Mass Protests in China Increasing and Inevitable, Panel Says

March 3, 2011 6:22 pm Last Updated: May 1, 2016 4:34 pm

There are inherent contradictions in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) system of rule and in the Chinese economy, according to a panel in Washington, and mass protests are the visceral, and often violent, response from the ruled.

Popular discontent is so far at a manageable level, but what happens when the Communist Party’s paper-mâchéing over China’s contradictions stops working?

The topic was taken up by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), who gathered experts together for a day of discussion and debate on Feb. 25.

In the morning panel spoke Elizabeth Economy, Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Martin Whyte, Professor of Sociology at Harvard, and Murray Scot Tanner, China Security Analyst for the research firm CNA. A digest of their testimonies follows in order.

Ms. Economy explained that the roots of protest in China mostly lie in systemic weaknesses: a lack of transparency and accountability in governance, endemic corruption, and the absence of the rule of law. The nature of protest is also evolving in important ways. Protests have traditionally been rural based, but more recently the urban middle class has gotten in on the act. They challenge the regime in different ways.

The Internet has become a potent weapon, a virtual political system. The CCP has been effective in keeping these protests isolated. The Party is enormously concerned about ability to maintain stability; it is trying to develop a set of tools to do more to address the symptoms of citizen discontent.

Without robust political institutions, public grievances cannot be redressed. Manageable disputes then flair up into something else.

Often, ordinary people try to work through the legal system and existing institutions to seek redress. They may, for example, suffer crop losses or dying fish or health issues. Activists—patient and committed, not to say desperate—engage in legal activities for years. When the authorities don’t listen to them, they start protesting.

When businessmen hire thugs to violently disperse them, the crowds escalate the matter. Entire villages may begin protesting, drawing thousands of people. Before the authorities know it they have thousands of people smashing buildings and setting police cars on fire. In some cases residents have chanted anti-Party slogans at these events.

The degree to which a small incident that impacts only small number of people can spiral into a big issue shows latent frustration and alienation with the political system, Ms. Economy said.

Between 90,000 and 100,000 protests shake China each year in rural areas. Urban educated middle classes protest primarily around environmental issues. Protests against incinerators being built in coastal cities are common.

The difference between urban and rural protests is that the former are preemptive while the latter are post-facto. Ms. Economy noted how the urban protests may therefore influence the policy making process.

The rise of the Internet is also a prominent issue, and a Janus-faced one. The Internet can serve for promoting the voice of the Party in promoting nationalist and pro-regime propaganda, or it can allow timorous Chinese to vicariously live out their political dreams. It is even said to be a possible mechanism for promoting transparency—for example, as the misdeeds of cadres are exposed, they may be encouraged to do a better job (or, more likely, to be more careful to hide their corruption).

Ms. Economy notes how, at one point, Beijing tried to say that housing prices had increased by less than they had. Within three weeks an independent real estate firm put out an entirely different set of statistics, much higher than official numbers.

Others have uploaded videos of the bullying behavior of communist bureaucrats onto Youtube. People with common experiences are thus united, at least virtually, across the country.

The depth of the challenge to the CCP is not great at this point. Authorities try to meet some demands, but they also seek to eliminate, violently if they need to, the leadership of organized groups. They also arrest, kidnap, and intimidate anyone who may be a leader, such as civil rights lawyers.

They monitor the Internet heavily, shut down websites, and harass and detain dissidents. “It’s got a very active toolbox in terms of managing social unrest,” Economy says.

Ms. Economy suggested that the mounting resources the Party invests in domestic security may be at similar levels to national security. That is to say that the regime may be spending as much money defending itself from its own people as it does defending the whole nation from external foes.
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