Since the 1990s, as reforms have gone ahead, such problems as the growing gap between rich and poor, the growing gap between urban and rural, poverty and inequality, masses of vulnerable and underprivileged, have grown more pronounced [in China]. We have seen rapid growth in the number of mass incidents, and large-scale mass incidents in particular are happening with greater frequency. In order to deal with these dangers, governments often resort to various tactics in order to hold together the stability of the system, which results in a kind of framework of rigid stability.

Rigid stability is about defining absolute social calm as the objective of governance, and seeing each and every act of resistance as disorder and chaos, all to be struck down and suppressed through whatever means possible. In a situation of rigid stability, social management methods are always simplified and taken to the extreme. In many cases, local governments will use “stability preservation” in order to hold the central government ransom. At other times, for the sake of “stability preservation,” even if the actions of the lower-level government are illegal, higher level leaders have no choice but to look the other way. It can be said that in China, local governments using “stability preservation” as a justification to violate the legal rights of the people and destroy the most basic social rules is already a serious problem.

In the midst of social transition, many mass actions that are “normal” expressions of public will are branded as “illegal behavior” by local governments that act with utter disregard. Governments that should otherwise stand above the fray have become mired in a governance dilemma owing to tactical shortcomings in handling conflicts and the impact of institutional pressures. The result is that these governments must face these “illegal incidents” head on, with no latitude whatsoever for conciliation or compromise. Even less can they fully use social mediating organizations [such as NGOs] as a means of mediation and conflict resolution.

I have long advocated that the ruling party reflect on the concept of “stability suppresses all else” (稳定压倒一切) [or “stability is the overriding priority”]. This concept was raised by Deng Xiaoping at a very particular moment for our country. At the same time, Deng Xiaoping also said that, “Reform is the overriding priority,” and that, “Development is the overriding priority.” But now we have overlooked every other problem because “stability is the overriding priority.” For the sake of stability, we sacrifice the livelihood of the people; for the sake of stability, some local areas even pull the Cultural Revolution-style method of parading offenders through the streets out [of an earlier chapter in our history]; for the sake of stability, we do not shrink from the abuse of police powers.

So what has “stability suppresses all else” actually suppressed in this time of ours? It has suppressed the livelihood of the people, suppressed human rights, suppressed rule of law, suppressed reform. But stability preservation has not suppressed corruption, nor has it suppressed mining tragedies, nor has it suppressed illegal property demolitions and seizures.

Chinese society right now has too many “sensitive” things, “sensitive” people, “sensitive” topics and “sensitive” moments. Some issues even that concern the national economy and the people’s livelihood are designated “sensitive” topics. Everyone averts their eyes, not daring to look them straight on or discuss them. In fact, this is just an excessive response on the part of the government, and it is a sign of a serious lack of confidence. In my view, one important task facing China in the present day is “casting aside sensitivity” (脱敏).

We should also open the great door to the law, using the law as a means of resolving tensions and disagreements. In theory, the petitioning system is just one administrative relief mechanism covering things like administrative action (行政诉讼), administrative review (行政复议). But legal relief should be the principal means by which civil rights issues find relief and resolution. We must recognize that one serious consequence of replacing legal relief with administrative relief is that this objectively dissolves the authority of state judicial organs, the very foundation of modern social governance. But our courts are right now an embarrassment, with local Party and government leaders directly interfering with cases. The localization of our courts [by entrenched local interests] is getting more and more serious.

At the same time, one thing we might do is establish people’s congresses as standing bodies, with delegates acting as full-time representatives. This way people’s congresses might take on a role as monitors of the government, systematically building the mechanisms by which people can voice their interests.

I’ve found that people’s congresses have a special character in that they dare to criticize. If someone intentionally stirs up trouble, people’s congress delegates may rain curses down on their head — and the person on the other end still won’t have much to say about it. This shows us that people’s congresses have the potential to play a mediating role between the government and society.

Reforms can begin at the county level. For example, a number of counties can first be selected and reform experiments carried out for a few years. If the results are good, this can be expanded to the provincial level for a few more years of trials. In this way, at least, the Party can use “space” to buy “time.” And if by chance these reforms fail, then in any case the larger picture won’t be affected.

This is a translated an edited version of an essay by Yu Jianrong that appeared in Xinhua News Agency’s International Herald Leader on January 4 this year and has been re-posted on many websites today [at] after Xinhua again featured it prominently.