Become a Fan
More than 74,000 incidences involving mass demonstrations and riots took place in China in 2004 alone, up from 58,000 in 2003. Is China's system adequately equipped to handle the growing number of grievances among the people?
An Anachronistic System
-- by Robert M. Liu
Based on recent reports in the Chinese-language media, more than 74,000 incidences involving mass demonstrations, protests, riots, and clashes with the police took place in China in 2004 alone, up from 58,000 in 2003. Participants in such incidences have often numbered tens of thousands.
Analysts say that the main causes of protests and riots in China include: (1) government acquisitions of peasants' farm land; (2) failure to pay wages to peasant workers; (3) demolition of urban residential houses; (4) the gap between the rich and the poor; (5) urban joblessness; (6) bureaucratic corruption; (7) poor quality of officials and bureaucrats; and (8) people's growing awareness of their own rights.
As pointed out in a study by China's Academy of Social Sciences, entitled "Analysis and Forecast on Society's Status (2004-2005)", the number of Chinese peasants who have lost their farm land because of government acquisitions of farm land now stands at 40 million or so. What's more, this number keeps growing at an alarming pace of about two million per annum.
Yet, local governments' ability to help these peasants find jobs is on the decrease. Consequently, they have become a growing restive social group that increasingly gets involved in confrontations and clashes with the authorities.
At the same time, China's existing system does not provide adequate legal protections for Chinese citizens' basic rights. Nor does it have sufficiently democratic institutions and mechanisms to reconcile the conflicts between the interests of powerless people and those of the bureaucracy.
In sum, it is a paradoxical situation where ordinary people do not have the power to oust corrupt officials and elect those they can trust to protect their interests, while unelected, unaccountable officials and bureaucrats have the power to make decisions that could negatively affect people's lives. No wonder, grievances against local government and party officials are piling up, while the prospects for getting them revolved are dismal.
Ironically, such an anachronistic system is depicted as "People's Democracy" in the traditional Marxist theory of the Communist Party of China (the CPC). By which, genetically representing the people's interests, the CPC is capable of appointing government and party officials at all levels in the best interest of the people. In other words, everything is O.K. under the system, so, why bother with elections? In reality, though, graft is commonplace.
Needless to say, the CPC certainly sees the "advantages" of its centralized system of government. For starters, it ensures that the CPC-controlled central government will maintain control over every province, every city, every district, every township, every village, every street, and every nook and cranny in this vast country. Since all provincial CPC committee officials and provincial government officials are appointed by Beijing, the possibility of any part of the Chinese mainland seceding from the central government is close to zero.
In addition, this centrally controlled system has enabled the CPC to maintain its one-party rule since 1949. Anyone who thinks that the CPC might someday consider a federal system must be overly optimistic, although the advantages of a federal system of government should be self- evident to China's well-educated moderate leaders -- namely, it helps maintain real long-term political stability.
[Take California as an example. When the voters there became disillusioned with former governor Gray Davis two years ago, they simply voted him out of office and put Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor's mansion. There were no disturbances, no riots, no clashes with the police. Nor did they blame the federal government in Washington D.C. for California's problems. They just held Gray Davis accountable -- period.]
In China, however, there are only citizens, but no voters in the real sense of the term. Chinese citizens don't have the power to vote provincial or municipal government officials out of office. So, what's the point of voting? Everything relating to who controls what is determined or pre- determined in Beijing.
Is there a government department that addresses Chinese citizens' grievances and complaints? Yes, actually, there is. It is called "Office for Receiving People's Letters and Visits" (ORPLV). As far as I know, at almost every level of government in China, there is an Office for Receiving People's Letters and Visits, where many of the officers are kind and gentle. I am sure they do help get part of the grievances and complaints resolved.
The problem is that in this country of 1.3 billion people the growth rate of grievances and complaints far exceeds the speed with which the officers at ORPLV can possibly resolve the numerous cases they face. One of the reasons why their ability to find solutions is limited is that they don't have the power to solve problems.
Power is in the hands of government and party officials appointed by Beijing, or in the hands of those appointed by the Beijing-appointed officials. What an ORPLV officer can do is to refer a citizen's complaint to "the relevant authorities", that is, the officials who have the power to make the problem go away. Unfortunately, oftentimes, they are the ones who caused the grievance in the first place. But that's how China's centralized system works.
Understandably, many grievances and complaints remain unresolved for a long, long time, or forever, and those with grievances and complaints to air become more and more desperate. Since desperate people sometimes take leave of their senses, countless violent incidences have occurred in recent years.
Theoretically, a Chinese citizen can file a complaint with a local ORPLV, or a provincial ORPLV, or the ORPLV in Beijing at the central government level. But he (or she) may not get a response at all. Then, he (or she) may visit the local ORPLV, or travel to the provincial capital to visit the provincial ORPLV. That would cost him (or her) some money but might not help either.
Finally, he (or she) may decide to go to Beijing, the capital of The People's Republic of China, to talk to an ORPLV officer in person at the central government level. That would cost him (or her) quite a bit in travel and hotel accommodation expenses but might not assure him (or her) of any result.
I have come across reports in the Chinese-language media to the effect that the Office for Receiving People's Letters and Visits in Beijing is packed with people from all over the country waiting to be interviewed by the officers there. They all have grievances, and they are all desperate.
In the meantime, there are signs that the Chinese leadership is concerned about the status quo at the Office for Receiving People's Letters and Visits. No doubt, moderate leaders like Premier Wen Jiabao have the best of intentions to help the people. But the system, as mentioned above, is anachronistic and politically and sociologically unscientific. It is not on the side of those who wish to get problems resolved.
Judging from the deep furrows of anxiety between his eyebrows, Premier Wen Jiabao most probably has his work cut out for him. His predecessor former premier Zhu Rongji -- one of China's best-known moderates -- was worn out by the old system. Now, it is likely to wear him out too.
Nevertheless, at this point, my guess is that as long as the CPC believes that the aforesaid centralized system of government is in the best interest of its one-party rule, nothing close to a meaningful reform is likely to happen, mounting pressure for political transparency and accountability notwithstanding. This is because CPC hardliners might label such pressure, rather than the system, as the cause of instability.
But, anyway, good luck to those who visit the Office for Receiving People's Letters and Visits in Beijing!
[September 8, 2005]