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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:







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:


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 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:


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.


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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