Beyond Coercion: The New Politics of Conflict Processing in China
Beyond Coercion: The New Politics of Conflict Processing in China
Chunrong Liu 0 1
0 Fudan-European Centre for China Studies, University of Copenhagen , Ø ster Farimagsgade 5, 1353 Copenhagen K , Denmark
1 School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University , Shanghai , China
Coercive capacity matters for keeping stability of authoritarian regime. Yet governing conflict is more than deployment of coercion. State response to contentious politics can be classified by the form of power it uses to direct challenging behaviors. This paper suggests a typology of conflict processing mechanism and uses it to illustrate the diversity of China's domestic security strategy and detect new signs of conflict management beyond coercive actions. The focus is an emerging social engagement approach-a conceptually distinct process through which contentious behavior is transformed by intermediate agencies. Despite its limits in handling large-scale conflicts, this approach of conflict resolution is able to contribute to regime stability from below by demobilizing and depoliticizing local and issue-based contentions.
Conflict processing; Social unrest; Social engagement
Post-reform Chinese society features various social discontents and unrests, ranging
from peasant resistance, labor unrest, environmental activism to homeowner
mobilization. This constitutes a major exogenous challenge to the governability and
legitimacy of the ruling Party-state. Officially defined as ‘‘mass incidence,’’ social
unrest has been increasing at an alarming rate in the context of rapid marketization
and urbanization. From 1993 to 2005, the number of mass incidences had grown
tenfold (to 87,000). An estimated number of public protests went further between
180,000 and 230,000 in 2000 (Go¨ bel and Lynette 2012).1 Against this background,
keeping stability (wei wen) has become a pressing political agenda in China.2
A flourishing body of literature has recognized the rise of stability maintenance
regime in China, with scholars addressing the origin, organizational structure and
consequences of domestic security system (Wang and Minzner 2015; Benney 2013,
Wang 2014; Su and Xin 2010; Feng 2013; Xie 2012, 2013). Scholars tend to
emphasize the organizational expansion of coercive sector as well as the
phenomenal growth of funding for domestic security. The fact that Chinese
Party-state is preoccupied with coercive apparatus in maintaining stability has been
widely viewed as a bulwark for China’s authoritarian developmentalism (Yang
States, democratic or authoritarian, create coercive institutions in attempts to
secure sociopolitical order, to reach ‘‘unity in diversity’’ (Przeworski 2011). Yet
governing conflict is more than deployment of coercive apparatus. Conflict
processing mechanisms can be defined by various types of power that are exercised
to obtain social compliance. This paper builds on this assumption and suggests a
broader framework to map the patterns of conflict processing in China. In particular,
I explore the nature and dynamics of a non-coercive form of conflict governance
characterized by social engagement through intermediate institutions. Despite their
limits in handling large-scale contentions, they help contribute to regime stability
from below by generating a buffer zone through which social grievance can be
negotiated and depoliticized.
This paper proceeds as follows. In the next section, I present an overview of the
emerging fragmented contentious society since the 1990s. Then I offer an analytical
schema about three mechanisms of state responses: coercion, exchange and
engagement. I also identify the attributes of each mechanism and the conditions
under which they occur. This is followed by an investigation on policy orientation
of the Chinese state during the Hu-Wen era (2002–2012), with a focus on how social
engagement emerges and functions at the local level. I conclude with a discussion
about the new politics of conflict processing and its implication to the surprising
resilience of Chinese Party-state.
1.1 A Fragmented Contentious Society
Since the opening and reform in 1978, China’s leadership has emphasized economic
development instead of class struggle and Maoist mobilization politics.
1 ‘‘Mass incidents’’ is officially defined as any kind of planned or impromptu gathering that forms
because of ‘‘internal contradictions,’’ including ‘‘mass public speeches, physical conflicts, airing of
grievances or other forms of group behavior that may disrupt social stability.’’ In practice, definitions by
journalists, public authority and researchers can be different (Freeman 2010). A social protest having over
500 hundred participants is usually calculated as ‘‘large-scale mass incident’’ (Chen 2004: 32).
2 Definitions of stability have been various and diverse. It constitutes a major concern in comparative
politics in 1970 s, when scholars were preoccupied with political decay, crisis and violence in
modernization process. Ake (1975) argues that political stability occurs if members of society restrict
themselves to the behavior patterns that fall within the limits imposed by political role expectations. This
follows that a political community is stable as far as societal conflicts are peacefully processed. For a
classical review on political stability, see Hurwitz (1973).
Subsequently, there has been a systematic decline of socialist social contract in the
process of market transition. A new set of neoliberal economic discourses and
values, such as material incentives, efficiency, productivity and profit orientation,
has been crystallized in the post-socialist context. With the commodification of land
and labor, as well as the erosion of existing social security nets of pensions, housing
and health care, the livelihood and security of segments of the rural and urban
working class have been negatively impacted.
Concomitant with these transformations is a tremendous growth of social unrests
in both urban and rural sectors (Tanner 2004; Li, Liu and O’Brien, 2012; Tong and
Lei 2013). A research report on ‘‘large-scale mass incident’’ with more than 500
participants shows that there were 548 large-scale mass incidents between 2003 and
2010, and a significant upsurge occurred in 2007 and 2008 (Tong and Lei 2010:489,
2013:10). In addition, contentions have spread into a wide range of social spheres
and are constituted by groups including workers, peasants, environmentalists,
journalists, homeowners, feminists, religious communities, ethnic minorities, AIDS
activists and human rights advocates, among others. Furthermore, many protests
have become more radical and well organized. As Li and O’Brien (2008: 22) shows,
protest leaders have emerged and are able to ‘‘lead the charge, shape collective
claims, recruit activists and mobilize the public, devise and orchestrate acts of
contention, and organize cross-community struggles.’’
Over time, there have been three identifiable waves of social unrests: the first
wave occurred in late 1990s, which was mainly caused by large-scale state-own
enterprise restructuring, bankruptcies and labor right violations. Between 1994 and
1999, the number of laid-off workers increased from 3 million to 11.7 million (Cao
et al. 1999). Since the early 2000s, hyper-urbanization has brought a new wave of
unrests caused by abuse of collective land ownership rights and housing issues. A
concurrent wave of identity-based mobilization can be observed during this period
of time. This is evidenced by a growth of environmentalism in China, which is
centered on green agenda, life quality and post-materialist values (Liu 2013; see
also Sun and Zhao 2008; Tong and Lei 2010). In addition, episodes of ‘‘ethnic mass
incidence,’’ notably the street rioting and targeted inter-ethnic violence in Lhasa
(March 15, 2008) and Urumqi (July 7, 2009) signify a rising ethno-cultural
consciousness and ethnic tension (Hillman and Tuttle 2016).
While the link between social unrests and the regime stability is hardly
disputable, whether and how these conflicts can erupt into substantial political
dynamics in China is the focus of increasing debate (Chen 2012).3 Despite that
postreform Chinese society has become growing vibrant and contentious, it remains
highly fragmented. Two notable characteristics of contentions in China can be
recognized. First, most activisms are ‘‘policy-based,’’ instead of being politically
organized aiming at regime change (O’Brien and Li 2005; Ho 2001). Second,
without encompassing a normative outlook and having a strong organizational base,
most mobilizations remain localized and issue-based. Instead of formulating a social
3 Questioning that social unrest will immediately undermine regime stability, Lorentzen (2013) claims
that informal toleration and even encouragement of small-scale, narrowly economic protests can be an
effective information gathering tool for maintaining authoritarian control.
cleavage that can drive political transition, these conflicts constitute a ‘‘fragmented
contentious society’’ that could stimulate state penetration and even reproduce the
legitimacy of the overarching regime.
1.2 Mechanisms of Conflict Processing
What are the mechanisms of conflict processing by which Chinese state might exert
over a contentious society? Previous researches as well as media discourses tend to
portray a confrontational relationship. Indeed, the Party-state leadership has an
enduring consciousness in elaborating its coercive sector—including extensive
intelligence networks and specialized police and paramilitary units in order to
contain contentious challengers and avoid political and social crisis.
Regimespecific factors certainly matter—the Leninist predisposition makes ruling elites
wary, at best, and hostile, at worst, to any mobilizing processes that function outside
of its control (Saich 2000).
This explanation of state response is conceptually coherent and empirically
supported. However, substantial evidence suggests that coercive response does not
exhaust the ways in which state actors process social conflicts under
authoritarianism. State responses to contentious society have actually evolved over time and
varied significantly by localities, issues and level of government (Cai 2008; Lee and
Zhang 2013).4 Protests are frequently tolerated as long as they are localized,
unorganized and issue specific (Perry 2001). In general, local government has an
immediate pressure and responsibility to prevent contentions and conflicts from
being politically organized. The upper-level government, in contrast, might take a
tolerant stance by blaming lower-level government.
To comprehend the complexity of state response, Przeworski (2011, 2012) has
offered a schematic typology of mechanisms by which conflicts can be processed:
monistic mechanisms and pluralistic mechanisms. Monistic mechanisms imply a
combination of exhortations to unity, repression and cooptation, while pluralistic
mechanisms, typically those pluralistic elections, rely on institutional frameworks
that process conflict according to rules that can structure, absorb and regulate
conflicts. In this line of inquiry, conflicts can be regulated by systems of collective
bargaining as well as judicial systems that could individualize conflict. In
‘‘We now know that political institutions can cope with conflicts, that conflict
can be structured, regulated, and contained, that purely procedural rules can be
effective in processing conflicts without relying on force, that political
opposition may in fact improve the quality of collective decisions, that
choosing governments through reasonably competitive elections is the only
way of fostering political freedom in divided societies’’ (Przeworski 2012: 24)
4 For example, protests by state-own enterprise (SOE) workers have typically had favorable outcomes
because their actions have been ‘‘forceful’’ and widespread. In contrast, protests by laid-off workers from
relatively small urban collective enterprises have not been responded with substantial policy adjustments,
as they are unable to become a perceivable threat to legitimacy and stability (Cai 2010).
Table 1 A typology of conflict processing mechanisms
Can one expect some viable conflict processing mechanisms in an authoritarian
context where both collective bargaining system and liberal pluralistic elections are
weak or even nonexistent? According to Prezeworski, handling conflicts aims at
reaching consensus and pursuing ‘‘unity in diversity.’’ Obviously, there are a variety
of mechanisms of conflict processing stemming from difference forms power:
coercive, utilitarian and normative (Etzioni 1975, 1997). Coercive power relies on
force and sanction to make control. Utilitarian power depends on remuneration or
extrinsic rewards to control lower-level participants. Normative power functions
through allocation of intrinsic rewards. All three types of power can be useful in
obtaining subordinates’ cooperation in political process.5
This paper takes step in this direction by developing an integrated framework on
the spectrum of conflict processing. I suggest that government, assumed to be
maintaining political order and seeking a continuation of the status quo, can make
three ideal types of responses when confronted with a sociopolitical contention:
coercion, exchange and engagement. Table 1 outlines their major definitional
differences in terms of organizational form, functioning mechanisms and cost for
The first and most obvious category is coercion by which political authorities
generate compliance from the subjects with threat and punishment within their
territorial jurisdiction. Coercion shows ‘‘an effective form of power in
extensiveness, comprehensiveness and intensity’’ (Wrong 1979). Central to this mode of
action is the mobilization of security and police sector, which may dissolve the
opposition and deter future protest by raising the cost of collective action
coordination (Edmond 2013). It may also convince political leaders that it is easier
to settle the matter by force instead of conceding power or engaging disputants
through alternative approaches.
5 Similar distinction can be found in Kenneth Boulding (1989)’s classification of productive, destructive
and integrative form of power and William Gamson’s (1968) typology of inducement, constraint and
persuasion. Charles Lindblom (1977) also claims that power can be exercised through authority,
persuasion and exchange.
6 The analysis of cost in this paper is in line with the literature on the growth of domestic security regime,
which is largely measured by government spending in relevant organizational sector and programs. Cost
incurred by each type of strategy certainly has different manifestations. For example, some repressive
strategy adopted to address domestic challenges may be reprehensible to the international community,
which would bring about international pressure.
In an exchange scenario, the state accommodates a contentious society with
materialistic benefits. It demonstrates the essence of utilitarian power. As Lindblom
(1977) postulates, ‘‘exchange’’ means that one must give up something in return for
action. At the micro-level, exchange is often associated with private side payment
and benefits. It typically functions through a vertical political–material exchange
relationship or clientelistic network—‘‘a relationship based on political
subordination in exchange for material rewards’’ (Fox 1994: 153). At the policy level, the
exchange scenario can take the form of programmatic redistribution. Researchers on
welfare regime have suggested that, by offsetting the effects of poverty and
inequality in society, access to public services and welfare benefits becomes a major
means for addressing political and social instability (see for example, Svensson
et al. 2012). Enacting welfare policies can improve the living standards of citizens
and co-opt the political opposition and therefore decrease the incentives for
contentious mobilization. In other words, as the level of the government investment
in welfare policies (i.e., education, health and social security) increases, the
likelihood of sociopolitical conflict onset declines significantly (Taydas and Peksen
Whereas both coercion and exchange can be effective in preventing contentions
from being politically and collectively organized, they are relatively costly as being
devised through an outside-in approach. The cost of choosing a violently repressive
strategy is relatively high for the state, not only in financial terms, but also because
of the possible violent escalation and radicalization of contentious community that
may even collapse the current government. As Etzioni (1975, 1997) aptly analyzed,
the exercise of coercive power often ends up with ‘‘alienative involvement’’ in
which targets react with confrontation and hostility. Welfare provision, essentially a
form of utilitarian power, usually results in ‘‘calculative involvement’’—participants
may adhere to collective unity for maximizing personal gain. Therefore, without
involving change in the target actor’s underlying preferences, the operating of these
two mechanisms is unlikely to be sustainable.
Given this fact, an ‘‘engagement’’ approach characterized by a purposeful,
facilitative process of interest articulation and deliberation may be more appealing.
Engagement takes many forms, from electoral participation to legal mobilization to
social involvement. Politically, pluralistic election is a key mechanism to conflict
processing. Credible electoral processes offer a means of channeling social conflict
into respectful and peaceful deliberations. Whether or not there is an electoral
engagement certainly depends on the availability of a legitimate election rule as
well as functional oppositions. In addition to this, much can be said about the merits
of legal engagement in individualizing conflicts. As grievances are framed with
legal rights and channeled through legal mobilization, contentions become
Furthermore, engagement occurs in social setting. This implies that conflicts can
be subjected to persuasion and social interaction, which would help socialize the
grievances and prevent them from being escalated politically. This approach of
7 The rationale of giving citizen a stake in the nation by providing housing and other welfare for the sake
of social stability can also be found in the experience of Singapore, see (Chua 2002).
conflict processing is not only favored by a typical ‘‘soft authoritarian regime,’’
which relies more on the means of persuasion than on the means of coercion (Schatz
2009), but is also deeply grounded in Confucianism in the Chinese context, which
values harmony over overt conflict, and collectivity over individualism. As noted by
some observers, the practice of community-based mediation demonstrates a soft
approach of conflict management, in which cultural preference for mediation is
congruent with regime’s preference for order and stability (Wall and Blum 1991).
Simply put, whereas coercion implies imposition, exchange means induced
compliance, managing conflict through engagement shows a conceptually distinct
mechanism by which confrontational behaviors can be transformed by political,
legal and social interventions. In particular, the social engagement approach would
call for a particular role to be played by intermediate institutions—a plethora of
intermediate organizations and networks functioning between state power and social
forces (Read 2009). These agencies constitute a growing important building block
of state’s ‘‘infrastructure power’’ that can penetrate and transform social contentions
It should be noted that these mechanisms emerge and function under different
conditions and should not be viewed as isolated to each other.8 The regime may turn
to material exchange and engagement when coercive control appears to be too
costly, and engaging strategy would arguably become more effective when
combined with coercive sanctions. In practice, most rulers under authoritarianism
employ all three types of power and could lead to some hybrid form of social
control. Interestingly, coercion might take a new shape by embracing social
relations in the Chinese context. This follows that activists and protest communities
can be tamed through a pattern of ‘‘relational repression’’ in which a state-sponsored
work team based on activists’ social ties can be assembled to collapse the
mobilization (Deng and O’Brien 2012).
Each scenario of response is likely to be relevant and effective in different issues
settings. While coercive measures are instrumentally useful for raising the cost of
collective mobilization that are politically organized and large in size, they tend to
be less effective and more problematic in addressing issues that are sporadic and
small size. Facing a ‘‘fragmented contentious society,’’ where most contentions are
localized, weakly organized and issue-specific, ruling elites are more likely choose
to decentralize and individualize social conflicts through exchange and engagement
mechanisms, instead of repressive measures.
1.3 Sticks, Carrots and Beyond
The Tiananmen Incident in 1989, as well as the outbreak of the many violent
popular protests in the late 1990s, has triggered a ‘‘stability mentality’’ among
Chinese leadership, which is both reactive and proactive. The Chinese Party-state
has been seizing and retaining the initiative in managing sociopolitical challenges
8 The studies on state response and particularly state repression have coalesced around a set of
explanatory factors. Findings are mixed regarding the role of regime type, economic development and
demographic configurations (see Davenport 2007).
through ideological, institutional and policy reforms. In the late 1990s, guided by
the ‘‘three representatives’’ theory, the Party-state aimed at co-opting new elites
from private entrepreneurs, who might otherwise present a political counterforce in
the course of marketization. Since 2000s, the stability mentality has been manifested
in the agenda of ‘‘harmonious society building,’’ which explicitly addresses the
growing social inequality and unrests. In this evolutionary trajectory, both sticks
(coercive measures) and carrots (welfare provision) have been extensively applied
in resolving conflicts.
Coercive capacity remains important for the making of authoritarian
sociopolitical order. In the Chinese context, the CCP’s political and legal sector was
significantly revitalized after the Tiananmen Incidence, followed by an initiative
called ‘‘Comprehensive Management of Public Security’’ (CMPS) in 1991. CMPS
was designed to mobilize a range of party and state institutions and utilize
multifarious means to eradicate factors that endanger stability. The domestic
security sector was further strengthened after the Falun Gong Incident in 1999,
which triggered the establishment of ‘‘the Leading Small Group for Maintaining
Stability’’ at each level of government. Under this new framework, various legal,
administrative and social resources are brought together aiming at resolving conflict
more effectively. These institutional changes promoted an integrated model of state
accommodation to social unrests.9 Together, these dynamics gave rise to a
notable securitization of local governance in China, evidenced by rapid growth in
the public security expenditure and the emergence of social stability as a core
element of cadre evaluation mechanisms (Wang and Minzner 2015; Wang 2014).10
The Hu-wen administration has also been struggling for social stability and political
support by delivering social policies and welfare schemes, which reflect a political
nature of ‘‘populist authoritarianism’’ (Dickson 2005; Tang 2016). Increasingly,
economic concessions and materialistic compensation have been applied to address
social contentions on a broader canvas. For example, in responding to rural resistance,
the central government has issued edicts urging local government to lighten burdens
on the rural poor. In 1998, laws were passed to firm up peasants’ land rights by
extending their land contracts for another 30 years, which was firstly granted by the
household responsibility system. The introduction of the Minimum Standard of Living
Scheme (MSLS) in 1997 for city dwellers was mainly for reducing the dissatisfactions
of laid-off workers. The implementation of the rural MSLS in 2007 aimed at
minimizing conflicts between land-losing farmers and local governments.
An iconic strategy of stability building through welfare and benefit provision can
be found in the ‘‘socialist harmonious society building program.’’ Firstly proposed
by the Hu-Wen administration during the 2005 National People’s Congress, the idea
of harmonious society shows a deliberate state response to the problem of social
inequality. According to the official statement, a harmonious society would result in
9 This certainly includes the system of ‘‘letters and visits’’ (xinfang), an administrative system that allows
citizens to make complaints about local officials to higher levels of power, which to some degree
functions as an alternative to formal legal institutions (Minzner 2006).
10 It was estimated that the expense on domestic public security spending has been increased by 13.8%
between 2010 and 2011. In 2011, the spending reached 624,421 billion yuan, more than China’s defense
spending for the same period (Chen 2011).
lasting stability and unity, it should feature ‘‘democracy, the rule of law, equity,
justice, sincerity, amity and vitality,’’ and it will ‘‘give full scope to people’s talent
and creativity, enable all the people to share the social wealth brought by reform and
development, forge an ever closer relationship between the people and
government.’’ (Xinhua 2005). Under Hu-Wen administration, harmony became a popular
slogan in many policy fields. They addressed welfare needs of those social groups
that had been marginalized and neglected in the process of rapid economic
liberalization. As a ‘‘hegemonic project,’’ the harmonious society building has an
explicit aim to mitigate the growing social unrests, and in particular, to secure
worker’s acquiescence to the capitalist development (Hui et al. 2011).
The growth of coercive sector and social policy interventions is accompanied by
an increasing preoccupation with legal engagement. This is largely in tune with the
rhetorical emphasis on rule-by-law from the 1990s. As Peerenboom and Xin (2009)
suggested, rule of law is not incompatible with the Party-state regime, albeit not
taking a liberal–democratic form. Legal process has been comprehensively applied
in areas of labor disputes and housing-related conflicts. As a matter of fact, with the
Labor Contract Law coming into force in 2008, more and more labor disputes have
been directed into legal channel and the numbers of labor arbitration and litigation
cases have increased dramatically (Tang 2009; Trevaskes et al. 2014).11
To sum up, these strategies of conflict processing, ranging from coercive response
to welfare provision and to legal engagement, have been combined to help the
Partystate adapt to a growing contentious society. However, they are not without
challenges. For coercive interventions, it remains paradoxical that stability budgets
and growing social unrests are coexisting and even mutual reinforcing. In some poor
areas, a heavier financial burden has been caused by public security investment as the
new funding initiative engenders demands for matching funds from local government
to complete designated projects (Xie 2013). Since stability has been established as a
core in the local accountability system, local governments are motivated to use special
funds to ‘‘buy over’’ potential protestors, known as ‘‘using renminbi (the currency of
the people) to deal with contradictions within renmin (people).’’ Such a strategy is
enormously costly and it encourages more contentious actions for quick
compensation, ending up with a ‘‘vicious circle’’—the more the authorities institute efforts to
maintain stability, the more unstable society becomes (Sun et al. 2010).
Welfare provision and legal engagement have helped depoliticize many challenging
issues, in particular labor tensions and rural contentions. However, as reflected by Chan
(2008), China’s welfare intervention is aimed at reducing the tensions between poor
people and the state rather than to promote social justice, which has widened social
exclusion. When it comes to legal process, it is frequently confronted with a challenge of
11 In addition to addressing social problems through welfare programs and legal interventions, grassroots
democracy has also been advocated in the harmonious society program. The idea of village
selfgovernment and election was formally embraced in the 1982 Constitution and institutionalized by the
Organic Law of the Village Committees (experimental) in 1987. There has been enormously uneven
implementation of village committee election. Although the election, by increasing congruence between
village leaders and their constituents and by shifting the base of community power structure from
topdown coercion to bottom-up participation for the common good of the community, may theoretically
contribute to community stability, there has been enduring problem of implementation, and the election
stability nexus is far from clear.
enforcement. For example, many local officials maintain a close and even collusive
relationship with employers and thus undermine the strict standard of labor right
protection. As a result, they have ‘‘undermined legal institutions and judicial justice,
derailed legal reform, compromised the universal values of human rights and democracy
and undercut the vital sources of regime legitimacy’’ (Feng 2013:12).
1.4 Social Engagement in Action
This section empirically examines the social engagement approach—a creeping
tactic of conflict processing in urban Shanghai. To begin with, engaging
intermediate organizations as a new form of service delivery and social control
has been part of the Chinese political discourse since the 1990s. A concept of
‘‘social management’’ was raised and elaborated in the 16th and 17th CCP
Congresses in 2002 and 2007. It became a focus at the Fifth Plenary Session of the
17th Central Committee in 2010, with the resolution articulated that the general
principle of social management is ‘‘party leadership, government responsibility,
social coordination and public participation’’ (Yu 2011).
In this context, local governments have increasingly resorted to social
organizations and community networks in preserving stability (Fewsmith 2012).
This is justified by a critical reflection on the ‘‘carrot’’ and ‘‘stick’’ strategy in
stability maintenance, as noted by a former leader of the Civil Affairs Bureau in
Shanghai Municipal Government:
‘‘We must know that some unrests are associated with ethnicity and national
security, some might be driven by Western political ideology, but most others are
not. Discontent residents and workers complain about economic suffering and
demand an investigation and solution by higher levels of government. They might
appear as ‘trouble maker’, but they are not asking for a quality change of our
political system…why shall we bother to call for policing to make social order? Do
we have enough police force? Dispatching police should not become a habit of our
cadres. Too much government intervention will not be affordable in the long run,
and it could only trigger wider instability and distrust. We might learn to settle
these disputes by facilitating their problem solving and by using social resources as
much as we can. We should think seriously about the role of voluntary and
professional social organization in the making of social harmony.’’12
Such an orientation has further encouraged many community-level
experiments.13 For example, Jing’an, one of Shanghai’s most prestigious downtown
12 Interview May 13, 2005.
13 Social engagement strategy would necessitate a role played by various forms of non-state actor,
including the state-led Residents Committee (RC) as well as mass line organizations such as women’s
federation, union federation and youth league, which have been charged with the political role of
organizing youths, workers, women and members of other social sectors. In the late 1990 s, the Chinese
government began to revitalize the RC system in the scheme of ‘‘urban community building.’’ RC was
strengthened to engage community activists for delivering social services, mobilizing political support
and mediating neighborhood conflicts (Liu 2008). They are, however, often attached to and controlled by
the administrative state and fail to execute a larger social function.
areas, developed a strategy of contracting with NGO’s and community
organizations to process social conflicts. From July 2007 to December 2012, these
organizations have successfully mediated 2577 labor disputes and have solved the
wage payment dispute for 2117 migrant workers, and 165 other significant
community conflicts caused by urban gentrification (Shanghai Administration
Bureau of NGOs 2014).
A remarkable social engagement approach can be found in the practice of ‘‘Bai
Wanqing Volunteers Initiative’’ (BVI) in Shanghai. BVI was set up by Ms. Bai
Wanqing in 2006, a retried cadre and community organizer in Jing’an area.14 The
program was registered and supported by Jing’an sub-district government as a pilot
model of promoting social harmony through social organization. Since its
establishment, BVI has become a viable conflict mediation center, where a wide
assortment of community disputes was settled successfully. BVI, as articulated by
Ms. Bai, is a new approach to social harmony:
‘‘As a community social organization, we have no legal and administrative
power, but we posse the capability and obligation to building community
ties, and we may function as a bridge between government and victims. I
believe that many social conflicts are caused by policy inconsistence and
implementation problems, but victims have their problems that are often
invisible to government. People tend to be confrontational and even
irrational when dealing with government, but not with us. People can always
come to us and share their grievance and perspectives; we may bring them
to government and negotiate a better solution. There are always more
solutions than problems. And, people will of course take radical actions if
being isolated and played by bureaucratic procedures. More important, if
these victims are self-isolated in the corner, it would only reinforce their
confrontational and radical attitude. Without good communication and solid
community ties, there will be no possibility to reach a mutually satisfactory
agreement for any dispute.’’15
Such a conscious positioning helps BVI obtain support and trust from both the
local government and discontent group. In 2008, Ms. Bai was commissioned by the
Jing’an district government to help deal with the case of ‘‘abnormal petition’’ by
Ms. Jiang, a housing right activist who claimed being under compensated as her old
townhouse was demolished for urban redevelopment purposes. The case became
even more complicated and intractable with the sudden death of Ms. Jiang’s
husband after the demolition. Ms. Jiang thus devoted most of her time in organizing
14 Bai Wanqing herself was recruited as a ‘‘send-down youth’’ from Shanghai to Jiangxi Province in
1970. After returning to Shanghai in 1996, she became a director for community public relation at Jing’an
street office. According to our interviews, she obviously suffered much from the hardship of send-down
experience, but she also developed a strong grassroots mobilizing capacity (Xu et al. 2016). Actually,
thanks to the popular Shanghainese talk show ‘‘Xin Lao Niangjiu’’ by Shanghai Media Group, in which
Bai helps mediate domestic conflicts publicly, she become an iconic public figure to administer justice
and settle social dispute. See ‘‘Bai Wanqing: The most popular judge in Shanghai’’. BBC. December 7,
15 Interview July 13, 2003.
protesters to petition at high-level authorities. As her actions did not follow regular
procedures, it caused a ‘‘tight spot’’ and a political burden to grassroots government
BVI’s intervention on this typical extra-institutional dispute started with an
investigation about Ms. Jiang’s social life. According to Ms. Bai, ‘‘We are not
trying to tame trouble maker for the government, rather, we try to open new
opportunity window for the conflicting parties…. we found she was actually
struggling for a reasonable solution which is not totally unacceptable to local
government. Meanwhile, some government policies for housing compensation,
which were negotiable, were actually invisible to them.’’16 Accordingly, efforts
have been placed on addressing the communication problem and information
gap. After rounds of informal discussion and negotiations, a solution was
reached with some reasonable additional compensation aided by a
governmentsponsored charity fund. Furthermore, Ms. Bai persuaded Ms. Jiang and her peers
to join BVI as volunteers. In particular, she was assigned with a role to organize
public performance programs for elderly people in poor communities. They
offered Ms. Jiang a rare experience of interacting with a group of local artists
and volunteers in BVI. Exposure to this community has turned out to be very
transformative. In Ms. Jiang’s own words, ‘‘In BVI, there is a good social
atmosphere… we share ideas and trust with each other. My life becomes
relaxed, balanced and normalized. I got to know a lot of good friends. I am
aware that life is much more than shouting at the government.’’17In May 2011,
Ms. Jiang’s case was eventually settled with a mutual understanding and
reasonable compensation aided by the mediation of BVI.
This story of BVI and the demobilization of Ms. Jiang’s contentious behavior
may be exceptional, but it is not entirely isolated. Since 2006, BVI has been
working for meditation following a consistent strategy of communication and
socialization. It has been providing interactive opportunity for the disadvantaged
people and creating positive pressure for the government as a broker for effective
negotiation. Central in BVI’s operation is clearly a unique structure of social
interaction—a community setting where perceptions from both sides of dispute can
be compromised. From the government’s perspective, BVI has been very
instrumental in preventing social discontents from escalating into a high-profile
event. While it remains to be seen whether this approach of conflict processing can
be institutionalized in local governance and can spread to other issue settings, social
and voluntary organization’s influence on conflict settlement has been well received
by many local authorities in Shanghai.18
2 Concluding Remarks
China has been facing a myriad of unprecedented domestic security problems as it
moved into a market-based society under Hu-Wen’s administration. It is without
doubts that social transformation can trigger, fuel or sustain conflicts that would
challenge regime stability in the context of rapid marketization and urbanization.
How can we map state responses to a contentious society in the Chinese context?
Without doubting the repressive dimension of conflict management under
authoritarianism, this paper claims that a broader typology of conflict processing
mechanism can help illustrate the diversity of China’s domestic security strategy
and detect new signs of governance adaption. While the role of coercive apparatus
remains critical, and that the government never lacks coercive and materialistic
means in keeping stability, a social sector constituted by intermediate organizations
has been emerging and playing a functional role at the local level. Arguably, a more
viable conflict resolution must be a local solution reached through a structure of
social interaction and community engagement. Social engagement is particularly
relevant in mitigating conflicts that are sporadic, weakly organized but can still
reach to a point of political impact.
This paper contributes to the understanding of conflict processing under
authoritarianism by mapping three sets of conflict processing based on exchange,
coercion and engagement. In particular, we focus on the nature and dynamics of the
social engagement mechanism, which has been applied in handling small-scale,
community-based conflicts. These issues are characterized by weak organizational
resources and solidarity and are subject to a new politics of conflict transformation,
as can be found in the case of BVI in Shanghai. One of the most notable features of
these agencies is their capacity to foster cognitive transformation and interest
articulation in a more or less restrictive political context. As such, we would expect
that communities with solid intermediate institutions tend to be more stable.
Stability keeping remains a political priority in the post-Hu-Wen era. The
remarkable growth of national security consciousness since the leadership transition
in 2013 would give new life to stability maintenance. At the organizational level,
there has been a decline of influence of the Central Political and Legal Affairs
Commission with its director no longer a standing committee member of Politburo.
This would pave ways for a more sophisticated approach of domestic conflict
processing. Meanwhile, China watchers have witnessed the revival of Maoist ideas
and tactics in social problem solving—which advocates that disputes among the
people should be resolved by persuasion and education, rather than by coercion and
adjudication. With that, one may expect more experiments of social engagement at
the local level.
While conflict processing through social engagement is not without limits, it
clearly shows some new dynamics of China’s governance adaptation. Students of
Chinese politics have continued to debate ‘‘authoritarian resilience’’ in which
government actors constantly adjust policies and improve their institutional
capacities to structure the incentives of those governed in order to secure their
compliance and to gain their support. (Nathan 2003; Pei 2006; Thornton 2013; Li
2013; Teets 2013; Heilmann and Perry 2011). The fact that intermediate institutions
are engaged in settling community conflicts indicates that the Party-state can
continue to adapt from below by generating a social interaction structure. Compared
to the conventional modes of stability keeping, this approach of conflict processing
seems to be less costly and more sustainable. Of course, its dynamics and
effectiveness deserve further examination.
Chunrong Liu is Associate Professor of Political Science at the School of International Relations and
Public Affairs, Fudan University. He serves as executive director of Fudan-European Center for China
Studies at University of Copenhagen. His research interests include state–society relations, contentious
politics and collaborative governance. Chunrong Liu received a Ph.D. in applied social sciences (2005)
from City University of Hong Kong and has conducted post-doctoral research at Georgetown University.
He is also a guest researcher at Nordic Institute of Asian Studies in Copenhagen.
Ake , Claude. 1975 . A definition of political stability . Comparative Politics 7 ( 2 ): 271 - 283 .
Benney , Jonathan. 2013 . Stability maintenance at the grassroots: China's weiwen apparatus as a form of conflict resolution . LOEWE Research Focus Working Paper Series No . 8 (October). Frankfurt: Goethe University.
Boulding , Kenneth E. 1989 . Three faces of power . Newbury Park: Sage Publications.
Cai , Yongshun. 2008 . Power structure and regime resilience . British Journal of Political Science 34 : 411 - 432 .
Cai , Yongshun. 2010 . Collective resistance in China: why popular protests succeed or fail . Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Cao , Yuanzheng , et al. 1999 . From federalism , chinese style, To privatization, chinese style. Economics of Transition 7 : 103 - 131 .
Chan, Chak Kwan . 2008 . Legitimacy-driven intervention and social exclusion in China. Presented at the Conference on Welfare Reform in East Asia: Meeting the Need of Social Change , Economic Competitiveness and Social Justice , 3 - 4 November. Taipei: National Taiwan University.
Chen , Jinsheng. 2004 . Research report on mass incidents (qunti xing shijian yanjiu baogao) . Beijing: Mass Press.
Chen , Xi. 2012 . Social protest and contentious authoritarianism in China . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chen , Xiaoshu et al. 2011 . The public security accounts (gonggong anquan zhangdan) . Caijing.
Chua , Beng-Huat. 2002 . Political legitimacy and housing: Singapore's stakeholder society . London: Routledge.
Davenport , Christian. 2007 . State repression and political order . Annual Review of Political Science 10 : 1 - 23 .
Deng , Yanhua, and Kevin J. O'Brien . 2012 . Relational repression in China: using social ties to demobilize protesters . The China Quarterly 215 : 533 - 552 .
Dickson , Bruce. 2005 . Populist authoritarianism: China's domestic political scene . Paper presented at the Third American-European Dialogue on China , Washington.
Edmond , Chris. 2013 . Information manipulation, coordination and regime change . Review of Economic Studies 80 ( 4 ): 1422 - 1458 .
Etzioni , Amitai. 1975 . A Comprehensive Analysis of Complex Organizations . New York, NY : Free Press.
Etzioni , Amitai. 1997 . Modern organizations . Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Feng , Chongyi. 2013 . The dilemma of stability preservation in China . Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 42 ( 2 ): 3 - 19 .
Fewsmith , Joseph. 2012 . ' Social Management' as a way of coping with heightened social tensions . China Leadership Monitor 36 : 1 - 7 .
Fox , Jonathan. 1994 . The difficult transition from clientelism to citizenship: lessons from Mexico . World Politics 46 ( 2 ): 151 - 184 .
Freeman , Will. 2010 . The accuracy of China's 'mass incidents' . Financial Times.
Gamson , William A. 1968 . Power and discontent . Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey.
Go¨bel, Christian and Ong Lynette . 2012 . Social Unrest in China . Europe-China Research and Advice Network.
Heilmann , Sebastian, and Elizabeth J. Perry . 2011 . Mao's invisible hand: the political foundation of adaptive governance in China . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hillman , Ben, and Gray Tuttle (eds.). 2016 . Ethnic conflict and protest in Tibet and Xinjiang: unrest in China's West . New York: Columbia University Press.
Ho , Peter. 2001 . Greening without conflict? Environmentalism, NGOs, and civil society in China . Development & Change 32 ( 5 ): 893 - 921 .
Hui , Elaine Sio-leng , and Chris king-chi Chan. 2011 . The 'harmonious society' as a hegemonic project: labour conflicts and changing labour policies in China . Labour, Capital and Society 44 ( 2 ): 154 - 183 .
Hurwitz , Leon. 1973 . Contemporary approaches to political stability . Comparative Politics 5 ( 3 ): 449 - 463 .
Lee , Ching Kwan , and Zhang Yonghong . 2013 . The power of instability: unraveling the microfoundations of bargained authoritarianism in China . American Journal of Sociology 118 ( 6 ): 1475 - 1508 .
Li , Cheng. 2013 . The end of the CCP's resilient authoritarianism? A tripartite assessment of shifting power in China . The China Quarterly 211 : 595 - 623 .
Li , Lianjiang, and Kevin J. O'Brien . 2008 . Protest leadership in rural China . The China Quarterly 193 : 1 - 23 .
Li , Lianjiang, Mingxing Liu , and Kevin J. O'Brien . 2012 . Petition Beijing: the high tide of 2003-2006 . The China Quarterly 210 : 313 - 334 .
Lindblom , Charles E. 1977 . Politics and markets: The World's Political-Economic Systems . New York : Basic Books.
Liu , Chunrong. 2008 . Empowered autonomy: the politics of community governance innovation in Shanghai . Chinese Public Administration Review 5 ( 1-2 ): 61 - 71 .
Liu , Jianqiang. 2013 . China's new 'middle class' environmental protests . ChinaDialogue . https://www. chinadialogue.net.
Lorentzen , Peter. 2013 . Regularizing rioting: permitting public protest in an authoritarian regime . Quarterly Journal of Political Science 8 : 127 - 158 .
Minzner , Carl. 2006 . Xinfang: an alternative to formal Chinese legal institutions . Stanford Journal of International Law 42 : 103 - 179 .
Nathan , Andrew J. 2003 . China's changing of the guard: authoritarian resilience . Journal of Democracy 14 ( 1 ): 6 - 17 .
O 'Brien, Kevin J. , and Lianjiang Li . 2005 . Popular contention and its impact in rural China . Comparative Political Studies 38 : 235 - 259 .
Peerenboom , Randall, and He Xin . 2009 . Dispute resolution in China: patterns, causes and prognosis . East Asia Law Review 4 : 1 - 61 .
Pei , Minxin. 2006 . China's trapped transition: the limits of developmental autocracy . Mass: Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Perry , Elizabeth. 2001 . Challenging the mandate of heaven: popular protest in modern China . Critical Asian Studies 33 ( 2 ): 163 - 180 .
Przeworski , Adam. 2011 . Divided we stand? Democracy as a method of processing conflicts . Scandinavian Political Studies 34 ( 2 ): 168 - 182 .
Przeworski , Adam. 2012 . Conflict processing mechanisms . Paper Presented at the Shanghai Forum 2012 . Fudan: Fudan University.
Read , Benjamin. 2009 . State-linked associational life: illuminating blind spots of existing paradigms . In Local organizations and urban governance in east and southeast Asia: straddling state and society , edited Benjamin L. Read with Robert Pekkanen, 1 - 26 . Abingdon: Routledge.
Saich , Tony. 2000 . Negotiating the state: the development of social organizations in China . China Quarterly 163 : 124 - 141 .
Schatz , Edward. 2009 . The soft authoritarian Tool kit . Comparative Politics 41 ( 2 ): 203 - 222 .
Shanghai Administration Bureau of NGOs . 2014 . An effective way to manage social conflict by social organization in Jing'an (Jingan qu shehui zuzhi huajie shehui maodun xianchengxiao) . http://stj.sh. gov.cn/Info.aspx? ReportId=87a23fae-be69-4ee7-8d1e-0d0c39986b16 . Accessed 23 Sep 2015 .
Sun , Liping et al. 2010 . Pursuing Lasting Stability through the institutionalization of interest articulation (yi liyi biaoda cujin shehui de changzhijiuan) . Social development forum . Beijing: Department of Sociology, Tsinghua University.
Su , Yang, and He Xin . 2010 . Street as courtroom: state accommodation of labor protest in south China . Law and Society Review 47 ( 4 ): 703 - 738 .
Sun , Yanfei, and Dingxin Zhao . 2008 . Environmental Campaigns . In Popular protest in China, ed. Kevin J. O'Brien , 144 - 162 . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Svensson , Ma˚ns, et al. 2012 . Welfare as a means for political stability: a law and society analysis . European Journal of Social Security 14 ( 2 ): 64 - 85 .
Tang , Wenfang. 2009 . Rule of law and dispute resolution in China: evidence from survey data . China Review 9 ( 1 ): 73 - 96 .
Tang , Wenfang. 2016 . Populist authoritarianism: Chinese political culture and regime sustainability . New York, NY : Oxford University Press.
Tanner , Murray Scott . 2004 . China rethinks unrest . The Washington Quarterly 27 ( 3 ): 137 - 156 .
Taydas , Zeynup, and Dursun Peksen . 2012 . Can states buy peace? Social welfare spending and civil conflicts . Journal of Peace Research 49 ( 2 ): 273 - 287 .
Teets , Jessica C. 2013 . Let many civil societies bloom: the rise of consultative authoritarianism in China . The China Quarterly 213 : 19 - 38 .
Tong , Yanqi, and Shaohua Lei . 2010 . Large-scale mass incidents and government responses in China . International Journal of China Studies 1 ( 2 ): 487 - 508 .
Tong , Yanqi, and Shaohua Lei . 2013 . Social protest in contemporary China , 2003 - 2010 : transitional pains and regime legitimacy . London: Routledge.
Thornton , Patricia M. 2013 . The advance of the party: transformation or takeover of urban grassroots society? The China Quarterly 203 : 1 - 18 .
Trevaskes , Susan , et al. (eds.). 2014 . The politics of law and stability in China . Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Wall , Jr, A. James , and M. Blum . 1991 . Community mediation in the People's Republic of China . Journal of Conflict Resolution 35 : 3 - 20 .
Wang , Yuhua. 2014 . Coercive capacity and the durability of the chinese communist state . Communist and Post-Communist Studies 47 ( 1 ): 13 - 25 .
Wang , Yuhua, and Carl Minzner . 2015 . The rise of the security state . The China Quarterly 222 : 339 - 359 .
Wrong , Denis H. 1979 . Power: its forms, bases and uses . Oxford: Blackwell.
Xie , Yue. 2012 . The political logic of weiwen in contemporary China . Issues and Studies 48 : 1 - 41 .
Xie , Yue. 2013 . Rising central spending on public security and the dilemma facing grassroots officials in China . Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 42 ( 2 ): 79 - 110 .
Xinhua. 2005 . Building harmonious society crucial for China's progress . http://en.people.cn/200506/27/ eng20050627_192495.html. Accessed 27 Jun.
Xu , Zhongzhen, Yang Xiong , and Liu Chunrong . 2016 . Bai Wanqing Phenomenon - Chinese Society along the Huangpu River (Bai Wanqing xianxiang: huangpujiang bian de zhongguo shehui) . Shanghai: Shanghai People's Press.
Yang , Dali. 2017 . China's troubled quest for order: leadership, organization and the contradictions of the stability maintenance regime . The Journal of Contemporary China 103 : 35 - 53 .
Yu , Keping. 2011 . A shift towards social governance in China . Eastasiaforum. http://www.eastasiaforum. org/ 2011 /09/ 09/a-shift-towards-social-governance-in-china/ . Accessed 9 Sept.