China: The Paradox of Stability

HONG KONG, June 10, 2010 - China spends more on its domestic security than national security, according to sinologist Pei Minxin, as social stability tops the agenda for authorities there.

Pei, the Professor of Government & Director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College told the Asia Society Hong Kong Center that "Stability in China is a very expensive proposition".

Pei argued that on a macro level China was relatively stable, evident by the lack of organized opposition or external threat. "But at local level, instability is everywhere. Riots and labor unrest is everywhere."

He noted that while there were no pulbic statistics on how much was spent maintaining social stability, he had recently come across some startling figures. "Based on an estimate reached by scholars at Tsinghua University, they claim that domestic security spending last year was 514 billion dollars. It spends almost as much on domestic security as it does on national security. China's defense budget for last year was 530 billion dollars."

He added, "I say the government probably spends more on domestic security as it does not include the ad hoc spending in dealing with social unrest. In recent years the government has become quite adapt at utilizing emergency spending to deal with social unrest issues."

Aside from financial cost, Pei observed that local Chinese officials spent a significant amount of time dealing with unrest. Beijing, concerned that would-be aggrieved petitioners enter the capital to seek redress, has instructed local authorities to bar petitioners from leaving the provinces. This posed a major challenge for local authorities who have had to set up points of interdiction at long distance bus and railway stations.

As Pei underscored, "In order to keep petitioners away from Beijing, meetings of all departments are regularly held. Each day at 5 a.m., local officials have to go to these stations and man them."

Pei pointed out a reason for the lack of equilibrium was that "Local officials enjoy both unstrained power and also job insecurity. It is a very bad combination. They are very powerful and yet at the same time, they live in perpetual fear of getting fired. In order to protect their power, local officials become even more abusive."

The drive for economic growth had prompted many officials to instigate development works simply to advance their careers, and according to Pei, had led to many conflicts such as land disputes.

Pei said the Chinese government continued to project an omnipotent image with unlimited power to solve all problems. However, this had led to high public expectations and in many instances subject to blame when it failed to deliver.

He noted the authorities' monopolistic hold over information had resulted in low public credibility, and in times of crises, the public would rather believe rumors rather than the official line.

The scholar suggested several measures to remedy the problems embedded in the governmental system. These included reinventing and modifying its image as omnipotent, instead acknowledging its fallibility, limitations and admit its mistakes when needed.

He proposed allowing greater media freedom so the public could have more confidence in local reporting. Pei also called for the power of local officials to be limited while at the same time, be given more job protection.

Reported by Penny Tang, Asia Society Hong Kong Center