In 2004, media reports on incidents of domestic social unrest in China were frequent and widespread. Beginning in early 2005, official Chinese sources began to report significant declines in the numbers of both mass incidents and citizen petitions. At the same time, media reports regarding incidents of social unrest tapered off.
Official Chinese sources attribute these developments to official success in
resolving citizen grievances. But there is another possible explanation: official directives issued during this period
that ban media coverage of mass incidents.
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.
The China Elections and Governance website has reposted a nice
article written by Zhao Shukai, researcher at the Development Research
Center of the State
Council, titled "A Quarter-Century of Peasant Petitions." The article summarizes his experiences dealing
with citizen petitions.
Two points caught my eye. First, Zhao notes that in the 1980s, collective petitions of large
groups of petitioners or extreme behavior on the part of petitioners was
relatively unknown, but this began to shift in the 1990s, as Chinese petitioners
began to adopt much more organized and radicalized tactics to draw official
attention to their complaints.
Second, Zhao proposes that institutional reform is necessary
to address the root problems associated with citizen petitions. Specifically, he proposes concentrating
authority for responding to citizen petitions in local people’s congresses, and
making their oversight of governmental affairs meaningful.
Both of these points have been made as well by other Chinese
and foreign scholars working on citizen petitioning in China. (See, for example, this article, this article,
and this conference).
But it always bears repeating, particularly by scholars as knowledgeable as
Chinese authorities report overwhelming success in
resolving citizen grievances and reducing the numbers of petitions brought
through the xinfang (letters and visits) system since the amendment of the
national xinfang regulations in 2005. But a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) suggests
that the core institutional problems with the system continue unchecked.
It's not clear. Chinese authorities noted in 2005 that "mass incidents" (including riots, protests, demonstrations, and mass petitions) in China had surged to 74,000 in 2004, up from 10,000 in 1994. Since then, different Chinese officials have reported broad declines in mass incidents. But these reports have been vague, inhibiting the ability to make comparisons with prior statistics. Officials have released detailed information for other categories of incidents, such as "public order disturbances." But the differences in categorization between these and "mass incidents" also inhibit meaningful comparisons.
The Henan Provincial Party Committee and Government
jointly issued a circular on April 26, 2006 that calls on provincial authorities to
strengthen their controls over society and address a range of social problems during
the period 2006 to 2010 as a means towards conducting "peaceful
construction," establishing a "harmonious society,"
"improv[ing] the Party's ruling capacity," and "solidif[ying]
the Party's position in power." Specific goals listed in the circular overlap with in the Opinion on Promoting the Construction of a New
Socialist Countryside, issued by the Communist Party Central Committee (CPCC) and the State Council (SC) on December 31, 2005, and an earlier opinion issued by
the general offices of the CPCC and the SC.
The transcript (audio and written) of the December 5, 2006 conference on Rural Discontent, Rule of Law, and Social Unrest in China sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is now available here.
The four discussants, and their topics, included:
Carl Minzner, Visiting Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, CSIS Origins of Chinese Social Unrest
Kevin O’Brien, Professor of Political Science, Chair of the Center for Chinese Studies, UC Berkeley Protest Leadership in Rural China
Ben Liebman, Associate Professor of Law, Director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies, Columbia Law School China’s Courts: Restricted Reform?
Murray Scot Tanner, Senior Political Scientist, RAND Corporation Implications of Chinese Social Unrest for the United States