Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Friday, July 18, 2008

Protesting Sichuan parents detained

Here's a report from Radio Free Asia on police detentions of parents protesting shoddy school construction. Although some predicted a new era of openness and citizen activism following the tremendous social response to the Sichuan earthquake, the government seems to have reverted quickly to form, with local authorities suppressing inquiries into the cause of widespread school collapses and the central government standing by, complicit certainly in effect and probably in intent.

The parents of children killed in school collapses are going to be very difficult to deal with. Many feel that having lost their only children, they have nothing else left to lose. I think it's very likely that some number of them - how many, it's impossible to know, but certainly more than a negligible number - will become diehard petitioners: the type who simply won't give up no matter what the government tries by way of threats and cajolery, even though there is no possibility that the government will yield. The authorities have already brought out the "emotionally unstable" label; is this a sign that obstreperous parents may ultimately disappear into what purports to be a psychiatric facility?

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I don't think anyone was predicting a "new era of [political] openness" following the earthquake. What we were suggesting was that the private sector response to the earthquake suggests that Chinese 'civil society' could be more developed (in its capacity to organize independent of government) then we heretofore recognize. But nobody claimed, as far as I recall, that the government had capitulated or would readily capitulate to this development.

Posted by: Mike Dowdle | Jul 18, 2008 11:02:17 PM

Mike, I think this is somewhat splitting hairs. For a typical example of the kind of thing I'm talking about, see Simon Elegant, "China: Roused by Disaster," Time, May 22, 2008. My characterization of the predictions doesn't specify who is going to be responsible; it just says that it's going to happen. But I would go further now and say that a prediction that civil society will develop in direction X in China necessarily involves a prediction that the government will allow it to develop in direction X - either that, or a prediction that that the entire governmental system will be overthrown. I did not see the latter type of prediction.

I don't know what, if anything, you personally predicted, so this is not a comment on anything you said. I do think that as a general matter there are many people who believe that China's future path involves developing a vibrant civil society with active NGOs along Western lines, and so are constantly on the lookout for signs that this development is finally occurring. Thus, even small things are invested with great significance that is derived from their perceived part in a larger story (somewhat like the "sprouts of capitalism" issue that obsessed Chinese Marxist historians for so long). Of course, no fact is inherently significant apart from its place in some larger story in which we place it. But I do sometimes wonder about this particular story.

Posted by: Don Clarke | Jul 20, 2008 2:19:25 AM

"But I would go further now and say that a prediction that civil society will develop in direction X in China necessarily involves a prediction that the government will allow it to develop in direction X - either that, or a prediction that that the entire governmental system will be overthrown."

We are in profound disagreement here (which means I'm back to being wrong again, bummer), and I guess that was my principal point was of my first comment. At least some of us believe that in the long run, to the extent that civil society does develop in direction X, it will not be because the government 'allowed' it to do so, but because -- over the long rune -- it could not stop it. Will that result in the government begin 'overthrown'? Almost by definition. But the 'overthrow' could still be gradual, a process of replacing one part of the system at a time, ultimately resulting in a new system, but without a foundational discontinuity in the overall structure (a'la the French Revolution) or its political identity (a'la the American 'revolution') -- kind of like how the American government of the Founders was gradually 'overthrown' by the successive introduction of Jacksonian populism, political parties, administrative government, and the imperial presidency.

Posted by: Mike Dowdle | Jul 20, 2008 4:08:36 AM

I'm sorry, but again I think you're splitting hairs. By "allow" I just mean "not violently repress". I don't mean the government has to like it. Let's get back to the basic question that started this. There were, on one side, predictions after the earthquake that something fundamental would change about Chinese civil society and its relationship to the state, and that the earthquake response was the start of a major growth in the power of civil society (Scenario A). There were, on the other side, assertions that these predictions were wrong; that what we saw was only temporary, and that the pre-earthquake order would soon reassert itself (Scenario B). (If one tries hard enough, one can find some way of interpreting these predictions in a way that makes them mutually consistent, but I think it's pretty clear that there were two opposing schools of thought on this.) I did not go into print with either prediction, and so I am not claiming I got it right and others got it wrong. Nor will it serve any purpose to say here what I thought to myself at the time. I do think that events have shown that those who predicted Scenario B were right. This does not mean that Chinese society will never change. It just means that the earthquake will not go down in history as marking a major turning point in the history of state-society relations in China.

Posted by: Don Clarke | Jul 20, 2008 9:05:33 PM

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