China's Challenge: Social Disorder

By Sun Liping
Published: 2011-05-09

Nation, page 10-11
Issue 508
February 28, 2011
Translated by Tang Ruoji and Tang Xiangyang
Original article:

When examining contemporary Chinese society, many have drawn attention to the phenomenon of what I like to refer to as "lifting the lid" (牵出 qiān chū) - that is, while everything in a certain area or field might appear fine, or even to be doing particularly well, all it takes is for one problem to emerge and, like a gentle tap on a smooth surface, a host of complicated problems are revealed.

What's really interesting is the long list of results you get if you type the phrase "牵出" into a search engine.

The search results will lead you to stories about how a single corruption case in the city of Shaoguan in Guangdong "lifted the lid" on 31 bureau-level officials who were also involved, another story details how the controversy surrounding Tang Jun (a former Microsoft China executive accused of exaggerating his academic achievements) "lifted the lid" on other celebrities who allegedly exaggerated or falsified their academic achievements.

Other results include links to stories that explain how the "My Dad is Li Gang" case "lifted the lid" on a scandal involving accusations of plagiarism against the dean of the university where the incident occurred or how a recent environmental scandal involving Zijin Mining Group "lifted the lid" on broader collusion between businessmen and politicians.

Other results refer to how the fire that engulfed a Shanghai apartment building late last year "lifted the lid" on illegal subcontracting, how a divorce case "lifted the lid" on corruption at Wuhan University, how an investigation into the former Communist Party Secretary of the city of Maoming in Guangdong "lifted the lid" on a number of other cases involving officials and property developers, how the case of four Rio Tinto employees convicted of accepting bribes in 2009 "lifted the lid" on corruption within the country's steel industry - and so it goes on.

A classic example of the kind of phenomenon that I'm talking about emerged at the end of last year, it revolved around two brothers who were accused of evading expressway tolls in Henan.

On the face of it, this was a straight-forward legal case involving the conviction of a truck driver for attempting to avoid paying road tolls, but the deeper people dug, the more problems that emerged - unreasonably high road tolls (a nationwide problem), the chaotic nature of the country's transportation industry, drivers being forced to choose between breaking the law and going bankrupt, the sale and illegal use of military license plates, corruption in the management of freeways and it even went so far as to "lift the lid" on the qualifications and family background of one of the judges involved in the initial case and so on.

A seemingly ordinary case leads to the uncovering of a whole series of unexpected problems.

We're left to wonder if the toll evasion case had not attracted so much attention, perhaps none of these problems would have seen the light of day and things would've have continued on as they were.

We are forced to ask ourselves: beyond the surface appearance, is it possible that problems have emerged at a deeper level with regard to how our society functions?

The more fundamental question is, during the process of social transition, how can we avoid the emergence of serious social disorder?

What do we Mean When we Talk About Social Disorder?

In order to understand the concept, we need look no further than Chinese football.The recent exposure of rampant corruption among the highest levels of Chinese football says it all.We can go so far as to say that Chinese football is rotten to the core. The phenomenon of referees being bought off and of gambling on games has led to the collapse of the fundamental structure of a sport that is based on ideas of fair competition played according to agreed rules. In order to win a bet, you can pay off a referee, a player or even a football club. In some areas, even government officials were involved in these betting scandals.
A few years back, I mentioned in an article that if we viewed it from the point of view of contemporary politics, China's domestic football league ought to be a model of modern governance - it was one of the first sectors in China to be opened up to the market and it's probably one of the most transparent areas in Chinese society, if a member of the football association were to simply meet with a businessman for dinner, it would be reported. It's probably also one of the only sections of Chinese life that is fully supervised by the strength of public opinion, it's only in the realm of Chinese football that the naming and shaming of high level officials is permitted, people even go so far as to say that Chinese football journalists are the most competent journalists in the country. Finally football is one of those few areas in Chinese life where multiple social forces have a say and where people down the bottom of the chain are able to exert pressure on those above them.

However, it now seems that not even all these factors can save Chinese football.

"Social disorder" refers to a situation where it is almost impossible to get by if you simply follow the official rules and act normally.

A good example of this is the small rural county of Baimiao, which falls under the authority of Bazhong in Sichuan Province. Over recent years, there have been many calls to make government spending more transparent, and in March last year, Baimiao County took the lead by becoming the first county-level government in the country to "open the books" and make public a detailed budget of government spending.

After announcing the move, the small county became a focus of national media attention and many residents began to lift their hopes that their needs would be better met in the future.

However, the county has been given the cold shoulder from those within the system and has had difficulty petitioning higher levels of government for funding. Baimiao still lacks more than ten million yuan needed to fund social welfare programs included in the budget, and in a last ditch effort, the local government attempted to attract investors or other assistance over the Internet, but after more than a month, they received no responses.

The party secretary of Baimiao was left to ponder what this push for "opening the books" was all about?

Unregulated Power is the Key to Social Disorder 

It should be clear to us that the problem of social disorder is no longer restricted to certain places or situations; it has spread to become a common social problem. In an era when encouraging social investment is now official policy, we should heed the warnings and pay close attention to this phenomenon.

We can use the term social disorder to describe the distorted actions of some local governments: the unchecked abuses of power, the use of violence to silence petitioners, forced expropriation and destruction of property, corruption among those who work for the courts so that some people have no place to turn if they are wronged against, corruption so rampant that people have no choice but to go along with it, backroom deals and unwritten rules become so prevalent that they become the default working method of officials, entrenched powerful interest groups abuse their strength to erode any concept of fairness or justice that might exist and drive society further along the road to a mafia state, the moral baseline of society is not defended, we become morally bankrupt and it becomes common for people to lose their professional integrity and virtue.

Daily experience also testifies to a kind of social breakdown that can be seen everywhere you look: teachers and administrators at schools make profits by ripping off their students, doctors become rich by swindling patients, industrial monopolies continue to reap monopoly profits, counterfeit goods are everywhere, fake food products impact on food safety, if old people fall down no-one helps them up and handicapped children are used as beggars.

A bizarre cycle emerges that reinforces mistrust, as someone once put it: the cash that teachers take from students to give them a pass, is transfered to hospitals and telecommunication companies after the school bell rings. The employees of monopoly enterprises end up spending most of their salary on sending their kids to school or paying to see a doctor. The money that producers earn by selling poor quality or poisoned products, are used to pay off officials or to support the teachers and doctors. At the end of the day, even the corrupt officials and managers who are able to use their position to amass vast fortunes, are eating the contaminated food, breathing the polluted air and using the dirty water.  

Society is falling apart. Over the past few years it was common for people to say every-one's hometown is tainted (每个人的家乡都在沦陷); now people say all that's solid melts into air (一切坚固的东西都在撕裂).

I've heard it said that a high level official at Peking University once said: if even monks and teachers are corrupt, then the country is already rotten to the core.

Normally, social disorder occurs during a phase of social transition, as existing rules and customs begin to lose their hold - social disorder normally ensues. 

While this serves as a reasonable explanation for the chaos of the 1980s, it is an inadequate characterization and oversimplification of the problems we are facing today. 

At the core of contemporary social disorder lies a loss of control over how power is exercised. As paradoxical as it may seem, power grows when no one is capable of controlling it. Over the past thirty years of opening up and reform, the country has established the basic framework for a market economy, but the axis that our society turns on is still political authority.

But the exercise of power is facing challenges in the face of an increasingly complex society – as an emerging market economy, accelerating globalization, the development of science and technology, the coming of mass consumerism and the speeding up of the pace of urbanization all add to the complexity of Chinese society. 

When we view it objectively, a complicated society calls for a more effective method of political control and management. But in a society without an independent market or any form of political self-determination, the very real demand for more effective political control can very easily be diverted into a call for a stronger centralized political authority as people hope to make use of "total government" to alleviate their problems.
This strengthening of authority can solve a lot of problems, and, in the short-term and on the surface, appear to satisfy our needs.

But the strengthening of authority alone will never be able to solve the problem of unchecked power. 

The Chinese writer Wu Si (吴思) introduced the concept of unwritten rules (潜规则). Recently, another Chinese writer, Wu Gou (吴钩), coined the phrase "informal power" (隐权力), referring to the kind of implicit power that bureaucratic systems have wielded throughout history.

No matter if we refer to them as unwritten rules or informal powers, the fact that these terms exist indicates that the rules that define the formal exercise of power are no longer effective. The result is a loss of control over how authority or power is exercised.

When we say a loss of control over the exercise of power, we mean that attempts to limit the abuse of power from both within and from outside the system are ineffective.

We can use a some-what paradoxical example to explain what we mean by loss of control over the exercise of power: government power that acts without regard for government authority.

On the one hand, government power is unchecked and acts as it see fits, on the other, it undermines its own legitimacy and the effectiveness of the entire government structure.  

Several years ago, the so-called "government decrees" that were announced by the central government in Zhongnanhai didn't appear to hold much weight.

The power exercised by regional governments and central government ministries were said to be neither subject to supervision nor did they engage in supervision of the lower tiers of government, indicating a total fragmentation of the top-down model of power. At the same time, the horizontal check and balances in the system had weakened, indicating that national authority had fragmented.

Unregulated power also indicates that officials are not responsible for the whole system but are taking measures which will hurt the system as a whole.

On the surface they may appear to be acting to protect the interests of "the system," but in reality they were damaging the system while in the process of feathering their own nest.

The phenomenon of "informal power" has dealt two crippling blows to the system, a decline in government credibility and damage to public morality.

The result is that the mechanism required for the ordinary functioning of society begins to lose its efficacy at critical moments.

The Qian Yunhui case serves as a good example. Though many claim that the case has already been dealt with, it's possible that questions will always remain about what really happened.
The worst possible conclusion is one that avoids the truth. This is not to say that there is no one truthful account of what happened, but rather there is no single account of what happened that has bee accepted by the public at large as the truth.

To go one step further, we can say that our society is losing the ability to persuade people to accept something as being "true."

When seen from a social perspective, the direct result of unregulated power is that the ability to maintain a fair and just society has weakened. Unregulated power has swept aside reason and law, and everyone of us has felt the absence.

When we talk about effective social management, some say that first we need enforce checks on government power, if we can't effectively supervise power, then there is no effective means of halting the trend towards social disorder.

There are two consequences of social injustice: an increase in social conflicts and cynicism.

According to the 2005 edition of the "Blue Book of China's Society" published annually by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-backed think tank that operates under the authority of the State Council, the number of incidents of social unrest, often referred to as "mass incidents" in Chinese, increased from 10,000 in 1993 to 60,000 in 2003, and the number of participants in such incidents increased to 3.07 million.

Zhu Lijia, director of the public research department of Chinese Academy of Governance, said in a recent interview with the Oriental Outlook Weekly《瞭望东方周刊》that the number of mass incidents had doubled from 2006 to 2010.

Others have estimated that at least 180,000 incidents took place in 2010.

The 2010 China Crisis Management Annual Report (《2010中国危机管理年度报告》) released by the Shanghai Jiaotong University shows that there were 72 major crises that had a comparatively large impact on social opinion last year, an average of one every five days. 

Cynicism is spreading. This is rooted in the desperation caused by the sense that there is no hope in righting social injustice; people become "realistic" and are forced to deal with injustice and immorality with sarcasm and mockery.  

Being jaded and sly is considered as mature behavior, while fighting for equality and justice is considered naive.  

This rampant cynicism has already become a formidable barrier to social reform. It is even said that reform is no longer possible. One of the most important reasons is that the society has lost the courage to challenge social injustice and to change. 

How to Survive in a Disorderly Society

An interesting phenomenon worth noting is that many, including government officials whose positions are envied by many, think of themselves as members of a weak or "disadvantaged" group (弱势群体). At the end of last year, a survey of government officials conducted by the People's Forum magazine《人民论坛》found that nearly half of respondents believed they were members of a "disadvantaged group." Similarly, 55.4 percent of intellectuals felt the same way, while among white collared workers, the number who thought of themselves as somehow "maginalized" climbed to 57.8 percent. 

According to a similar survey conducted by The Beijing News《新京报》, a popular Beijing daily newspaper, 18.8% of participants thought of themselves as "extremely disadvantaged," while 61.9% of those surveyed defined themselves as "moderately disadvantaged." Only 12.2% of respondents felt that they were "not at all disadvantaged." 

There are at least two points to be gleaned from this. The first is the breakdown of existing social structures, and the second is the state of anomie that exists in societies that are in a state of disorder.   

I began discussing the breakdown of social structures and warning about the increasingly apparent threats to our society over a decade ago. This type of society is divided between the haves and the have nots, the rich and poor, the urban and rural - with a fault line down the middle. The two sides exist in opposition to each other and make up a fragile and fractured society.

Many of the social tensions that exist in contemporary China are a product of this deep split in society.

Hatred of the rich and contempt for poverty signals a rapidly widening gap between society’s elite and everyone else. We can view the ever increasing amount of ridicule and scorn aimed at the wealthy that appears online and at the same time what appears to be the ever more excessive sense of entitlement among the rich.
When real estate companies declare that they will construct houses for the rich but not for the poor, when all of Beijing's taxi companies announce that the decision of what kind of cars they choose to use has nothing at all to do with customers, when the educated class says that opposition to their views among ordinary people can be viewed as further proof that they are right, all this gives us a sense of the overbearing attitude of the elite and also shows the widening gap between the wealthy and the average citizen.

This fractured social structure is reflected in class relations as a trend to the creation of oligarchs takes place among the upper class and the lower class becomes more fragmented.Against this background, mustering a reasonable response to China’s social problems will be all the more difficult  

When a society has lost its way, its people, regardless of whether they are lower class or upper class or industrial workers, fall into a state of anomie. 

The Henan tollway evasion scandal mentioned earlier exemplifies the state of affairs in one industry. A farmer with fake military license plates on his delivery truck illegally traversed the highway 2,361 times in 8 months, dodging over 3.68 million yuan in tolls when the actual profit from this business was only 200,000 yuan.

According to regulations, if he paid the regular tolls for the 8-month period, it would only come to about 900,000 yuan, but in order to make profits, the driver overloaded his truck, and and in doing so was liable for additional fees of 2.78 million yuan. If this is so, who wouldn’t try to dodge these tolls? 

This situation does not only exist in the transport and delivery sector, similar problems exist to varying degrees in other industries.

Another example is the dairy industry, the melamine milk powder scandal practically destroyed China’s dairy industry and the latest "leather milk scandal" (皮革奶) has been the icing on the cake.

The question is whether the scandal was simply a matter of supervision or ethics. While obviously both these factors played a role, we can also see deeper problems inherent within our country's dairy industry.

When reports of the melamine scandal first emerged, in became obvious that there was only two choices open to those companies operating in such an industry - either use melamine like the other companies or forfeit any hope of profit.  

The recent pricing scandals at Carrefour and Wal-Mart is a case of law-abiding companies "going-bad" in an unethical business environment. After the controversy broke, many observers asked, "why would two retail giants pull a stunt like this? The two companies have already demonstrated that price gouging is not part of a successful business model."

As I have already suggested, the answer is closely related to the business environment in which they operate.  

In a disorderly society, casualties are not limited to the weak and vulnerable; they include everyone, even the upper echelons of society. This is why over 87 percent of the public identify themselves as disadvantaged.

In civil service exams, hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of participants compete for a single position. But even in the enviable profession of civil service, a large group of people feel as if they're disadvantaged.

This phenomenon is worthy of serious consideration and we shouldn't simply seek to gain cheap political points off it.

Last year, "the third wave of Chinese emigration" was a popular topic of conversation. Some believe that the current wave of emigration is the third largest in Chinese history, the last two being the spike in emigration around the end of the Ming dynasty in 1644 and the large exodus of people that took place in the mid to late-nineteenth century.  

In June 2010, Globe 《环球》,a bi-weekly magazine published by Xinhua, jointly conducted a online survey with Sina, a popular Chinese web portal, that revealed that 88.2 percent of the more than 7,000 people who took part had some intention to emigrate.

An HSBC survey revealed that 60 percent of people with a monthly income above 12,000 yuan and liquid assets worth over 500,000 yuan have plans to leave the country over the coming 10 years. The top four destinations are Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Canada.

Another recent survey also shows that motivations for emigration has also undergone profound changes. In the past, children's education had always topped the list of reasons given for desire to emigrate, but last year, safety became the number one motivating factor. 

I do not think that safety here simply refers to personal safety or the safety of family members (i.e. a consequence of the murder of kindergarteners that happened in the spring of last year), it's also likely to include financial security and even predictability of what might happen in the future.  

China Needs a Movement for Social Progress

The prevailing disorder is a serious challenge to Chinese society. If we want to achieve long-term stability, we have to address the problem of social disorder. Once we recognize the battle at hand, we can begin to equip ourselves for the challenges ahead.  

Some believe that the problems I have listed are a natural part of the process of industrial development, and will only be solved with further development. This has become a tired argument in recent years.

In theory, there is something to the argument, the fruits of development do indeed help contribute to solving many of the problems we face. But we must see that development does not necessarily lead directly to the strengthening of social order, in fact, many of the problems outlined above, especially those involving the frayed social relations, are actually produced by development. Over recent years we have been unable to transform our development model, and the kind of development we have pursued has not only failed to solve existing problems it's actually made them worse.

Therefore we need a new solution.   

In a recent lecture, I touched upon society's "second transition" and its impact on progress and development. I want to pose a question: what kind of foundation does our society require? That is, what type of institutions can ensure justice and long-term stability?

If we look at history, we have an example of a successful one-off transition that provided an extremely good answer (at that time) to that question. What was society built upon before "reform and opening up"?  Ideology. Everything was about supporting the trend of socialism and to achieve communism.  

Back then, people embraced the seeds of socialism over the harvest of capitalism. But this foundation was lost during the Cultural Revolution. At that time, we saw another transition, this time from ideology to praxis. This marked the beginning of the "economy first" model of development that took economic reconstruction as its core. This transition was generally successful, and the idea led to over three decades of rapid economic development and served as the foundation for social harmony and stability.

But the new foundation of social development began to be questioned in the late 1990s by some sections of the population. For example, workers laid off by state-owned enterprises that were being restructured and members of the middle and lower classes began to ask what these ideas of economic development had to do with them.

From the mid-1990s onwards, development has not been persuasive enough to act as the core idea maintaing social balance. This is not to say that development should stop, but that we have not developed evenly in all aspects of society. Under these circumstances, a number of social problems and conflicts have arisen. This means that we are facing another period of transition, we need to shift the underlying justification and foundation of social action from simply being concerned with performance to one that is concerned with both performance and fairness.

The central government has recognized the problem and has put forward the concepts of "scientific development" and "harmonious society" in order to solve this problem.

That is to say, only if we can maintain rapid economic growth on the one hand and also manage to establish a basic level of fairness and justice, will we have a new stable foundation.

But this transition faces formidable challenges and is therefore very difficult.

As we know, the major obstacle to the first transition was ideology, the old way of thinking. In reality, this type of resistance was overcome quite easily. In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution we can say that most people were united in the need for the transition to a new foundation.

The second transition is different, this time we are not faced with ideological obstacles, but the stronger resistance of vested interest groups.

During this second transition the obstacles really are too big.

Because of these obstacles, it's hard to make any progress in pushing ahead with finding solutions to the challenges that need to be addressed as part of this second transition, for example: progress in developing a democratic system, of establishing the rule-of-law, of putting restrictions on political authority and vested interest groups, of protecting fairness and justice and establishing rules and principles to guide the operation of society.

Even the difficulty of making progress with the current transition of the economic development model can be traced back to this problem of vested interests blocking the way.

As the second transition is incomplete, all we can do is rely on the idea that inspired the first transition.

Why do we continue to stress a shift in the economic development model, but still pursue the growth of GDP at all costs?

Why are we still feeding the construction frenzy indiscriminately in urban and rural areas?

Why are some places still blindly pursuing big development projects regardless of whether it will really offer any economic benefits?

The reason is that we are the hungry family around the dinner table, gorging on peanuts and appetizers because the main courses just won’t come.  

Why has development gone off course, why are people starting to question development, it's because we still haven't successfully made the transition.

Facing social disorder, simply seeking to maintain social stability is not going to work. Of course, social stability is necessary, but when addressing social disorder the maintenance of an artificial stability is not enough. Moreover, if we make social stability our overriding goal, attempts to address the real causes of social disorder may be considered as likely to lead to social order and will be indefinitely shelved.

Two or three years ago, we put forward the idea that China needs a movement for social progress. If we look at examples from history, we find that developed western countries encountered the similar situations during the course of their development.

America is not what it is today purely because of economic development but also because of social progress.

On the whole, there are were three things that made major contributions to social progress in America. The first is the progressive movement that gained momentum over the turn of the twentieth century, the second was the social reforms introduced as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the third is the social reforms of the 60s aimed at establishing the great society.

After 30 years of economic development, we are today confronted with obvious signs of a trend towards social disorder, we also need a progressive movement. The fundamental goal of the movement is the establishment of a system that can guarantee a just and orderly society for all.

This article was edited by Paul Pennay