To stem social unrest, Beijing should learn to watch less, listen more
By Ching Cheong
WHAT price social stability? For China, it is spending 514 billion yuan (S$106 billion) this year to maintain cohesion in society. This amount is nearly 9 per cent more than that spent last year.
Beijing has upped this expenditure annually in recent years but so has the number of incidents of social unrest and other conflicts.
To break out of this vicious circle, China needs to change tack, according to a report by the Tsinghua University Social Development Programme released in April.
The report suggests that the Chinese government should revamp the political system to give more room for expression to those disenfranchised by the country's rapid economic development.
The report is perhaps the first public acknowledgement that setting aside bigger sums of money for the purpose of maintaining social stability has not been effective.
The huge sum is spent solely on maintaining a security apparatus to keep people under surveillance and discourage travel to Beijing to lodge complaints.
Tellingly, none of this money to maintain social stability is earmarked for income distribution efforts - suggesting that for China, cohesion is viewed more as an issue of monitoring and suppressing dissent than one of proactive measures to bridge social inequalities.
Despite the rising budget, Chinese society is not any more cohesive - in fact, society seems less stable, going by the more than 90,000 'mass incidents'.
The report noted that this annual expenditure had been increasing at a rate faster than that for national defence. As a result, the annual budgetary appropriation for internal stability is almost the same as that for external security.
For example, the budgetary allotment for social stability went up by 16 per cent last year compared with 14.9 per cent for defence. The increases this year are 8.9per cent and 7.5 per cent respectively, which translate into 514 billion yuan and 516.6 billion yuan.
For the first time in 60 years, the burden of preserving social stability is equal to that of maintaining external security.
In manpower terms, China's military has two million troops. In contrast, a 20-million-strong police force, a one-million-strong military police force and another four million security agents - known as guobao in Chinese - are responsible for maintaining the peace.
The guobao is a recently created semi-police force responsible for monitoring citizens and for tipping off the authorities on possible social unrest.
A Xinhua news agency report last year showed that a small county such as Kai Lu in Inner Mongolia, which has only 400,000 residents, maintained a 12,000-strong network of informants.
Not counting a quarter of its population who are below 18 years of age, it means that for every 25 adults, there is at least one informant monitoring their activities and behaviour.
The presence of such 'people monitors' is no secret. Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu revealed two years ago that to guarantee absolute security for the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai World Expo, a six-layer security net covering every aspect of the public spaces was set up and maintained.
These six layers included, in addition to regular police patrolling at street level and audio-visual monitoring systems in open spaces, elaborate surveillance systems in the neighbourhood, the community, the workplace as well as cyberspace.
On top of this elaborate surveillance system, government heads at the grassroots level were told to observe two hard-and-fast rules: 'Zero outbreak' (of mass events) and 'one outbreak vetos all' (of their promotion prospects).
Put under such pressure, local governments were forced to employ draconian measures to prevent any outbreak of mass events and to stop people from reporting complaints. Yet such measures simply made things worse, hence the vicious circle.
The Tsinghua report does not indicate how serious internal rife is. The last time there was an official figure was in 2005 when the Public Security Ministry admitted that there were about 87,000 cases of mass events that year.
Since then, no other official figures have been released. But judging from the rapid increase in budgetary allotment, it would be safe to surmise that the number of mass events has been on the rise.
Professor Yu Jianrong, research fellow of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said recently that a source told him that since 2007, the annual number of mass events stood at about 90,000.
The Tsinghua report says most social conflicts involved expropriation of peasants' land, forced eviction of city dwellers to make way for urban development, migrant workers not getting paid, as well as infringement on labour rights.
The report adds that most of these issues were non-political to begin with, but improper handling by the officials turned them into thorny political issues that undermine the government's legitimacy and image. The situation also causes a severe drain on public money.
The report says that in the rust belt in north-eastern China which is especially prone to labour unrest, the cost of preserving internal stability could run as high as 15 per cent of the provincial government's annual expenditure.
'The greatest mistake is to treat people's defence of their legitimate rights as a threat to social stability,' the report said.
'Numerous studies show that what's lacking in all the mass events is an effective mechanism to allow expression of people's rights. If there is no fundamental solution to social injustice, and draconian measures are used to stifle people's expression in the name of stability, this could only result in greater conflicts and lead to greater social instability,' it added.
Thus, the Tsinghua report calls for revamping the political system to give the disgruntled more freedom of expression.
Such a revamp could start with setting up a mechanism that allows anyone with a grievance to vent his unhappiness or to seek redress for his problem.