A quiet word on the cracks in a monolithic regime

John Garnaut
May 25, 2009 - 12:00AM

Between the cracks and ambiguities of the Chinese Communist Party's security and propaganda apparatus there is a scattering of remarkable public intellectuals like Yu Jianrong.

They don't always get along with each other, let alone with the Government. But when they speak, the Government cannot afford to entirely close its ears.

Professor Yu is known as the country's leading expert on rural unrest and specifically the "petitions system", a peculiarly Chinese institution that is supposed to be for citizens to seek redress against rapacious officials but which is more commonly known as an instrument of additional government obfuscation and persecution.

Professor Yu is director of the Social Issues Research Centre at the Rural Development Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the country's most important official think tank. There is perhaps no-one else who knows more about the rough edges of Chinese state power and its structural weaknesses.

Professor Yu treads a line between contributing to public debate and staying out of excessive trouble. He politely declines to talk to foreign journalists.

But his new thoughts on the growing administrative and social costs of preserving the Communist Party's monopoly on political power in the internet age - the economics of modern dictatorship - deserve a wider audience. The following is extracted and edited from recent lectures and local media commentaries, particularly a lecture in April, delivered in Japan.

Professor Yu says scholars tend to split into two opposing groups. The first says Chinese society is in turmoil, particularly after the social and economic dislocation of the financial crisis. The second says Chinese society is the world's most stable, despite the financial crisis, and this proves the superiority of the Chinese socialist system. Both groups are wrong, to Professor Yu's mind.

He says Chinese society is not in turmoil but only because it is forcibly pinned together. He calls it "rigid stability".

Rigid objects are stable, by definition, but they are also brittle.

"There are at present three primary means by which the various levels of government in China maintain rigid stability," he says. "One is to use the coercive power of state authority, that is, the tools of violence in the hands of political authority.

"Social stability has to some extent become the interest of a number of departments and individuals. By exaggerating the difficulties facing social stability, certain departments increase funding for their sector and obtain extra power.

"The second is to strengthen public control at all levels of government, control all forms of media and suppress different voices in order to monopolise information.

"However, the levels of government are not a complete community of interests: each level of government and department has its own interests.

"While they are filtering information to the public, the cost of their access to information also increases, leading indeed to loss of information that they ought to and could be accessing, and it is in the interests of lower-level agencies in particular to deceive the levels above. In this way, a number of conflicts which the Government should be aware of and deal with become 'existing nonentities', to which it is oblivious. It is worth noting that controlling public opinion and information becomes ever more difficult in the internet age.

"The third thing is to control social organisations, to set up a strict registration, examination and approval system for any organisation, and allow no organisation to freely express their interests and aspirations.

"There is a price to be paid for every measure in pursuit of stability. Moreover, more resources and stronger violence must be used to deal with the next series of events.

"The widespread application of internet technology presents a serious challenge to the use of state violence, monopoly of information, control of organisations and suppression of speech to achieve the goal of ensuring stability.

"And, in this day and age, Chinese citizens' awareness of their rights is growing, and the means used by the Government to ensure stability - state violence, monopoly of information, control and suppression of speech - are simultaneously breeding potential forces of resistance.

"In the long run, the police agencies in China that control law and order, and the propaganda agencies which control public opinion, will need to tighten their every nerve all day long, and continuously increase the input of resources, resulting in escalating costs of social administration.

"The Government has to take over public resources by various ways and means in order to support the huge social costs of ensuring social stability. It competes with the public for profit, resulting in social conflicts becoming more intense and more complex, descending into a vicious cycle. This will be tantamount to drinking poison to quench thirst; if nothing is done to change it, the day will eventually come when this mode of governance reaches a critical point."

Like many Chinese thinkers, Professor Yu has come to believe reform should focus at the county level, where officials interface directly with individuals. Beijing is fond of blaming county governments for all manner of social conflicts. But intellectuals and county officials tend to blame Beijing.

"Chinese intellectuals talk about Beijing 'turning good girls into women of easy virtue'," says David Kelly, Professor of China Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, who tracks Chinese policy debates from Beijing. "The centre requires county governments to secure absolute social stability while taking away their fiscal independence, leaving them to scramble for money by hook or by crook, and stopping them from tolerating institutional checks and balances on their power."

Professor Yu says China's challenge is to transform "rigid stability" into "resilient stability", from the bottom up. This cannot be done without far-reaching political reform.

The way ahead, says the professor, is for the party to insert democratic processes and an independent judiciary into county-level governance.

The counties are sufficiently fragmented and distant from Beijing not to challenge Communist Party rule, for a while at least, but close enough to the people to provide a valve for releasing pressure before China's economic and political contradictions become too great.

This story was found at: http://business.smh.com.au/business/a-quiet-word-on-the-cracks-in-a-monolithic-regime-20090524-bjhq.html