Mass incidents in China - what do the numbers tell us (not much)

Wengan Incident. One of 80 thousand?
Weng’an Incident. One of 80 thousand?

Is China collapsing? Will economic downturn lead to social instability which will lead to mass rebellion that in turn will lead to a noisy collapse which will lead to many best-selling “aftermath” books?


Ah, Don’t we all wish we knew the answer, so that we could start working on that best-seller and beat other observers to the punch? The numbers, however, aren’t very helpful.

One widely quoted figure is the number of mass incidents in China: 74,000 in 2004, 87,000 in 2005, and supposedly even more in the following three years. These numbers, according to many, suggest wide-spread unrest in China, that is perceived as a real threat to the communist party.


What does the annual  figure really represent?

Yesterday I attended a speaker event with Wang Erping, who is a psychologist at the Chinese Academy of Science. Professor Wang has been researching the psychological aspect of mass incidents and acts as an adviser to the central government on how to prevent incidents from occurring. He suggests a mechanism he calls “Social monitoring” that involves, as far as I understand, establishing a better system to address people’s grievances. So far - nothing very new or surprising.

  What surprised me was Professor Wang’s explanation on what a mass incident is: According to the official definition the term applies to any “collective conflict with an administration or some powerful social group”. A mass incident can be any confrontation involving more than five people.

So if three families from a township in Guangxi have a problem with the power grid, they complain to the local energy department  and some harsh words are said, this will end up right there on the data sheet, along with the Weng’an incident? Guess the answer is yes. Officially. (Professor Wand wanted to add here that there might be underreporting from some counties, which he thinks only report incidents involving more than thirty people).  

The obligation for local authorities to report “Mass Incidents” was established by the central government in 2003. If I know anything at all about provincial and county level governments, there must have been an adjusting period and maybe some improvement in the accuracy of reporting over the last six years (or else an improvement in covering-up skills). So, is it possible that the “Sharp increase” in rural riots in China is partly due to increase in reporting?

Well then, about 80,000 “Mass incidents” in China per year and counting. What can we learn from this?

A. That the countryside is boiling with discontent and the collapse is near.

B. That the situation is improving dramatically as people become more aware of their rights.

C. That local governments keep better track of complaints or incidents which can be a sign of: a. improved governing standards or b. greater repression.

D. That, consider Local governments record of hiding or distorting inconvenient data, the actual numbers are probably higher (and the collapse nearer).

F. Nothing  

G. All of the above

What do you think?

*seemingly, there is some confusion between the terms “public order disturbance” or ???????? and “Mass incident” or  ?????, which Ronald Soong explains in this old post on ESWN. Professor Wang’s research deals with the later