What causes social unrest in China? Institutional failure.
That’s the message delivered by Yu Jianrong, Director of the Institute of Rural Development at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in a series of speeches in California during late October. His comments underline the extent to which social unrest in China is directly linked to institutional problems that prevent the Chinese legal and political systems from effectively responding to mounting citizen grievances.
Yu made two speeches at the University of California in Berkeley on October 29th and 30th.
One speech is titled "China’s Crisis of Control and Response: An Analysis of Recent Incidents of Social Unrest" (中国的管制危机与对策--近年来社会骚乱事件分析), and a transcript is reposted on the China Elections and Governance website.
Yu's speech analyzes "incidents of social disorder" (社会骚乱事件). He identifies these as a subgroup (totaling 5.1%) of the broader category of "mass incidents." Yu’s previous work has focused on other types of mass incidents, particularly organized protest activities conducted by labor and peasant groups.
Yu identifies several key characteristics of "incidents of social disorder." They erupt suddenly and spontaneously. They lack clear organizers. Participants join in on the spot, even if their interests aren’t directly implicated. Lastly, information regarding incidents of social disorder spreads rapidly via the internet and cell phones, sparking others to join in. As an example, Yu cites the 2004 Chongqing (Wanzhou) protests, in which a minor street scuffle between a porter and an individual claiming to be a government official quickly spiraled into a large-scale riot involving thousands of individuals.
Yu argues that these incidents reflect a worrying set of trends:
- an aggrieved class of dispossessed migrants and laid-off workers,
- a deep loss of faith in the system on the part of many citizens, and
- a weakening in the traditional means of state control.
He argues that these incidents reflect a deep need for political reform, particularly a reduction in Party control over the political and legal systems and the creation of independent channels for citizen political participation and the resolution of citizen grievances.
The second speech is titled "Xinfang Reform in China and the Politics of Constitutional Construction" (中国的信访改革与宪政建设). I'm unable to find a transcript of this speech, but the title is almost identical to an article Yu published in 2005, and which is available on the China Elections and Governance website.
Yu's article focuses on the Chinese xinfang (letters and visits) system for responding to citizen petitions. For more information on the xinfang system, see this article.
- The Chinese xinfang system is broken and unable to respond to citizen grievances.
- The xinfang system causes all forms of problems to concentrate at the central government. This is overloading central officials' capacity to respond effectively and is undermining their authority in the eyes of aggrieved citizens
- The xinfang system is weakening the authority of the formal judicial system.
- The xinfang system generates a wide range of abuses by government and Party cadres and fuels political radicalism on the part of petitioners.
- Eliminating the responsibility systems (责任追究制) that judge local officials on the numbers of petitions that originate from their jurisdictions, and create incentives for local officials to harshly suppress petitioners.
- Strengthening the legal system in an effort to divert citizen grievances out of xinfang channels.
- Undertaking substantive political reform to channel into citizen grievances into local Chinese legislatures, the local people’s congresses (LPCs). Allowing citizens greater ability to organize independently to express their grievances. Eliminating xinfang offices associated with individual bureaus (as part of channeling grievances into the LPCs).
Yu notes he lost in his struggle to encourage central officials to adopt substantive reform in amending the xinfang regulations in 2005. He predicts that continuing failure to reform China's xinfang system will have extremely serious political consequences.