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China’s Stability Machine and the Detention of Chen Guangcheng

Chen Guangcheng, a blind human rights activist and self-taught lawyer in China, has been in house arrest at his home in Linyi prefecture, Shandong province since September 2010 after spending four years and three months in prison. A well-known activist for uncovering forced sterilizations and abortions and other abuses of the family planning policies by the Linyi authorities against nearly 7,000 women, he was sentenced in 2006 for “willfully damaging property” and “organizing mobs to disrupt traffic”.

A video released in February 2011, shows Chen saying that he has been living under 24 hour surveillance since his release. He was subject to beating after the video's release and has suffered from deteriorating health conditions afterwards. Since then, foreign journalists, human rights advocates and other brave individuals and citizens have been trying to visit Chen, but all were turned back by strong security guarding Chen’s village, with reports of attack by hundreds of unidentified men and thugs.

Campaign poster to free Chen Guangcheng

As renewed attention was brought to Chen Guangcheng in October after waves of visit to his village were turned back by violence and beatings, Chinese bloggers and writers are now turning their attention to the stability machine behind Chen’s detention.

In an important article [zh] published in Caijing Magazine in May 2011, it was reported that China’s budget for internal stability maintenance for 2011 is 624 billion yuan, a rise of 13.8% over last year and exceeding the defense budget of 601 billion yuan. Another important article published by the same magazine in June 2011 (and translated by Dui Hua Human Rights Journal) describes the “gray market” opportunities presented to local officials in China’s quest for stability:

Local governments’ fear of petitioning has led to a huge stability-preservation “market” that includes capital liaison offices, security contracts, and “payoffs” and results in all types of rent-seekers, brokers, and thugs out foraging for themselves. Appetites whetted by the favors that can be had in this rent-seeking arena, the capital liaison offices, security companies, and petitioning officials all [seek ways to] protect and expand the “stability-preservation pie.” As this “market” continues to grow, even things that have nothing to do with “stability preservation” can be categorized as “stability preservation” in order to “collect more rents.”

It has been pointed out that stability maintenance fee on Chen Guangcheng now reaches 50 million yuan. Chen's case is a perfect example of this type of rent-seeking. Jia Jia, a columnist and media professional, has written a precise summary [zh] (originally posted but censored in his Tencent weibo) of why the local government goes to such lengths to detain a blind activist:

陈光诚在入狱前,其频繁的维权举动,被地方政府认为是当地最大的“麻烦制造者”。不论是残疾人权利还是农业税费问题,陈光诚曾让地方饱尝“依法办事”之“苦果”,陈氏之入狱也成为必然。从年初流出的视频来看,陈氏虽在幽禁之中,但并未因此屈服,并未对政府做出任何承诺。

陈氏之不合作,当然成为地方的“心腹大患”。此人若令其自由,则临沂地方又必须“依法办事”,必须面对陈光诚在众多问题上的较真。尤其是那些在施政过程中有明显违法行为的官员,自然会要求沂南县加紧防范。禁止外人探访,恐怕是为了防止一些重要的不利信息被传递出去。

临沂地方的计生黑幕,也是不能见光之事。一旦暴露,会引起举国上下对计生政策的再检讨。这攸关基本国策,动摇不得。一位临沂地方官员在微博上就陈光诚事件发言,“可见党中央的决策是英明的”。这说明对陈光诚的处理意见来自最高层,这种处理意见跟地方政府不谋而合。执行中央支持的、且有利自身的政策,何乐而不为呢。

最后,也是最重要的理由,维稳经费已经成为当地政府的巨大财源之一。当地政府抱着“拥寇自重”的心理,不断向上级勒索维稳经费。对于一个雁过拔毛的官僚科层体制来说,这种财源来得简便而理直气壮。当地政府也倾向于夸大陈氏事件与外界、与国外的联系,使得处于信息屏蔽区的最高层级,由于担心事件国际化,不敢放松对陈氏的管制。

直接负责看守陈光诚的村民,每月有固定一千六百元的月薪,这是一笔不少的收入。在当地,看守陈光诚是一件抢手且热门的工作。这批人通常又是村镇领导直接选拔的亲朋好友,对他们来说,撤哨就意味着收入骤减。这种“村镇利益集团”倾向夸大探访网友对他们工作的“干扰”,以获取更多的财政支援。

如果没有利益驱动,恐怕很难让临沂市、沂南县、双堠镇、东师古村四级政府,如此地对陈光诚抱有这么大的兴趣。陈光诚才是他们的“财神爷”。于是,在各种利益的交织与绑架之下,陈氏全家成为不用坐牢的囚徒。而这种维稳体制也陷入了自身制造的怪圈之中:越维越不稳。

In the eyes of the local government, Chen Guangcheng is a troublemaker. Whether it is the rights of the disabled or agricultural tax problems, Chen’s activism pushes the government to act according to law. Hence, he must be imprisoned. As the video released early this year shows, Chen was confined in his home, but he never compromises or makes any promise to the government.

His non-cooperative attitude is a serious problem for local authorities. If he is free, the Linyi government would have to play by the law and deal with him seriously. In particular, officials who have broken the law must have asked the authorities to step up the defense. The prohibition of outside visits is probably to prevent sensitive information from leaking out.

Linyi’s family planning policy is also a shady area. Once exposed, it will trigger a nation-wide debate. This concerns a basic national policy which is undebatable. A Linyi local official said on weibo, “we can see that the decision of the Party’s Central Committee is wise.” This shows that decision on Chen’s handling comes fro the very top. This fits the local government: executing the center’s decision while implementing a policy beneficial to itself.

Lastly, and most importantly, stability maintenance is one of the largest source of income for the local government. By keeping alive a toublemaker, the Linyi government can blackmail the upper levels for more resources. In a strict and bureaucratic system, one can ask for such kind of resources confidently. The local government also tends to exaggerate the links of Chen Guangcheng within and outside China. Because the central government is unfamiliar with local conditions and fears the internationalization of the event, it is reluctant to relax control on Chen.

There is a fixed monthly salary of 1,600 yuan for villagers responsible for guarding Chen Guangcheng. This is a lot of income for them. Locally, this is a sough-after job. These people are usually close friends and relatives of village leaders. For them, withdrawl of the control means a reduction of income. This “village interest group” tends to exaggerat the interference of visitors in order to seek more financial support.

If there is no economic motivation, we could not imagine that the four levels of government, from Linyi city, Yinan county, Baihe town to Dongshigu village, could show such a big interest in Chen Guangcheng. Chen is their “God of Wealth”. Therefore, in this intertwined web of interests, Chen and his family are held hostage without being prisoners. And the stability maintenance system has also fallen into a vicious circle: the more you maintain stability, the more unstable it becomes.

As Jia has pointed out, the local government of Linyi has used Chen Guangcheng as a bargaining chip for rent-seeking. Xiao Han, a professor at the China University of Politics and Law, has written an essay (originally posted but censored in his blog) exploring stability maintenance from the perspective of behavioral economics. Below is an extract on how the local government intentionally creates a tense atmosphere in order to bargain with the center:

在維穩體系中,越是將事態描述得聳人聽聞,對於維穩執行者越有利,這種利益既是權力上的利益,也是經濟上的利益。古代中國有所謂「養寇自重」的謀略,即剿匪的將領並不在第一時間以集中優勢兵力的方式消滅或擊潰「匪眾」,而是以佯打放生、虛抬匪情的「拖」字訣向上級要求更多的財政支持與權力授予,維穩體系存在著類似特性。在陳光誠事件中,臨沂地方當局除了拘禁、毆打陳光誠及其家人以外,還對探訪、看望陳光誠者暴力圍毆、非法綁架與拘禁,除了是一種對陳光誠的支持者的恐嚇與威脅和實際攻擊之外,其背後就可能還存在著上述動機:刻意製造緊張氣氛以向上級申言其作惡的正當性——因為這一切都能夠幫助他們獲得更多的經濟支持和權力授予。然而,由於這一切過於離譜,作惡過於囂張,終於導致輿論的全面譴責以及人們的無畏探訪,這一結果雖然使得陳光誠的處境產生微弱的改善,但探訪者的處境並未改善,而且從維穩立場這一視角它已實現了作惡者所要達到的目的,即他們所虛張的嚴重的「匪情」是實情。臨沂地方當局的上級維穩者雖然知道這一切都是維穩體系以及具體執行者的惡果,但他們被綁在同一條利益戰車上,所以不可能揭穿,尤其不可能向陳光誠支持者「示弱」。

In the stability maintenance system, the more sensational the situation, the better it is for executors of stability maintenance. This brings power as well as economic benefits. In ancient China, there is a strategy of keeping the mobs close in order to strengthen oneself. Generals will not destroy bandits immediately, but will keep them alive in a fight-and-release tactic in order to keep asking for resources from the top. The stability maintenance system exhibits similar characteristics. In the Chen Guangcheng case, the Linyi authority not only beats up Chen and his family, it also kidnaps and detains visitors. This not only serves as an intimidation to Chen’s supporters, but is also a way to create tension in order to legitimize its violence. This can help them gain supports and power from the top. However, as all this is too outrageous, it leads to a condemnation from the pubic and waves of fearless visits. This results in a slight improvement in Chen’s situation, but visitors are still subject to harsh treatments. From the point of view of stability maintenance, the local government has already achieved its evil aim: to exaggerate the seriousness of the situation. Although the superiors of the Linyi authority know that this is a bad consequence of the stability maintenance system and its specific implementation, they are already tied to the same vested interests and can by no means display “weakness” towards Chen.

Elsewhere, blogger Gu Xi at my1510.cn explains why Chen Guangcheng is an easy target for the local government to turn into an economic opportunity, and points out that Chen’s case is just the epitome of the numerous stability maintenance dilemmas in China:

既然维稳费用大部分由中央承担,地方政府则无“节制消费”的内生动力,这是其一。其二,被维稳的对象、那些上访、聚众乃至上诉法律的问题人物固然让基层政府头痛,但换个角度,却变成了他们“屯积居奇”、向上索要更多费用的的筹码。以陈光诚为例,临沂政府领导又不是傻子,怎会不知陈光诚一个盲人没有任何破坏能力、又为何这样如临大敌?——这正是陈光诚之于地方政府的价值所在:没有实际的“危害”,容易“收拾”,同时级别甚高,可凭此一人获取巨额拨款。其三,在人事任免上,如果出现纰漏,则地方长官会被罢免,既然有上面两条做铺垫,当地官员何不顺水推舟,保了乌纱帽又舔了上面的屁沟?这是从中央与地方的行政机理来考虑。以我曾工作过的天津滨海新区政府为例,每年年末都要由新区政府组织“维稳会”,向下属功能区传达维稳要求。

As most of the stability maintenance budget comes from the Central Government, local governments have no motivation to moderate its consumption. On the other hand, although the presence of petitioners and troublemakers is a headache for local governments, they can be bargaining chips when asking for more resources from higher authorities. In the case of Chen Guangcheng, the Linyi government knows that a blind person cannot cause much damage, but it acts as if facing a deadly enemy. Why? This is where the value of Chen Guangcheng lies: no actual “harm”, easy to “deal with”, and huge funding can be obtained by just controlling one person. Finally, given the above benefits, it would be logical for local officials to choose the safe way and suppress Chen so as to avoid any “accidents” and gain financial benefits at the same time. This all follows from the administrative organization of central-local relations. For example, I have worked in the Tianjin Binhai area government. At the end of each year, we will organize a “stability maintenance conference” to convey stability requirements to local districts.

这种伪造一个“利益共同体”然后获取“合法性”的手段,在临沂体现的淋漓尽致。“陈光诚黑洞”,就是各种维稳微观环境的缩影。当地政府为了监禁陈光诚,以1600元/月的价格雇佣当地村民,村民们因为这工作薪水颇丰、非常清闲、又能时不时抢夺贵重财物、甚至暗合了暴虐的欲望,于是抢着做这份工。一旦陈光诚案被破解,这一部分人的生活来源将被马上切断。所以从这个角度看,最不喜欢陈光诚获取自由的,应该是这些拿着卑微俸禄的职业打手。在诸多维稳事件中,由“维稳专业户”组成的利益共同体,我称之为“黑洞利益”。这一共同体有着拱卫维稳机制的最强愿望,同时也是“战斗”在第一线的走狗。这个特殊利益圈殊无破解的可能性。

How this forged “interest” gains legitimacy is vividly illustrated in Linyi. The “Chen Guangcheng blackhole” is the epitome of a variety of micro-stability maintenance events in China. In order to watch over Chen Guangcheng, local authorities employ villagers at the salary of 1,600 yuan per month. Because this job is leisurely and provides opportunities of robbery (or even satisfies their desire for violence), it is very popular. Once Chen’s case is cracked, this income source will be gone. From this perspective, these thugs are the ones who do not want to see Chen get free. In numerous stability maintenance events, I describe these vested interest groups of stability professionals as “black hole interests”. They have the strongest desire to keep the stability machine running, and are the front line running dogs in this “battle”. The prospect of this stability interest group being destroyed is slim.

As Li Huafang, a researcher and publisher, points out in his blog at Caijing magazine, there is no easy way out of Chen's case. Releasing Chen is the best way out of the vicious circle of stability maintenance, but the local government, which is not really accountable to the public, would not abandon this income source easily. On the other hand, while the case is gaining international media attention, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, without much local knowledge, is reluctant to apply pressure for fears of offending the powerful backers behind Linyi's local government and family planning authorities. It remains to been seen if waves of citizen visits to Chen's village could continue and gather nation-wide attention for Chen's release.

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