Big Noise, Big Settlement: the Logic of Claims-making in China

Memo #308

By Sophia Woodman – Sophia.Woodman [at]


The twenty-fifth anniversary of China’s nationwide democracy movement and its suppression in June 1989 was marked in the mainland by an imposed silence. Revisiting the “verdict” that the demonstrations were a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” does not appear to be on the horizon.

But this does not mean that popular politics has been entirely stifled: over the past 25 years, growing numbers of people in China have been taking to the streets to press claims and express grievances. Our interactive charts presenting data on nationwide trends in several forms of claims-making and contention show that while all types have seen increases over time, protests have risen faster than other forms (see previous memo).

The authorities have had some success in channeling claims through orderly systems (see chart 1 below) such as administrative reconsideration (a measure through which an agency that took a decision undertakes a formal review) and administrative litigation (suing the state). But the numbers pursuing claims through such avenues remain small in comparison to those adopting more contentious means. Labour arbitration has risen more rapidly, in part because labour tribunals often decide in workers’ favor. One reason administrative reconsideration and litigation are less appealing is that defendant agencies often do not even bother to appear, although a State Council campaign to raise response rates has achieved some results in changing this.

This phenomenon points to why use of such orderly claims-making methods is dwarfed by extra-legal protests or petitions. As a popular saying has it, “No noise no resolution, small noise small resolution, big noise big resolution” (不闹不解决,小闹小解决,大闹大解决).Complainants realize that if they want to get their concerns resolved, they have to use the authorities’ concern about “maintaining stability” to press their case.

Such a pragmatic approach is supported by the sparse data on the numbers of people involved in protests. While there are occasional large protests, most “mass incidents” (群体性事件) (see chart 2 below) involve relatively small groups of people, numbering in the tens rather than the hundreds. The proportion of “mass incidents” involving 100 people or more declined between 1994 and 2006. Small scale civil disobedience may have become a routine part of Chinese political life.


For more data, visit the data page for these two memos.

Sophia Woodman is a Chancellor’s Fellow in Sociology in the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on citizenship and social movements in contemporary China.

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