‘Mass incidents’ in China

Author: Justine Zheng Ren, LSE

‘Mass incidents’, as civil unrest is officially called in China, have proved to be an inescapable social and political phenomenon.

After a long period of economic boom with little investment in institutional change, the current conflict resolution mechanisms are no longer capable of sustaining China’s changing social structure and political relationships. The Chinese ruling party will continue to crack down on the imminent challenges it faces, but the way it deals with these episodes of civil unrest will determine the future of the country and the fate of the regime.

Jianrong Yu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), notes the number of mass incidents decupled from 8,709 in 1993 to 87,000 in 2005. Of these events, 80 per cent were defined by Yu as rights activism but only 5.1 per cent were influential riots. A further decomposition shows that mass incidents staged by farmers, workers and urbanites take up 35, 36 and 15 per cent respectively of rights movements. The fundamental reason for the proliferation of mass incidents is the frequent encroachment on the interests of the middle and lower classes, coupled with a lack of appropriate conflict-resolving mechanisms.

Mass incidents have also become a means of expression in the virtual world, with the internet creating new opportunities for freedom of speech outside the authority-censored traditional media. With the number of Chinese ‘netizens’ surpassing 300 million, China has the largest number of internet users in the world, making the ‘mass online incident’ another feature of contemporary Chinese politics. From the initial online anti-corruption campaigns, the human flesh searches, to the outpouring of

support for the disprivileged (e.g. the case of Deng Yujiao, a waitress who stabbed to death the officials who had sexually assaulted her) and human rights activists (e.g. the case of Ai Weiwei), the development of public space in the virtual world has succeeded to mobilize and nurture China’s fledging civil society. This type of mass incident, which displays characteristics that distinguish it from rights movements and incidental riots, creates a new dimension for the pursuit of public interests.

The vast majority of mass incidents have a clear objective — to defend or restore citizen rights encroached upon by authority or the market. Termed ‘responsive’ collective action by the late social scientist Charles Tilly, civil unrest is a normal social response to the infringement of rights to which there is no effective remedy. Due to the immense disparity in the capacities for resource mobilisation between those in authority and the citizenry, these two parties hardly compete in a fair sense. This means the escalation and diversification of collective actions are to some extent unavoidable unless institutional set-ups can be reshaped in a way to favour the disadvantaged group and restrict rent-seeking and official dissipation.

Thus mass incidents often share few commonalities in terms of characteristics, objectives and forms of representation; even the definitions of the words ‘mass’ and ‘incident’ remain themselves quite ambiguous. From a perspective of political functionalism, the only benefit of using such ambiguous terminology is to avoid the introduction of more loaded vocabulary — such as ‘rights movements’, ‘anger venting’ and ‘expression of public interests’ — into the mainstream media. The question is whether this filtering actually works. It all depends on whether the elimination of such words is possible in the vast spectrum of public discourse. But the danger of such purposeful ambiguity is apparent — it blurs the boundaries within the term ‘mass incident’ and blends different objectives and causes under an overarching category. Consequently, this could lead parties involved in conflict resolution to favour a dangerously simplistic view in handling the so-called mass incidents. This danger will be self-reproduced and exacerbated because the incentive structure of cadre promotion puts pressure on local cadres to stymie all types of ‘mass incidents’ rather than to resolve the conflicts institutionally.

Justine Zheng Ren is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the London School of Economics and a delegate at ANU Asia Pacific Week 2011.

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  • Nathan Lee

    An excellent summary Justine. ‘The fundamental reason for the proliferation of mass incidents is the frequent encroachment on the interests of the middle and lower classes, coupled with a lack of appropriate conflict-resolving mechanisms.’ What is a shame is that the CCP’s policy response has been to focus on the former (with any success entirely disproportionate to the size of the problem) without recognising the latter. Surely there must be a form of social redress that is palatable to the Communist Party’s leaders?