Yueran Zhang senior contributor

Op-Ed: China Caught In Vicious Cycle of Uprising and Appeasement

Protesters rallied in opposition to a PX plant in Dalian last year. (Weibo via The Atlantic)

[Note: The following is a Tea Leaf Nation op-ed, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors.]

The recent NIMBY movement against a PX chemical plant in the Chinese city of Ningbo ultimately followed the same trajectory as did protests in Shifang and Qidong in July, 2012. After a tense confrontation between citizens and the government and violent but ineffective intervention by SWAT agents, the government backed down on October 28 by promising never to build the plant there. PX is a type of chemical product the potential health effects of which are still being debated.

The compromises made by the government in these three cases have led many to cheer for “victories of the public will.” Indeed, the fact that NIMBY movements have become more frequent in recent years reflects citizens’ increasing demand for political participation, demands which the government can no longer ignore. @风飘飘1970_p7s, a user of Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, and a local resident of Ningbo, joins in celebration. “This is a victory which belongs to the people of Ningbo; this is a victory for the public will. The past three days have been very hard, but have moved the whole city.”

Yet some commenters are not so optimistic. @倚天照海 writes, “When some cheered for the ‘victory’, didn’t they find it lamentable? When the project was evaluated, where was the influence of public will? Where was our right to know? The cancellation of the project was also so arbitrary, without legal procedures. I would rather say it’s a victory for ‘stability preservation!’”

Indeed, when considered within a larger social context, the Chinese government’s decisions to capitulate to public outcry appear to have resulted more from its “stability preservation” strategy than from respect for the public will itself. Since the turn of the century, stability preservation has been one of the backbone ideologies for Chinese public administration.

Central to the formation of this political culture is the odd relationship between China’s central government and its various local governments. In China’s top-down political structure, the central government evaluates officials’ performance in measures like “stability preservation” when considering whether to promote them. But for many local authorities, true long-term “stability preservation” is less important than short-term rent-seeking, a goal which brooks no interference by citizen activism or citizen dialogue. As a result, local authorities often suppress dissent in the name of stability, leading to long-term disaffection that, perversely, generates a challenge to central power.

The “stability as priority” credo leads to two seemingly inconsistent sets of practices on the local level. On one hand, the government tries to snuff out any factor that might potentially challenge its authority; this includes institutional channels for citizens to protect their interests and influence policymaking. On the other, when the government’s repressive attempts fail and citizens’ campaigns becomes large-scale street demonstrations, it makes unconditional concessions to accommodate protesters’ demands, in an effort to re-stabilize the social order as soon as possible and to mitigate any negative social impact on its authority and legitimacy.

This phenomenon is already evident in how the government has handled protests against land appropriations, forced demolitions, and violations of worker rights. The recent NIMBY movements fell squarely within this paradigm. The government’s reaction sends an implicit message to campaigners: The most rewarding short-term strategy is to make the demonstration as massive and attention-grabbing as possible. Over time, this paradigm constructs a self-perpetuating cycle which encourages more prodigious and extreme mass demonstration.

@老瘾君 is fully aware of this dynamic. “This kind of ‘victory’ is not what we should pursue. The government didn’t respond until citizens took to the street. All of its actions were determined by the need to preserve stability, instead of ruled by law. This just leads to a vicious cycle. Similar incidents will continue to emerge.”

This model for conflict resolution also creates further schisms between government and its citizens. The “repression first, concession next” paradigm makes no room for mutual understanding or for serious negotiation between the parties involved. Instead, it worsens the legitimacy crisis facing public power. @Louis-龙敖 explains the underlying dynamics. “When decision-making is not democratic and transparent, citizen protest and government’s resistance continue to intensify……The government and its people are increasingly alienated from each other, and the credibility, cohesiveness and even legitimacy of the government becomes shaky.”

Others worry that the government’s unconditional concessions have become a hotbed for populism. In most social movements, it is possible that the true “public will” is overshadowed by passion, misled by biases and rumors (some point out that PX plants are actually far safer than protesters believe), or manipulated by certain interest groups. If the government buckles to those claims for the sake of short-term stability maintenance, the process of long-term decision-making faces profound harm. @乌七八糟大胡子 voices his concern. “The outcry of tens or hundreds of thousands of people in the minority would [be taken to] represent the so-called ‘public will’ of the majority. Certain groups would [hijack] all of society, with populism taking the place of rule of law. If so, what just happened doesn’t suggest social progress but social disaster.”

Thus, one lesson from the problematic “victories” of the recent NIMBY protests is that institutional mechanisms for the public to broadcast its interests and participate in policy-making are still missing. @陶寒熏’s comment is representative. “What we should really consider seriously is how to turn interest demand into political demand, and then into demand for the construction of institutions. After people finish expressing their emotions, they should ask themselves ‘what’s next.’”

Chinese web commentators, never shy about trying their hand at policy-making, offer a variety of opinions on what institutional platforms should be created. @倾惜 asks, “What should be done if another environmental project is to be decided? Where is the hearing and the public opinion poll?” Other options include a citizen response system (人大代表联系群众制度), a system of administrative review (行政复议制度), and a system of administrative litigation. Each of these systems has already been written into law, but much work remains to implement these systems before they are effectively functioning.

The basis of functional democratic policymaking is, of course, the credibility of public power. @海宁农民 suggests that the government should work to improve its transparency and information disclosure. “The environmental information disclosure system is still unsound, full of unspecified details. Relevant regulations are too abstract and not operational. Those are the key reasons why NIMBY movements become so frequent and hard to deal with.”{{1}}[[1]][环境信息公开制度尚不健全,相关法律规范不明确,环境保护规定过于原则抽象,操作性不强,难以满足公众需求,这是造成邻避运动频发的主要原因。[[1]]

The recent NIMBY movements are thus ultimately related to China’s stagnant political reforms. @白大平 gives a vivid description of the relationship. “It’s said that the Chinese government treats its citizens as a bad babysitter treats infants: Those who cry loudest receive hugs and milk to drink. For small street protests, a little accommodation from the government; for big street protests, a lot more accommodation; no street protest, no accommodation. Whether public opinion counts totally depends on how much ‘trouble’ protesters cause. This is the logic of governance for certain officials. The priority of the political reform project should be to abandon a system that encourages people to protect their rights by taking to the streets and ‘crying out loud.’ We should construct an institutionalized system to absorb public opinion, making it something more than just a rubber stamp.” {{2}}[[2]]据说中国特色的民意吸纳机制仍处于婴儿期﹣会哭的孩子有人抱,有奶吃。小闹小解决,大闹大解决,不闹不解决,民意的诠释完全基于只要你不反抗的底线,这就是某些人的政治逻辑。政改的首要任务便是要摒弃这靠哭闹维权的街头政治,要建立制度化的民意吸纳机制,使民意不再是背书人民的橡皮图章。[[2]]

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Yueran Zhang

Yueran Zhang is a student at Duke University, class of 2015, currently majoring in sociology and math. He spent all of his life before college in Beijing.