Cracks in China's stability drive

Chang Ping says the flaws of the Chinese government's 'stability maintenance' machinery have been mercilessly exposed by the recentsuccesses of the people's demonstrationsagainst official excesses

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2012, 10:57am

With the 18th Communist Party congress just around the corner, the government is doing everything in its power to create a picture of harmony to welcome the country's incoming leaders. But the almost non-stop outbreak of mass protests this year is severely testing its "stability maintenance" efforts.

Last month, the residents of Shifang , Sichuan and Qidong , Jiangsu , took to the streets in separate protests. Both opposed a development project they said would pollute the environment, and both forced the authorities to scrap their plans.

The Global Times was quick to criticise the "Shifang/Qidong model" of protest, saying in an editorial that it would incite people to not only distrust the government but also take radical action for personal gain. This would be "disastrous for the country's stability", the government mouthpiece said.

While the Qidong protest was under way, small business owners in Shenyang , Liaoning , were also expressing their discontent, albeit silently. They did not gather in the streets, but kept their doors and windows shut, turning parts of the city of 8 million people into a virtual ghost town. Within days, photos began circulating on the internet of Shenyang's eerily empty streets in sunny weather.

Store owners said Shenyang authorities had launched an anti-piracy campaign on the pretext of preparing for the National Games next year. Officials from the commerce, tax, health, public security and other departments joined hands in an enforcement exercise aimed at finding any excuse to impose fines, confiscate goods and even make arrests, they said. To store owners, this was no anti-piracy campaign, but the abuse of government power.

The bullies did not expect business owners to fight back with a mass shutdown. Caught out, the government scrambled to respond. On the one hand, it flooded media outlets with denials that there was any such campaign, claiming it was a rumour. On the other hand, it posted notices locally that announced a "suspension to the crackdown on pirated goods", and said that "after an emergency meeting at the city government, all departments have decided to halt inspections of stores. All businesses should return to normal." The reassurances seemed to be working, as reports said stores were gradually reopening for business.

On the whole, these different types of protests have succeeded in their own way. The so-called Shifang and Qidong type of rallies can be seen as an extension of the Wukan protests in Guangdong last year, and together they showed that the use of the police force to violently suppress mass protests is no longer effective. Shenyang's silent protest was also a slap in the face of government power.

While all this was happening, a deadly rainstorm swept across Beijing on July 21. As in the past, the government quickly took control of all media coverage of the disaster in order to cover up as much as it could, and tried to portray itself as taking charge. And, as in the past, it launched donation drives for disaster relief, even though it has never published any details about the funds raised in these drives, and anyone who tried to challenge this would be shut up.

But times have changed. People today are able to complain through the internet. They demanded publication of the names of the victims and derided the government's fund-raising efforts in foul language. The outcome was: for the first time, a list of the victims' name was read out one by one by the news anchor on CCTV.

These people's victories would have been unthinkable just years ago.

Mass protests are not new. Violent unrest erupted in Taishi , Guangdong, in 2005, in Wengan , Guizhou , in 2008, and Shishou in Hunan in 2009. Although these protests were effective in some ways, the protesters paid a high price. Officials took their revenge soon after the clashes, arresting and imprisoning some of them.

And consider the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. The government at the time exploited people's generosity and got away with raising huge amounts of money without disclosing how it had been used. And, thus far, it has refused to reveal the number of students killed or their names.

So what has happened in the past few years?

First, the people are getting sick of government corruption. They have become thoroughly disappointed with their leaders and have resolved to fight back. Lessons learnt from the environmental protests in Xiamen , Panyu and Dalian have built up people's experience and courage. The fire disaster in Shanghai and the train crash in Wenzhou also pushed the people to take meaningful action in new ways, and they mourned the victims in memorials despite government disapproval.

The Wukan unrest was a turning point. Like the child who bluntly pointed out the lie of the emperor's new clothes, the protest exposed the rot in the government's "stability maintenance" system.

Second, the country's economy has shown signs of a slowdown and this will put a strain on society. For a while, even after many people saw through the lies of the government's corrupt ideology, rapid economic growth was able to divert attention from questions about the legitimacy of the regime. With a slowdown, the questions will resurface.

At the same time, local governments which are highly dependent on land revenues have become increasingly desperate. In the face of the protests and funding shortfalls, they are in a fix.

Third, there are signs of an internal split on the use of violence to maintain stability. In Wukan, officials let slip that the local government had to pay armed police a daily rate to keep them at their post. And it was clear in the Shifang and Qidong protests that the armed police were less than enthusiastic. Apart from the lack of funds, these internal conflicts appear to be plaguing the government from the bottom to the top.

Lastly, China's social media might have failed to bring about a "jasmine revolution" in the country, but it has played an important role in many protests. Those people who braved the threats of the government, who broke the chains of traditional media, who made full use of the new media and even contacted foreign reporters on their own initiative, are accumulating rare and valuable experience.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese