Beijing may be slowly learning that repression is not always the answer

By Frank Ching

“Stability is of overriding importance” was a phrase used by Deng Xiaoping many times in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square military crackdown in 1989. The then paramount leader felt that China’s top priority was economic development, and that nothing should be allowed to get in the way. China’s current leaders evidently feel pretty much the same way. The authorities see all protests as threats to the social order and the Communist Party has set up “stability preservation offices” across the country to monitor disturbances. Things have developed to such an extent that for the last two years the domestic security budget for “maintaining stability” has exceeded the budget for defense. That is to say, greater priority is put on suppressing internal dissent than on opposing external foes. The problem is that all this repression is likely to be counterproductive. As Yu Jianrong, director of the Center for Studies on Social Conflicts at the Institute of Rural Development of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has said, “in the name of ‘maintaining stability,’ even if the actions of lower-level government are illegal, higher levels of government are forced to forgive it.” This, it appears, is what happened in the case of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng, who was illegally confined to his home for years by local Shandong authorities while the central government took no action despite widespread international media reportage.

The “barefoot lawyer” had antagonized Shandong officials through his exposure of abuses in the family planning policy, with allegations of forced abortions. Ironically, another case of forced abortion has recently caused Chinese authorities to take action against abusive officials. A 27-year-old woman in Shaanxi province, Feng Jianmei, was injected with a chemical to induce an abortion by local family planning officials. She already had a 5-year-old daughter, so the pregnancy was a violation of the one-child policy. Photos of the woman and the aborted baby’s body were circulated online, sparking public outrage.

But now, the official Xinhua News Agency has reported, Chinese officials have apologized to the woman, three local officials have been suspended, and a team has been sent from the provincial capital to Zhenping county to investigate the incident.