Translation by Dr. David Kelly
Original Date Published: April 14th, 2010
In April 2010, Tsinghua University published a report on the social cost and financial burden of China’s efforts to maintain social stability. Dr. David Kelly, Professor of China Studies at the China Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney, has translated the report as published in Southern Weekend on April 14, 2010.
New thinking on stability maintenance: long-term social stability via institutionalised expression of interests
Social Development Research Group, Tsinghua University Department of Sociology
Fundamental governance of social contradictions and conflicts is hard to achieve by setting up Offices of “Stability Maintenance” and “Comprehensive Security;” by creating special “Stability Maintenance Funds;” stressing “Leadership-guaranteed Security” and “local management,” implementing “zero rating” in cadre assessment…“It is hence of the highest importance to get rid of the traditional ideas about maintaining stability, and form new ideas about social stability.”
With the increase in social conflicts, social stability has become a “knot” in society today. It is real, but also psychological. Worrying about social instability has become an anxiety complex in the collective unconscious.
Is today’s China the country with the world’s most serious social contradictions and conflicts? It is clearly not. Is it the country with the highest possibility of social unrest in the world? Obviously, it is not. But it is among those with the greatest financial resources to invest in ensuring stability.
China is in an important period of social transition, and accurate decisions and choices need to be made on major issues. There is an urgent need to address how to judge the current social conflicts, judge the possibility of social disorder associated with them, and thus make correct choices about of some of the major issues in development.
Urgent need to lower the cost of maintaining stability
In recent years, regional investments in maintaining stability have risen sharply, becoming a significant proportion of routine expenditures of local government. According to statistics, this year’s budget for internal security has reached 514 billion yuan. The “Law Enforcement Situation in the 2009 Budget and This Year’s Draft Budget Report” show that public safety expenditures increased by 16% last year and will be augmented by a further 8.9% this year. This is a greater increase than in military spending; actual defense spending is almost the same amount.
A great deal of human input is needed as well. Due to the enormous pressure of “zero rating” and “one-vote vetoes,” local governments must not only make safeguarding stability their top priority and expand the establishment of agency offices of “Stability Preservation” and “Comprehensive Security,” but they must also perform frequent large-scale mobilisation to guarantee there are no incidents within their jurisdictions. They adopt the practice of “many against one” and carry out 24-hour surveillance of some “troublemakers.” This places great work pressures on grassroots cadres. Local governments mobilize large numbers of volunteers from time to time to coordinate with relevant agencies.
In some places, maintaining stability already affects the normal work of the government. During exceptional periods, many grassroots government workers are given duty “contracts.”
If the existing way of working is not changed, stability maintenance costs will become an increasingly heavy burden. More ominously, a number of reforms that are important for the improvement of the market economy and building a harmonious society may be delayed.
Transcend the cycle of efforts to maintain stability causing more instability
Some current practices have a tendency to become cyclical: The more we emphasise social stability, the less some grassroots governments can accept claims made by the populace, so the pattern of interests becomes more biased. As their legitimate interests and demands are not accepted, a number of groups or individuals adopt extra-systemic modes of expressing their discontent, leading to increasingly violent social conflicts and the increased need to preserve stability.
Resolving social contradictions is intrinsically a game process: as soon as “having an effect on stability” becomes the selection criterion for officials in resolving problems, efforts are made to resolve whatever affects stability; whereas whatever has no effect on stability is delayed to the greatest possible extent. Over time, people are likely to treat “making a fuss” as a move in the game. “A major fuss for a major settlement, a small fuss for a small settlement, no fuss no settlement,” is the result produced.
These problems are in urgent need of address.
Improper stability maintenance easily becomes a tool for safeguarding the interests of powerful groups
China’s social structure is currently highly differentiated, with significant differences appearing between different interest groups and strata. These interests do not by themselves differ as to “right and wrong”; rather, each is valid as long as it is legal.
The problem is that different groups or classes obviously differ in their capacity to pursue their interests. Migrant workers, laid-off urban workers, and other vulnerable groups lack institutional channels for expressing their interests, as well as the capacity to negotiate their interests. Not only are they unable to influence the development of policies touching on their vital interests, it is also difficult for them to protect their interests through negotiation and other means. On the other hand, some advantaged groups that have a lot of resources have shown a primary ability to influence public decision-making through various channels.
If migrant workers are not allowed on grounds of [preserving] stability to collectively seek recovery of unpaid wages, or to bargain over compensation for eviction and relocation, stability maintenance work tends to become an instrument to maintain the interests of unscrupulous companies and contractors, a tool for maintaining interests of developers [in carrying out] predatory evictions and relocations.
Such results need to be avoided to the extent possible.
The expression of legitimate interests can limit anomie
If legitimate interests cannot be expressed straightforwardly, they may contribute to anomie in the basic social order: widespread corruption; a significant part of citizens’ income and wealth distribution is carried out by way of gray or black channels, the trend to a gap between rich and poor is difficult to contain; unspoken rules prevail in the society; strong interest groups act brazenly; social equity and justice are eroded; people lose trust in statistics; social identity and cohesion are lost; different social groups are alienated from each other, lack effective communication and interaction as equals……these problems are the real long-term hazards that impact social stability.
In modern society, the most fundamental rule is law. In dealing with major social issues where conflicts are concentrated—family planning, land acquisition and relocation, restructuring state-owned enterprises and so on—it is not possible to use administrative in place of judicial means. Otherwise, while some social contradictions and social conflicts can be resolved expediently, it leads by the same token to a sense of anomie in social life.
Campaign-style governance easy to fall into “temporary solution” dilemma
Some grassroots government practices need to be the subject of serious reflection.
At present, some grassroots governments use the approach of issuing top-down orders for political mobilisation, focusing mobilising efforts for a given period of time to solve some of the more acute contradictions and conflicts. Characterised by administrative control, regardless of cost, “across the board,” “one gust of wind” and so on, this approach is currently one of the most widely used by some local governments in stability maintenance work.
Practice shows that campaign-style governance models can mitigate some of the legacy of various protracted problems, as in the successful completion of tasks like the “Green Olympics” and the “National Day ceremony.” It also can respond effectively to SARS and other sudden public crises. In the foreseeable future, the campaign-style approach cannot be completely rejected. For certain “historical issues,” it is still necessary to concentrate efforts and interdepartmental offices to solve them.
But it should be seen at the same time that campaign-style management generally seeks a one-time effect; with greater reliance on power or stopgap measures the work will be dramatic, but it is difficult to build this up in an institutionalised way. Faced by complex yet trivial social conflicts that are mainly routine conflicts of interests, it is easy to fall into the quandary of “curing the symptom rather than the illness.” Such approaches are also liable to overlook the role of law, and easily escalate normal expressions of interest into political or criminal issues.
In dealing with social conflicts and clashes, prevention goes too far. “Taking strict precautions to the hilt,” “nipping in the bud,” and so on, become frequent and widely used terms in stability maintenance work. Sometimes, this is not only unable to resolve the contradictions, but makes the government the focus.
One of the main reasons for the institutionalisation of excessive prevention is bias emerging in judgments about the seriousness of the social conflict. Another is lack of confidence on the part of certain local governments in dealing with social contradictions, and the fear of small conflicts bringing about social unrest.
Local officials often have a dilemma. Actively promoting the economy will inevitably arouse new interest disputes; at the same time, local stability must also be maintained to eliminate any acute social conflicts and serious incidents. The higher levels demand “resolving contradictions at the grass roots.” Due, however, to contradictions caused by fragmented lines of authority or conflict between different national policies and regulations, etc., local governments lack the resources or power to resolve these contradictions.
Thus, when faced by social conflicts and clashes that might “threaten” local stability, local leaders often lack room to manoeuvre, and are unable to advance or retreat. They can only “add signals layer by layer” top down, just seeking to calm the trouble as soon as possible, so that as far as possible nothing happens in their term.
“Spend money to buy peace” could bring troubles
In recent years, when faced with specific clashes of interest that do not happen to be widely spreading social conflicts, some local governments make greater use of economic means of solving the problems, i.e., “use cash to solve contradictions among the people”.
“Social Stabilisation Funds” have been set up at all levels of government generally. Resolving interest issues by economic means represents an improvement over high pressure tactics. But “buying security” may also bring trouble. Because it often can have no basis in law, sometimes governments use public finances to pay the bill for some companies or related area; as such there is lack of discipline. This may encourage existing expectations among the populace that the “squeaky wheels get the oil.”
If one just seeks to end the trouble and placate people, not only will the cost of resolving social conflicts be significantly increased, it cannot genuinely promote social equity, and may undermine overall social values, including those of morality and justice.
Holding stability and the ideal goal is to achieve the “wrap up cases”
In the resolution of social contradictions and conflicts, any society requires a “termination” mechanism. In the judicial process, it is the final verdict. The ideal goal of stability maintenance work is to “wrap up cases,” to construct a case in which the conflict is basically resolved, and implement a program that all parties can accept and abide.
Currently, due to lack of procedural and legal efficacy, it is difficult for the petition system to effectively terminate conflicts and disputes. China has established a market economy and basic framework of the rule of law, but the executive power is still the backbone of society. For ordinary people, the authority of the government is still far greater than that of the judiciary. When their interests are damaged or they are subjected to unfair treatment, people are accustomed to seek government assistance via petitions and such channels.
However, only one in a thousand or so cases that go through the petition channel are resolved. Petitioners whose problems are not resolved seem to hold hopes in a “big man in the sky,” and keep trying over and again. Pressured by responsibility to their superiors for their performance rating, local officials are driven to take such steps as intercepting visits, eliminating files, detaining people and committing them to reeducation through labour to block petitions. This leads to more conflict and, if not promptly corrected, can affect the overall situation.
Meanwhile, a number of conflicts and disputes fail to enter legal channels. Even those that do may also fail to be taken seriously in the judicial decisions and judgments of those concerned, hence becoming classed as cases that are “hard to place on file,” “hard to have heard,” “hard to implement” and “hard to retry.” A large number of petitions involving lawsuits are in fact appearing. This is an indication that many cases are proceeding in parallel in the judicial and petition channels, or even constantly shuttling between them.
Given such a situation, it’s essential to do away with traditional stability maintenance concepts and create new ones.
Rather than eliminate conflicts of interest, stability maintenance should establish rules
The main causes of conflict in recent years have been land requisition, demolition, wages owed to migrant workers and labour rights. Conflicts of interest are basic and belong to contradictions among the people. In fact, most conflicts are neither political nor ideological; they are merely conflicts and clashes of interest. Such conflict is an intrinsic part of daily life in a pluralistic modern society.
Conflicts over interest claims are rational conflicts. Interest conflicts are different from political conflicts and also from ethnic, religious or ideological contradictions. They can be resolved through negotiation, bargaining and other rational means. Maintaining stability should not, therefore, eliminate interest conflicts, but should rather set up rules. A sound system will not eliminate conflict, but can accommodate and resolve it in an institutionalised way. Confusing ordinary social conflicts with political crises that threaten stability is to be avoided.
Untroubled response to the social situation depends on an accurate assessment
A basic judgment is thus required about the current social situation. It can be summed up in three phrases: (1) rapid economic development; (2) basic political stability; (3) emergence of social contradictions.
Overall, while some conflicts appear somewhat challenging, they do not constitute threats to basic social stability, and still less impact underlying tendencies to governmentality and stability.
To make accurate judgments, there is a kind of an “instability mirage” that should be done away with. This refers to a sense of constantly simmering social conflicts and clashes, a feeling of real and present danger to social stability. This is delusory. It arises from, first of all, some localities being indiscriminate in categorising many social conflicts as destabilising. Some high schools even classify their students’ opinions about their eating arrangements as destabilising; even so-called mass incidents are made up of different elements, many with no direct relationship to social stability. A considerable part of the illusion is due simply to a “sensitivity” created by lack of effective problem-solving measures.
By eliminating totally avoidable “instabilities,” the instability mirage can be significantly reduced.
In summary, only by correctly defining the nature of conflicts, and accurately determining the real possibility of social unrest can we put an end to misunderstandings, calmly and self-confidently solve real problems, and achieve long-term stability.
Social stability via guaranteeing rights
Most notably, expression of peoples’ interests and social stability should not be made mutually exclusive, and citizens’ legitimate interest demands and expressions should not be seen as destabilizing factors.
We now have a number of vulnerable groups, typified by peasants who have lost their land, migrant workers in the cities, urban laid-off workers, relocatees and others. When their interests are infringed, these groups have very scarce resources and, lacking effective aggregation of their interests, are unable to express them so as to protect their rights. In conflicts and clashes of interest with advantaged groups, they are often disunited and inarticulate, and sometimes have to seek modes of struggle that are outside the system. But the threat of instability that the latter pose leads to their being blocked still further.
Many studies indicate that behind many conflicts lies a lack of mechanisms for expressing interests. Without fundamental resolution of the question of mechanisms for interest balancing and social justice, blindly preventing the expression of legitimate interests in the name of stability will only accumulate contradictions and render society even more unstable.
At the 2010 National People’s Congress Premier Wen Jiabao proposed, “Everything we do is to make people’s lives happier, more dignified, so that society is more just and more harmonious.” In these terms, the new logic of stability should be: safeguard the citizen rights provided by the Constitution; given guaranteed rights there will be relative balance of interests, given which there can be social stability; this approach resolves the problem of social stability by treating the illness. In this sense, to safeguard rights is to safeguard stability.
Establishing mechanisms for balancing interests
Key to this new thinking is: 1) transform government functions, set up limited government which acts as the setter of rules and procedures and plays the role of regulator and arbiter in them, and avoid placing government in the position of bearing the brunt of social conflicts; 2) make effective use of the rule of law for long-term resolution of conflicts; 3) establish mechanisms for balancing interests and provide institutionalised channels for venting for social discontents; 4) promote the development of civil society organisations, forming social mechanisms for conflict resolution.
Setting up mechanisms to balance interests is the core step in forming a new mode of conflict resolution. This involves a series of mutually conditional steps of institutional innovation. Establishing the following mechanisms should be in the decision-makers’ field of vision:
1. Mechanisms of information access
Require concerned parties to publish relevant information, either voluntarily or by request, to ensure the public’s right to know. The public has a right view files, participate in hearings and so on. Only with public, transparent, full and true information can the public protect their own interests from the outset and keep abreast of public affairs relevant to their interests. Information that is not open or is secretly manipulated is the major reason for the occurrence and intensification of a number of conflicts and clashes of interest.
2. Mechanisms of interest aggregation.
To effectively solve conflicts and clashes of interest, there needs to be a mechanism to aggregate and refine interest demands. Dispersed and scattered demands are hard for the decision-making levels to deal with. The resources and skills at the disposal of different groups vary widely, and collective expression, communication and consultation are particularly necessary for vulnerable groups. Experience shows that interest claims are more easily resolved through negotiation and arbitration after being aggregated.
3. Mechanisms of expression of appeals.
The number of stages of public participation needs to be increased. In matters of public interest issues, hearings, expressions, monitoring, reporting, and so on provide the public with channels of expression. At the same time, relevant systems should be set up so that the interested parties can equally and fully express their aspirations through the mass media and such means.
4. Mechanisms for exerting pressure.
Advantaged groups have more resources and more means for fighting for their interests. Vulnerable groups should have the ability to fight for their interests and, hence, need to have special mechanisms to exert pressure. The exertion of pressure must be regulated by law, of course, but without such a mechanism, the interests of vulnerable groups cannot be protected.
5. Mechanisms for deliberating interests
On the basis of clear expression of interest claims, each side of a conflict negotiates and consults in accordance with legal procedures, to voluntarily resolve their conflicts of interest. When social groups, through consultations and negotiations, resolve interest disputes fairly and effectively on their own under definite rules, society realises initial self-management. The government no longer needs to intervene in everything, reducing its administrative burden as well as social costs. There is currently an urgent need to establish mechanisms for consultations and negotiations between employers and employees.
6. Conciliation and arbitration mechanisms
It is a mechanism for conflict termination. If the two sides of a conflict can’t reach a compromise, third party mediation or arbitration is an indispensable procedure. It is the government and the judiciary that can act as final arbiter. Although the government cannot directly administer everything, it can establish norms for the whole system of deliberation and negotiation, both as provider of the negotiation platform, and as setter of the negotiation rules, and, above all, as the guarantor of the outcome of negotiations.
In establishing mechanisms to balance interests, these six aspects complement each other, proceed as a sequence of levels, and are mutually indispensable. Among them, the mechanisms of interest aggregation and exerting pressure are particularly important. In establishing the former, the key is form carriers for aggregating and expressing interests and appeals.
Difficult to eradicate social and conflicts and clashes via system building
There seems to be a tendency to institutionalize the mode of resolving social and conflicts and clashes, with the establishment of “Stability Maintenance Offices,” “Comprehensive Security Offices” and other specialised agencies; with various levels of government setting up special “Stability Maintenance Funds” to strengthen the government’s stability maintenance in terms of the organisational structure and resource arrangements; with the stress on “Leadership-guaranteed security” and “local management,” implementing “zero rating” in cadre assessment to improve cadres motivation and maintain stability of in terms of incentive mechanisms. These practices are a kind of institutionalization. Practice shows that it is difficult to control fundamental social conflicts and clashes by means of such arrangements, and they may also be inconsistent with placing stress on institutionalising the rule of law, rules and procedures.
We believe that the core of institutionalization is the rule of law; if the law is to be superior to power, the key is proper decentralisation of power and checks and balances, the channel is a judicial construction and social construction. In institutionalised stability maintenance mechanisms, stability and expression are equally indispensable. We believe that to resolve social conflicts, participation by society as a whole is required.
Accommodate conflict, solve problems institutionally
The two main aims of institution building when dealing with social conflicts are, first, to strengthen the capacity of the system (tizhi) in order to accommodate conflicts and clashes and, second, to improve the capacity to use institutionalised modes to resolve these conflicts.
Good institutions do not eliminate conflicts, but can resolve them by applying institutionalised modes of resolution. So one needs first of all to be able to accommodate contradictions and conflicts.
To enhance the capacity to accommodate social conflicts and clashes, the government should first of all replace static concepts of stability with dynamic ones. Although interests are highly differentiated, a considerable part of them are normal games of interest (liyi boyi). By nipping these interest games in the bud, the normal course of the game is interrupted and mechanisms that can reveal social problems early are eliminated. Imagine, if there were a normal game between migrant workers and their employers, when the workers are owed wages, there are systematic ways to express their interest demands. If the migrant workers’ protest were not being nipped in the bud, would there be any conflict situations of “jumping off a building in demand of pay” or “pay talks at knifepoint”? How would it come to pass that the Prime Minister comes forward to press for migrant workers to be paid?
With rules and regulations, social conflicts are like water flowing in a ditch; it sometimes seems to surge fiercely, but one knows where it is flowing, and that it will calm down when it arrives. In the absence of such a channel, when water arrives, one does not know how much there is, or where it is flowing, and thus take desperate preventative measures for which there is always loss.
To raise the capacity for using institutionalised conflict resolution, conflicts must first of all be correctly classified. Most of the so-called factors of instability are comprised of several quite different types, such as regular small-scale social protests, local-scale social protests and society-wide social resistance. If small-scale, normal, social conflicts are classified as factors of instability, prevention measures may go too far. The right medicine can be prescribed and the clashes effectively managed by accurately distinguishing between different types of conflict.
Building rule of law is central to raising the capacity for resolving social conflicts and clashes. Particular emphasis must be on the construction and implementation of basic institutions and order. For example, citizen rights, the expression of group interests in particular, must be ensured in practice. Clearly, the impact on social stability caused by standardized expression is far less than by uncontrolled modes. By recognising the legitimacy of these modes of interest expression, their procedures, rules and boundaries can be further confirmed. This turns the institutional process into one whose changes are predictable and whose impact is controllable. Another example, in the absence of control by a basic order that is documented and evidence-based, corruption, that seriously threatens social stability may manifest as an ungovernable state of affairs. Relying only on accidental factors such as “mistresses revolt,” “thieves stealing,” or “Internal Internet pinch,” corruption will be unable to be monitored, difficult to expose and impossible to eliminate.
In the final analysis, society can only be governed on the basis of building basic order, relying on institutional innovation as the key to institutional reform.
(Jin Jun, Ying Xing and Bi Xiangyang participated in the first draft, Sun Liping, Guo Yu-hua and Shen Yuan wrote the unified draft.)
Due to limited space, the version for publication in Southern Weekend was abridged.
* Social Development Research Group, Tsinghua University Department of Sociology, “‘Weiwen’ xin silu: yi Liyi biaoda zhiduhua shixian shehui de changzhijiuan” [New thinking on stability maintenance: long-term social stability via institutionalised expression of interests], , 14 April 2010 [清华大学社会学系社会发展研究课题组： “‘维稳’新思路：以利益表达制度化实现社会的长治久安”， 南方周末，2010年4月 14日 (http://www.infzm.com/content/43853).].
 Term used by Mao Zedong and used to segregate political from non-political disputes.
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