Beijing’s Blueprint for Tackling Mass Incidents and Social Management

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 5

NPC Chairman Wu Bangguo

China’s previous five-year plans were generally focused on the economy and little else. Yet, the outline of the 12th Five-Year Blueprint on Economic and Social Development for 2011 to 2015 (hereafter Blueprint), which was released at the end of the National People’s Congress (NPC) last week, had a lot to say about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) new imperative of imposing tighter control over the populace (See "Beijing’s ‘Wei-Wen’ Imperative Steals the Thunder at NPC," China Brief, March 10). The Blueprint contained lengthy sections on buttressing public security, tackling "mass incidents," as well as implementing "social management" (shehui guanli), which are code words for boosting socio-political stability.

The conservative turn in Chinese politics was honed in by NPC Chairman Wu Bangguo’s hard-line Legislative Work Report at the plenary parliamentary session. Wu, also a Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member, warned that abandoning CCP leadership and orthodox socialist precepts would "plunge the country into the abyss of internal chaos" (Xinhua News Agency, March 10; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], March 11).

The Blueprint began by pointing out that due to deep-seated changes in the domestic and global arenas, the Chinese leadership was "up against risks and uncertainties that are both anticipated and hard to foretell." "We must raise our consciousness about opportunities as well as risks—and take the initiative in adapting to changes in the environment," the document said. It added that Beijing "must effectively defuse various kinds of contradictions" in order to attain socio-economic goals in the coming five years. While the Blueprint enumerated challenges in fields ranging from resources and technology to human resources, it was obvious that internal political stability was a key concern. It cited "obviously increasing social contradictions" as a primary impediment to the nation’s grand modernization objectives (Xinhua News Agency, March 17; China News Service, March 17).

The Blueprint disclosed for the first time the CCP leadership’s elaborate plans to build a nationwide "yingji xitong [rapid-response system] for tackling emergency incidents." This was an apparent reaction to the estimated 100,000-odd mass incidents—including riots and disturbances—that had struck the country annually since the late 2000s. While the document did not mention "color revolutions," the CCP leadership has both before and after the NPC played up its resolve to prevent "hostile anti-Chinese forces" from fomenting disorder in the country (Christian Science Monitor, March 3; Reuters, March 21).

The Blueprint pointed out that the planned yingji xitong "must be under a comprehensive, unified command, rationally structured, capable of nimble reactions—and that it must have guaranteed capability and high-efficiency operations." The "backbone" of this mechanism would consist of the police, People’s Armed Police (PAP) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers. The latter would be supplemented by public security experts and professionals, full-time and part-time staff in security-related enterprises; as well as volunteers. While no deadline has been mentioned, this labyrinthine wei-wen ("upholding stability") apparatus, which is under the overall supervision of the CCP’s Central Commission for Political and Legal Affairs (CCPLA), is expected to be put together by 2015. It is apparently due to the huge costs involved that the wei-wen budget for 2011 was set at 624.4 billion yuan ($95.18 billion), which was 23.3 billion yuan ($3.55 billion) more than that of the PLA (See "The Wen-Wen Imperative Steals the Thunder at NPC," China Brief, March 10).

A related section of the Blueprint, which was devoted to the new concept of "social management," is focused on bolstering public order and harmony. As President Hu Jintao instructed at a Politburo meeting in February, social management was geared toward "promoting benevolent social order, and ensuring that society will be full of vigor on the one hand, and harmony and stability on the other" (Xinhua News Agency, February 19; People’s Daily, February 20). To this end, social-management offices are being set up nationwide: there will be at least one such unit for every major street in big cities as well as for each of the country’s 40,000-odd towns and rural townships. The Blueprint noted that apart from handling matters relating to public services and social-welfare provisions, the new offices would take charge of the "comprehensive treatment of law-and-order problems," enhancing socio-political stability, and handling petitions filed by citizens with grievances against party and government departments. It is envisaged that these social-management outfits will work closely with the Wei-Wen Offices that have been established in most provinces and major cities since 2008 (New York Times, February 28; Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2009).

The CCP’s much more aggressive approach to wei-wen requires the large-scale recruitment of volunteers. The Blueprint indicated that one out of ten residents in most community districts would become a "registered social volunteer." The massive deployment of wei-wen volunteers is apparently based on the experience of the Summer Olympics of 2008 and the Shanghai Expo of 2010, when up to 1 million vigilantes were recruited by the Beijing and Shanghai municipalities to maintain law and order. It was also during the Beijing Olympics that CCPLA officers first came up with the idea of putting together a "people’s warfare-style" public-security apparatus to combat destabilizing forces (See "Beijing Revives Mao’s ‘People’s Warfare’ to Ensure Trouble-Free Olympics, China Brief, July 1, 2008).

Also significant is the Blueprint’s recommendation that "social organizations" (shehui zuzhi), which is the official term of Chinese-style NGOs, be put under tighter government surveillance. Various party and government departments were urged to "institute a set of code of practices and criteria for social organizations’ activities, and to raise the effectiveness of government supervision." The document noted that NGOs should be subject to a system of controls that consists of "a synthesis of legal supervision, government supervision, social supervision and self-supervision." Given the role that NGOs have played in color revolutions in Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, it is perhaps not surprising that Beijing is anxious about keeping close tabs on non-government-affiliated organizations, particularly those that seem to have ties with Western countries. The Chinese government’s guarded approach was clearly demonstrated last year when the China branch of Oxfam, a London-based poverty-alleviation organization, was accused by the Chinese government of seeking to "infiltrate" the country (The Guardian, February 23, 2010; BBC News, February 23, 2010).

The Blueprint included a section on junmin ronghe, or the "synthesis between the military and civilians." The document laid utmost emphasis on "the fundamental principle and system of the party’s absolute leadership over army." It also highlighted the ideal of the "unity between the army and the government, as well as between the army and the people." The PAP, whose major task is combating threats to internal security, should "boost its ability to handle emergency incidents, fight terrorism and uphold stability." As late patriarch Deng Xiaoping pointed out soon after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the PLA and PAP were a "Great Wall of Steel" that safeguarded the CCP’s power and prerogatives (Asia Times, March 11; Far Eastern Economic Review, September 2009). Under the junmin ronghe rubric, the PLA and the PAP are free to tap economic, technological and human resources in civilian sectors in peacetime as well as during a national crisis.

How about more political participation by the people as a means to defusing the country’s mushrooming internal contradictions? The Blueprint did contain a section on "developing socialist democratic politics," where it indicated that Chinese citizens had "the right to know, the right to participate [in politics], the right to express themselves, and the right to supervise [the government]." It also pledged that Beijing would push forward "democratic elections, democratic decision-making, democratic management and democratic supervision" according to law. It is true, however, these and similar pledges made by the CCP leadership in recent years have been more rhetorical than substantial. For example, since Deng introduced village-level elections in 1979, little efforts have been made to extend the polls to higher-level administrations. While talking to reporters at the end of the NPC last week, Premier Wen apparently tried to explain the lack of progress on elections by saying that "this requires a [long] procedure and duration." He added that political reform could only be "implemented in an orderly fashion under a stable, harmonious social environment—and under the party’s leadership" (China News Service, March 14; Ming Pao, March 15).

The CCP’s call for tighter "social management" has come in the wake of a major swing toward conservatism—and quasi-Maoist ideals—in Chinese politics. This was attested to by the tough NPC address made by Chairman Wu Bangguo. Wu’s "seven nos" viewpoint on Chinese politics attracted international attention. They included no adoption of Western values; no adoption of a "system of multiple parties holding office in rotation"; no pluralization of the guiding [state] dogma; no tripartite division of power among the executive, legislature and judiciary; no adoption of a bicameral legislature; no to a federal system, and no privatization. He added that to ensure China’s "correct political orientation," China’s institutions, Constitution and the laws must safeguard "the status of the CCP as the country’s leading core" (China News Service, March 9; The Associated Press, March 9; BBC News, March 10).

Moreover, President of the Supreme People’s Court Wang Shengjun pledged in his NPC report that the courts would "diligently uphold social harmony and stability." "We will strengthen and be innovative about social management so as to bolster social harmony and stability," Wang said. "We will severely punish criminal activities that jeopardize state security and social stability." In an apparent repudiation of the principle of the independence of the judiciary, Wang vowed to boost senior judicial officials’ "education in the party’s [ideological] nature, party style and party discipline" so as to "enhance their resistance against corruption and against degeneration [into adherents of Western values]." The chief judge also urged his junior colleagues to follow the "strong leadership of the CCP central authorities under comrade Hu Jintao and to raise high the great flag of Chinese socialism" (Xinhua News Agency, March 19;, March 19).

According to liberal intellectual Bao Tong, the CCP’s renewed determination to spurn so-called Western norms would only exacerbate the country’s socio-political tensions. Bao, once a close aide to ousted party chief Zhao Ziyang, pointed out that values such as privatization, pluralistic political norms and the tripartite division of power were "good systems universally recognized by the international community." He added that only by adopting global democratic standards can the CCP "achieve real stability and real social harmony" (Radio Free Asia, March 19). The methodical way in which the Blueprint—and senior CCP cadres—has gone about reinstating quasi-Maoist ideas and institutions, however, means that the hopes of Bao and other progressive intellectuals may be dashed at least in the short-to-medium term.