Beijing’s Carrot-and-Stick Strategy to Deter Social Instability

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 3

Even as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership pulls out all the stops to resuscitate the economy, it is grappling with the even more daunting task of maintaining social stability. Apart from familiar issues such as rising unemployment (see Pieter Bottelier’s article in this issue), the administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao is bracing itself for a number of sensitive anniversaries this year: the 50th anniversary of the Tibet insurrection on March 10th; the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown; and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1st. For reasons including sending a warning to potential and real “trouble-makers,” Beijing has publicized at least part of its evaluation of the law-and-order situation along with a mixture of both tough and conciliatory measures to keep the forces of chaos at bay.

For the past month or so, cadresin two topmost organs in charge of internal security–the CCP Central Commission on Political and Legal Affairs (CCPLA) and its sister unit, the Central Office for the Comprehensive Administration of Law and Order (COCALO) have held marathon sessions on how to nip socio-political instability in the bud. The COCALO, which coordinates the activities of the police, state security agents and judicial departments, has admitted that Beijing faces unprecedented challenges in safeguarding stability, deemed the party’s “overriding task.” COCALO Director Chen Jiping indicated that the year 2009 would witness “an increase in social risks and the doubling of contradictions even as the law-and-order scenario becomes more severe and complex.” The situation has been exacerbated by the financial crisis. Chen noted that new contradictions caused by economic doldrums had exacerbated long standing ills. “Contradictions in the economic arena have interacted with contradictions in other arenas,” he pointed out. Moreover, various interest groups had become more vociferous in clamoring for their rights. “Feelings of dissatisfaction toward society have grown,” Chen said, adding that unnamed groupings—presumably including chronically unemployed peasants and ethnic-minority elements with grievances against Beijing  might use “excessively forceful means” to try to get what they want (Outlook Weekly [Beijing], January 12).

In a  recently published speech on the law-and-order front, CCPLA Secretary Zhou Yongkang called upon the police, procuratorates and courts to acquit themselves well of the “holy task” of ensuring national security and stability. Zhou, who is also a Politburo Standing Committee member, recommended “a synthesis of methods to combat and to prevent instability … We must boost [abilities] to handle emergencies and strengthen professional units so as to counter terrorism and to prevent the occurrence of violent and terrorist incidents.” Zhou also stressed the “early resolution of various types of social contradictions” (Xinhua News Agency, February 1).

Foremost among the multi-pronged tactics that Zhou, Chen and other leaders have come up with is neutralizing conflicts that are engendered purely by economic factors, particularly unemployment. While the Ministry of Human Resources (MOHR) indicated that the urban jobless rate stood at a mere 4.2 percent at the end of 2008, other Beijing-based experts have pointed out that the real figure for late last year was 9.4 percent—and that this could go up to 11 percent by mid 2009. COCALO officials indicate that they are particularly worried about the job prospects for migrant workers—the six million or so students who will graduate from college this year, as well as tens of thousands of demobilized soldiers (Agence France-Presse [AFP], January 20; Ming Pao [Hong Kong] December 30, 2008, Xinhua News Agency, January 12). While attending the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last week, Premier Wen expressed confidence in achieving an 8 percent growth rate for 2009 (New York Times, January 28; AFP, January 28). It is commonly assumed among official economists that a 7 percent growth rate will translate into 25 million to 30 million new jobs a year, which should be sufficient to stave off massive chaos. Before the economy picks up speed, however, the authorities are taking urgent steps to alleviate the pangs of unemployment.

The State Council has leaned heavily on both state-controlled and private enterprises to make pledges that they will not lay off workers in the coming year. A late January report by the Xinhua News Agency said that numerous enterprises along the coast had made promises of either “not cutting staff,” or “sacking as few employees as possible.” According to Wang Guoping, party secretary of Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, businessmen must observe social responsibilities. “Enterprises must not only be ‘economic legal persons’,” Wang said, but “they must also be ‘enterprise citizens’ and the blood of morality should course through the veins of entrepreneurs” (Xinhua News Agency, January 28). Officials and economists have given conflicting estimates of how large a proportion of China’s 150 million-odd migrant laborers have been laid off in urban factories. Chen Xiwen, director of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Rural Work, admitted early this month that some 20 million rural workers had lost their jobs due to the financial crisis. His figure was double that given by the State Council just a few weeks earlier. In any event, several inland provinces including Sichuan and Jiangxi are giving special livelihood subsidies to jobless laborers who have returned to their birthplaces upon the closure of coastal enterprises (Xinhua News Agency, February 2; Wall Street Journal, January 23; Ming Pao, January 30).

Beijing is also putting emphasis on repairing the much strained ties between the populace and the government. The official Outlook Weekly reported last week that party authorities had asked all departments and regional administrations to “standardize and institutionalize” ways and means to boost communication with the masses and to receive their petitions (Outlook Weekly, February 1). Particular stress is being laid on buttressing the image of public security officers who are often perceived as repressive and corrupt. Deputy Minister of Public Security Yang Huanning pointed out last month that “we must ceaselessly push forward the construction of harmonious relations between the police and the people.” Earlier, Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu asked police to do their work in accordance with “rational, peaceful, civilized and well-regulated norms.” He called upon officers to “standardize their words and actions in the course of law enforcement, and to avoid being rash and emotional in the face of provocation and [other] complicated situations” (Xinhua News Agency, January 26; China News Service, November 3, 2008).

Meanwhile, the Hu-Wen leadership is brandishing so-called “tools of proletarian dictatorship” against disgruntled elements that might employ violence means–including quasi-terrorist tactics to undermine stability. While officiating at a New Year ceremony at the headquarters of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), President and Commander-in-Chief Hu called upon the paramilitary force to “engage in comprehensive military training, step up patrols, and boost their capability in handling emergency situations and combating terrorism.” Hu demanded that PAP officers do their utmost in “safeguarding national security and maintaining harmony and stability in society” (People’s Daily, January 5). Moreover, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has vowed to play its part in upholding law and order, through means including meting out speedy and heavy sentences to hard-core criminals and state enemies. SPC President Wang Shengjun, a former CCPLA secretary general, urged all judicial cadres to “follow a firm and correct political orientation [while] promoting social stability and harmony” (Xinhua News Agency, January 15; People’s Daily, December 20, 2009).

Prime targets of the Ministry of Public Security, the PAP and the courts are separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang, who, Beijing believes, are colluding with “anti-Chinese elements from abroad” to foment discontent and chaos in society. Since mid-January, police and PAP officers have raided thousands of homes and offices and detained more than 80 suspects in a “Strike Hard” campaign in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Western diplomats in Beijing have reported that since talks with the Dalai Lama broke down last winter, the authorities had taken ironfisted measures to pre-empt protests that might erupt in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the Tibetan insurrection. In March and April last year, tens of thousands of Tibetans held dozens of demonstrations not only in Tibet, but also in four neighboring provinces to call the world’s attention to Beijing’s alleged attempts to stifle Tibetan culture and religion (Washington Post, January 29; Inter-Press Service, January 30).  

Relatively little information has come out of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR), where a “Strike Hard” (yan da) movement has also been launched since early January against dissidents, separatists and other underground groupings. This is a continuation of the crackdown by police and PAP officers since the spring of 2008. As of the end of last year, some 1,300 suspects had been arrested for alleged acts of terrorism and violations of state-security laws. The official media last month quoted the Chairman of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Nur Bekri as saying that “fighting the three forces (of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism) is an acute, complicated and long-lasting task.” Threats must be “nipped in the bud and violent terrorist activities pre-empted,” Bekri warned (Procuratorial Daily [Beijing], January 4; China Daily, January 8; Xinhua News Agency, January 9).

Equally nettlesome for the authorities are efforts by intellectuals and other “bourgeois-liberal” elements to clamor for political liberalization to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 massacre. Despite the detention of big name dissidents and other acts of intimidation by state-security personnel, more Chinese have put down their names on the Internet in support of the pro-democracy Charter 08 Movement (China Brief, December 12, 2008). Moreover, a few dozen overseas-based dissidents led by Wang Dan, the charismatic student leader of the 1989 demonstrations, are stepping up pressure on Beijing to allow them to return to China. Their campaign, entitled “We want to go home" (wo men yao hui jia), called on CCP authorities to observe universal human rights norms and the goals of a “harmonious society,” which were raised by the Hu-Wen leadership in 2004. Activist Christian minister Zhu Yaoming of Hong Kong, who is aiding the overseas dissidents, said Beijing should “let these Chinese citizens return home without prior conditions” such as writing documents of contrition (Ming Pao, January 30).  

Assuming that the forces of discord can be minimized, the Hu-Wen team may be able to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in style. Yet the gargantuan military parade planned for October 1 has itself become a subject of controversy. Numerous postings on China’s online chat rooms have opposed the extravaganza on grounds ranging from wastefulness to the fact that the show of force may stoke the “China threat” theory. This is despite assurances by military authorities that the proposed budget, around 300 million yuan, is much less than that incurred by the 1999 parade (AFP, January 29;, January 9). It seems apparent then, that while tough tactics employed by the CCP leadership have failed to cow disaffected and recalcitrant elements, conciliatory gestures have yet to produce the desired effect of enhancing trust and harmony. A massive outbreak of disorder could not only take the halo off Beijing’s much-ballyhooed “China model” but also pose a frontal threat to the CCP’s “perennial ruling party” status.