I’ve been thinking on the almighty concept ‘stability’ recently. It’s the inescapable modus operandi of the Chinese government, and it’s preservation is the stated reason for practically all of it’s policies. Recent events attest. The round-up of political dissidents and tightening of internet control: stability. Strengthening food safety requirements and including the death penalty as a potential punishment for violations: stability. Efforts to encourage adoption of the Yuan as a global reserve currency: stability.
It’s in this context that I present a couple of contrasting news items: on one hand evidence of just how fragile some aspects of Chinese society are, on the the other a sign that some voices within the party aren’t happy with the government’s current approach to stability.
First, China’s fragility. Part of the standard justification for strict law enforcement, information control, and surveillance is that without it the country would descend into chaos. This is of course hard to judge but violence and political protest, when they occur, certainly serve to make the argument more plausible. In the last few weeks protests in Inner Mongolia have ended up in the news, joining Tibet and Xingjiang as sites of ethnic violence.
But it’s not just the fringes that are coming unaligned. Last week in Jiangxi, a province on the central coast, 3 government office buildings were bombed; two people were killed, 6 wounded. It was apparently the last act of anger and frustration by a disgruntled local farmer. His home was demolished in 2002 for highway construction and he had been trying to get compensation ever since. Remarkably, the man kept a micro-blog and it shows his mounting anger with the local government and legal system.
Land requisitions like this are a constant source of contention; street protests, and even self-immolations, occur regularly these days. But directly attacking the government, and with bombs, is a huge escalation of violence. And the fear is always about next time. Now that direct anti-government violence has been used by someone who felt left behind by growing prosperity, what’s next?
Stories like this show that, at least in some ways, China is fragile. ‘Harmonious Society’ is not the inevitable, or necessary, outcome. The Chinese government response to this instability, as we know, is police, surveillance, and censorship, and in a big way. At the National People’s Congress in March this year the government approved an internal security budget of $95 billion. 2011 will be the first year China spends more on policing it’s own citizens than on it’s military.
Of course, repression and a lot of cops are not the only ways to react to instability. A good case can be made that they only serve to exacerbate social tension. And it is exactly this—an articulation of a different approach to maintaining stability—that is coming from some voices within the Communist party itself.
The China Daily, the most authoritative of government mouthpieces, has run several moderate editorials in the last few months culminating in a piece last week that seems to advocate a loosening of censorship. It says the best way to preserve social stability is to ensure that the voices of everyone in society, particularly those worst off, can be heard. Furthermore, and editorial from last month argued that effectively dealing with social problems like income inequality and limited access to public services is fundamental to stability.
David Bandurski at China Media Project (who initially drew my attention to the editorials) cautiously suggests these editorials indicate a conflict of opinion high up in the party. Of course, it’s impossible to know what the government will do next, or if this signals support for some kind of reform. It’s also possible for these two views of stability to coexist, and this is likely the story of most of China’s modern history. A look at government policy on environment, health care, education—almost everything—shows progress addressing underlying social problems. On the other hand political repression and censorship are as strong as ever.
For the time being at least, it’s something that despite discouraging signs of social instability and the recent crack-down on dissent the moderate voice advocating stability through wide-spread progress can still find expression.