Friday, April 20, 2018

Cleanse the Temple! Buddhist Monks versus Local Officials in China

Sometimes social science is born from observing simple puzzles. Consider this one: In China, many attractive temples charge admission fees that are obviously higher than is needed for maintenance and the feeding of monks, but other temples do not. What is going on? The fees are for the local government, which sees a famous temple as a way to get revenue without taxing the local people. But what is convenient for the local government is a moral outrage for the monks and many locals, who will sometimes successfully mobilize against the fees. The interesting question is why they can defeat the fee-collecting government officials sometimes but not always. 

In a recent article in Administrative Science Quarterly, Lori Qingyuan Yue, Jue Wang, and Botao Yang look at this question to find out how popular movements based on moral and religious principles contend with pressures from the government and market forces. The battle is unequal because the government has the power of formal authority and markets have the persuasive power of money. The popular movement has none of these, only moral outrage. The contention is particularly unequal in an authoritarian state, where outrage does not translate into power through elections, and illegal forms of protest can be dealt with harshly.

The answer to this question, like many questions about society, lies in how organizations work. The government organization is one side of the story, and there the main issue is that it has many layers – local and central parts of the state. The central state cannot govern locales effectively and prefers to stay away, but it also wants economic development and social peace. Knowing this, the local government officials can ratchet up fees when their areas are economically backward, but they need to reduce them when the protests are loud enough to catch the attention of the central state.

The other side of the story is the organization of protests. Here, the religious leaders did the obvious thing – founded an organization with the specific goal of reducing fees. But protesters don’t just make their own organizations, they also use existing ones. Here, the press was used, though in an authoritarian state the companies that hire journalists and publish newspapers or TV programs are not the most useful. They are too accountable to the state to be able to do much. Instead, the effective organizations are the providers of social media, because they allow the protestors to make themselves heard both by other potential protestors and by the state, which monitors social media protests to understand social unrest and censor its expression. 

So a battle may look like a contest between a union of markets and local governments on the one side and the moral outrage of individuals on the other, but that is not its true nature. There are organizations on both sides, and this is true for any conflict that each side really wants to win.

As I suggested in the title, the conflict between markets and morality is an old one. Two gospels mention Jesus driving merchants out of the temple and overturning their tables. It is a good story, but it is no longer how conflicts are won. People don’t get results; organizations do.