Social Movements and China’s Democratic Future: Straws in the Wind or Genuine Change?

By Fei Yan

china dem
Will China Democratize? by Andrew J. Nathan, Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner (eds). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.


Whether China will become democratic in the foreseeable future has long been a major concern for students of Chinese politics. The articles collected in this book examine the factors that may facilitate or impede China’s transition to democracy.

According to the analyses in this book, several positive factors are propelling China toward a speedier democratic transition. With continued and strong economic growth, China’s leaders proactively address the roots of popular contention by making health and retirement insurance available, attacking corruption, mitigating environmental pollution, and increasing government transparency and accountability. Especially at the lower levels of the political system, the leadership has introduced direct elections and implemented a more transparent cadre recruitment system (chapter 4). The dramatic wave of popular unrest sweeping the nation in recent years also poses as severe a threat to the central government, pushing a potential democratic breakthrough, as the Chinese citizens today are more dissatisfied, more mobilized, and less fearful than in the past (chapter 11, 14). Moreover, a revival of liberal values, such as individual freedom, property rights, and the rule of law, emerges in people’s daily life and spreads in the “network society” (chapter 20). Since Internet use is rapidly growing in China, particularly among the younger generation, “digital resistance” increasingly becomes a tactic for collective mobilization and public protests, such as the case of the Xiamen anti-PX protests (chapter 24). Overall, it is widely accepted that China is now at the tipping point (chapter 13), and political change is inevitable (chapter 1).

On the other hand, some essays are less optimistic about the prospects for democracy, viewing the current changes not as moves toward democracy but as adaptive responses that an authoritarian regime strategically deploys as a way to strengthen its rule. As Andrew Nathan suggests, “under conditions that elsewhere have led to democratic transition, China has made a transition instead from totalitarianism to a classic authoritarian regime, and one that appears increasingly stable.” (p. 75)

Based on the analysis of the current protest wave, I would argue that it does not pose a severe threat to the central government due to the lack of involvement of the “winners” of market reforms as well as party functionaries, isolation from China’s premiere business and export sectors, and the absence of large, sustained protests in China’s major cities which might compel the government to consider the use of force against its populous once more. Even if this wave of social movements did force the hand of the central government, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now equipped with riot gear and trained to contain mass protests with measured mixtures of concession and repression, reducing the scale of the bloodshed in this contingency. In addition, the grievances voiced in most present protests are usually not lodged against the central government with abstract conceptions of social justice. Instead, numerous protesters focus on specific and concrete local issues, which largely limits the chances of their success and fragments their movements. In other words, the motives behind today’s protests are clearly not revolutionary.

First, criticisms of recent challengers, including state workers, peasants, and homeowners, have tended to make requests for practical interests, such as economic entitlement and unemployment compensation, rather than reflect the enthusiasm for liberal democracy as shown in 1989 student movements. In the spring of 1989, mass protests clearly demanded political reforms and Western-Style democracy. They built a monumental Statue of Liberty named the “Goddess of Democracy” in Tiananmen Square and hung English banners such as “For the People,” “By the People,” and “Glasnost” everywhere. By comparison, recent urban protests strike over layoffs, wage payments, pensions, and urban development projects, while rural areas protest over non-agricultural land use, environmental issues, official misconduct, abuse of power, and excessive force or torture by police. In this sense, recent protesters have limited political ambitions and ability to take action.

Second, many of the present protests and collective incidents are often isolated in remote regions rather than located in politically strategic regions. Rural protests in vast countryside and labor protests in rust-belt cities and towns are far removed from the leading political and commercial centers of China where protests would have the greatest political risk. The 1989 movement proved that the sustained mass protests in major cities, in particular Beijing, will impose the most serious political challenge to the regime. Although it is well recorded that recent protesters sometimes directly approach the petition offices of the central government in Beijing and they have increased trust in central authorities, their efforts are sporadic and could be easily suppressed.

Recent protests also target specific local grievances instead of broadly-defined social rights, and were mostly directed against local authorities at the city and lower levels rather than the central government as the case in 1989. For example, the state workers who struggled against privatization had been only mobilized at the firm level and had not yet generated any cross-enterprise labor movement with a broader claim based on the general interests of the working class; peasants responded to excessive burdens and brutal modes of taxation collection by targeting local officials individually and collectively; urban middle-class residents revolted against local officials or real estate developers. None of these targeted demands implicates the central government or the regime as a whole.

Third, the state now adopts new coping strategies and tactics to deter the protests under the so-called “social management innovation” (shehui guanli chuangxin) framework. One typical strategy is to institutionalize the citizens’ succession process so as to avoid the political crisis that many had once presumed to be its inevitable fate. The party-state promulgates laws or regulations and adopts various “input institutions”, i.e., local elections, letters-and-visits departments, people’s congresses, and administrative litigation, to enable peasants and workers to redress their grievances through “rightful resistance” without creating the potential to threaten the regime as a whole. In contrast to the everyday resisters, rightful resisters tend to use legal tactics and other officially promoted values and principles to assert their claims, defend their lawful rights and interest, and challenge local cadre malfeasance, economic corruption as well as arbitrary rule. In many cases, because collective appeals would exert more pressure on the government, they are more likely to be successful than are individual ones. However, appeals still lack credibility and are not necessarily successful, as long as “the bird of rule by law” has remained in the “cage of the party-state.”

Still, it is inevitable that the current political system must change and will be changed, as this book argues, “but the timing and character of that change will depend on contingent events that are inherently unforeseeable.” (p. 132)


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Filed under Great Books for Summer Reading 2016, Uncategorized

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