For government officials in China, these are perhaps the best and the worst of times. As economic development has surged ahead over the past two decades, and as substantive political reform has been stalled, the opportunities have been vast for those holding both the strings of power and the purse strings. In a society in which power is the most indispensable asset one can have, even a child can recognize the game for what it is. As one primary school student told Southern Metropolis Daily last year when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up:
Child: I want to be an official.
Reporter: What kind of official do you want to be?
Child: A corrupt official, because corrupt officials have lots of stuff.
But the times are changing, too. As tensions escalate between officials who have and citizens who have not, as people become more and more conscious and protective of their individual rights, and as new technologies like the internet (and simple digital recording technology) turn ordinary citizens into watchdogs, informants and even vigilantes, popular pressures are rising on government officials, particularly at the local level.
Tensions are running so hot, in fact, that the simple assertion of privilege by officials can set off public anger on a staggering scale.
The most recent case demonstrating this point was the June 11 mass incident in Ma’anshan, a prefectural-level city in China’s inland Anhui Province known as a center of China’s steel industry. According to mainland media reports, thousands of residents gathered round the scene of a traffic altercation in which a local official was said to have slapped a middle school student for bumping up against his sedan — or, as the opposite version went, slapped the student after he knocked him over with his car.
What angered the crowd that gathered around the incident in Ma’anshan was not the confrontation itself but the extreme arrogance of the sedan’s driver, Wang Guoqing (汪国庆), the head of the tourism bureau in the city’s Huashan District, and his wife, an employee in the district’s auditing department. According to eyewitnesses quoted in state media, Wang’s wife at one point shouted: “I am a government cadre. I know that you are from the Number Two Middle School. I can send people to cause you big trouble in school.”
The crowds clogged the street and brought traffic to a standstill. Ma’anshan’s top leader, party secretary Zheng Weiwen, went to the scene and announced to the crowd that he had dismissed Wang Guoqing from his post. The crowd did not disperse, however, until riot police employed force and fired canisters of tear gas.
The mass incident at Ma’anshan is a crystal clear reminder of why China’s party leadership has shifted emphasis in its news and propaganda policy to the active “channeling” of “hot issues.” The rising temperature of social tensions in China, and the absence of rational mechanisms to address festering grievances, means even the smallest injustice, real or perceived, can spark social unrest.
What observations have been made about the mass incident at Ma’anshan in China’s media? One of the most interesting editorials came earlier this week from Jing Kaixuan (景凯旋), a professor at Nanjing University, who explains how the general failure to put adequate checks and balances on power in China’s rapidly changing society is the leading cause of social instability and mass incidents like that at Ma’anshan.
When did “I’m an official” become a detonation fuse?
Jing Kaixuan (景凯旋)
June 20, 2010
Southern Metropolis Daily
A simple traffic accident, hardly worth a mention, creates a mass incident. On June 11, as the head of the tourism bureau in Ma’anshan’s Huashan District, Wang Guoqing (汪国庆), was driving his car, a middle school student passed by pushing his bicycle and accidently knocked the rearview mirror on Wang’s sedan. An argument ensued, and this official got out of his car and struck the student. Onlookers surrounded the sedan, snarling up traffic along the street. Only when the most senior local official went to the scene, having pledged to fire the local bureau chief on the spot did the situation calm down.
The reasons behind this mass incident were very simply. It was not because a grown up had struck a student, but because people on the scene heard a phrase that has become only too familiar: “Do you all know who I am? I am a leader!” Everyone will probably remember two years ago when the daughter of a deputy maritime affairs bureau chief in Shenzhen shouted: “Do you all know who I am? I was sent here by the Beijing Transportation Department, and my rank is just about as high as your mayor.” Not long after that, the woman who was later called the “toughest wife of a delegation head” struck out at someone and shouted: “I am a person of consequence!” When altercations occurred, they all played the power and position card (权力身份) in precisely the same way. And in each case this angered the ordinary citizens gathering around.
Are there perhaps officials who don’t understand why words like this set the people off and disgust them? . . . Of course, when the people are in terror of power . . . “I am a leader” may work as a talisman of protection. But when bureaucratic positions have become an ordinary line of work, and when people have a general sense of equality, then “I am a leader” only causes them to laugh. And when the old order of power is disintegrating, and a more equal and just order has not yet taken root — and particularly as social tensions are on the rise — shouting “I am a leader” becomes a dangerous detonation fuse. Not only does it not serve to protect, but quite the opposite, turns you into a public target.
This phenomenon should make us take note of the fact that a number of worrisome tendencies have already emerged in the character of social opposition [in our society]. While the reasons for this phenomenon are numerous, the biggest reason is the unbridled and unscrupulous nature of power, and the transformation of our society into a power society (权力社会), [in which power is the dominant currency]. This power society, put simply, means that so long as you hold the power, you can rise above and dominate the resources of society.
We should note that it is often in cases involving lower-level officials, when they assert their superiority in such an undisguised fashion, then sharp tensions between officials and the government emerge. The arrogance of officials toward the people perhaps has its reasons, taking into consideration the fact that power no longer depends upon an ideology of fate and service, and official appointments do not require authorization by the people — so that in a real and definite sense, they cannot control themselves.
Be that as it may, when “I am a leader” means facing real danger, some officials can simply . . . When officials are given priority in the use of social resources, this is power overdrawing on public authority, resulting in a loss of trust and confidence in public power among the people, and an unwillingness to obey.
Also, the rights consciousness of the people has been steadily awakened, and they already understand in a conceptual sense the notion that citizens are equal, and that every person has rights that cannot be infringed upon. When the distribution of rights and benefits has reached a point where it cannot satisfy the rights demands of the people, the normal act of the popular voicing of rights are pressured in the direction of the irrational and the emotional. Some time back, I received a letter from an old man in Kunming, Yunnan Province, whom I had never met. He said in the letter that he hoped someone would make an appeal for his family home that was slated for demolition, and protect his rights and benefits. But in reality, as I’ve seen many times, the rights defense actions of evictees are ultimately and inevitably pushed to extremes. Once they have become serious and extreme incidents, higher-ups in the government weigh their options and finally address the situation out of consideration for social stability. [NOTE: This is a phenomenon CMP fellow Yu Jianrong has noted in his research on “stability preservation” in China, in which petitioners understand the only way they can get action on their issues is to cause the biggest stink possible, which in turn makes local leaders even more nervous and heavy-handed in their stability preservation work.]
In facing the anger and emotions of the people, resorting to force to suppress them is of no use. Because in the vast majority of cases, the apathy and silence of the people does not mean that the pursuit of equality in our society has already be discounted. Quite the opposite, no one whatsoever can tell when pent-up social tensions and emotions will explode, and what impact they will have.
We should recognize that it is understandable and natural for various factors of instability to emerge in a society that is undergoing a transition from a power society (权力社会) to a rights society (权利社会). And the biggest factor of instability is the loss of checks and balances on power.
Bertrand Russell once said that the desire for power was one of the driving impulses of humanity. In traditional monarchies, limitations were placed on the number of people who could achieve power. But in modern societies in which power was opened to a greater number of people, “those who most desire power are those most likely to obtain power.” Therefore, positions of power are generally held by those who most covet power, who in this way satisfy their personal desires and their demand for social standing. This is not about the personal virtues of officials. It arises, rather, from the fact that power is inflated in power societies.
Therefore, it is pure fiction to believe that power that is not subject to checks can put a stop to the arrogance and abuse of power. The only real solution is clear, and that is effective checks on power. If we wish to ensure that power cannot harm, then we must remove power from benefit (让权力变得无利), so that officials cannot form cliques of special interest, and so that the phrase “I am a leader” does not imply special protections and advantages.