Sunday, March 1, 2009

"The Biggest Threat Is not Social Unrest but Societal Breakdown" (1)

by Sun Liping

(Note: I just returned from a month-long visit to China, during which I talked to many people from various social classes – more about that in future posts. One thing that surprised me a bit is that the state of freedom of speech in China is not as bad as I'd expected, despite the notorious internet blockage that prevented me from even viewing my own blog. On the Chinese internet one can read lots of dissenting voices, some admirably rational. The following is my translation of a recent article by Sun Liping, a professor of sociology at Tsinghua University. This article, recommended to me by a writer friend in Shanghai, has been reprinted on many Chinese websites and can be easily googled within China. You can read the Chinese original here. Also note its large readership. – Xujun)

[in translation]

This is a discussion post; its core point is: the biggest threat to China perhaps is not social unrest but societal breakdown. This is a tentative view, therefore this post is in constant revision. Constructive discussion from interested friends is welcome.

1. Are we anxious about the wrong problem? Now people are all concerned with social conflicts and clashes, mass incidents, etc. Those concerns come from the worry about large scale social unrest. But in fact, the biggest threat to China perhaps is not social unrest but societal breakdown.

2. Social unrest means that serious conflicts can threaten the basic structure of the ruling regime and system, while societal breakdown is the cell necrosis of the societal body. With more imagery, unrest is like a healthy body wounded by someone else's attack, while breakdown means one's own organs or cells are having serious problems. Mr. Fei Xiaotong's "social erosion" and Samuel Huntington's "political decay" are two concepts that can deepen our understanding on this, even though neither concept is completely the same as the "societal breakdown" as discussed here. The latter of these two concepts might be closer.

3. The opposite of social unrest is social stability; the opposite of societal breakdown is societal health. Although the two are often related, they should be distinguished. Now the problem is, the misdiagnosis of the former often becomes the obstacle of treating the latter. It's like a cancer patient who needs surgery, but the doctor misdiagnoses the patient as having a heart attack, counter indicating surgery. In fact the patient may not be having a heart attack, or may be having only a mild one. In societal reality, some reforms are needed to prevent societal breakdown, but the concern that the reforms would threaten social stability has pushed them aside, and the consequence of this is that the tendency toward societal breakdown becomes more obvious.

4. In a recent article I repeatedly emphasized that, despite many current social conflicts, some even showing signs of intensifying, the possibility of large scale social unrest is small. I wrote about this 10 years ago. See also a two-page interview in Southern Weekend from last year. In the past decade or so, because we overestimated the factors generating instability, a fixed way of thinking that stability must prevail over everything has been formed. In this fixed way of thinking, "stability" becomes the ultimate negating factor; everything must yield to "stability." As a consequence many things that should be done can't be done. Actually, in 365 days of a year, if there is not this incident there will be that incident. In a country with a population of 1.3 billion, big disasters and small troubles are inevitable. If you take pains to look for instability, you will always find it, not to mention that uncontrolled power is continuously creating "mass incidents" (for example the recent "mass incident" in Guizhou was caused by the government's bizarre idea to stop mass entertainment activities). The key is what mentality we should have in viewing such problems. Any country in the world would have destabilizing incidents like ours, but only we have organizations like "the office for maintaining stability."

5. In recent years, signs of societal breakdown have become more apparent. The core problem is the loss of control over power. During the past 30 years of reform, despite the establishment of a basic framework for a market economy, power remains the backbone of our society. Because societal breakdown first appears as the loss of control over power, corruption is but the surface manifestation. By loss of control over power I mean that power becomes a force unconstrained not only externally, but also internally. Before this, although it lacked external constraints, internal constraints had been relatively effective. The power base is weakening; several years ago we had already heard the saying "commands don’t reach outside of Zhongnanhai [the headquarters of the CCP and China’s Central Government]." Local power and sector power have become unconstrained from above and unmonitored from below, at the same time lacking any check or balance from the left or right. This is to say, state power is fragmented, and officials are unable to work responsibly. To preserve their positions they don't balk at sacrificing system benefits (not to mention societal interest). With this background, corruption has gotten beyond control and become untreatable.

6.This societal breakdown spreads to every aspect of life: unspoken rules prevail, becoming the basis for being an official or even being a person, about which Mr. Wu Si (吴思) has a good analysis; Powerful interest groups are unbridled and the tendency toward an underworld society emerges; Social justice erodes; Lack of professional ethics is common; Society's information system is filled with falsehoods, fake statistical data representing systematic distortions of information. "Village cheats village, county cheats county, cheating all the way to the State Council" is a more solid reality than official statistical data.

7.Sense of social identity and centripetal forces are rapidly lost. The big fire at a CCTV building on the day of the Lantern Festival caused a several tens of billions damage, but there are only gloating voices over the disaster on the internet. No sadness, no grief. The morose delectation expresses an unspeakable pleasure. Some say this shows people's coldness; some say there is no hope for our nation; still some ask, why don't those who gloat think that part of their own property burned in the fire (because the CCTV building is state property)? This makes me recall a big fire in the 1980s' Shenyang, at the time many people stood on the streets crying out. How can this be explained using our national identity? Where is the problem? It lies in whether we identify with the society. Crying over Shenyang's big fire, people felt "our own" buildings had burned. In the CCTV big fire, some said, even if tens of billions of yuan were not burned, they would be eaten anyway. Here the eating and drinking of course means using public money. Others worried how much water would be used to put out the fire when there was a drought going on. Behind those talks is psychological distance, that is, those things are "theirs," not "ours." Psychological distance is reflection of structural distance. (to be continued)


alfaeco said...

I feel you are right on target.

There is a very deep insight in your post.

Waiting for more. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Scott W. Galer said...

Thanks very much for taking time to translate this important article. I will link to it and encourage my students to read it. I enjoy your blog very much.

Xujun said...

Thanks all - glad you are reading it!