Mass Incidents and Information Openness

Here is my translation of the essay:-

“In the last couple of days, discussion of the mass incident of Weng’an county citizens besieging government quarters has been boiling over the internet forums.

It should be said perhaps, that mass incidents and gossips are twin brothers. From the ancient past to the present, whenever something happens, chances are that rumors will be spawned. The end result of such communications is that the rumors get farther and farther away from the truth. Still, such rumors are usually oriented in one direction. If many things happen in a certain place, and rumors are all directed against government, then it is clear that there are problems in the relationship between the local government and the public.

For example, many on-the-spot mass incidents surround a similar and age-old theme – government officials and their relatives bullying ordinary citizens, or even causing their deaths in extreme cases, and the latter being done injustice by police and the judiciary. Of course, in any individual case, whether such things actually happened is another question. But there must be cases which are similar to the one in question. Even if such cases may not be the most obnoxious, but the case of officials and their families abusing their power cannot possibly be an isolated one.

In present-day China, in the matter of institutionalizing and legalizing governmental deeds, and curtailing officials’ peremptory power, rendering the actions of officials including the police and judiciary departments accountable and open and subject to procedures, there is still a long way to go. We may anchor our hopes for the ultimate elimination of such mass incidents on future governmental reforms. But the pressing question is how to deal with them, which would be the most severe test for local governments.

As a matter of fact, if government wants to control and calm down such mass incidents, there are many resources that it can deploy. But more often than not, such cases end up getting blown out of all proportion, and the cause for this has everything to do with government’s mishandling. The first mistake is that the authorities fail to take immediate action at the first opportunity; they shrug off responsibility or even inappropriately use high-handed repressive tactics, thus allowing a small incident to be amplified unnecessarily. The second mistake, which is critical, is whenever a mass incident occurs, for the local government to react in a habitual way and shut down all information sources, forbidding reporters to access the scene and not allowing any news to go out. These days, if a mass incident is blown up to such an extent that it gets totally out of control, it usually has something to do with this latter mistake.

This act of closing down news sources and this kind of government internal procedures may be effective in the old era when information did not flow freely and when government, under the then organizational structure, was able to exercise total control over society. It was possible to contain an incident within a small boundary so that it wouldn’t have a full-blown impact on the whole society, thus saving some face for government. But in the present age of highly developed communication and information technology, it is virtually impossible for government or any organization to hide anything that has some significance – people will find a way to get to it. Government’s deliberate control and curtailing will only benefit the mushrooming of gossips, or even have the effect of further twisting the rumors, which might grow in the direction that is hurtful to government. In the first place, many incidents emanate from the public’s belief that officials are prone to watching each other’s back by concealing the truth. Thus government’s first reaction to an incident of clamping down on information flow will only illustrate that the public’s suspicion is warranted. It may even magnify their distrust in government to such an extent that their mob emotions are roused and the incident turns ugly. On the other hand, if such incidents do involve misdeeds or even crimes committed by government officials, this kind of clamp-down and control will only give leeway to them to escape justice. Basically, not only is such an act an inefficient way of management, it is also not conducive to good governance in the long term.

Therefore, the urgent thing to do in case of a mass incident is for government to get rid of its old habit of doing things, truly engage in open administrative practices, and learn to deal with issues in the face of a free press. This way, misdeeds in government’s internal structure can be minimized, while the harm caused by rumors can also be kept to a minimum. All gossips cannot stand the light of day. Once an incident gets reported by the press, many rumors will naturally end.”