The rising of China

In an environment of increased political liberalisation, yet without clear channels to apply pressure on government agencies and leaders, citizens today frequently resort to ad hoc demonstrations, protests and occasionally riots.
Sriparna Pathak
21 August 2011

The latest protest in China took place on August 14, in Dalian when tens of thousands of residents took to the streets, rallying around the city hall, demanding the relocation of Fujia Dahua Petrochemical Company, which is threatening to spill toxins into the city after a typhoon breached a nearby dike.

According to Marxist thinking, socialism is a protest against the alienation of man, against the exploitation of man and against the exploitative tendency towards nature - the wasting of natural resources at the expense of the majority of the people, together with generations to come. ‘Unalienated man’ is the goal of socialism - the man becomes one with nature rather than dominating it, who is responsive towards the object world, so that the object world comes to life for him.

There are various answers to the question of whether China is a capitalist or a socialist state. Nevertheless, at least in principle the state is socialist in nature, with the Communist Party of China (CPC), the founding and the ruling party of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) maintaining a unitary government over a centralised state, the military, and the media. Harmony, stability and social order are some of the most important guiding principles for the country’s ideology, which primarily rests on the tenets of Marxism-Leninism. The importance of the masses therefore is paramount.

However, the rising number of occasions of mass unrest present a rather different picture. Civil unrest is officially known as ‘mass incidents’ in China. As China surges ahead with its economic growth, mass incidents have been on an increase and are proving endemic. The labour bureau in Shenzhen – China’s most developed industrial base with more than seven million migrant workers – has officially registered about six hundred ‘unexpected’ incidents each year from 1990s onwards. The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) has revealed that in 2004 there were 74,000 mass incidents involving some 3.76 million people. The MPS is responsible for maintaining law and order. The following graph shows how mass incidents have generally been on an increasing trend since the 1990s.


A ten-fold increase in mass incidents has been witnessed in the country in the period 1993- 2005. A cursory look at the top ten mass incidents in the country in 2010 shows that such incidents hinge on the issues of unemployment, pensions, wages, corruption, tax collection problems, misuse of funds, widespread informal bankruptcy, neighbourhood and housing issues, land acquisitions, forced relocations, environmental damage and mismanagement.

Labour issues and land issues stand out as the most common trigger. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reported that of about 60,000 messages sent by citizens to central media organisations in the first half of 2004, 36 per cent concerned rural issues; of these more than two thirds concerned complaints about land use. Indeed, out of the 130 mass confrontations between farmers and police in 2004, two thirds were on issues of land use. Terms used by the participants to describe themselves in these different contexts have included, “masses” (qunzhong), “weak and disadvantaged groups” (ruoshi qunti), “working class” (gongren jieji) and “citizens” (gongmin). Besides these incidents, student engagement in mass incidents is also increasing.

The emerging trends in the manner in which these mass incidents occur is of growing concern for the CPC, since challenges to stability emerge in increasing number, and Chinese history provides ample reasons to worry when protests begin to increase in this way. Previous dynasties fell as a result of nationalist revolutionary movements. Movements that accused leaders of failing to defend the nation against foreign aggression brought down the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the Republic of China in 1949. The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 grew from a Shandong Province secret society that practiced martial arts into a massive anti-foreign insurgency of poor peasants and itinerant labourers. However, the protests of today are very different from those earlier in Chinese history. In an environment of increased political liberalisation, yet without clear channels to apply pressure on government agencies and leaders, citizens today frequently resort to ad hoc demonstrations, protests and occasionally riots. Another challenge that is slowly emerging is public participation, discussion centres which build around media reportage leading to citizen’s protests. All of these are characterized by the limited development of civil society.

The basic reason behind the increasing number of protests is that people are using the rights bestowed upon them by the government. The opening up of channels for making grievances known has citizens trying to seek redress on an increasing scale. However, when petitioning and other attempts at getting redress do not work due to a labyrinthine bureaucracy, endless run-arounds, delays, excuses and inaction, frustration emerges that leads to local ferment, which in turn leads to collective action.

The state has responded with measured mixtures of concession and repression. Economic and livelihood demands are relatively frequently recognised and financial compensation has been doled out in many cases by central or provincial governments. On the other hand, political demands such as the removal of officials and cross- factory organized actions, attempts to link protests or to reach across regional lines, are repressed and harshly punished.

The strategy adopted by the government in dealing with protests is basically to keep the protests localised. If all protesters (i.e. qunzhong, ruoshi qunti, gongmin, gongren jieji) were to join together then the situation might swiftly spiral out of the party’s control. So far there is limited or no coordination between the various groups. This is why the government is so keen to control internet sites and blogging: to prevent protestors from joining forces. Till now the government has been effective at keeping protests local and at keeping workers, for example, away from students and farmers. In fact on the eve of the Tiananmen Square incident every year, surveillance is stepped up.

All these are clear indications that the possibility of a revolution that would destabilise the government is a serious concern for the CPC. Nevertheless an uprising is not likely in the near future. Chinese protest has been on the rise, but the motive behind these protests is clearly not revolutionary. Rather, it is an attempt to secure one’s own rights and the ensure that justice is done within the system.


Further references.

Sources for the graph:

1993-94 data from Murray Scott Tanner (2004) “China Rethinks Unrest”, The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.3, Summer 2004, pp 138-39; 1995- 2002 data from Albert Keidel (2005) “The Economic Basis for Social Unrest in China”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace- for The Third European- American Dialogue on China; 2003-2004 data from South China Morning Post, July 7, 2005; 2005 data from Thomas Lum (2006) “Social Unrest in China”, CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service; 2006-07 data from Ben Blanchard (2011) “Riot in South China After Fruit Vendor Allegedly Beaten to Death by Officials”, July 27, 2011; 2008 data  from Goh Sui Nui, (2010)“Political Reform, China Style”, Asia New Network, November 4, 2010; 2009 data for  from Gordon C. Chang (2011), “Repression in China Losing Its Effectiveness and Its People are Becoming Defiant”, Fox News, April 25, 2011. 

Elizabeth J. Perry and Merle Goldman (2007) “Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China”, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Ching Kwan Lee (2007) “Against the Law: Labour Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt”, University of California Press, London.

Susan L. Shirk (2007) “China: Fragile Superpower”, Oxford University Press, New York.

Jenifer Huang McBeath and Jerry McBeath (2010) “Environmental Change and Food Security in China”, Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg, London.

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