Stability and social governance in China

David Kelly, UTS

We live in a riskier, more uncertain world than just a few years ago.

Climate change, financial crisis and the decline of the West are three issues many put high on their list of ‘Black Swan’ factors, that is, major events that might occur very unexpectedly. China figures centrally in all three. There is now a long list of public goods that the world badly needs China to deliver at an accelerated rate — stability, growth, green energy, peace. Given China’s politics, size, appetite for recognition, resources, and security, none of these public goods  are easy to deliver.

Take the demand for recognition. Much commentary over the past year or so points to a more assertive China. Scholars note escalating claims of nationalism, or ‘statism’, in policy circles. In this view, China, in attempting to overcome its deep sense of humiliation caused by events in recent centuries and regain status as a great civilisation, will challenge the western world order and the ‘universal values’ it claims to embody.

Yet this is but one face of today’s rising China. Whether or not it is assertive abroad, it is plagued by a lingering sense of insecurity at home. The National People’s Congress (NPC) in March placed ever-greater emphasis on maintaining stability (weichi wending, often shortened to weiwen). The shift was one of relative emphasis. Stability is a repeated theme in contemporary ideology. Formulations like that of the Fourth Plenum of the 17th National Party Congress, that ‘development is the highest priority task, and stability the highest priority responsibility,’ are common.

In February, President Hu Jintao addressed the Central Party School on the related theme of ‘social management’, a higher-level abstraction within which the mechanisms of weiwen are now packed. Despite its reference to improving redistributive social security measures, there was a close relation between this policy statement and external events.

The strongest voice in support of Hu Jintao was the Minister for Public Security, Zhou Yongkang, and the underlying message was about nipping social protests in the bud, especially the ‘mass events’ that have been steadily increasing in number since the late 1990s. Following the early successes of Middle East democracy movements in early 2011, China struck hard at dissidents at home, arresting hundreds of activists and putting stringent limits on liberal discourse. A high-level Party instruction in late May extended these limits to virtually all public contention.

Weiwen policies were often successful when first applied earlier in the Hu-Wen era. Involving carrots as well as sticks, weiwen is thought of in public security circles in China as a more nuanced set of policy instruments than the yanda (‘strike hard’) repressive measures of the past.

In recent years there have been many accounts of overuse of weiwen. It is liable to take on a life of its own, escaping central control and embedding itself in local political games. Warnings against ‘stability’ being invoked as a barely disguised tool for uncompensated takeovers of land and other assets, providing fertile soil for local mafias along the way, have appeared in Party documents. Overemphasis on weiwen is paradoxically damaging to government legitimacy. It uses a variety of extra-legal means to lower the level of reports of ‘incidents’ and petitioning that higher authorities demand. It damages the credibility of the China model: a model underwritten by ever-larger budget allocations to buying off protests, an approach which is unlikely to be sustainable.

Autonomous organisations, resembling the civil societies found elsewhere, are kept within narrow bounds. Lacking critical mass, they are easily targeted as destabilising elements. But this is not the end of the story. Overdriven weiwen generates a perception at significant levels within the party-state that it is dangerous, particularly when it damages other tools of social management. According to the sociologist Sun Liping, overcentralisation of control, of which weiwen is an expression, leads to acceleration of social disorganisation.

Above all, it runs against the objective of modernisation of governance institutions, and the interests of sizeable sectors of the elite. Middle managers, not merely the putative middle class, have a lot to lose in the long run from the escalating cost of maintaining stability. From where they stand, it is a backward step, arbitrary and counter-productive. It downgrades their entire stock of tools in governance. Many regulatory areas — notably the newly installed social security mechanisms — are recognised by this class of officials and managers as requiring more bottom-up participatory management.

If anyone is likely to push back against overdriving this approach to stability maintenance, it is the middle-manager stratum of Chinese society that has its own vested interest in modernising governance. Prospects of any alternative to the stability maintenance model are not good, but the fact remains that weiwen does not have the floor to itself.

David Kelly is Professor of China Studies at the China Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney.

This article also appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, Governing China’.

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