Portents of Change in China’s Social Management

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 15

Shifang Demonstrations

Within the period of a few short weeks, two very similar environmental protests erupted in Qidong, Jiangsu and in Shifang, Sichuan. In both incidents thousands of protesters demanded the end of construction projects seen as environmentally destructive and harmful to local interests. While both reached the point of limited violence, both were resolved quickly when the local governments suspended the disputed projects (Molihua, July 29; China Digital Times, July 4). These did not mark the first instances of the government compromising in the event of a protest, especially over unwanted construction projects [1]. They were, however, distinctive in terms of how quickly they were resolved and how concerning the overall situation was for the Communist Party’s all-important “social stability.” Beijing is showing some signs that it recognizes the limits of its implementation of social management  (shehui guanli). This recognition seems to be driven as much by the causes of civil unrest events themselves as it is by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) internal problems. As the Qidong and Shifang protests indicate, there is perhaps a move toward some conciliatory changes to the way the government handles some civil unrest events, but this is likely to be an unusual occurrence rather than a policy shift. More importantly, perhaps, this adds to the growing evidence that Beijing is adjusting the way “social management” is implemented.

The CCP’s goal of ”social stability” is essentially the party’s ability to maintain the legitimacy to rule. The people’s interests are served to the extent that serving their interests also keeps the party in power. In terms of maintaining social stability, Beijing implements a strategy of improving control through social management. This is understood as “building a service-oriented government, to prevent and reduce the number of social problems; strengthening of dynamic management to resolve the masses legitimate and rational appeals; and strengthening the party-state’s ability to manage the sudden outbreak of public incidents,” [2]. After Qidong, an editorial in state media said “The two protests have together left the impression that the quickest way to change a government policy is to hold a violent demonstration. If this model is copied widely, it would be disastrous for social stability.” It elaborated that, while the two local governments were not entirely to blame, “Policies concerning broad public interests cannot be decided only by officials. Public participation needs to be implemented, and not just as a show” (Global Times, July 30).

Reaction to “mass incidents” from the central level often has involved blaming local-level officials. In fact, this strategy has been a typical response of the Hu-Wen administration in most cases pertaining to civil unrest [3]. This is in many ways fair. Of China’s estimated 180,000 “mass incidents” per year, common grievances pertain to the following: official corruption; police and city management brutality; the environment; land-grabs and housing demolitions; and wages and workers rights (Global Times, February 10). Due to the nature of protesters’ complaints, “mass-incidents” frequently are prompted by a local case where the local officials are directly responsible. As the system stands, local officials typically only face consequences—if the consequences ever catch up with the cadres—after public exposure of their malfeasance if not resulting public explosions. In July, China’s Ministry of Land and Natural resources said there was a total of 29,000 cases of illegal land use discovered in the first half of 2012. For these violations, authorities thus far have recovered 6,681.1 mu of land (roughly 1100 acres), collected $101.8 million in fines and punished a total of 313 people (Xinhua, July 26). The report did not indicate how many people have been impacted by these illegal and forced acquisitions. Land-grabs and housing demolitions often are associated with urban development projects that officials support for both revenue making and development purposes. Protests over illegal land-grabs and housing demolitions represent a high proportion China’s protests on a yearly basis. One example took place this July in Renhuai, Guizhou. Over 1,000 people protested the government for corruption and land-grabs. They ransacked a government office, flipped and smashed police cars as well as shouted slogans such as “overthrow the corrupt government” (RFA, July 22). The central government blames the local governments for these problems, but the fiscal pressure local governments are placed under by the center certainly worsens the economic climate and this is coupled with the global financial crisis. These issues lead to the proliferation of incidents such as land grabs (“Local Government Financing Growing Increasingly Precarious,” China Brief, May 11; “The Grim Future of the Wukan Model for Managing Dissent,” China Brief, January 6) [4]. Combine this central-local economic tension with extensive official malfeasance and the situation inevitably leads to unrest.

The government does not tend to view “mass incidents” as an immediately destabilizing factor. In one article, Security Chief Zhou Yongkang wrote: “Many social conflicts are generated in the process of reform and development, but also rely on reform and development to be resolved,” (Qiushi, May 1, 2011. The Party has shown a commitment, at least rhetorically, to a conciliatory approach. After the December 2011 Wukan protests, for example, the People’s Daily praised the Guangzhou government’s response as an example of “accommodating and defusing contradictions and conflicts in a good way,” (“The Grim Future of the Wukan Model for Managing Dissent”, China Brief, January 6; People’s Daily, December 22, 2011). There has been at least a small effort by the current leadership to improve the dispute resolution mechanism. There has also been a tightening of regulations There are still many problems with this system though, such as a lack of knowledge of available legal channels to dispute resolution, and the issue of intimidation by local authorities and corruption within the judicial system itself.

Despite encouraging “social management” rhetoric such as “encourage grass-roots participation” or “upholding livelihood priorities,” the CCP has continued down the path of tightening restrictions in order to crush dissent before it has the opportunity to emerge or spread (Xinhua, July 22). In response to both Beijing and Nantong, public security officials have warned of consequences for those who “spread rumors” online (Caixin, July 30). The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) has arrested over 10,000 in a national crackdown on ”internet crime” (Xinhua, July 26). In 2012, there have been several measures to strengthen “social management”. The implementation of an expanded “real name” registration system for users of micro-blogging (weibo) websites is one example. Users are now required to register with their real names to have access to the sites and to prevent the spread of “rumors” online. On March 17, users who did not register with their real names were banned from posting on websites. Likewise, a “real-name” registration has been introduced for the purchasing of train tickets (Global Times, December 21, 2011). The system for train tickets, for example, can be used to stop petitioners from traveling to Beijing with their grievances and adds another piece of data to what the MPS tracks.

This continued tightening of control as a preventative measure is no surprise given the pending leadership change at the 18th Party Congress and the challenge of China’s slowing economy, China clearly has been on edge this year over social stability. If Wen Jiabao’s recent warnings about employment and economic difficulty ahead are any indication, managing these economic problems and their impact on social stability will continue to be a top priority of the Chinese government (People’s Daily, July 18). This year, there has been at least one massive case that highlighted how economic and political challenges impact the Party’s social stability goals. In Chongqing, at the same time Bo Xilai was ousted, massive protests erupted that involved tens of thousands of people. It was reportedly over the merging of two administrative districts, Wansheng and Qijiang. Bo Xilai allegedly forced the merger and, prior to the merger, Wansheng was better off financially than Qijiang (Molihua, April 12). Wansheng residents were angry, because the merger caused welfare, health care and pension benefits to be reduced. Oddly, given the sensitive time of the protests, the merger actually occurred in October 2011 (news.163.com, October 27). The protests were violently suppressed according to reports, and at least three protesters may have died due to the violence. One Chongqing resident told media “The thing people are unhappy about is that prices just keep rising, while people’s wages are still low” (RFA, 13 April). Interestingly, “the city’s debt burden is estimated to be at 100 percent of gross regional product in comparison to 22 percent nationwide,” which is “an anomaly that can attributed to the social welfare spending of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai,” (“Local Government Financing Growing Increasingly Precarious,” China Brief, May 11; Wall Street Journal, April 23). So, there are some indications that Bo Xilai’s fate, and the city’s economy and welfare conditions had more to do with the protests than protesters were willing to state. What is certain is that this destabilizing mix of the political and social problems erupting to cause a mass incident is exactly what the CCP is working to avoid.

The political situation surrounding Bo’s ouster has caused worries about the party’s security apparatus. As the controversy grew, Bo made clear his strong relationship with the powerful Central Political-Legal Commission (CPLC), currently headed Zhou Yongkang (Apple Daily [Hong Kong] March 23). Zhou Yongkang’s links to Bo have seen his powerful status become unclear this year. At the height of the scandal, dissident media reported Zhou and Bo conspired to prevent Xi Jinping from succeeding Hu Jintao (Boxun, February 16). While Zhou has not disappeared from the political scene since the scandal erupted, the CPLC’s power appears to be weakening. An article in the Central Party School’s publication The Study Times entitled “Who is Managing the Social Order” stated the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee has overstepped its authority and has caused difficulties with domestic governance (The Study Times, June 18; The Diplomat, June 29). Furthermore, other reports indicated provincial chiefs are being cut from leadership roles in the party’s sub-national political-legal committees (The Economist, June 30). Given both Zhou’s prominence in the “social management” strategy and the CPLC role in maintaining stability, a lessened role for the political-legal committee structure would seem an indicator that changes are coming in the way social stability is managed.

Most recently, Chinese media reports said Hanyang district, Wuhan, urban management bureau has established a militia unit (Chongqing Times, August 3). The People’s Armed Police has served as China’s paramilitary force, so it is an intriguing development to establish a unit within the urban management bureau. One Hanyang official said to The Global Times “gradually, there will be more government departments getting involved in the militia mobilization” (Global Times, August 3). It is interesting because China already has a paramilitary force in the People’s Armed Police, within the Ministry of Public Security. The urban management officials (colloquially, “chengguan”) are known to be quite violent, and often prompt spontaneous mass protests. It leaves questions about what impact a local militia would have on “social management” and where this development fits in along with the puzzle of the party’s concerns with the sub-national political-legal commissions.

While it is not clear what direction “social management” is taking in China, there appears to be greater caution taken in handling unrest as well as improved recognition of the need to address with purpose the fundamental issues driving unrest—rather than simply containing it. There may be no immediate threat to the party’s position, but this does not mean that this situation will not change—and possibly very quickly if it does. The political and economic challenges that China faces, given the present global and domestic situation, will force the CCP to continue adapting to the circumstances. For now, the party has been focusing on tightening control over the spread of information as well as reorganizing the supervision of social management.


  1. For example: Ralph Litzinger, “In Search of the Grassroots: Hydroelectric Politics in Northwest Yunnan.” In Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China, 282-289. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).
  2. Joseph Fewsmith, “Social Management as a Way of Coping with Heightened Social Tensions,” China Leadership Monitor, No. 36.
  3. Cheng Li, “Think National, Blame Local: Central-Provincial Dynamics in the Hu Era,” China Leadership Monitor, No. 17.
  4. Ibid.