Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Democracy for Strength

In 2005 I made a radio documentary about Falun Gong, a Chinese religious group banned in China. Falun Gong practitioners are scattered over dozens of countries but the movement is called an "evil cult" by the Chinese government and there have been allegations of torture and religious persecution by the authorities. Over the course of researching for the documentary I kept coming across a phrase repeated again and again by the Chinese government: social stability. From the Chinese Embassy to the United States website:

As an evil force, the Falun Gong cult has disrupted social stability, endangered the safety of the State and damaged the bodies and minds of those who believe in it. The official ban and investigations into its crimes are significant steps towards rooting out Falun Gong. But additional efforts need to be made in order to wipe out the hotbeds for cults.

And from China.org.cn, a state-authorised website:

Before the ban, Chinese across the country had expressed their deep concern over the cult's harmful affect on families, the health of the Falun Gong practitioners themselves, China's social stability as well as its illegal profits made by the ringleaders headed by Li Zhongzhi, the official said....

In April 1999, He Zuoxiu, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, contributed an essay to a journal published by the Education College of the Tianjin Normal University that criticized the cult....

The government's ban and crackdowns on the Falun Gong Cult have legal basis and are meant to safeguard social stability and protect people's life and property - which is the government's main responsibility, he stressed. A cult is a social cancer, he said.

Some observers have pointed to disastrous civil wars in Chinese history, often sparked by religious fanaticism, as motivation for the government's fear of Falun Gong. Yet "social stability" permeates Chinese government language and just days ago the CCP referenced it during its latest Five-Year Plan:

Moreover, president of the Supreme People's Court Wang Shengjun pledged in his NPC report that the courts would "diligently uphold social harmony and stability". "We will strengthen and be innovative about social management so as to bolster social harmony and stability," Wang said. "We will severely punish criminal activities that jeopardize state security and social stability."

Meanwhile China's Foreign Ministry said it hoped Libya would "restore social stability and normalcy as soon as possible". This obsession with stability seems to be used as a justification for oppressive politics in China, like the prohibition of Falun Gong.

Yet the unrest in Arab autocracies show how vulnerable those states which prioritise stability can be. Mubarak's Egypt had 100,000 secret police agents, with an estimated 300,000 informers, yet it failed to stand up to popular protest. Decades of oppressive Ba’athist rule in Syria, designed to create stability with an iron fist, may be about to collapse.

Meanwhile fairly low-income democracies like Indonesia, Malaysia, Bosnia and Herzegovina seem to have escaped the revolutions. Far from securing stability, oppressive government policies may endanger it. Liberal democracies have a modern history of high stability with power changing hands peacefully at regular elections. Perhaps the Chinese government should reconsider their antipathy towards "Western" democracy, if stability really is their concern.


  1. Hmmm, sounds like stability is just as euphemism for control here.

  2. Possibly it is both an excuse for domination and a legitimate concern. I talked to a representative of the Chinese Embassy who warned that China's size made instability there a problem for the whole world. With a bloody modern history of civil wars, invasion and the chaotic Cultural Revolution, there may be real concern about keeping the peace, defending the collective good at the expense, if necessary, of individual rights. But yes, it could also be an attempt to legitimise autocracy.


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