Shishou official speaks out about riot

Breaking rank, Shishou official Liu Guolin discloses information regarding the Shishou riots, offering an insightful and critical analysis of the past week’s events.

Author(s): Sam Verran
Posted: 2009-7-1
Source date:2009-7-1
Number of hits:199
A blog entry posted by an official in Shishou has shed more light on the recent events in Shishou city, Hubei province. The blog is maintained by an official named Liu Guolin and details his perspective on the government's containment efforts in Shishou and lessons that can be learned from the handling of the incident. The blog entry marks a surprising break from usual government silence concerning such incidents and tight control usually asserted over official reports.
Liu's post increases the level of official recognition of the importance of the Shishou incident. In Liu's commentary, he notes the importance of a critical understanding of the incident: "The Shishou incident is not a good thing, but in noting lessons that can be learned from the incident, some future good may come out of it. I can definitely say that the Shishou incident's edifying influence will be no less than that of Weng'an and that in the future, any discussion of means to address riots in China will have to include discussions of Shishou". 
Interestingly, one of the criticisms Liu levels at the government's handling of the event is the attempt to downplay social unrest as a main cause of the riots and describe the disturbance as an isolated incident. Liu is blunt in his estimation of the cause of the riots, and the state of government and police corruption in Shishou. The official government response to the Shishou protests has emphasized public ignorance and naiveté as a contributing factor (See Shihou government website), and actions by "criminals" to deliberately mislead the public (See AP). Liu is critical of this response, maintaining that such offhand disregard for the real cause of protests severely limits the beneficial lessons that can be gleaned from the event, implying that legitimate analysis might help to prevent such an event occurring in the future. According to Liu:
First, I would like to point out that the cause of the events in Shishou was not simply public distrust of the officially reported cause of death, but that the unrest was precipitated by long established tensions in Shishou society. The tensions, in fact, are between local cadre and the police, and the general public, as well as broad social tension caused by economic inequality. Such tensions are what the media calls "hatred toward the rich, the officials and the police" that spread widely among the society.
Thus Liu maintains that from the beginning, police handling of the incident in Shishou was likely to create social tension due to poor police-citizen relations. Furthermore the government should have taken this into consideration when conducting its operations. He argues:
While participating in the management of the incident I heard much criticism of the Shishou police. From the very start of their investigation into Tu Yuangao's death, the Shishou police have already lost public trust. This is why the majority of Shishou citizens did not accept the preliminary conclusion by the police, and there was general opposition to the removal of the body of the victim.
Such an emotionally confrontational atmosphere cannot entirely be chalked up to having a population "uninformed" about the events. In fact many individuals exercised their own independent judgment and were well informed about the death of Tu Yuangao. In simply blaming an uninformed public as the cause of the disturbances, the government has disadvantaged critical analysis of the events which could provide beneficial lessons for avoiding future conflict.
One must be very careful in determining the nature of the incident, as it is a matter of winning public support or losing it. For instance, we noticed that the reports in Renmin Daily and China News Agency are much more carefully drafted, avoiding controversial terms such as "uninformed" and "illegal individuals", so that the public would not be further agitated.
Of course, not referring to "uniformed public" or "illegal individuals" as the cause of the event does not mean that public ignorance was not part of the problem, likewise not citing criminal activities as part of the cause does not mean that criminal activities were absent in the riot. However, what is important is that these people are, after all, the minority and cannot change the course of the protests. Indeed, the nature of the event and the trajectory of its development could only be determined by the general public.
What is most revealing about the blog post is the clear role that the central government played in the handling of this event.
We the local government did what the higher level government asked us to do while assessing the effectiveness of these instructions. However, what was most detestable about this situation is that we did not have the decision-making power and often felt powerless to make the changes that we thought were necessary.
Central government command of the containment operation shows the government's concern over the severity of the riots and the potential for discontent to spread. Protests in China walk a thin line between government tolerance and repression. While the government does in many instances tolerate localized protests against official corruption as it provides a way to identity discontent and to gain information regarding poor performance by local governments, when protests seem to threaten greater stability the center takes swift action to contain them and ensure that discontent does not spread. As noted below, Liu describes the degree of upper level government's involvement in the containment of the unrest, stating that: "provincial public security bureau and the People's Armed Police Headquarters dispatched…approximately ten thousand military police [and] employed high pressure water cannons". That the central government employed this much force hints to the government's fear of wider discontent and the potential for the Shishou incident to influence public opinion in other areas.
Also of note is the apparent conflict between central and local governments in the handling of this case. The frustration expressed by Liu is rarely openly acknowledged by Chinese officials and in this case portrays action by the central government as misguided.
Finally, Liu makes a number of specific criticisms of the government's response to the protests and a number of recommendations for future government dealings with unrest in China:
First, information disclosure was neither transparent nor timely. This led to much speculation during the chaos of the protests, bringing about a widespread suspicion and misunderstanding and in particular, has led to a lot of hearsay and rumors, which have made the situation more complex.  
Second, the assumption of command by the main leadership was not timely. Peoples' lives are most important. The township level public security director was not personally present during the most critical period of the incident, at the start of the government handling of the situation, only the vice secretary of the municipal rule of law committee and the deputy director of the city public security office were present. 
Third, the cause of death was not known with enough accuracy when made public. Official words have the potential to become either a catalyst for certain events, or an inhibiting factor. Reports concerning outbursts should stick to facts and use caution. During the course of this incident, the government did not release the facts in a timely or cautious manner. Two days after the death occurred, local television released the government's preliminary cause of death as suicide. As we learned from previous events, the general public is most skeptical of the word "suicide".
Fourth, the police approach to the issue of compensation for the death lacked the necessary flexible and a pragmatic attitude. In this specific case, compensation for suicide and compensation for murder would clearly not be the same. There is no sufficient justification for compensation before the cause of death is official. The family of the deceased raised the question of a guarantee of compensation, as would naturally be expected, but did not receive a positive response. Especially during the negotiation, the government was more inclined to the possibility of suicide, emphasizing that it if it suicide, compensation would be little. This will just increase the difficulty of mediation, which caused them to miss the opportunity to move the corpse, and gave rise to the opportunity for rumors to arise in society that "35,000 Yuan can buy a life", so as to provoke more citizens.  
Fifth, suppressing the problem makes it more complex. The Shishou incident drew the attention of the central leadership, which expressed clear demands for control over the situation. Provincial Public Security Bureau and the People's Armed Police Headquarters therefore dispatched approximately ten thousand military police and employed high pressure water cannons. This degree of repression was not easily tolerated by an emotional population, and during the conflict which ensued, dozens of armed police were injured, a dozen military vehicles were smashed, already damaged civil-military relations were further exacerbated by the confrontation between the government and the people, and ultimately this increased the difficulty in controlling the situation and restoring order.    
Sixth, there is no accountability mechanism for swift containment measures. Deep problems regarding irrational administrative arrangement are given expression in such emergencies and the government is in need of responsible leadership. If accountability procedures could commence on time, they will have a powerful appeasing effect on people's emotions and help to quell disturbances as soon as possible. This is a lesson the Weng'an incident illustrated and is what the public would expect. If this fundamental problem is not resolved, the public will see no future hope and public support for the Party and the government will be lacking.
An important consequence of this remarkably open report is that it undermines previous government attempts to downplay the protests. According to an article published by Xinhua on June 21, the number of protestors in Shishou was estimated to be only around 1,000. In attempting to block unofficial reports on the protest and providing extremely conservative official estimates, the Chinese government has attempted to reduce the importance of the Shishou riots. However, as noted above, Liu Guolin details the impressive government response, claiming that 10,000 armed military police were deployed. Unless we are to believe that it took over 10,000 security agents, along with armed anti-riot vehicles and water cannons to contain 1,000 protestors, then official figures are clearly distorted.
Liu Guolin maintains that Shishou offers important lessons for the Chinese government in tackling public discontent and the development of public unrest:
The difference between Weng'an and Shishou is that the Weng'an incident was settled peacefully, while the unrest in Shishou represents an instance where the situation developed to a point where the only option was to repress community action. Of course, that the event developed to such a phase is not necessarily completely the fault of the Shishou government and we hope that all levels of government will earnestly seek to learn from the recent events. We have noted that the national media have started to reflect on the lessons learned.
Ultimately, Liu maintains that the government must:
Properly deal with the demands of the masses, establish channels for easy flow of public opinion, and create a rigorous system of accountability. If a few of these suggestions are implemented it will go a long way to resolving some of citizens' concerns. Relations between citizens and officials and relations between the police and citizens will gradually be restored, and the development of a harmonious society in Shishou will be benefited.
Essentially this blog post marks an interesting departure from the usual government handling of citizen protests. Breaking rank and speaking out Liu is both critical and honest in a way that is rarely, if ever, seen in government officials. His analysis of the situation illustrates the tension in society that was arguably a factor in the rapid escalation of the Shishou protests, as well as the clear concern of the Central government in limiting the potential spread of such unrest. This kind of candid talk by a government official provides an interesting insight into social-political developments in China.
Note: The above blog entry was posted on the 29th of July but received little attention. Since being reposted on the Liu's blog has received several thousand hits, while his article featured on has received, as of July 1st, 3,212 hits.
Other articles on the story include a piece originally posted on Xiaoxiang Daily website, which discusses the developing story and the role of as the first website to publish the blog post.  (This article can be found here)
Also of interest is an article written by the editor who posted Liu Guolin's article to This article discusses concerns over the Liu's fate given the current level of media attention on him and the repercussions he will face for his post. (This article can be found here)
Following his original post Liu Guolin has posted two other articles. The first article offers a justification for the suicide verdict issued by police, while his second post examines the recent acts of the mayor of Shishou, who jumped into a river to find the bodies of three children in what appears to be a propaganda attempt.