Dingxin Zhao outlined the evolution of collective action in China between 1976 and the present at a recent talk cosponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies and the Asia Pacific Center.
By Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)
UCLA International Institute, June 07, 2017 — Speaking at a recent lecture sponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies and the Asia Pacific Center, Dingxin Zhao of the University of Chicago outlined three overlapping stages of protest in China that emerged between 1976 and the present, together with the social, political and economic factors that drove them.
Before outlining his argument, Zhao explained that the Chinese state encourages individuals to act alone in protest, as opposed to engaging in collective action in which individuals come together to voice criticism of or support for the state.
A threat to the regime’s stability
The first stage of collective action identified by Zhao, which occurred between 1976 and 1989, was characterized by large-scale protests against the state, often in response to the Cultural Revolution and, in later years, China’s movement towards a free-market economy. Protesters in this period generally assembled in hopes of attaining freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as well as to voice their support for democracy.
This stage was ushered in by a 1976 protest against Mao’s Cultural Revolution in Tiananmen Square, which resulted in the arrest of more than 4,000 people. The 1978–79 “Xidan Democracy Wall” movement, during which citizens plastered posters demanding democracy on Xidan Street in Beijing in the years following Chairman Mao’s death, was a similar collective action during this period, said the speaker. And the infamous 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, during which up to a million people gathered to express their dissatisfaction with Communist Party policies, was the capstone of the period.
“The state simply did not know how to deal with [collective action],” said Zhao. “Top leaders looked at these protests and saw a threat to their regime’s stability, which looked like another revolution.” Government officials accordingly opted to use force and repression to control these protests, most infamously in the case of the 1989 Tiananmen protests.
“Many Chinese [initially] thought the government would regress completely and go back to how it was under Mao [after Tiananmen],” said the sociologist. Despite the concerns of Chinese citizens, Zhao explained that various instances of state-sponsored progressive reform sponsored by the state after 1989 indicated that while Tiananmen Square had been a tragedy and clear instance of suppression, it did not definitively end all state-led reform.
Dingxin Zhao at the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)
Reactive protests to government reform
The second stage of protest, said Zhao, ran roughly between 1992 and 2002, when the massive bankruptcy of state-owned factories impoverished some 6 million individuals in the early 1990s. Nearly all of these people lived in regions far from Beijing and the central government. During this period, more localized protests occurred in rural parts of China and tended to be small to medium in scale. These instances of collective action often came in response to new economic policies and urban expansion projects of state governments, which frequently left rural regions without funds or resources.
Around the same time, the Chinese government decided to move the state health care system towards a free market model, which proved devastating for the many people who could no longer afford care or to access a hospital.
“There was a dismantling of [many government institutions], but shutting down the public medical system really affected everybody, and quite brutally,” said Zhao. Finally, a 1994 initiative to centralize the tax system forced citizens to pay taxes directly to state governments; previously, they had been required only to pay taxes to local governments.
“These changes in government policy didn’t affect Beijing or Shanghai much: after the modifications in the tax code, they got more money,” said Zhao. “But poor regions, regions which rely on taxes to encourage local factories and farms, no longer [offered] any incentives to citizens to pay taxes.” That is, money that locals had previously sent directly to their local governments was no longer invested in factories, hospitals and their communities.
Collective action during this stage, which the speaker described as “competitive and reactive,” included mass protests by laid-off factory workers and the beating and killing of tax collectors sent to rural farming regions. In the latter half of this period, Chinese citizens began to have more access to hand-held recording devices, with which they could record government officials.
“Reform [during this stage] localized and socialized many problems, because some areas of China did better than ever under these new policies,” Zhao explained. Central government officials were “able to pretend that they were the ‘good guys’ because the problems were ‘local,’” he said.
This second stage established what Zhao described as “a new way of responding to collective action across the board,” as the government sought to address public assemblies in less repressive ways and partially addressed protesters’ concerns.
Rights consciousness comes to shape collective action
The third stage of collective action, said Zhao, occurred between 2002 and 2012. “This stage is notable for a heightened sense of rights consciousness among Chinese citizens, especially the middle class, which was made possible by the increasing use of the internet and cell phones,” said the speaker. The growing influence of nongovernmental organizations in China and an overall higher standard of living also accelerated rights consciousness, he added.
As rights awareness became more widespread, protests became proactive and not reactive, said the speaker. Instead of assembling in response to government actions, citizens now voiced their support for welfare programs for the country’s poor, underdeveloped regions — an issue that did not necessarily directly affect them. Many Chinese protesters also assembled for migrant rights, community land rights and the rights of AIDS patients.
Cell phones, now increasingly commonplace, gave the public an ability to not only record the state’s actions, but to disseminate that information. As a result, the Chinese government was held accountable and protester’s demands were at least partially appeased, said Zhao.
Zhao theorized that Beijing’s desire to save face also factors into its increasingly accommodating responses to these kinds of collective action. And he believed that the central government would continue to try to appease protesters’ demands regarding the economic and social issues on which his presentation focused.
“[Government leaders] are selfish and have to show that they are doing well and respond to social pressure,” he said, explaining that Chinese officials pick and choose the issues they address based on pressure from the public. “I was just watching CCTV (China Central Television, a state-run television channel) and they were discussing new welfare programs for rural regions at length.” Zhao was hopeful that these programs, which he believed had resulted from collective action, would be successful in revitalizing underdeveloped regions of China and inspire Chinese citizens to continue voicing their concerns in public assemblies, paving the way for further progressive reforms.