Is there no better choice for China than putting a price on peace?

'Red packets' and security staff for dissidents prove costly in China's bid to maintain stability

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2014, 4:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2014, 4:18am

In February 1989, Deng Xiaoping coined a phrase that would become one of the Communist Party's guiding principles: "The need for stability overwhelms everything else." New measures show just how far the leadership is prepared to go - and how much it is ready to pay - to uphold Deng's motto.

Under the mainland's sprawling domestic security apparatus, numerous dissidents have allegedly been detained ahead of politically sensitive events. Now, some well-known activists and their families are taken on holidays - in the company of security officials.

Their escorted trips have reportedly seen them visit luxury seaside resorts in Hainan and Xian's Unesco-listed terracotta warriors, complete with sumptuous meals and wine. Human Rights in China, a United States-based NGO, estimated 15 people "had been travelled" ahead of this year's anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4.

Instead of throwing dissidents into the notorious "black jails", authorities are now trying a soft approach.

To stem the flow of Beijing-bound petitioners with grievances ranging from corruption to illegal land grabs, officials have reportedly begun dispensing "red packets". While this has turned away some potential petitioners, others have demanded revelations about the mounting cost of "stability maintenance".

Officials deny the existence of a so-called stability maintenance fund, but the bulging domestic security budget - reported to have exceeded that of the military since 2011 - has drawn global attention.

During the term of the now disgraced former security chief Zhou Yongkang from 2007 to 2012, "internal security" became the party's top priority. Between 2010 and this year, public security spending rose nearly 70 per cent.

For years, the Ministry of Finance has listed "other public safety spending" in its public security budget alongside mundane items such as armed police and the judiciary. But this was absent in the latest budget, announced on March 25.

Authorities allegedly spent 9.5 million yuan (HK$11.6 million) a year during the 19-month house arrest of rights activist Chen Guangcheng , before his escape to the US embassy in Beijing in 2012. From security equipment to personnel, Chen's detention "has become a lucrative industry" for his poor Shandong native village, The New York Times wrote. And we are talking about just one dissident.

Professor Ding Xueliang, in a 2012 article on the daily's Chinese website, said stability maintenance was the "second worst" option. For all its social and human costs, its "only merit" lay in avoiding the full-fledged military action seen in June 1989, which was the worst option. The question is, besides the worst and the second worst, is there a better option?

Dr Karen Lee is assistant professor at the Institute of Education's department of social sciences