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Public Events and Public Participation

Zhao Dingxin, Professor, University of Chicago
March 24, 2011
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Objectively speaking, the Chinese media as a whole have gained greater freedom and transparency in recent years to cover social disturbances and disasters. This, however, has not substantially improved public trust in mainstream media. In China, public opinion is still confined by limits of media coverage, and it is a long-standing belief among ordinary Chinese that media reports on major events only voice official stances. Hence, if domestic mainstream media, most of them run by the various levels of governments, fail to report an incident, people would count on online story. If media reports differ from online news, they would trust the latter; even when there is no such difference, they would still think those mainstream media reports are only the outcome of public pressure and have only revealed a tip of the iceberg of truth. The Internet has thus become the principal source of some special political messages – this is what makes China’s public opinion so special. The interaction between public opinion and any public bombshell would surely produce huge social impacts.

China’s public events exhibit several characteristics. First, the lack of well-developed voluntary organizations or civil society means that most public events are spontaneous rather than organized, which, when compounded by the declining credibility of some local governments and the official media, would give rumors a critical role in the evolving of a public event. Thus, it is justifiable to say that the development of public events in China is decided by emotional factors rather than rational ones.

Second, almost any social movement in the United States would be checked or offset by some countermovement of one kind or another. The contention between these movements and counter-movements means that their eventual effects are usually limited despite their great numbers. Moreover, the contending people in these movements and counter-movements also understand the limitation of their own opinion and power as well as the stance of the opposition, which helps improve their sense of political reality. In China, however, the declining credibility of some local governments (among other things) may give some seemingly inherent legitimacy to social struggles, which usually meet with no contention of any countermovement. Hence, the participants would hardly achieve any sense of political reality, and their leaders would be prone to extreme actions or even corruption due to lack of countering forces.

Third, the deficiency of rational social organization is liable to push social conflicts toward negative development. This can be evidenced by the disturbances in Weng’an and Shishou several years ago. Some Chinese scholars have even come to name mass disturbances as “mass disturbances by groups of people of no immediate interests”, a quite specious and delusive concept. This is actually an unnecessary effort. Any form of public events in the world sees no direct connection between its cause and the interests of most participants. The actual intention for the naming is to underline the intensity of China’s social conflicts, holding implicitly that the intensity can be evidenced by the participation of supposed onlookers in large numbers. In this sense, it may be quite alarming to government officials. What I am  trying to point out here is that the frequency of mass disturbances does not necessarily reflect the intensity of social conflicts, but rather indicates that China’s traditional approaches for easing social conflicts,such as letting ordinary people to air complaints to the higher authorities through letters or visits,have failed to achieve expected results. It also shows that overemphasis of stability with rigid measures would suppress the free development of social organizations, and the country cannot afford to lose the chance for guiding public events onto the track of reformist, negotiable or even Western-styled development of social movements. Social unrest would cause severe damages to public and private properties. Since no disturbance percepts any constructive objectives, neither will it be of any direct help to social reforms nor will it offer any lessons for governments to prescribe pertinent remedies.

Fourth, the ever-rising public anticipation for the government has boosted the growth of populist politics due to the combined effects of two factors: the development of poorly-organized public events is subject to public requests and emotions, and the government achieves public recognition mainly through its administrative efficiency or the performance legitimacy. Populism has gradually taken root in China in recent years, while many groups that used to be disadvantaged have become advantaged. Meanwhile, money has almost become the sole panacea for local governments to handle public events.

The principles and experiences applied by Western governments to handle public events are quite simple. They pacify social struggles with openness, and regulate the struggles with selective suppression within a legal framework, so that these events will develop as well-organized social movements. Well-organized social movements under a legal framework will cause little damages to public and private properties, and produce no direct impacts on the political system. It serves as a “safety valve” for the society, and may under certain conditions become the momentum for social reform. It actually provides a common channel for the ordinary people to participate in political affairs.

Despite their simplicity, the principles are not easy to be practiced. The prerequisite is to establish the authority of law, something lacking in China’s legal system. Meanwhile, the government must have the courage and ability to counter illegal mass disturbances with both openness and legal resorts, so that it can pacify unrest by opening an air-vent for public opinion while steering its movement from going to extremes.

Zhao Dingxin is a professor at the Sociology Department, The University of Chicago.

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