By Yanqi Tong

Understanding Social Protest in China

Aug. 01, 2016  |     |  0 comments

In the past twenty-some years, the number of social protests in China has erupted like a volcano.1 According to various sources and calculations, collective protest incidents had increased from 8,700 in 1994 to 90,000 in 2006, and have fluctuated between 150,000 and 200,000 since 2009. The types of social protests range from tax riots to land and labor disputes and from environmental protests to ethnic clashes. Based on the scale and frequency of these protests, many analysts believe that the Chinese regime is sitting on the mouth of a social volcano and its days are numbered. These unfulfilled doomsday predictions demonstrate the need for a better understanding of social protests and political structures in China.

Objectives of the Protests: Not Regime Threatening

The overwhelming majority of protests are based on economic grievances and focused on material interests: pensions, wages, employment, compensation, pollution, etc. If the objectives of the protests are to enhance specific material interests, then the size of the collective action will be limited to those whose interests are at stake, such as laid-off workers from a particular company or farmers from a particular village. Relatedly, such protests will also be limited geographically, as outsiders do not share the same interests. Social protests limited in scale and geographical areas are not regime threatening.

As the nature of the material interest-based demands reflects expectations on the state to address these economic grievances, social protest inherently enhances regime legitimacy. The flaunted message is that the state has not done enough. The protesters would never expect to meet with an incompetent and weak state. They hope for the government to solve their grievances, not to collapse or be overthrown.

There were some cases in which protesters demanded social justice rather than economic benefits. This type of protest often erupts when suspicious deaths are involved or some perceived injustice occurs (such as when a luxury branded car hit a poor pedestrian). The typical cases are the Weng’an Incident and the Shishou Incident. The scale of these protests were much larger and more difficult to pacify. At their peaks, these protests can be a threat to social stability, but they lack organization and cohesion to be sustainable. In these cases, the local leaders often had to take responsibility and be replaced.

Flexibility of Regime Responses

Regime responses to social protest can be analyzed from both cultural and structural perspectives. Harvard University Professor Liz Perry has long argued that Chinese political tradition allows popular protest to express economic grievances. There has been an informal understanding (informed by tradition and values) that the state is responsible for the well-being of its population. This responsibility-based legitimacy provides a moral bonding between the state and society. Therefore, the central government has strict regulations on the use of coercive force in social protests. Government officials seem more willing to accommodate, negotiate or simply pay the protesters off. As long as demonstrators don’t make personal attacks against top leaders or demand political change, they are often free to vent their anger.

The structural explanation argues that China has a multilevel administrative structure that differentiates the locations of responsibility. During the reform eras, local governments gained more autonomy and emerged as distinctive layers of the state hierarchy. This multilevel structure increases political flexibility when dealing with social protests. The central government can stay away from the point of contention and let the local governments take the blame and responsibility. If the situation starts to get out of control, the central government can always step in and act as an arbitrator.

According to our study of large-scale social protests from 2003 to 2010, local governments tolerated the majority of the protests (66 percent) and made concessions or compensation to the protesters in 29 percent of the cases. Repression was minimal. The protests that were tolerated mostly had the following features: no political appeals, short term material requests, no targeting of the central government, and the protests were not held in front of government buildings, were peaceful, and led to no or only slight damage to properties. This strategy is especially visible in labor protests in the non-state sector. Local governments usually take a neutral stand on capital–labor disputes in the non-state sector. Sometimes they only involve themselves in arbitration and let the enterprises settle the disputes themselves.

Structural Causes of Social Protest

In order to obtain a full picture of contemporary social protests in China, we need to examine their structural roots. China has experienced large scale socioeconomic transformations in the past 40 years. The structural changes have produced serious dislocations for individuals and groups and generated tremendous social pains. On the one hand, the state is trying to let the market play a bigger role in economic and social life. Yet the immature market more often than not fails in many aspects. Then the state would interfere, thus creating further confusion as to which direction the country is moving. On the other hand, society is learning market rules. But when people lose in the market, such as losing in the stock market, or when housing prices go beyond ordinary people’s ability to afford, they tend to blame the government for manipulating the market too much or not regulating the market enough. It would be abnormal if there are no social protests in such epochal transformations.

These socioeconomic transformations inevitably affect state–society relations. As the planned economy has changed into a market oriented economy and the state is bailing itself out from many areas where it was previously responsible, the structure of state–society relations changes. Empowered by greater economic autonomy and social freedom, society has changed from a weak and passive mass into a plurality of more active and vocal actors. At the same time, the buffer zone between the state and society — urban work units and rural collectives — has been disappearing, which has resulted in more direct confrontations between the state and society over economic matters.

Future Scenarios of Social Protest

The massive explosion of social protest has become less sensational in recent years. Social protest has become a normal phenomenon in Chinese society. The causes for certain grievances that have arisen during the transformation would also disappear as the process evolves. In other words, many forms of grievances are developmental, and they will be solved by further development. We have witnessed the coming and going of certain types of social protest. For example, anti-taxation protests disappeared after the abolishment of the agricultural tax. Student political protests that were common in the 1980s turned into anti-Japanese nationalistic demonstrations in the 2000s.

Some of the current causes of large-scale social protests may be passing on soon. Labor protests in state owned enterprises (SOE) are the typical reaction to the structural changes caused by SOE reforms, the core of which is privatization. As ownership is transferred to private hands, the state’s moral responsibilities for the welfare of the workers have also ended. Workers — who had developed a sense of belonging to the SOEs — were reluctant to give up their entitlements, and continued to hold the state responsible for their subsistence living. Structural changes to the SOEs may have passed their most difficult stage. With the near completion of the SOE reforms, there will be less large-scale lay-offs, hence, less subsistence grievances from the SOE workers. Moreover, in today’s China, the SOEs have become the equivalent of the rich with huge surpluses in savings. They are able to settle financial disputes with their employees more easily than before. Other social security mechanisms have also matured over time and are likely to reduce the number of large-scale social protests.

The most system threatening social protests are disturbances and riots with no specific economic demands, as they challenge rather than endorse regime legitimacy.

The type of social protest that is likely to continue is the labor dispute in the non-state sector. New generations of workers volunteered to join the newly developed private sector on a contractual basis. They have less expectations of the government’s responsibility for their welfare and are taking matters in their own hands to fight for better working environments and payments. The diminishing labor supply has enhanced the bargaining power of the workers. With increasing labor costs, China may no longer be the manufacturing paradise for foreign investment.

Land disputes are the consequences of the process of urbanization. As more and more farmers are engaging in non-agricultural professions and becoming urban residents, city expansion is unavoidable, so are the land disputes. The central issue in the disputes is the amount of compensation. The vague collective ownership of land leads to many procedural loopholes in land deals. In some cases, the compensation money has been embezzled by grassroots cadres. In some other cases, the farmers retracted their previously agreed prices and demanded more. While we foresee continued land related protests in the future, they are not system threatening. If it is a matter of economic compensation, it is not difficult for the government to settle the disputes.

The other type of social protest that is more likely to increase is environmental pollution protest. Prolonged economic growth inevitably brings more pollution. As Chinese society moves into a higher developmental stage, public environmental awareness is going to rise. More importantly, the number of pollution victims is much larger than those of other economic grievances. Deteriorated air or water quality affects a big portion of the population. Unlike laying-off workers that only touches several thousands of households, bad air quality victimizes the entire city. Therefore, it is easier to create protest identities and mobilize large-scale pollution protests.

The most system threatening social protests are disturbances and riots with no specific economic demands. The outburst of disturbances is often the product of broad and diffused social grievances over a variety of issues ranging from inequality, corruption, and social injustice to increased drug addiction. In these cases, social anger, not economic demands, is directed at the authorities. These incidents could be system threatening because they challenge rather than endorse regime legitimacy. Reduction of disturbances requires the improvement of local governance and crisis management skills. It seems that the frequency of riots has slowed down in recent years, which reflects the learning capabilities of the regime.


1. Social protest is a sensitive and intricate topic in China. In most cases, this kind of event is called in a neutral terminology — “mass incidents” — by both the Chinese authorities and media.

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