Are Mass Incidents Increasing or Decreasing in China?

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.

In mid-2005, Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang noted that mass incidents had risen to 74,000 in 2004, up from 10,000 ten years earlier, as noted in a July, 6 2005 Phoenix TV report and a August 1, 2005 post on the website of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.  These comments parallel the comprehensive discussion of the rise in mass protests in China since 1993 in Murray Scot Tanner's 2004 article, China Rethinks Unrest, in the Washington Quarterly.

Since 2005, official Chinese statements regarding mass incidents has been partial and confusing.   Some foreign media have (incorrectly) reported that Chinese officials have stated that there were 87,000 mass incidents in China in 2005.  The original source for this number is actually a Ministry of Public Security press conference held in early 2006. The press release of that conference stated:

2005?,??????????????????8.7??,????6.6%???,???????????????????????????????18.9%?13%?5.8%?11.8%?

The 87,000 number does not refer to "mass incidents." Rather, it refers to "public order disturbances." This difference in categorization prevents any effort to draw meaningful direct comparisons between it and earlier figures for mass incidents.  Further commentary on this is available in a January 30, 2006 post on the website of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and a November 15, 2006 post on the EastSouthWestNorth blog.

Official statements since 2005 regarding mass incident totals have been partial and incomplete. Examples include:

So what should we make of this? Well, it looks like there has been a clear increase in the number of mass incidents through 2004.  At that point, Chinese officials began to report that the numbers of mass incidents were in decline, but also stopped issuing data on mass incidents, began to issue fragmentary data on other types of incidents, and (seperately) issued directions that the media should not report on mass incidents.  That should at least raise a reasonable level of doubt as to whether the numbers of mass incidents are actually in decline, and whether social unrest is actually decreasing.