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A sea of dissent: nonviolent waves in China

What are the lasting sources of discontent that are driving an increase in protest? What tactics are Chinese activists employing and how have nonviolent actors adapted in the face of severe government persecution?

A crowd in Beijing during the Jasmine Revolution in 2011. Wikimedia Commons/JerryofWong. Some rights reserved.

In 2010, Chinese sociologist, Sun Linping, estimated that the number of mass incidents across China had surpassed 180,000 that year, more than doubling from 2006. This indicates growing discontent in the world’s most populous non-democracy, unrest that the regime has treated with corresponding repression. In 2013 China’s internal security budget reached 124 billion dollars, exceeding military allocations. This awesome internal security spending implies the regime’s trepidation about what is predominantly nonviolent resistance. But what are the lasting sources of discontent that drive this increase in protest? What tactics are Chinese activists employing and how have nonviolent actors adapted in the face of severe government persecution?

The most universal source of discontent in China is illegal demolition and eviction, a byproduct of rapid development and urbanization. Corrupt local officials profit from illegal development deals and brutally crack down on resistance; adding to widespread claims of arbitrary detention and invasion of privacy. Land and labor abuses stem from official impunity, incentives for rapid development, a party controlled union, and limited rights for migrant workers because of the hukou, the local registration system. China reports more than 250 million migrant workers who leave countryside homes in search of work. They are often greeted with a litany of labor violations. Official impunity and the lack of judicial independence affords aggrieved Chinese villagers and workers minimal institutional recourse. Labor arbitration is less popular than strikes or protests, but this often remains locality-specific. Meanwhile boycotts are frequently nationalistic and often target Japanese products.

Chinese activists have turned to the media to publicize their grievances and voices within the media have become activists, alongside an emboldened netizen community, to challenge propaganda and make claims against censorship, coupled with discontent over the lack of freedom of expression. In January 2013, a censored message in the Southern Weekend newspaper sparked massive material and digital resistance. Such information-based grievances have slowly created activists within the previously apolitical middle class, traditionally acquiescent to economic liberalization. Treating much discontent as politically interrelated, Chinese citizens have issued demands for civil society empowerment. Most recently Xu Zhiyong, who was later arrested in July 2013, called for a ‘New Citizen’s Movement.’ While many Chinese activists and scholars have remained skeptical of these claims gaining sustainable national traction, environmental and public health grievances are seen by some as having the greatest opportunity for more enduring mobilization. This array of loosely connected, deeply felt grievances has produced a diverse repertoire of resistance tactics. 

Publically inscribed resistance 

Publically inscribed resistance is prevalent. Petitioning, despite frequently lead to arbitrary detention or torture, is by far the most popular means for protesting land rights violations but is also a common tactic for expressing other grievances, from official corruption to government transparency. In 2008, there were an estimated 10 million petitioners across China. Petitioners mostly arise from poorly educated villagers, but sometimes develop into professional rights defenders. Hanging banners is common among both village and urban neighborhood committees to broadcast myriad grievances, such as in early 2013 when activists, including later arrested Zhao Changqing, unfurled banners in Beijing calling on government transparency. Activists in Guangdong and elsewhere seized the spotlight of the 2008 Olympic Torch Relay to hang posters challenging China’s Human Rights Record. Civil society activists including academics, journalists, and lawyers, have relied more on signed public statements and open letters such as Charter 08, which called for greater political liberalization and lead to the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo in 2008; Liu later won the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Collective action such as protests, strikes, sit-ins, blockades, marches, and teach-ins are widespread. On 6 March 2006 several thousand workers at a textile plant in Yunnan Province went on strike demanding participation in company restructuring while two years earlier 6,000 women workers protested the privatization of a textile factory in Guangdong.  In 2004 hundreds of villagers, representing 150,000 inhabitants, around the Hanyuan Reservoir Area in Sichuan banded together to protest forced relocation and blockaded several villages. Police later opened fire killing 17 and wounding 40. While marches are infrequent in China, the Wukan incident began with a march of 5,000 villagers to Liufeng city to stage a sit-in during the early days of the protests over stolen land, which precipitated the now famous election. Upwards of 200 individuals, in July 2013, staged a two-week sit-in at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing demanding greater transparency or participation in China’s human rights reporting to the UN. Many activists from villagers to lawyers, often with the assistance of domestic or international NGOs, hold teach-ins to share grievances and exchange strategies for resistance. Despite scattered attempts to emulate the Arab Spring, the Chinese Jasmine Revolution of 2011 never took off. Critical activists and scholars are in agreement that this scale of national collective action is a long way off in China. 

Symbolic resistance

Symbolic resistance such as political mourning or politicized grave visitation, hunger strikes, and costumes or theater are not unknown in China. In 2011 Chengdu officials detained known activist Chen Yunfei as he prepared to travel to Beijing to pay his respects to former premier Zhao Ziyang, known for being sympathetic to the 1989 pro-democracy student movement, and in 2012 police in Beijing arrested more than 2,000 people on their way to demonstrate at his grave. While hunger strikes were traditionally associated with religious demonstrations, they have become more common among political prisoners, and publically. Activists in 2006 coordinated hunger strikes in at least 10 provinces across China to challenge government repression and support fellow dissidents. Recently, in March of 2013 activists staged a hunger strike at a school in Hefei city to protest the refusal to admit the ten-year-old daughter of political prisoner Zhang Lin. Chinese activists sometimes play on the association of white with death and incorporate symbolic dress into demonstrations or street theater.

Government repression seeks actively to forestall movement formation through sophisticated surveillance and censorship apparatuses and strives to confine resistance to locality or issue specific claims. In the first half of 2013 the Central Government proclaimed the ‘seven don’t mentions’ of universal values, freedom of speech, civil rights, civil society, historical errors of the CCP, official bourgeoisie, and judicial independence. The 1989 Law on Assemblies essentially forbids dissident collective action and in 2013 the central prosecutors office promised to crackdown on all ‘illegal assembly’ that aims to ‘subvert state power.’ However, activists continue to develop robust networks of support for exchange and innovation.

Repertoire innovation in China

Repertoire innovation in China has reacted to government repression and in many cases dramatized regime vulnerability, illegitimacy or hypocrisy, through the dyad of digital and rightful resistance. Despite regime attempts to control the Internet, from blocking Facebook, Twitter, and countless other websites and blogs, or in 2009 shutting down the Internet for ten months in Xinjiang province following ethnic riots, Chinese netizens continue to develop creative solutions to speak truth to power, such as renowned blogger Zhou Shuguang, aka Zola. Some rely on homonyms and oblique references to voice discontent, exposing a vulnerability that censors even web searches for ‘big yellow duck.’ The government has responded to the perceived threat of digital resistance with mass arrests and crackdowns. In August and September 2013 alone more than 400 netizens were placed in administrative detention. Rightful resistance describes petitioner’s reliance on Chinese law to frame their resistance and the growth of weiquan, rights defenders, who legally challenge government abuse of other activists, thus positioning an unorthodox demographic of resistance actor: the relatively intra-institutional activist couching their grievances in the vocabulary of the abusive state. Again, the state has responded to perceptions of a nonviolent threat with force, by rounding up and detaining weiquan lawyers, from Gao Zhisheng to Chen Guangcheng and countless others.

Despite growing internal security spending and repression technics by the government, the number of resistance actors in China is likely to continue to rise unless the state seriously addresses widespread grievances. Because its internal security logic is based on force and manipulation, the growth of nonviolent resistance outside of its purview and the interconnectivity of activists may eventually overburden the state’s capacity to forestall more national mobilization with local repression. And while the overall Chinese population may have agreed not to discuss the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, they will not suffer another. 

About the author

Michael Caster is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Previously he worked in human rights advocacy and civil society development in Asia. He holds an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands. His research focuses on violence, repression and resistance, conflict and contentious politics, and human rights development, with a special interest in authoritarian and post-authoritarian regimes. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelcaster.

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