Stability Maintenance and China

By He Qinglian on July 10, 2013.
Source article in Chinese: 中国基层政府的“维稳疲劳”.

Despite the fact that “stability maintenance” has evolved into a new thriving industrial chain in China and provided numerous officials and their families with opportunities for the distribution of benefits, local governments, being at the forefront of conflicts between government authority and the people, are increasingly weary of the never-ending stability maintenance measures, both in terms of budget input and bearing capacity of grassroots officials. Many signs indicated that grassroots officials generally developed a “stability maintenance fatigue”, and local governments, a fiscal fatigue.

“Stability Maintenance fatigue” of grassroots officials.

As I concluded a few years ago, there is an isomorphic relation between the focuses of social revolt and the specific industries that fueled economic development in China. With China’s economic growth relying on real estate, petrochemical and resource-based industries like mining, social protests focus chiefly on the following areas:

The first area of focus is land rights. In cities they were triggered by forced demolition of housing, and in the countryside, land requisition.

The second area is environment. This type of protest emerged because environment pollution caused by chemical and resource-based industries poses serious threats to the survival of the people.

And a third area of focus concerns both corruption of grassroots cadres and miscarriage of justice.

In order to “have conflicts nipped in the bud”, the Chinese government implement the grassroots stability maintenance system alongside a “one failure (in stability maintenance), all achievements voided” appraisal mechanism (Yipiao foujue).

As a result, governments at village and town levels inevitably became the connection point of the conflicts between government and the people. With direct pressure from higher levels of government to maintain stability and being at the front line of civil revolt at the same time, grassroots officials felt like being caught in the middle, having to withstand pressure from both sides. Time and again reports of complaints made by these frustrated officials have been seen in the media.

In 2010, township officials said one-third of their time was spent on inviting investment, another one-third on running special projects and sourcing funds, and the rest on birth control and stability maintenance. As social conflicts intensify, stability maintenance has increasing become the focus of the work of these officials.

In a resignation announcement released online on July 1 this year, Zhao Guanghua, former deputy mayor of Luzhou City, Shibao Township, Sichuan, claimed the reason he tendered his resignation was largely due to the stress from stability maintenance.

According to the recollections of Zhao, work distributions of governments at grassroots level are as follows:

Each year, two months would be spent on gathering information to cope with supervision (from higher levels), four months on average for stability maintenance, two months on pointless meetings, rectification, initiating movements and “learning classes”. At most only four months were left for proper works, and there was no guarantee that no unexpected events would happen. “Unexpected events”, of course, refers to riots of different scales and other incidents.

In 2012, Zhao spent most of his energy keeping track of petitioning households. Yet in the end he got an administrative warning because five from his city petitioned to government of higher levels.

During the first half of 2013, he made a number of trips to other cities to “maintain stability”, that is, to monitor the movement of key individuals. Some of the stability maintenance measures are in great conflict with Zhao’s beliefs. 

Confused, he asked: “What exactly is the aim of stability maintenance anyway? Is it really to ensure the smooth development of local economy or to safeguard the job title of local officials?”

A few days after Zhao resigned, a deputy mayor of Dachi Township in Fujian, aged only 25, committed suicide, leaving behind a note citing work pressure as the reason. Given that stability maintenance is a major part of works of governments at grassroots levels, it could be inferred that at least part of that work pressure came from stability maintenance.

Due to the aforementioned appraisal mechanism, grassroots officials responsible for stability maintenance would at times form a peculiar relationship with their targets.

Take for example the case of Tang Hui, a local in Yongzhou, Hunan who received much media attention and the local government officials concerned have had to employ a gentler approach when they deal with her.

Whenever Tang went out, she would get “escorts” from the local authorities. In general two would accompany her, and at times the number of escorts would be as many as nine. Local police chief and the Party Secretary of the town where Tang lives in have been in close contact with Tang and her family. At festive times they would even pay visits to Tang’s family. The reason behind all this effort is that if local officials want to secure their jobs, they have to ensure Tang would not go to stage a leapfrog petition to their superiors. Past Party Secretaries said to Tang that if she go to Beijing, they might get punished or demoted.

This type of stability maintenance is exhaustively tiring for both grassroots officials and their targets alike.

“Fiscal Fatigue” of local governments.

Beginning in 2009, the focus of work of local governments has changed from “development being the first priority” to “development being the first priority, stability maintenance, the top responsibility”. Government agencies set up specifically to carry out stability maintenance work became permanent establishment. Stability maintenance offices are found in the central and local governments alike.

Many civil servant recruitment examination papers of local governments contain questions on how to address “mass incidents”; meanwhile, there is a rapid growth in the cost of maintaining stability.

The CPC denies there being a budget for stability maintenance and would only admit the existence of “public security spending”. 

The so-called “public security spending” shot up in the last five years. From 514 billion yuan in 2009 to 548.6 in 2010, it rose further to 624.42 billion yuan in 2011 and exceeded 700 billion yuan in 2012.

In 2013, the authorities no longer publicize the figure of nationwide stability maintenance budget and disclose only that of central government, which stood at 128.98 billion yuan. Included in this was a 100.63 billion yuan budget for armed police. It was also pointed out that since 2009, the public security budget at the central government increased by 76% in the past five years.

According to the study by Xie Yue, a doctoral tutor at Tongji University, there is an approximate 30/70 divide between the central government and the local ones when it comes to stability maintenance costs. The central government would shoulder 30% of the budget and local governments fork out 70%. For economically backward regions, this is a heavy burden.

Even though the figure of stability maintenance budget in backward regions is small compared with those of other regions, it takes up a large part of the fiscal expenditure of these regions nonetheless. Many provinces became indebted because of this. 

Some researchers looked at fiscal budgets of local governments across the country and found that since 2009 or so, in many places the public security budget exceeded that of social security and employment, education, environment protection, technological innovation, and affordable housing. Many places became exhausted by the stability maintenance expenditure.

Take Fujiaqiao Town, Yongzhou, Hunan for example. The township stated its annual revenue is 2.15 million yuan. Yet in the past six years, as many as 800,000 yuan was spent on stability maintenance because of Tang Hui, that is roughly 130,000 per year on average, a heavy spending for the township without doubt.

Officials at grassroots levels thus felt fed up with stability maintenance and wish it could end soon. What hasn't crossed their mind or, even if it has, they didn't dare to say was that: so long as China’s economic development model stays the same, there would be no end to stability maintenance.

No change to economic model, no end to stability maintenance.

In China, the focuses of social resistance are determined by what drive the Chinese economic growth. Before 2009, when real property was what propelled economic development in China, instances of social resistance were mostly triggered by land requisition, and forced demolition and removal.

After the real estate bubble reached its height and became unsustainable, highly polluting petrochemical industry and resource-based industries like mining became more and more important in local economy. As a result, social revolt centering on environment issues grew by the day. 

Statistics showed that in recent years, an average annual increase rate of 29% has been recorded in mass incidents triggered by environment issues, and there was a trend of these protests shifting from rural areas to cities. For instance, anti-PX plant demonstrations took place in major cities such as Xiamen, Dalian, Ningbo, and Kumming.

To have stability maintenance measures implemented under these circumstances is effectively to ensure the government could continue exploiting resources, contaminating the environment and putting public interest in jeopardy, these are bound to invoke social revolt.

The international community addresses issues of public interest in the three following ways.

First, the issues are examined using the principles of justice or reason; second, these issues are reviewed in accordance with the principle of legality; a third way is the ex post approach, as practiced in China during the Mao era and the early days of Reform and Opening Up.

The ways China is dealing with these issues are clearly not in line with the first two approaches, and are not even in line with the third approach either.

As I pointed out a few years ago, the Chinese government has long degraded into a self-serving political group seeking to benefit itself. What it proclaims as being in “public interest” isn't just something irrelevant to the common well-being; it actually harms the interest of members of the public. For instance, arable lands are being seized from farmers, and pollution of the country’s ecological environment condoned (in the name of economic development), these pose great threat to the people in China.

It could be said that so long as the Chinese government has not found a better way to develop the economy, so long as plundering of public resources remains a prerequisite of development, whatever the government say to be “in public interest” would harm the interest of the general public, and stability maintenance could only be a process that consumes a large amount of public resources, state funds, a process that means a tremendous workload for grassroots officials, and a process that erodes the legitimacy of the government.