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Tsinghua Professor: China Is Heading to Accelerated Social Decay

[Editor’s Note: Tsinghua University Professor Sun Liping criticizes the government’s effort to maintain stability at any cost. He believes that the biggest threat to China is not social unrest, but social decay. Professor Sun believes that the current effort to maintain stability is intended to protect China’s special interests groups. Many Chinese websites carried the article. The following are excerpts from the article.] [1]

Currently many people are concerned about social friction, conflicts, and mass protests in China. They worry about any major social upheaval. However, the fact is, the biggest threat to Chinese society may not be social unrest, but social decay.

Social unrest refers to serious social conflicts threatening the basic framework of the governing regime and system. Social decay refers to functional failure of the society as a whole. Using an analogy, social unrest is like a healthy body that is injured but will recover, while social decay is like a serious disease.

The opposite of social unrest is a stable society, and the opposite of social decay is a healthy society. Although the pair are usually related, we need to understand the difference. The current problem is that misjudgment of the former has become an obstacle to curing the latter. It is as if a cancer patient needs surgery, but the doctor has misdiagnosed a serious heart condition and says the patient is unable to withstand the operation. It may be that the patient actually does not have heart disease, or that his heart problem is relatively minor. However, this misjudgment of the former will undoubtedly impact the treatment of the latter.

In the past decade, because we overestimated the possibility of instability and social crises, we were told that stability outweighs everything else. With this mindset, stability seems to have the ultimate power to deny everything, and everything must give way to stability. As a result, many good things are not doable. Every country could have found destabilizing factors had it deliberately looked for them the way that China does, but only China has adopted the stability-above-all practice and established an agency called the “Stability Maintenance Office.”

In the process of reform over the past 30 years, although we established the basic framework of a market economy, state power is still the backbone of our society. Therefore, social decay has first manifested in the disintegration of state power; corruption is simply its outward expression. Government power has no external constraints (from citizens), nor is it controlled from within. Prior to this, despite the lack of external constraints, the internal control of government power was relatively effective. Several years ago, as authority weakened, a joke had it that the central government could not extend its policies outside of Zhongnanhai (the central government compound). Local governing powers and regional government agencies’ powers lack any constraints from higher authorities or monitoring from lower levels. They also lack other departments that do checks and balances. This means that state power is fragmented and officials are not responsible for their work. They secure and promote their own power at the cost of government interests (not to mention society’s).

Such social decay has spread to all areas of social life: hidden rules have become prevalent in society, and they have become people’s formula for success. Society has lost its bottom line and morality has decayed; powerful interest groups have become reckless, causing a serious erosion of social equity and justice; society’s information systems are highly distorted, statistical data is faked. “Villages misinform townships, townships misinform the county, and this goes all the way up to the State Council.”

We are rapidly losing our social identity and social cohesion. The fire at the CCTV building during the (2010) Lantern Festival caused several billion in damage. On the Internet, however, some made gloating comments rather than expressing sadness or sympathy. People are showing some indescribable pleasure.

Society has lost its ability to think long term. Vested interest groups formed in crony capitalism emphasize the present. They lack any sense of responsibility to future generations. The noble spirit of detachment and transcendence of past emperors is absent in today’s leaders. In our society, a tendency to exaggerate short-term issues and ignore long-term behavioral disorders co-exist. We over emphasize all the immediate problems and flatly ignore concerns for future generations and long-term development.

Why aren’t the anti-corruption measures effective? It reflects a trade-off from the vested interests group’s point of view. Throughout society, there is a trade-off between corruption and the implementation of anti-corruption measures, the question being, which one is more terrible? Over the years, efforts to fight corruption have stayed at the basic level of warnings; none of the substantive anti-corruption measures have been implemented.

Maintaining vested interests is a tiring task; we have spent too much energy and resources on it. In order to maintain vested interests, we have to suppress freedom of speech. Just think how much energy and resources we have squandered in order to suppress freedom of speech! In order to maintain vested interests, we have to do everything possible to bypass democracy. How much effort have we invested in coming up with excuses to avoid democracy?

Maximizing vested interests and maintaining the normal social order at the same time is a daunting task. Our system is consequently very tired, managers of the system are very tired, and the psychological burden on the system and its administrators is very heavy. More importantly, in order to preserve vested interests, we as a community have to pay a more far-reaching price. For example, why are we so openly against universal values? What is it about universal values that makes us so angry? The truth is that it is democracy and freedom, because democracy and freedom threaten those vested interests. Since it is not honorable to directly criticize freedom and democracy, we have to attack universal values instead. In today’s society, with faith lacking and with lowered morals, we can imagine the result of criticizing universal values, but in order to protect vested interests, we have had to.

The root cause of social decay is the formation of crony capitalism. In the past people considered power and the market as diametrically opposed, but now, in China, we see them combined. It is like when two people that everyone thinks are not compatible get married. They not only end up married, but they have a very good life together.

The different measures needed to “maintain stability” have made it impossible to improve our communities and have further exacerbated social decay. Social unrest can be dealt with by “maintaining stability,” but social decay is a more difficult problem.

When corruption becomes a way of life, when corruption becomes an understandable value, when corruption becomes something that everyone loves and hates, then everyone’s social life becomes abnormal. History will prove that “maintaining stability” is not only overriding everything; it is likely to destroy everything.  This rigid idea of “stability above all else” will nip in the bud any effort that leads to a healthy nation.

China’s reform came with prenatal defects, the result of several forces working together. These forces included people’s desire to improve their economic situation, intellectuals’ desire to change the status quo, and, in fact, the more powerful force of those who lost power during the Cultural Revolution to return to the center of power.

The latter included two groups. The first group wanted to go back to the 17 years before the Cultural Revolution (1949-1966). The second wanted China to become a new civilization. Reform during the early 1980s was under the control of the second group. At that time, people in power were full of confidence, because the reform they brought about was such a contrast to the absurdity of the Cultural Revolution. This confidence resulted in the open-minded policies of the 80s. However, the appearance of open-mindedness concealed the reform’s fundamental flaw, which is that the goals of the “new civilization” have no real values.

Today, maintaining stability has evolved into means of protecting the existing patterns of vested interests groups.

[1] People’s Daily Online, Sichuan channel, February 16, 2011