Sun Liping is a professor of sociology at Qinghua University, and we recently read a short article he wrote about why Chinese society is going to remain stable. There have been several writers who have written responses to Professor Sun’s article, but before we get to those we’ll try to translate the gist of Professor Sun’s article as best we can.
Sun’s basic thesis is not that Chinese society is going to get ever more harmonious and hunky-dory, but rather that the chance of large-scale uprisings and unrest remains fairly small.
He says that this is because there is a greater “elasticity” to Chinese society and social structure than previously. He offers eight reasons why he believes this to be so:
1. The current demographic structure of 30-70 or 40-60 percent urban/rural allows plenty of room for containing the spread of social unrest.
2. The establishment of a market economy tends to diffuse social unrest–whereas in the past, social unrest would lead to direct action against the government, things are different now: tensions between labor and capital are directed at capital, against employers and development
zone bosses and perhaps, at most, the local government. Unrest is never targeted at higher levels of government, such as provincial governments.
3. Economic development mitigates social problems—more development means more jobs and more opportunities.
4. The government controls the resources. This means that when some kind of social crisis or unrest occurs, they can use these resources to help put out the fire before it gets too big.
5. The greater stratification of Chinese society since the 1990s means that people belonging to different segments of society have different concerns and demands, thus limiting the potential
for mass or large-scale action across different groups.
6. Social elites have been
co-opted integrated into society. (We assume he means entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and the like). This also has the effect of making large-scale opposition more difficult or unlikely.
7. The language and rhetoric of “marketism”—this means that even when someone feels like they have been shat on by society, they don’t consider it as a matter of social injustice, but rather as a result of their own actions or lack of ability.
8. In the thirty years since reform and opening up, the government has developed a good deal of experience in managing and defusing (diffusing?) social tension and unrest.
Presently, conflicts in society arise from conflicts of interests, and as such are not ideological or political. As such, these conflicts have become everyday occurrences and are therefore nothing out of the ordinary. These are conflicts that can be solved through discussion, negotiation, and compromise—as such, even when conflicts erupt, they are unlikely to escalate into large-scale social unrest.
Thus, we have to change our thinking about social stability. We need to be able to correctly analyze the types of social conflicts and unrest that occur in China, and we need to be able to analyze whether or not they could potentially snowball into large-scale instability. Under such conditions, we ought to become more confident develop “soft” methods of dealing with conflicts from within the system. On the other hand, we shouldn’t scare ourselves with the threat or possibility of social instability, and, because of an outmoded of way of thinking about social conflict, lose or delay the chance confidently face the problems of our age and push through with more reforms.
*This is our rough translation of Sun’s essay. You can read the original article, in Chinese, here. Next, we will translate an article written in reply to Sun’s (and if we’re in the mood, maybe offer our two fen as well.)
Photo from Dayoo.com.