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POL 385
Politics in China
Middle-Class Mobilization
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
But in a year that saw China receive an unusual amount of global attention both
welcome and unwelcome, the very first protest to make headlines was quite
different from all those just described. It was a gath- ering by relatively well-off
residents of central Shanghai, who called for a halt to plans to extend into their
district the city’s iconic first-in-the-world, fastest-on-earth magnetic-levitation (or
“MagLev”) train line, which previously ran only through an isolated section of
East Shanghai.
The participants were not people being left behind by the economic boom, but
rather members of what can be called, using the term loosely, the new “middle
class.” That is, they were neither part of the urban elite, which is made up of the
nouveau riche and those with official posts or high-level connections within the
CCP (often the same people fit into both of these privileged categories), nor did
they belong to the ranks of the disadvantaged (recent migrants from the
countryside, laid-off work- ers, or others struggling to get by).
2) When these protesters gathered outside a government building, they were not
voicing outrage at specific officials or complaining about general developments.
They simply claimed that they should have been consulted more fully about a
project that would have a profound impact on their lives. They worried that the
noisy new train line might harm their families’ health (there was talk of radiation
associated with the MagLev); would disturb their peace and quiet; and would
depress local property values in a neighborhood with no small number of fledgling
condominium owners.
3) The protests were generally nonconfrontational. This was under- scored by
participants referring to their acts not as “marches,” but rather as “strolls” or even
“going shopping on Nanjing Road” (the street on which the official building sits is
also famous for its department stores).
4) Even though there were distinctive-to-Shanghai dimensions to the anti-MagLev
protests, they were also part of a wider pattern. They fol- lowed on the heels of
mid-2007 protests in the city of Xiamen, Fujian Province, which aimed at forcing
the relocation of a chemical plant. The demonstrations in Xiamen, which is several
hundred miles down the coast from Shanghai, also were part of a neighborhood-
specific struggle waged by members of the urban middle class, a social sector that
is not only relatively privileged but also unusually adept at using new
communications technologies such as text messaging. Following the Shanghai
“strolls” (a term that would catch on) came similar mid- 2008 agitations, in the
western city of Chengdu and in Beijing soon after the Olympics ended. The
driving force in both cases was concern over pollution.
I worry that some foreign observers will jump to the wrong conclu- sion when
thinking about Chinese middle-class protests, especially if we see more and larger
ones in the years to come: namely, that they signal the imminent arrival of the sort
of democratic transition that has so often been predicted for China since the 1980s.
there are important flaws in this mode of thinking. How justified, for instance, is
the assumption that because a number of Leninist regimes fell between 1989 and
1991, communist rule everywhere must be teeter- ing? In Central and Eastern
Europe and many parts of the old USSR, communist rule was essentially a foreign
imposition. In China, as in Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea, the communist
regime has at least some basis for grounding its claim to legitimacy in its role in a
struggle not to impose but to throw off foreign domination.
While recent middle-class protests are not signs that a political trans- formation is
imminent, they do suggest that China has reached a turning point of sorts. The
shift that I have in mind relates to a turn, among rela- tively well-off urbanites,
from worrying about urban modernization’s slowness in coming to worrying about
urban modernization’s effects on the middle class’s quality of life now that such
modernization is here.
Rural Protest
Kevin J. O'Brien
Since then, however, villagers have launched their share of the hundreds of “mass
incidents” (quntixing shijian) that occur every day. Whether submitting respectful
petitions de- tailing cadre corruption, mounting rightful resistance against illegal
fees, or even engaging in violent clashes over land grabs, rural dwellers have
shown a willingness to take stronger issue with the powerful than might have been
expected in the repressive months following 4 June 1989.
This unrest has been triggered in part by a factor familiar to students of political
contention: opportunity. Chinese villagers, like the aggrieved anywhere, respond
to openings or perceived openings. At a time when the relaxation of official
controls over political expression and activ- ity has been fitful and uneven, rural
folk have been among the biggest beneficiaries of loosening.
More recently, marketization and in- creased mobility have afforded rural people
more room in which to ma- neuver, while grassroots elections and legal reforms
have provided both new abuses to protest and more safeguards against retaliation.
Although many types of claims are still off-limits and Beijing remains unyielding
in its hostility to Falun Gong believers, “separatists” in Tibet and Xin- jiang, and
anyone who would dare to organize a new political party, top leaders periodically
signal that those grievances about which villagers care the most are indeed
legitimate. These include concerns related to corruption, selective law
enforcement, and people’s livelihoods.
As time has passed, more activists have concluded that comparatively tame forms
of contention, such as lodging complaints, are ineffective, and that forceful and
attention-grabbing tactics (such as blocking a road or organizing a sit-in) are
needed. Examples of con- frontational tactics include outfitting pickup trucks with
loudspeakers to publicize beneficial policies that have been ignored; demanding
meet- ings with schoolmasters to press for the reversal of tuition hikes; and surrounding fee collectors as a prelude to driving them off. Whereas protest leaders in
earlier years typically turned to higher-level officials in order to ask for help in
cleaning up local misconduct, more are now willing to challenge powerholders
directly and seek concessions on the spot.
Violence is also on the rise. A number of clashes between farmers and local
authorities have taken place recently over issues such as locating a power plant on
village land, or refusing to allow the recall of a corrupt official. More than a few of
these incidents have led to significant casualties after armed police or local toughs
arrived to repress the protesters. At the same time, Yu Jianrong, a researcher at the
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has documented the spread of unplanned,
“accidental” protests that rapidly take on a life of their own. These “angerventing” flare-ups are often touched off by essentially random sparks.
is rural China about to explode? Not likely. Most contention remains weakly
organized, and cooperation across class lines is still rare—though involvement of
public intellectu- als and “rights-protection lawyers” (weiquan lüshi) in rural
protest has increased. Claims tend to be circumscribed and popular action is
usually small-scale and local. Even taking into account developments such as calls
to privatize farmland that swept Heilongjiang, Henan, and Inner Mongolia in
2008, wide-ranging demands and long-lasting leadership are the exception, and
there are few signs of the solidarity, scope, and coordination that a sustained social
movement would require. Rural protest plays a role in fending off extraction,
deflecting predatory behavior, and sending unpopular cadres packing, but there is
little evidence that it poses an imminent threat to the regime.
That the Communist Party hierarchy tolerates so much rural contention is a sign of
the Party’s confidence. As with the dash of account- ability offered by village
elections, permitting a dollop of dissent is an element of the regime’s high-wire
legitimation strategy, and it reflects faith that things can be kept in hand. The
authorities still have enormous powers of repression at their disposal, and they can
unleash disproportionate force if they conclude that core interests are at stake.
Jae Ho Chung;Lai, Hongyi;Xia, Ming
What does the data on protest show? Include both protest, religious groups and
Collective public security incidents CoPSI
10X increase from 1993 – 2005 and the number of persons involved have risen
even faster – to several millions
Spread over the entire nation – urban and rural and have become increasingly
violent and confrontational
Unemployment, bankruptcy, financial scams in urban areas
Land disputes in rural areas
Greatest part of protests were directed at ineffective and unresponsive local officials
Rapid expansion of religious organizations and activity and in connection to the Falun
Gong many protests develop
Reform and the decline of controls leads to a return of criminal activity and organizations
Links to and bribery of local officials to gain protection
Linkages between protest, religious protest and criminal activity:
Religious groups, criminal organization and kinship groups
Criminal groups control state officials who engage in land thefts that provoke
Criminal groups organize protests to reduce state capacity to act against them
Pages 29-30
“For the weak and the lost in China…”