Deng Xiaoping. Let’s just defend our constitution. There’s no longer [anything else] in Chinese society left to defend. We’ve retreated further and further in defeat. Will we be able to defend our ultimate baseline? Will Chinese society experience upheaval? How serious will be the problems the future brings? That all depends on whether we are able to defend our ultimate baseline.
There was once someone who asked me, burning with anxiety, “According to the look of China’s current situation, is institutional reform even a possibility? Is there still hope of China developing in a positive direction?” My response was that there was hope. This hope comes from the rational choice [that must be made] in the face of social pressure!
When conflicts intensify, social pressure will become greater and greater. When everyone feels that there is no way out, all kinds of social forces will start searching for a baseline. If they were not to do this, there would be extreme social upheaval that would utterly destroy social order. In light of this situation, there are two most basic choices. The first is that anxiety about these [potential] catastrophic consequences will spur all interested groups into working towards a rational compromise; they will use reason to search for a baseline that everyone can agree upon. The second is that maybe because this compromise does not occur, [China] will experience fundamental, revolutionary upheaval. From the look of the current situation, the vast majority of Chinese people hope that social conflicts can be reined in, which is to say that the majority of people hope that China does not experience large-scale social upheaval. The question is how all levels of Chinese society, especially levels that have clashes of interests and clashes of political power, will make the necessary compromises to benefit society’s structural stability. This to a large extent is determined by whether members of society, especially parties to conflicts, can seek out a baseline that is acceptable to everyone.
So, what currently is Chinese society’s baseline of stability? In my view, the whole society must reach a consensus on how to facilitate the actual implementation of the constitution. Society must form a consensus on how to make the constitution the cornerstone of China’s social stability.
* For more on Julie Harms, see “American Woman Hunts Elusive Chinese Justice” at https://chinadigitaltimes.net/china/julie-harms/.
** The “Three Represents” (which is the same in Chinese as “Three Representatives”) is a socio-political ideology developed by Jiang Zemin. The “three represents” are: 1) The Party must always represent the requirements of the development of China’s advanced productive forces. 2) The Party must always represent the orientation of the development of China’s advanced culture. 3) The Party must always represent the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people in China. For more information, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Represents.
*** For the reasons He Weifang was sent to Shihezi see “Leading Dissident ‘Exiled’ to Chinese Northwest” at https://chinadigitaltimes.net/china/he-weifang/.
**** To take off one’s black gauze cap (乌纱帽) is a reference to what would occur anciently when a government official refused to follow an order out of principle. Removing one’s black gauze cap was a way of symbolically stepping down from one’s post so that they would not have to follow an order that contradicted one’s principles.
[To be continued]