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Perpetuating communist party rule in China.

On the heels of democratic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), recent "mass incidents" (qunti shijian) in China have spurred renewed debate about the level of social dissatisfaction and the stability of authoritarian governance in the People's Republic of China. Yet, unlike in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the MENA facing widespread rebellion against their ruling regimes, protests in China have not been directed at central political leaders or the political system as a whole. By examining the similarities and differences between Chinese and Middle Eastern authoritarianism, this article seeks to uncover which factors underpin continued public acceptance of the Chinese Communist Party and which ones--if left unchecked--bode ill for the regime.


A quick glance at the causes of unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries n the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) suggests that China, too, is susceptible to popular cries for political change. In China--much like in Egypt and Tunisia before the Arab Spring--income inequality has been growing, corruption is rampant and the same regime has had a choke hold on political power for decades. Yet underneath these superficial similarities lie key differences between China and authoritarian states in the MENA. First, the relationship of major socioeconomic sectors to the regime and to each other is fundamentally different in China. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia in recent years, China's ruling elites have pursued policies that mix capitalism and socialism in such a way that both prosperous and struggling socioeconomic sectors have benefited materially. The result has been that--despite widespread dissatisfaction with CCP corruption and injustice, particularly at the local level--no socioeconomic group has had an economic reason to seek the downfall of the CCP. (1) Moreover, CCP policies and practices have effectively divided China's vast lower class through differential treatment of the various groups therein.

Second, the nature of the ruling regime in China differs quite dramatically from those in countries in the MENA that have experienced recent mass unrest. Rather than allowing political power to be concentrated in the hands of one man with no ideological justification for his rule, in post-Mao (and especially post-Deng) China, the CCP has instituted collective leadership and has worked to legitimate itself not only via economic growth, but also via nationalism and elements of socialism. Finally, the CCP has undertaken political reforms that have made the regime more responsive to the grievances and demands of the people, thereby improving the quality of its governance. (2)

However, there are signs that this delicate balance may be tipping. First, since the spring of 2011, the CCP has backtracked on freedom of expression and political participation. These moves have proved counterproductive, increasing public dissatisfaction with the political status quo and jeopardizing the central leadership's reputation as benevolent "emperor." (3) Meanwhile, central authorities have been unwilling or unable to prevent local officials from snatching away the safety nets that have provided basic economic security to China's poor, which has spurred unrest from below. If CCP leaders wish to remain in power, they will need to enhance--not abandon--the factors that have worked in their favor in the reform era.


For at least the last decade, China has witnessed tens of thousands of mass incidents (qunti shijian) per year. Moreover, both the number of incidents and their level of violence have increased over time. (4) Though the demographic characteristics and grievances of the participants have varied, it is clear that wide swaths of the Chinese public are unhappy with the status quo. Following the wave of public uprisings against authoritarian governance in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries of the MENA in the spring of 2011, several large-scale and violent popular protests swept China. What these contentious public actions portend for CCP rule has been subject to much debate. Yet, as with virtually all of the mass incidents that have occurred in China since 1989, recent protests have not focused on central governing authorities or on the authoritarian political system as a whole. Although most of these protests have met with violence on the part of local authorities and some participants have been punished, higher-level political leaders have made efforts to reprimand corrupt local officials and to address the concerns of the demonstrators. In addition, some of these mass incidents have featured conflict not only between citizens and governing authorities, but also between different socioeconomic groups.

The most prominent popular uprisings in China since early 2011 have featured three types of complaints, expressed by different demographic groups: migrant workers, victims of land seizures and constituents outraged by the abuse of legal or electoral processes. (5) First, migrant workers have taken to the streets to protest against physical and economic abuses perpetrated by local authorities and employers. In June 2011, in the township of Guxiang (located in Chaozhou City, Guangdong Province), a migrant worker from Sichuan Province was badly beaten and mutilated when he argued with his factory owner over unpaid wages. Three suspects, including the factory owner, were taken into custody shortly thereafter but were reportedly released after bribing the officers. Later, about 200 migrant workers, also from Sichuan, demonstrated in front of a municipal government building. Frustrated by the authorities' lack of response, protesters allegedly threw rocks at the building, knocked down its front gate, damaged nearby businesses and cars and possibly harmed vehicle drivers and passengers. Martial law was imposed and nine demonstrators were arrested. (6) Afterward, provincial public security forces ordered local authorities to fully investigate the case and to better protect migrant-worker rights. Concomitantly, a city official from the victim's home city in Sichuan called on Chaozhou authorities to "make public why workers from Sichuan were so angry and took such an extreme action to protect their rights." (7) Thus, various political authorities attempted to address the cause of the demonstrators' dissatisfaction. However, protests were spurred not only by tensions between migrant workers and political or economic elites, but also by tensions between different socioeconomic groups. Specifically, nonmigrant local residents clashed with migrant workers, and nonmigrant households were told by township authorities to send an adult male family member to join a "self-defense army" to patrol the streets. Many of them wore red ribbons to signal their nonmigrant status. (8)

A similar incident occurred in the town of Xintang (in Zengcheng City, Guangdong Province), also in June 2011. These protests were sparked by a conflict between officers of the City Urban Administration and Law Enforcement Bureau (chengguan) and a pregnant migrant street peddler from Sichuan, during which the woman was physically assaulted. Soon after, over 1,000 migrant workers demonstrated in front of the city government building. In the following days, martial law was imposed and several thousand riot police were sent in. Government offices were damaged and police vehicles destroyed in the subsequent violent clashes. Five protesters reportedly were killed and nearly one hundred wounded. (9) According to Internet reports drawn from China's Nanfang Daily, six participants were sentenced to prison, the town mayor and party secretary were removed from office and various public security officials were sanctioned. (10) Thus, as in Guxiang, it appears that higher-level authorities attempted to partially redress the injustices perpetrated by lower-level officials.

Along with migrant-worker protests, a second type of protest has involved citizen mobilization against unjust land acquisitions. One of the most notable recent instances occurred in April 2011 in Suijiang County in Yunnan Province, when 2,000 villagers protested against local government plans to relocate them to allow for the construction of a hydroelectric dam. Feeling that the compensation was too low or would not be offered at all, villagers blocked major roads. Shortly after, 400 police officers arrived to clear the streets. (11) Similarly, in June 2011 in the village of Rishanfen in Zhejiang Province's Taizhou City, political authorities seized village land to develop an industrial park that included a petrol station. Many villagers believed that they had not been appropriately compensated for the land and that the former village head, who had since become the local CCP party secretary, embezzled the funds provided for the public from the petrol station. Representing the villagers' concerns, the new village head confronted the staff of the petrol station. When he was beaten as a result of his efforts, hundreds of villagers surrounded the station and blocked a nearby airport expressway. Hundreds--and according to some reports, thousands--of riot police arrived shortly thereafter. Roughly twelve protesters were detained, including the new village head. (12) As of the time of this writing, in neither of these land acquisition cases has there been any report of sanctions against the local authorities that were the object of the public's ire. At the same time, the Rishanfen village case shows that despite pervasive political corruption, some local officials are willing to stand up to actions perpetrated by other governing authorities that they perceive to be unjust.

A similar combination of political corruption and authoritarian repression, tempered by the responsiveness of some local officials or higher-level political authorities, is apparent in the third type of noteworthy mass incident. In May 2011 in Lichuan City, Hubei Province, a popularly elected representative of the local People's Congress who was investigating corruption allegations in a land deal supported by city officials was arrested, placed in detention and died ten days later. When pictures of his beaten body circulated on the Internet, hundreds-perhaps thousands--of city residents protested outside city-government buildings, throwing eggs and other items, prompting hundreds of military vehicles to enter the city. After local security forces quelled the unrest, several local officials implicated in the man's death were detained or removed from their posts. (13) Thus, as in the migrant worker case, higher-level authorities attempted to redress the grievances of the demonstrators.

However, another recent incident related to the abuse of China's electoral and legal processes demonstrates the inconsistency of the central government's support for a more representative and open political process. In Xinyu City, Jiangxi Province, a female factory worker named Liu Ping faced harassment and ultimately detention for her attempt to run as an independent candidate in the May 2011 election of "people's representatives" to serve in the local branch of the People's Congress. Constituents who had signed Liu's nomination petition also were harassed and threatened by local authorities. Prior to her detention, Liu's online blog had 30,000 followers. Following her detention, sociologist Yu Jianrong, a well-known scholar at the CCP-affiliated Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, published a notice of support online that was shared by more than 66,000 people. Although Liu was released from detention within about ten days, local authorities prevented her from standing for election, raided her home, confiscated her campaign materials and cell phones and cut her power supply and Internet service. Her attempt to run for office within the declared legal parameters of the electoral system was thwarted, and no attempt has been made by central or local governing authorities to remedy the situation. (14)


At first glance, the protests described above share commonalities with those seen in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries of the MENA in the spring of 2011. To begin, some of the triggers of the protests were similar. Most notably, the public unrest in Tunisia was sparked in part by the self-immolation of a street vendor who had been harassed by local authorities, and the uprising in Egypt was partly in response to the brutal murder of a well-known human rights activist. (15) Further, as illustrated in many of the cases described above, the more fundamental causes of public dissatisfaction in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern states are also present in contemporary China. First, significant elements of the Chinese public are deeply dissatisfied with the ruling regime's corruption and unjust actions. As recent mass incidents suggest, a core source of unrest in China today is the perception that governing officials are using their political status to enrich themselves at the expense of the public, brutally punishing anyone who challenges their corrupt acts. Second, governing elites believe that they can behave with impunity because the ruling regime has a virtual monopoly on power. Third, the potential for personal enrichment on the part of political officials has increased with the privatization of a once largely state-run economy.

Fourth, as in Tunisia, Egypt and other states in the MENA, these developments have bred high levels of economic inequality, resulting in a two-tiered society: a very small wealthy sector that has prospered largely through its connections with the ruling regime and a massive poor sector that lacks political ties. (16) Though many people talk of the emergence of a middle class in China, in reality the professionals and business owners, who are seen as the key components of this class, are extremely wealthy in comparison to the average Chinese citizen. According to official categorization, only 15 percent of PRC citizens are in the upper or middle strata of income earners who make more than 60,000 yuan per year. The remaining 85 percent--which includes rank-and-file public- and private-sector workers, self-employed small businesspeople and farmers--get by on an average of less than 20,000 yuan per year. (17) Reflecting the lopsided nature of its socioeconomic structure, China's Gini coefficient--a standard measure of the economic gap between a society's rich and poor--stood at an estimated 0.496 to 0.561 in the mid-2000s, slightly higher than the United States (at 0.45) and roughly equivalent to Brazil (at 0.56). (18)

These commonalities between China and the Middle Eastern states suggest that there is at least some potential in China for the rise of broad-based opposition to the ruling elite and the political system as a whole. Indeed, as uprisings spread across the MENA in the spring of 2011, Internet calls were issued for Chinese citizens to take to the streets. Appearing in mid-February on the Chinese-language news site and the social media site Twitter, the postings urged citizens to gather in designated locations in central Beijing and more than a dozen other cities. Suggested slogans involved demands for food (related to recent high inflation), work, housing and "fairness." Yet the public response to these virtual calls to action was almost nil. On the initially designated protest day, only a handful of demonstrators appeared--though hundreds of onlookers came to watch--and no more than one hundred protesters agitated in roughly a dozen cities over the course of approximately a week. Everywhere, the police forces far outnumbered the citizens. (19) Central authorities censored subsequent Internet postings, including any communication involving key words such as "Jasmine" and "Egypt." Only a few small public protests ensued, and they were met with combative measures including the erection of blockades, the harassment of journalists and the detention of known political dissidents. (20) While these government actions surely helped to prevent the spread of greater public political activism, far more severe repressive measures in Egypt, Tunisia and other MENA states did not stop the public from protesting in ever-larger numbers. In China, the general populace simply lacked the desire to foment a democratic revolution.

Given the many similarities in underlying conditions in China and countries of the MENA, why were calls for a Chinese "Jasmine Revolution" met with such public disinterest? To begin, the potential of the protests to spread from the MENA to China was limited from the start. Unlike the citizenry of most Middle Eastern countries, who share a common language and to some extent a pan-Arab identity that led them to find inspiration and hope in the successful movements in Tunisia and Egypt, few Chinese are inclined to compare China to countries in the MENA. (21)

More fundamentally, key differences between China and the countries of the MENA have led the Chinese public to accept, and even support, continued CCP rule. First, in contrast to Tunisia and Egypt, the benefits of economic liberalization and privatization have spread beyond the country's economic elite. While some individuals in China have become fabulously wealthy and the upper tier of the socio-economic structure is exceedingly small, virtually all sectors of China's massive lower socioeconomic tier have also experienced dramatic economic benefits in the past thirty years. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where the economic gains of privatization bypassed the majority of the population, even the poorest Chinese citizens have enjoyed great improvement in income and living standards. Further, these individuals overwhelmingly attribute their rise to the policies undertaken by the ruling party. (22) In addition, most Chinese citizens believe that the CCP leadership has improved since the Mao years (1949 to 1976). (23) The contrast with Tunisia and Egypt is stark. While Tunis and Cairo, like Beijing, have dismantled their state-led economies in recent years, the people believed that the regimes of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak promoted policies that only benefited those with ties to the ruling family. Moreover, as noted by Middle East specialists Eva Bellin and Dina Shehata, Mubarak upset the tacit bargains that his predecessors negotiated with important segments of the population, including labor and political opposition groups and the (relatively small) middle class. (24)

Relatedly, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, economic liberalization in China has not been accompanied by the wholesale abandonment of government-provided social safety nets. In Egypt and Tunisia, state subsidies to workers and their families were phased out over the course of the past decade. Tunisia's government-funded programs to train workers and create jobs were discontinued, as was Egypt's guaranteed job placement for college graduates. (25) In China, while the so-called "iron rice bowl" of guaranteed lifetime employment and state-provided subsidies to urban workers was largely dismantled in the mid-1990s, the social safety net has remained in place for the major groups constituting China's vast lower socioeconomic tier.

These relatively poor socioeconomic groups can be divided into a variety of categories. At the most basic level, all Chinese citizens are separated according to their household registration (hukou), which delineates one's legal place of residence. Although there are many differences in state policies toward rural and urban hukou-holders, both receive state-provided benefits that have served as a crucial safety net during China's reform-era, capitalist economic transition. (26) For example, when public housing units, which had been provided to urban state-sector workers nearly for free, were privatized in the late 1980s and 1990s, tenants were allowed to purchase the units at far below the market price. They were so inexpensive that most tenants were able to pay easily with cash. Consequently, debt-flee home ownership is widespread among nonmigrant urban residents. Although many such urbanites were laid off from their jobs when state-owned firms were extensively downsized in the late 1990s, virtually none have had to worry about affordable housing. In addition, former urban state-sector workers are eligible for an array of government aid, including basic living expenses and job-training assistance, as well as preferential hiring, tax benefits and loans to start private businesses. (27) More broadly, throughout most of China's reform period, urban hukou-holders have been afforded privileges like food subsidies that have not been available to migrant residents. Further, the CCP has worked over the past decade to establish a new pension system for employees of urban enterprises, including migrant workers. In a 2004 survey of Beijing residents, over two-thirds of respondents reported satisfaction with the results of this pension reform, and more than 81 percent reported being "somewhat" or "very" confident in the future of the pension system. (28) Such policies have undercut the potential motivation of urban hukou-holders to take to the streets in opposition to CCP rule.

Simultaneously, the regime's differential treatment of urban and rural hukou-holders has sown divisions among the various groups that comprise China's vast lower socioeconomic tier. Consequently, rather than banding together against an authoritarian state viewed as equally pernicious to all common citizens, as recently witnessed in the MENA, mass incidents in China almost always represent one segment of the lower socioeconomic tier. Moreover, as seen in the conflict between urban hukou-holders and migrant workers in the Guxiang case described above, popular protests regularly feature clashes among the tier's various groups.

Meanwhile, China's rural hukou-holders--including migrant workers in the cities--have been guaranteed a key state-provided benefit that is not available to urban hukou-holders: land. Since the late 1970s, the CCP-led party-state has leased land to all rural households. The allotment is designed to meet subsistence needs and to also allow for profit-making use of the land. Just as there are virtually no homeless urban hukou-holders in China, one would be hard-pressed to find a truly landless rural hukou-holder. Of equal importance, when a rural hukou-holder migrates to the city, he or she retains land rights in his or her home village, serving as a safety net should things in the city go awry. (29) As such, rural hukou-holders generally have not had to worry about their basic economic security. As a result, their interest in toppling the CCP has been limited. In recent years, however, the land rights of rural residents have been undermined by local authorities. As the Suijiang and Rishanfen cases demonstrate, when rural hukou-holders' land has been usurped in a fashion perceived to be unjust, they have risen up in sometimes violent opposition.

And yet, it was not only the poor and uneducated who joined the call for regime change during the Arab Spring. Alongside them--and to a large extent leading the way--were young and highly educated protesters. In Tunisia, Egypt and other countries of the MENA, a very large percentage of the population is young. In recent decades, the number of college-educated young people has soared, in part because higher education at public universities is virtually free. However, employment opportunities have not kept pace with this burgeoning educated population. In Egypt, for example, unemployment rates for college graduates are ten times higher than those for individuals with only an elementary school education. (30) In both Egypt and Tunisia in recent years, protests by educated youths concerned about unemployment and political corruption have been prevalent.

In contrast, educated youths in China have behaved quite differently in recent years. They took to the streets in massive numbers to protest against political corruption and call for greater freedom of expression and association in the spring of 1989, but since then have engaged in virtually no public opposition to CCP rule. While farmers, migrant workers and laid-off workers of state-owned enterprises have participated in tens of thousands of mass incidents since 1989, college-educated young people have not. As in Tunisia, college enrollment in China has skyrocketed over this period of time. Yet unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, higher education in China is no longer virtually free. Since the early 1990s, the government has dramatically reduced its subsidization of higher education, and tuition and fees have soared to levels that are far out of reach for the average Chinese citizen. (31) As a result, college has increasingly become a privilege available only to young people from China's upper economic tier. Although the unemployment rate for college educated young people is also high, most of these families have prospered as a result of the CCP's post-Mao economic reforms, which in turn may have dampened these youths' motivation to call for an end to CCP rule. (32) Indeed, on the few occasions when educated young people have taken to the streets since 1989, it has been to protest against foreign governments that are perceived to have harmed or criticized China--not to express grievances against the party-state. (33)

Yet economic dissatisfaction was not the sole cause of the Arab Spring unrest against authoritarian rule. In fact, some very well-off individuals (such as Egyptian Google executive Wael Ghonim) played leading roles. For these citizens, authoritarian rule was intolerable not simply because of its economic corruption, but because it had made moves to stifle political expression and participation, thereby generating a popular perception that the system was regressing in a direction that left little hope for the future. In Egypt, for example, the Anwar al-Sadat regime had begun to liberalize the political system in the 1970s, allowing opposition parties and movements to gain some political representation. When Mubarak came to power, he maintained this political status quo. However, beginning in the first decade of the 2000s, Mubarak increasingly curbed such political participation. Then, in the parliamentary elections of 2010, he manipulated the outcome to effectively exclude all opposition groups.

Coupled with the planned 2011 presidential elections in which Mubarak's unpopular son was widely expected to assume power, the political status quo became intolerable to the majority of the population. (34) Similarly, in Tunisia the regime's violent suppression of citizen demonstrations in December 2010--in which snipers on rooftops killed roughly eighty unarmed protesters--fueled public determination to end Ben Ali's rule. When new demonstrations emerged in January 2011, the Tunisian military refused to risk its professional reputation by using force to protect Ben All, probably in part because he had maintained his predecessor's policy of keeping the military out of politics. (35)

In China, public perceptions of the country's political direction have been quite different. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the CCP-led political system in China has moved in a more open and representative direction over the course of the past few decades. Since the late 1980s, popular elections have been held for village councils in rural areas, establishing local leadership that has become more responsive to public concerns in many places. As seen in the Suijiang and Lichuan cases discussed above, popularly elected officials regularly stand up against corrupt practices and in support of their constituents. Although many village elections continue to exhibit improprieties and popularly elected officials often have little power, the direction in China has been toward elections that are more free and fair, a trend that extends beyond village-council elections. (36) China's legal system has meanwhile become more professionalized and open to citizen litigation directed against abuses of political power. (37) Consequently, despite the many shortcomings of the legal and electoral systems, in the 2008 East Asia Barometer survey of mainland China, nearly 87 percent of respondents reported being "fairly satisfied" or "very satisfied" with "the way democracy works" in China, and less than 13 percent stated that they were "not very satisfied" or "not at all satisfied." (38)

Concomitantly, and again in contrast to the MENA, the ruling regime in China, particularly since the 1997 death of Deng Xiaoping, has been characterized by collective leadership that is fairly technocratic. This stands in great contrast to what Jack Goldstone calls "sultanistic" rule in the Middle East, in which all power is concentrated in the hands of one individual and political positions are doled out to those with favorable connections to him. In China there is no single, clear target of political dissatisfaction at the apex of the political system. Further, higher-level authorities will punish lower-level officials for acts of corruption and abuse when necessary, as seen in many of the mass incidents described above. The result has been a public perception that China's central leadership is benevolent and competent and that instances of corruption and injustice are limited to local leaders who flout well-intended laws and policies. (39) Moreover, while sultanistic dictators such as Ben All and Mubarak "appeal[ed] to no ideology and [had] no purpose other than maintaining their personal authority," the CCP has made a conscious effort since 1989 to promote nationalism among the populace and to tie support of the nation to support of CCP rule. (40) Mass media outlets and educational institutions have been imbued with positive accounts of CCP leadership that link China's rise--and its ability to overcome foreign attempts to preclude it from attaining prosperity and power--to its political leadership. (41) Simultaneously, in recent years top CCP leaders have frequently emphasized the need to balance economic growth with greater economic equality and to attend to the needs of the weak and less fortunate, probably with an eye to maintaining the tolerance of China's vast lower socioeconomic tier. (42)

As a result of these combined factors, Chinese citizens report some of the highest levels of political satisfaction in the world. In the 2008 East Asia Barometer survey, for example, nearly 90 percent of PRC respondents rated the "present political situation in our country" as "very good" or "good"; less than 3 percent viewed it as "bad" or "very bad." (43) Similarly, the 2007 World Values survey found that nearly 93 percent expressed "quite a lot" or "a great deal" of confidence in "the government," while only about 7 percent reported "not very much" confidence or "none at all. (44)


Even so, there are also signs that some of the factors that have bred public acceptance of continued CCP rule may be unraveling. As seen in the Suijiang and Rishanfen cases described above, unjust land acquisitions have been on the rise, leading to widespread and often violent unrest. (45) To the extent that rural hukou-holders continue to lose their land rights and are not compensated sufficiently to ensure their basic economic security, their ire toward political elites will grow. While higher-level authorities thus far have managed to avoid blame for land acquisition abuses, they have not made decisive moves to end them. Unless and until they do, China's rural hukou-holders will continue to lose faith in, and tolerance for, the CCP-led political system.

Furthermore, since the emergence of mass unrest in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, the CCP has ramped up restrictions on political expression and participation. Educated youths who have no economic qualms with the CCP are outraged when they run into censorship, particularly on the Internet. (46) And indeed, the Chinese cyher-world is riddled with sarcastic critiques of the CCP's corruption and heavy-handed responses to political criticism. (47) Even nationalistic websites popular with educated youths have featured scathing critiques of CCP leaders and their abuses of political power. (48) And, as seen in the Lichuan case discussed above, well-meaning, popularly elected local officials are often subject to harsh punishments, including death. To the extent that higher-level authorities allow this to occur, popular acceptance of CCP rule may decline. Already, China's younger generation, which lacks memories of the adversities suffered under Maoist rule and thus gives the post-Mao CCP less credit for its relative improvement in governance, expresses less support for the political status quo than China's middle-aged and older generations. (49) If CCP elites do not address this trend, then they are likely to face increased public opposition over time.


At present, the CCP appears secure in its hold on power, and not simply because of its monopoly on force or its willingness to stifle and repress political dissent. As seen in the failed Jasmine Revolution in China in early 2011, the public appears uninterested in ending CCP rule. In part, this is because the CCP has remained just socialist enough to appease the vast lower tier of the socioeconomic hierarchy, yet capitalist enough to spur dramatic economic improvements for virtually all citizens. Concurrently, it has sown divisions among the various groups that comprise the lower tier. In addition, relative to the Mao era, China's central leaders have moved the political system in a more representative, open and responsive direction that gives the public greater freedom of expression and political voice, and they have adequately responded to public grievances. By simultaneously cultivating a reputation as a technocratic regime responsible for China's economic prosperity and rising global stature--as epitomized by the 2008 Beijing Olympics--the CCP has been able to avoid the type of widespread opposition that characterized the Arab Spring.


(1) David Pilling, "Why the Chinese are not inspired by Egypt," Financial Times, 16 February 2011; Minxin Pei, "Spilling Over," South China Morning Post, 20 June 2011; Willy Lam, "Chinese Citizens Challenge the Party's Authoritarian Tilt," China Brief 11, no. 10 (3 June 2011): 3-5.

(2) Kevin O'Brien and Rongbin Han, "Path to Democracy? Assessing village elections in China," Journal of Contemporary China 18, no. 60 (June 2009): 359-78; Elizabeth J. Perry and Merle Goldman, eds., Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

(3) On the contemporary perpetuation of the traditional Chinese view that the "emperor" (i.e., central government) is benevolent while local authorities are rapacious, see Kevin O'Brien and Lianjiang Li, Rightful Resistance in Rural China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 42-47.

(4) In 2005, the last year in which Chinese authorities released figures, there were eighty-seven thousand mass protests in China. Scholars and observers have estimated that roughly ninety thousand such incidents occurred per year in 2008 and 2009. Andrew Jacobs, "Dragons, Dancing Ones, Set Off a Riot in China," New York Times, 9 February 2009; John Garnaut, "China Insider Sees Revolution Brewing," Sidney Morning Herald, 27 February 2010; Didi Kirsten Tatlow, "Indifference as a Mode of Operation at China Schools," New York Times, 18 May 2011. For a definition of mass incidents, see Yanqi Tong and Shaohua Lei, "Large Scale Mass Incidents and Government Responses in China," International Journal of China Studies 1, no. 2 (October 2010): 507.

(5) A fourth type of mass incident has involved members of China's ethnic minorities. A prominent example of this type of mass protest occurred in May 2011 in response to the death of a Mongolian herder who was run over while attempting to stop coal trucks from entering local grasslands in Inner Mongolia. Large-scale and violent unrest has also been seen on the part of China's Uighur minority in Xinjiang (particularly in 2009 and July 2011) and Tibetan minority in Tibet (particularly in March 2008). While these regions and demographic groups may indeed pose a threat to CCP rule in their respective areas, the majority Han ethnic group (which comprises more than 90 percent of China's total population) appears to exhibit little sympathy for minority grievances and generally condones the repression of such protests.

(6) Qiu Qualin, "Violent Dispute over Wages Leads to Detentions of 9 in South China," China Daily, 8 June 2011; Zhu Shanshan, "Clash Erupts over Wage Spat in Chaozhou, Guangdong Province," Global Times, 8 June 2011; ling Gao, "Migrant Worker is Hamstrung for Demanding Due Wages; Massive Violent Conflict Ensues," Ministry of Tofu, 8 June 2011.

(7) Qiu, "Violent Dispute over Wages."

(8) Gao, "Migrant Worker is Hamstrung."

(9) "Five Dead, One Hundred Injured in Guangzhou Crackdown," Want China Times, 14 June 2011; "Violence in Zengcheng, Guangshou Escalates," China Buzz, 12 June 2011.

(10) Guangzhou Zengcheng Daduncun juzhong zishi an 6 ren huoxing" [Guangzhou Zengcheng Dadun Village to sentence 6 people for mass incident], QQ News, htm.

(11) Christina Larson, "Police Disperse 2,000 Anti-dam Protesters in Western China," Foreign Policy, 1 April 2011; Yan lie, "Mass disturbance over Yunnan dam," China Daily, 1 April 2011.

(12) Christopher Bodeen, "China Unrest as Hundreds Protest against Taizhou Land Grabs," Associated Press, 16 June 2011.

(13) "Protesters Clash with Police in China," Agence France-Presse, 11 June 2011; Michael Wines, "Chinese Street Vendor Dispute Expands into Violent Melee," New York Times, 12 June 2011.

(14) ling Gao, "Chinese petitioner runs for election as independent candidate, harassed and detained by local gov't and police," Ministry of Tofu, 16 May 2011.

(15) Eva Bellin, "Lessons from the Jasmine and Nile Revolutions: Possibilities of Political Transition in the Middle East.'?" Middle East Brief 50 (May 2011): 2-3.

(16) Dina Shehata, "The Fall of the Pharaoh," Foreign Affairs 90, no. 3 (May/June 2011): 26-32; lack Goldstone, "Understanding the Revolutions of 2011," Foreign Affairs 90, no. 3 (May/June 2011): 8-16; F. Gregory Gause III, "Why Middle East Studies Missed the Arab Spring," Foreign Affairs 90, no. 4 (July/August 2011): 81-90.

(17) In 2010, average per capita disposable income among urban residents was 19,109 yuan. Among rural residents it was 5,919 yuan. "Chinese urban residents' per capita income grows 7.8 percent in 2010," China Daily, 20 January 2011.

(18) Teresa Wright, Accepting Authoritarianism: State-Society Relations in China's Reform Era (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 6-10.

(19) Anita Chang, "'Jasmine Revolution' Causes China to Flex its Force," Associated Press, 21 February 2011.

(20) Jeremiah Jenne, "China: Not Quite a Revolution," The Atlantic, 21 February 2011; Tom Lasseter, "In the Morning, a Speech by the Premier. In the Afternoon, Police Crack Down," China Rises (blog), February 2011, premierin-the-afternoon-police-crackdown.html; Ian Johnson, "Calls for a 'Jasmine Revolution' in China Persist," New York Times, 23 February 2Oll; "Egypt Not Trending in China," Al Jazeera, 29 January 2011; Tania Branigan, "China's jasmine revolution: police but no protesters line streets of Beijing," Guardian, 27 February 2011.

(21) Gause, "Why Middle East Studies," 81-90; Austin Ramzy, "Egypt Wave Barely Causes a Ripple in China," Time, 8 February 2011.

(22) Shehata, "Fall of the Pharaoh," 27; Goldstone, "Understanding the Revolutions," 3; Teresa Wright, "Tenuous Tolerance in China's Countryside," in Chinese Politics: State, Society, and the Market, ed. Peter Hays Gries and Stanley Rosen (New York: Routledge, 2010), 109-28; Wright, Accepting Authoritarianism, 126-28.

(23) Wright, Accepting Authoritarianism; Wenfang Tang, Public Opinion and Political Change in China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 55-78.

(24) Bellin, "Lessons," 6; Shehata, "Fall of the Pharaoh," 26-27.

(25) Goldstone, "Understanding the Revolutions," 8-16.

(26) In 1978, China began to gradually introduce privatization and marketization, most notably by allowing private enterprise and private use of land by farmers, as well as by establishing special economic zones that are open to foreign investment and feature minimal regulation. Since the early 1990s, China has deepened these efforts, including extensive privatization of most formerly state-owned enterprises.

(27) Wright, Accepting Authoritarianism, 95-99.

(28) Mark Frasier, Socialist Insecurity: Pensions and the Politics of Uneven Development in China (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), 150, 161.

(29) Ching Kwan Lee, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 230.

(30) Goldstone, "Understanding the Revolutions," 12-16; Bellin, "Lessons," 2.

(31) Stanley Rosen, "The Victory of Materialism: Aspirations to Join China's Urban Moneyed Classes and the Commercialization of Education," China Journal 51 (January 2004): 27-51.

(32) Rosen, "The Victory of Materialism," 35; Dexter Roberts, "A Dearth of Work for China's College Grads," Bloomberg Businessweek, 1 September 2010.

(33) Prominent examples of these types of demonstrations include the May 1999 protests against the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade; the April 2005 protests against Japan's revision of its textbook language on World War II; and the April 2008 protests against foreign criticism of China's suppression of demonstrations in Tibet.

(34) Shehata, "The Fall of the Pharaoh," 27-29.

(35) Lisa Anderson, "Demystifying the Arab Spring," Foreign Affairs 90, no. 3 (May/June 2011): 2-7; Bellin, "Lessons," 4.

(36) Kevin J. O'Brien and Suisheng Zhao, eds., Grassroots Elections in China (New York: Routledge, 2010).

(37) Neil J. Diamant, Stanley B. Lubman and Kevin J. O'Brien, eds., Engaging the Law in China: State, Society, and Possibilities for Justice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

(38) All figures quoted are valid percentages and therefore do not reflect respondents who were undecided or declined to answer. "East Asia Barometer 2005-2008 Mainland China Survey," JDS Data Bank,

(39) Ching Kwan Lee, Against the Law, 21.

(40) Goldstone, "Understanding the Revolutions."

(41) Anne-Marie Brady, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), 46-50, 80-83; Stanley Rosen, "Contemporary Chinese Youth and the State," Journal of Asian Studies 68, no. 2 (May 2009): 367.

(42) This focus is seen most clearly in the emphasis that President and CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao places on the need to build a "harmonious society" with a more equal distribution of wealth, more robust employment and improved public services. Maureen Fan, "China's Party Leadership Declares New Priority: 'Harmonious Society'," Washington Post, 12 October 2006.

(43) "East Asia Barometer 2005-2008."

(44) As with the East Asia Barometer Survey, all figures quoted are valid percentages and therefore do not reflect respondents who were undecided or declined to answer. "World Values Survey 2007 China Survey," World Values Survey,

(45) Zhao Ling, "Significant Shift in Focus of Peasants' Rights and Activism," China Elections and Governance, 3 September 2004, http://chinaelectionsblog.netf?p=14024.

(46) Rosen, "Contemporary Chinese Youth," 365-66; Guobin Yang, "The Internet and Civil Society in China: A Preliminary Assessment," Journal of Contemporary China 12, no. 36 (2003): 453-75.

(47) Patricia Thornton, "Censorship and Surveillance in Chinese Cyberspace: Beyond the Great Firewall," in Chinese Politics: State, Society, and the Market, ed. Peter Hays Gries and Stanley Rosen (New York: Routledge, 2010), 179-98.

(48) For example, on 15 April 2008, Chinese doctoral student Tang Jie posted a video on entitled "2008! China Stand Up!" (Zhongguo Zhanqilai). In its first ten days the six-minute film drew more than one million hits and tens of thousands of positive comments. The film intersperses castigation of CNN and pro-Tibetan foreign protesters with scathing criticism of Hu Jintao. Similarly, the popular website (angry/indignant youth) features a multitude of stories about government corruption. Teresa Wright, "China's Rising Generation: College-Educated Youth in the Reform Era," in New Dynamics in East Asian Politics: Security, Political Economy, and Society, ed. Zhiqing Zhu (New York: Continuum, forthcoming).

(49) lie Chen, Popular Political Support in Urban China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 79.

Teresa Wright is a professor of political science at California State University, Long Beach and chair of the Department of Political Science.
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Title Annotation:Inside the Authoritarian State
Author:Wright, Teresa
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Geographic Code:6TUNI
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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