Friday, May 14, 2010

Durkheimian Democracy in China?

It is difficult to ponder the facts, let alone the meaning of acts like the recent string of lethal attacks on kindergartens and other schools for young children in China by knife wielding middle aged men (mostly, a woman tried yesterday). Edward Wong's reporting for the New York Times on this story this week included interesting speculation from a Chinese sociologists.

“They choose children because it’ll have the largest negative impact on society,” said Tang Jun, a sociologist in Beijing. He said the attackers did not appear to know their victims personally, so the assaults “must be an expression of their dissatisfaction with society.”

If so it may reflect the counter cycle to the Chinese state's use of punishment (and the death penalty in particular) as a means of trying to be "responsive" to the people in one of the few areas of life where government can take acts that are presumptively in line with popular sentiments but which keeps the state in total control.

This is a different kind of phenomenon than I described in the US context as "governing through crime." Here, after the political turmoil of the 1960s, crime became a privileged framework within which political leadership could govern with legitimacy to respond to the multiple and contradictory demands of a flawed but clearly real democracy. The Chinese model appears to trade more on Durkheim's insight that crimes assault the most deeply shared values of a society and therefore define and re-inscribe its common purpose. In China, where state leaders have chosen to pursue modernization without democracy, crime provides an opportunity for government to act on deeply shared values.

These attacks suggest that individuals can also choose to play the Durkheim card. In a society with little means for holding the state accountable, an individual could choose to commit a crime to shame the state and expose its inability to protect core social values. Since Chinese culture venerates very young children, and China's one child policy makes them particularly acute focus of their parents, the murder of children is a way to shock the deepest chords of the collective conscience. As Wong points out, the Chinese state is already in some trouble in this area.

The senseless suffering of children has become something of an Achilles’ heel for President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. They have presided over an extraordinary economic expansion and a rapid rise in China’s global influence. But they have not been able to keep tainted infant formula off grocery store shelves or to account for why so many public school buildings collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing more than 5,000 children.

It is interesting that in response to one of the attacks, the Chinese authorities quickly executed a man convicted of a similar attack only a month earlier. But this classically Durkheimian way of closing the cycle and reinscribing social authority may not be working. According to Wong's latest reporting, one of the top Chinese leaders himself spoke on the issue, and promised an investigation into the social problems underlying the attack.

“Apart from taking powerful security measures, we also need to solve the deeper reasons behind this issue, including resolving social tensions, reconciling disputes and enhancing mediation at the grass-roots level,” he said. “We are sparing no effort in all of the above works.”

The quote from Premier Wen Jiabao seems to suggest the government may want to break out of the crime frame into deeper social issues, something quite different from the American dynamic.

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