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Why do riots often occur in China?

Kazuo Uno
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Waseda University


The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, on which China has bet its prestige, will open soon. In spite of tighter security than ever before in the Olympic Games history, large-scaled civil riots and repeated terrorist bombings have occurred here and there in China. This report describes why so many civil protests and riots occur even when the Olympic Games as a symbol of national solidarity is just around the corner.

Widening gap between the rich and the poor

First, rapid economic growth makes the gap between the rich and the poor considerably wider. Especially high price level hits the poor's life. Gini coefficient, a ratio globally used to measure inequality of income distribution in society has reached 0.47 and further continues to increase by 0.01 point per year. Allowing for illegal income that cannot be identified (such as tax evasion and corruption), Gini coefficient will amount to 0.54. The coefficient is now still at a warning level, but there is a fear that it approaches 0.6, "disturbance level" where social disturbance might often occur.

Though radical countermeasures should be promptly taken to solve the income gap, remarkable progress is not anticipated because those who have a vested interest object to income redistribution reform (such as introduction of inheritance tax) and reinforced restriction against illegally acquired income.

Local administrative and judicial system showing its limitation

The second reason is associated with Chinese administrative and judicial system. As widely known, Deng Xiaoping succeeded in promoting his reform and door-opening policy because he decreased the authority of central government and increased that of local governments to release energy accumulated in local societies at a burst. This caused a new mechanism to be developed in which local energy serves as an engine of growth in the whole China. However, the current relationship between central and local governments shows its limitation.

The current Chinese administrative system consists of a vertical system ranging from the central to each local government ("line system") and a horizontal system widening within a local government ("plane system"). Uniquely Chinese system is mainly based on the latter. For example, a local public security bureau or lower organization receives orders both from the public security organization at the next senior level and from the local government at the same level, but it gives priority to the latter with the current system. That is, under this control system, people in a local public security organization tend to be good and faithful servants of the relevant local party/government who have authority over their personal and financial issues, while they sometimes ignore orders from senior public security organizations without full accomplishment.

This administrative system causes some problems. One of them is misuse of power by local party/government leaders. When confronted with difficulties such as resistance by citizen to eviction, some local protectionist leaders abuse police power in their hands to suppress civic resistance activities. As a result, the relationship between police and citizen becomes considerably worse, often leading to violent attack against police by those who hold grudges. Another problem is interference with normal police affairs by local party/government leaders. Such interference can occur in cases associated with interest of local party/government leaders.

Further, Chinese judicial system has problems. In China, judicial independence is not established, and expenditure of local courts, for example, is decided at the discretion of the relevant local administrative chief. In Chinese system, judicature is dependent on administration. For this reason, even if those who experienced right infringement resulting from expropriation of farmlands, forced eviction from habitation, or environmental pollution bring suits against the government, there is almost no possibility that the local government, who is a defendant (perpetrator), will assign this case to a fair judge, probably leading to the loss of the case.

Since the judicial route is almost blocked in substance, affected people try to use a special administrative relief route called "petition" to recover their rights. This route, however, is very fragile due to failure in duty and obstruction (forced exclusion from the petition reception, for example) at the administrative side. Besides, it takes a considerable long time to solve. Under such circumstance, the only measure left to affected people is the traditional one: "Greater disturbance leads to greater solution, but smaller disturbance leads to smaller solution. No disturbance, no solution."

Out-of-control local governments and organization reform

One of the features of recent many riots is that people's anger aims at local governments (perpetrators). In some local societies, corrupt and arbitrary acts of officers, cozy relationship between public security organization and gang, and monopolization of interests by officers and vicious entrepreneurs in collusion are often found. A local administrative leader who overrules public safety organization, courts, and even media is called a "Local monarch" mockingly.

Local governments have played important roles in promoting Chinese economic growth and should be highly regarded for their efforts. On the other hand, they have continued to run "out of control" for maximizing their benefits and caused troubles with people and environmental destruction. As it is often told that "when there is a policy at top, there is a measure at bottom", phenomenon that a local government does not listen to warning from the central government is found in many local societies.

To prevent local governments from being out of control, there is no alternative but to reform the current administrative and judicial systems, which seems one the most invincible difficulties indeed. The most prominent leaders of the party, who should make decision, are afraid that such reform will reduce local energy and stall economy, resulting in social disturbance. Further strong resistance from the group enjoying vested interest prevents the leaders from making decision. To establish a harmonized society and promote sustainable development according to the policy announced by the central government, however, it seems that there is no alternative but to switch to a political system suitable for the current developed economy.

Toward more open society on the occasion of the Beijing Olympic Games

When Beijing was unofficially selected as host for the 2008 Olympic Games in 2001, many people expected China to take this opportunity to improve human right situation and environment for more open society. The actual movement after that, however, was reverse; Chinese government reinforced control in the name of security in the Olympic Games and forcefully suppressed even socially vulnerable groups, resulting in an increased number of people showing hostility towards the government. If affected citizen continue protest activities even after the Olympic Games, the government might fall into a serious situation in which it should keep reinforced measures, which was originally regarded as temporal. I eagerly hope the Beijing Olympic Games will open as a good opportunity for development of Chinese society overcoming many difficulties.

Kazuo Uno
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Waseda University


The author was born in Fukui prefecture in 1950. After graduation from School of Law in Waseda University, he completed the postgraduate degree in Graduate School of Law, Waseda University. Through a researcher in Institute of Chinese Affairs and an assistant professor in Tokai University, he is now a professor in Faculty of Commerce in Waseda University. His specialty is study of Chinese society (including security, crimes, and urbanization).

Recent reports:

"An Analysis of the Characteristics of Underworld-like Organizations in China" (Institute of Comparative Law, Waseda University, 'Comparative law review', Volume 38, No. 3, 2005), "Concept and Features of Crowd Crime Incidents in China" (Association of Commerce, Waseda University, 'Cultural review' Volume 27, 2005), "Stability and Safety in China---riots and safety food problems and the Beijing Olympic Games" (The Japan Institute of International Affairs, 'International Affairs' January/February 2008 issue), "Security System in China" (Institute of World Studies, Takushoku University, 'World Studies' July/August 2008 issue), Jointly edited "Chinese-Japanese Dictionary - New words and information" (chief editor, Shogakukan Inc. 2008)