Clashes Without Direct Conflict of Interest

(Baixing Magazine)

Recently, certain mainstream Chinese media found in their investigations of social conflicts in Guangdong, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and other developed areas that these local conflicts often exhibit a special phenomenon as "clashes without direct conflict of interests."  The numerous participants in these conflicts had no direct connection to the incidents themselves.  They are there because of a public sentiment that is ready to challenge and doubt all existing policies.  When the principal characteristic in these "clashes without direct conflict of interests" is a skepticism of everything, it means that the ruling government has lost the support of public opinion.  These irrational expressions outside of the system deserves our careful thought.  In time, if these "clashes without direct conflict of interests" are not given attention and dealt with, they will become more widespread and ultimately undermine the foundation of governance.

In the current social clashes, there are usually conflicts of interests.  But in certain local social clashes, we are beginning to see the hint of "clashes without direct conflict of interests."  Many of the persons who participated in these mass incidents do not have any direct demands of their own.  They had been treated unjustly and unfairly in the past and therefore accumulated a lot of discontent.  They are using this opportunity to vent their anger.  For example, in Jintan city (Jiangsu province), there was a clash as a result of a dispute over financial investments.  According to the investigation afterwards, 80% of the participants in the mass incident had no financial stake in the affair.  Most of them were just using the incident as a pretext . Similar incidents have occurred elsewhere.  For example, in Chongqing and Anhui, minor street disputes triggered large-scale disturbances, and the participating masses had no direct demands.

With the masses of migrant laborers in Guangdong, this tendency is even clearer.  The most difficult thing for the public security bureau is that those people without direct demands are intermixed with those people who have direct demands.  A small number of people took collective action out of their own interests, and then dozens or hundreds of people around them watched and created an uproar.  The rocks thrown at the police usually came from the spectators and not from the principals themselves.  For example, there was an attack on the police in the Beiyun district.  It was a very straightforward traffic accident.  The family and fellow townsmen of the victim surrounded the driver to demand compensation.  The spectators threw rocks at the militia police trying to maintain order.  One militia police officer was killed during the confrontation.

In Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan and other places, migrant laborers from the same hometown often rent houses in the same village, so that they form "home villages."  When the police come around on official business, everybody rushes to the scene to watch.  Certain members cause a ruckus for no reason, including people who yell out "The police are beating people!" in order to create a disturbance.

Discontent is also "spreading" among the elite.  A number of groups that are thought by the public to be strong claim that they are "vulnerable groups.  Examples are enterprise owners, cadres at the divisional and departmental levels, company engineers, school principals, etc.

Actually, the absence of direct conflict of interests does not mean that there is no conflict.  "Absence of direct conflict of interests" applies only to the individuals, but it does not deal with inter-group conflicts.  For example, let us suppose that Zhang Shan is a vegetable hawker and Li Si is a municipal administrator.  They got into an argument in the street.  Normally speaking, the spectators are individuals who have no interest relationships with either the hawker or the administrator.  But it is different for the group as a whole.  For example, there may be many small-business operators like Zhang Shan who underwent similar experiences or otherwise suffered abuse from municipal administrators.  When these forces join together, they form a social stratum and an interest group.

"Clashes without direct conflict of interests" is more than mere emotional catharsis.  It is an inter-group conflict that will form and divide social strata.  In the conflict between two interests groups, the spectators will divide and stand with one of the sides on the basis of their identity, position and interests.

In recent years, the growth of the interest groups is a hot topic.  The common hatred of corruption, the skepticism about the moral character of the authorities, plus the disappointing understanding and management of conflicts by the base-level governments (including phenomena such as "cold indifference," "detachment," "ostrich policy," "slick government officials") meant that certain cadres have lost their sense of responsibility.  In the context of social incidents, the classical story is the debate between Lang and Gu.  In the debate between Lang and Gu, the spectators and the public have no conflict of interests with either person.  Yet, in the social debate and discussions, the public showed a great deal of enthusiasm. Some of them supported Lang, while others felt sorry for Gu.  The boundary of the social strata were obvious in this incident.  Who dares to say that the battle over Lang and Gu was merely about venting passions?

From media reports and in real life, there are many hidden participants in these "clashes without direct conflict of interests" at any time and place.  As long as someone or just a few persons provide the pretext, there will immediately appear many spectators who watch, roar or even provoke.

What underlies this phenomenon?  Apart from one group of the spectators wanting to create a disturbance, the actual cause of these "clashes without direct conflict of interests" is based upon victimology: as a result of being treated unfairly and unjustly and accumulating feelings of discontent over the long term, these people feel that they are open or hidden victims and they are releasing their emotions now.  Basically speaking, the "clashes without direct conflict of interests" are ultimately based upon "conflicts of interests."  But those conflicts of interests are not manifested actively in the forms of "rights defenses."  Rather, they appear passively in a hidden and tangential manner.  Therefore, "expressing and releasing emotions" is a superficial phenomenon in "clashes without direct conflict of interests."  The true nature is still about the clashes being opportunities to pursue a certain kind of interest.

There is a plethora of interests nowadays.  The expression of interests, especially the interests of the socially vulnerable groups, is an unavoidable problem.  When the public releases its emotions in somewhat extreme forms, the public is not at fault.  Rather, they do so because the channels for expressing social interests have been blocked.  Using a pretext to vent your anger is an inefficient but safe substitute.  In reality, the victims might have preferred to use base-level mediation, administrative complaints, judicial verdicts, petitioning by government level and other methods in order to obtain justice.  But they often lack confidence, or else the costs are too high.  As for suing persons in power, this is often countered by massive retaliation.  Thus, using an incident which has no direct connection in order to "release some emotions" becomes the choice of many -- they watch, they cause an uproar and even provoke an escalation.

According to data, the number of civil lawsuits has been rising in recent years.  Many of the cases are frivolous and should not have gone to court.  But at the same time, the rate at which civil lawsuits are being settled out of court has also been decreasing annually since 1998.  The settlement rate for labor disputes is extremely low, as both sides are often intransigent.  This means that tolerance in interpersonal relationships between labor and capital is decreasing and the principals are more emotionally opposed to each other.  In certain places, there are nationally prominent issues such as land acquisition, relocation and privatization of state enterprises, about which the government officials are pessimistic.  One government official drew this analogy -- when a citizen trips on the street, he does not get up, say "Rotten luck" and keep on walking  Instead, he "curses the f*cking corrupt cadres who build these sub-standard roads."  According to certain social research studies, people think that corrupt officials who embezzle more than 100,000 RMB should be executed by the firing squad.  There is a vast gap between this wish and the existing law/actual verdicts.

It is hard to manage these "clashes without direct conflict of interests" and the costs are high.  If they are allowed to spread, there will be severe consequences.  Earlier, France saw two major social clashes.  One was the riot by immigrants in Paris and the other is the national workers' strike.  The former is the typical "clash without direct conflict of interests."  The principal groups involved in the conflict did not offer any specific interest demands.  But the incident was violent, long-lasting, wide-spread and difficult to control.  The national workers' strike had a clear demand about the abolition of the First Employment Contract law and the government could use negotiations to reach a settlement quickly.  Although the conflicts in China still mainly revolve about conflicts of interest, we should remain highly aware of the beginnings and the scope of the "clashes without direct conflict of interests."

The emergence of a large number of "clashes without direct conflict of interests" is a warning signal.  To a certain degree, it shows the likelihood that the government-citizen relationship has gone from mere quantities to a qualitative stage -- the relationship between them is no longer the "fish in the water" that we can only see in the "classical Red" movies and books.  In order to reverse this trend, the most important thing is to adjust the current distribution of interests while advocating anti-corruption, clean government and transparency of information.  Happily, the mainstream media such as <Outlook Weekly> have used their positions to publish long essays to remind government officials about the perils of "clashes without direct conflict of interests."  In conjunction with the important decisions and plans for the building of a harmonious society announced at the Sixth Plenum of the Sixteenth Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party , the mainstream media published powerful essays to create a dialogue between public opinion and the construction of a harmonious society.  This may be the signal for reforms and new policies.