China: Two Faces of Social Protest

A protest against a chemical plant project in Xiamen, 2006

Memo #183

By Xi Chen – xichen48 [at] email.unc.edu

There was a dramatic rise of social protests in China in the 1990s. Since, popular contention has become a main form of interest articulation for social groups that suffered as a result of reform era government policies. While the accommodation of social protests has contributed to authoritarian resilience in China, it has also exposed fundamental weaknesses in the Chinese political system.

Many collective protests have been effective. Peasants managed to force local officials to cancel illegitimate fees for local school or road projects. Retirees from state-owned enterprises obtained compensation before a socialized pension system was established. Urban residents stopped the building of chemical plants or other polluting factories around their cities. My research in Hunan province shows that when social protests become routinized, they help the political system, which lacks effective representative institutions.

But as Chinese leaders are well aware, there is a more ominous aspect of widespread collective protests. Waves of collective protests reveal fundamental weaknesses in political institutions in China. Collective protests as a primary form of interest articulation are costly for everyone involved. The Communist Party of China (CCP) has dramatically increased its spending on Weiwen (维稳, stability maintenance) in recent years. In 2011, the budget approved by the National People’s Congress included spending of 624 billion RMB ($95 billion USD) on items related to law and order, slightly exceeding military spending.

To cope with waves of collective protests, the CCP is trapped in a vicious circle. For the sake of “stability,” local officials are pressured to treat “troublemaking” protesters favourably, sometimes even by bending rules for them. For example, while compensation for demolished houses has often been very low, a few “troublemaking” house owners were awarded excessive compensation. Similarly, when unsatisfied litigants resorted to “troublemaking” petitioning, judges were often instructed by their superiors to substitute mediation for adjudication, or continue to solve related problems even after a decision was issued.

Clearly, such an approach encourages more collective protests. In interviews I conducted in China, local officials sometimes complained, “The more Weiwen, the more social instability.” Only by making more institutionalized channels of interest articulation available and accommodating popular contention with the rule of law, can the CCP destroy such a vicious circle.

Dr. Xi Chen is  Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China (Cambridge, 2012).

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A protest against a chemical plant project in Xiamen, 2006. (Source: factsanddetails.com)
A peasant protest in Wukan, Guangdong, 2011. (Source: mychinanet.com)

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