Background information: the frequent occurrence of mass incidents in China pushes it into becoming a "risky society"

December 28, 2007
Mainland Affairs Council

After 30 years of reform and opening up, there have been huge changes in China's economy and society. In recent years, although there have been over 10 percent growths in the economy, various interest groups have exerted their influence, which the authoritarian system in China was not able to effectively regulate, resulting in the lack of protection for minority groups and a surge in social problems. The widening rich-poor gap and urban-rural gap, unemployment among the labor force, the loss of land among the farmers, and other problems have led to increasing dissatisfaction among the Chinese people and to incessant occurrence of large-scale mass protests across China. Under such circumstances, the accumulated social tension is endangering the social stability in China.

In facing a "disharmonious society," Hu Jintao has proposed the ideal of a "harmonious society" since his coming into power. The 6th Plenary Session of the 16th Central Committee of the Communist Party in 2006 saw the passage of the "resolutions of the CPC Central Committee on major issues regarding the building of a harmonious socialist society" which required all government entities in China to "exert their efforts in resolving matters concerning the intense mass reactions resulting from the expropriation of land and the implementation of house demolitions for urban construction, … and actively prevent and properly address the mass incidents triggered by internal contradictions among the people and maintain public interest and social stability." In an analysis of this issue, the official Xinhua News Agency indicated that it was the first time that the Chinese authorities have recorded the "active prevention and proper management of mass incidents" in major documents, signifying that "mass incidents triggered by internal contradictions among the people have expanded in scope and in numbers and have become the most striking issue seriously affecting social stability in China."

1. China is undergoing the phase of social transformation and is moving toward a "risky society"

China is undergoing a period of rapid economic development. In 2003, the average gross domestic product (GDP) per capita exceeded US$1,000 and reached almost US$2,000 in 2006 (XinhuaNet, October 26, 2007). According to the world's economic development and social evolution patterns, when a country’s per capita GDP increases from US$1,000 to US$3,000, many problems—such as uneven distribution of wealth, frequent occurrence of unemployment and social disorder—often occur in the process. In 2005, Jiang Ming-an, director at Peking University's Public Law Research Center, indicated that China is undergoing a period of rapid transformation. Lack of emphasis on fairness and justice will easily result in mass incidents (XinhuaNet, August 1, 2005). Li Jingtian, vice minister of the Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee, indicated that "certain contradictions will probably arise in huge numbers due to drastic reforms and development" (Xinhua Net, July 7, 2005).

2. Mass incidents have increased tenfold in 13 years and have continued to expand in scale

Statistics have shown that the number of mass incidents in China—including the obstruction of public service execution, mass disturbances leading to social disorder, mass fighting, and trouble-causing activities—has increased from 8,700 in 1993, over 32,000 in 1999, 60,000 in 2003, and 74,000 in 2004 to 87,000 in 2005, representing a tenfold increase in 13 years (Yu Jianrong, Disturbance Incidents and Management Crisis in China, October 2007; the homepage of Chinese Ministry of Public Security website, May 2006; 2005 Blue Paper on Chinese Society) and an average of one incident every six minutes. The 2006 Social Statistics announced in December 2007 by China's National Bureau of Statistics show that in 2006 public security entities handled 599,392 cases—such as “disturbances in social order,” “disturbances in public spaces,” “trouble-making activities,” and “obstruction of public service execution,” among which 583,180 have been investigated and resolved. It can be seen that there is an explosive growth in the number of mass incidents.

3. The major factors leading to the occurrence of mass incidents

Yu Jianrong, director of Research Center for Social Issues under the Institute of Rural Development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, published an article entitled "Disturbance Incidents and Management Crisis in China" in October 2007 indicating that according to statistics, until the year 2005, 35 percent of the mass incidents occurring in China were related to the protection of farmers' rights, 36 percent were related to the protection of workers’ rights, and 15 percent were related to the protection of citizens’ rights. Moreover, factors such as social disputes and social disturbances accounted for 10 percent and 5 percent of the total incidents, respectively. It is observed that generally speaking, the large-scale mass incidents occurring in China over recent years have been due to the aforementioned factors, which can be summarized as follows.

(1) Loss of farmers' lands

According to China’s Ministry of Labor and Social Security, the total number of Chinese farmers who have lost their lands due to expropriation has reached 40 million. It is estimated that during the period of the "Eleven Five-years" the number will increase by 3 million persons per year (ChinaNet, July 24, 2007). In current Chinese society, there exists a situation where people have difficulty in obtaining employment and there is a lack of a sound social security mechanism. As such, many land-lost Chinese farmers have been enmeshed in a dilemma in which they have "no land to till on, no work to engage in, and no social security to depend on." Zhang Xinbao, director of the Law Enforcement and Supervision Bureau of China’s Ministry of Land and Resources, acknowledged as early as in 2006 that these farmers could not be sufficiently compensated due to the local governments' lack of financial resources (Voice of Free Asia quotes from the China Youth Daily, April 19, 2006), and so they would be unable to maintain their livelihood (based on the current per capita consumption in agricultural villages, these farmers will only be able to survive for another seven years, and only two years if in the city, with the compensation received). In addition, the 2005 Blue Book on Chinese Society indicated that in expropriating the lands, the local government gains between 20 to 30 percent of the profits, the developers 40 to 50 percent, while the original owners, the farmers, only 5 to 10 percent. The land developers became the biggest beneficiaries from the government's land expropriation scheme, while the farmers losing their lands were not able to be reasonably compensated. Under such circumstance, land disputes become the key factor that has pushed farmers to take actions to protect their rights. According to the figures compiled by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, a total of 385,000 farmers participated in mass protests in 2006, accounting for the highest proportion among the various categories of protesters (Central News Agency, April 11, 2007). The Xinhua News Agency also reported that official Chinese figures showed that nearly 200,000 hectares of land were expropriated from farmers every year, and that mass incidents triggered by land expropriation have already accounted for over 65 percent of the number of mass incidents in all the agricultural villages (Xinhua News Agency, January 30, 2007).

(2) The protection of workers' rights

Over recent years, the incidents triggered by the protection of workers’ rights in labor-related disputes have emerged. In 2005, the number of labor-related disputes in China was approximately 314,000, an increase of 20 percent over 2004. About 45 percent of rural laborers were forced to work over the maximum number of hours, while 10 percent did not have any agreement signed with their employers (cited by the Voice of Free Asia from the official China Daily, February 1, 2007). In addition, according to figures compiled by China’s Ministry of Labor and Social Security, the number of labor-related disputes has increased 13.5-fold during the 12 years between 1995 and 2006. There are countless phenomena in which rural laborers jumped off buildings to demand wage payments; China’s system of legal holidays was unable to be actually implemented; no overtime payments were made for overtime work; and no reason was given for worker layoffs. These incidents were common occurrences (China Economic Weekly, November 19, 2007). Although China has formulated a new "law on employment contracts" to be implemented on January 1, 2008, it deserves more attention regarding whether laborers are going to be dismissed earlier due to the implementation of this new law.

(3) The gap between rich and poor

Although the Chinese economy has skyrocketed, statistical figures show that the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the rich minority; the majority of the Chinese people are not able to enjoy the fruits of economic development. Li Peilin, director of the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, (chief editor of the 2006 Blue Book on Chinese Society) indicated that regarding per capita income, the upper 20 percent with the highest incomes earn four times as much as the people at the bottom 20 percent. This disparity has increased to 18.2 times in 2006, which means that the property disparity between the highest income group and the lowest income group has reached 72-fold (XinhuaNet, December 25, 2006). If this is examined based on the Gini coefficient used in the international society to measure income inequality, China’s 2006 Gini coefficient was 0.496, which has exceeded the internationally recognized alarm level of 0.4 (Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences, 2007 Trends Analysis and Predictions on Chinese Society; ChinaNet, January 12, 2007). What's more, the situation is still worsening. The continued widening of rich-poor and rural-urban gaps will enlarge social hatred and social split. Moreover, it is generally believed that a Gini coefficient of over 0.5 signifies the possibility of potential social unrest. Apparently, China is now on the brink of the "high-risk period" during which the outbreaks of social unrest may occur.

4. Concluding statement

The bi-polarized development occurring in China's society has resulted in the continued accumulation of resentment and dissatisfaction among the Chinese people. Coupled with the rising awareness of human rights, the Chinese people have begun to realize that they can use collective power to protect their interests and to resist irrational and unfair circumstances. In facing such mass incidents, the responsible entities in China often resort to tough measures. However, if the Chinese authorities continue to ignore the crux of the issues and continue to use the wording—"disturbances in the social order" to define the mass actions taken by the people to protect their interests so as to maintain a superficial "harmonious society," then their actions will be unconducive to solving the problems and will even lead to more intense and discordant situations.