“Stability is of overriding importance” was a phrase used by Deng Xiaoping many times in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square military crackdown in 1989. The then paramount leader felt that China’s top priority was economic development, and that nothing should be allowed to get in the way.
China’s current leaders evidently feel pretty much the same way. The authorities see all protests as threats to the social order and the Communist Party has set up “stability preservation offices” across the country to monitor disturbances.
Things have developed to such an extent that for the last two years the domestic security budget for “maintaining stability” has exceeded the budget for defense. That is to say, greater priority is put on suppressing internal dissent than on opposing external foes.
The problem is that all this repression is likely to be counterproductive. As Yu Jianrong, director of the Center for Studies on Social Conflicts at the Institute of Rural Development of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has said, “in the name of maintaining stability, even if the actions of lower-level government are illegal, higher levels of government are forced to forgive it.”
This, it appears, is what happened in the case of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng, who was illegally confined to his home for years by local Shandong authorities while the central government took no action despite widespread international media reportage.
The “barefoot lawyer” had antagonized Shandong officials through his exposure of abuses in the family planning policy, with allegations of forced abortions.
Ironically, another case of forced abortion has recently caused Chinese authorities to take action against abusive officials. A 27-year-old woman in Shaanxi province, Feng Jianmei, was injected with a chemical to induce an abortion by local family-planning officials. She already had a five-year-old daughter, so the pregnancy was a violation of the one-child policy.
Photos of the woman and the aborted baby’s body were circulated online, sparking public outrage.
But now, the official Xinhua news agency has reported, Chinese officials have apologized to the woman, three local officials have been suspended, and a team has been sent from the provincial capital to Zhenping county to investigate the incident.
Evidently, someone has realized that forcibly terminating a seven-month pregnancy to comply with the one-child policy and the resulting firestorm was not the way to promote social stability. Hopefully, this lesson will be learned by family-planning officials across the country.
Another example of Chinese officials responding to public protest positively rather than by repression is the case of Li Wangyang, a Hunan dissident who had supported pro-democracy student protesters in 1989 and who subsequently spent more than 20 years in prison.
Released a year ago blind and almost deaf, he remained defiant and recently gave an interview to Hong Kong television in which he called for vindication of the Tiananmen Square protestors. A few days later, on June 6, he was found dead and the local authorities said he had hanged himself.
This claim was met with widespread disbelief since Li, while determined to defy the authorities, was physically weak and seemed unlikely to be able to hang himself. Subsequently, his sister, who brought him food twice a day, and her husband could no longer be contacted.
The suspicious circumstances surrounding Li’s death led to a protest by up to 25,000 people in Hong Kong. Leading politicians wrote to Beijing calling for an investigation.
Because President Hu Jintao is expected to come to Hong Kong to mark the 15th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China on July 1, Beijing wants to defuse anger over the Li case.
And so, the Hunan provincial government has pledged to conduct an investigation into the death. This may be difficult since the body has been cremated, but since Li shared his room with another patient and the hospital is equipped with closed-circuit television cameras, it should not be impossible to get at the truth. The Hunan authorities have promised that the findings will be made public.
It seems, therefore, that the Chinese government now recognizes that repression is not the only way to handle protests. In fact, if stability is the goal, repression may work in the short term but in the long run it will definitely lead to even greater instability.
Beijing may yet learn that it is much more important to allow people to vent their anger and frustration and for the government to look into the root causes of public dissatisfaction than to nip every protest in the bud.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Email the writer at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.