Interpreting Protest in Modern China

Interpreting Protest in Modern China

When Americans on the Left—and in the Center and on the Right, for that matter—turn their attention to the issue of protest in contemporary China, they most often think back to the traumatic upheavals of 1989, which began with inspiring student-led demonstrations in April and May and ended with the June massacres. What they sometimes forget, though, is that many of the Chinese who contributed to the struggle and who suffered most in that year of miracles and tragedies were not students.

Some were young teachers, such as Liu Xiaobo, who is now world famous as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but who was then one of China’s rising stars in the field of literary criticism. Inspired by the bravery of student activists—as many journalists, schoolteachers, and professors were—he joined them at Tiananmen Square. Liu soon became one of the most impassioned voices within the movement calling for moderation; he strove to persuade the most militant students to avoid taking steps that would box the authorities into a corner and make it hard for any kind of compromise to be negotiated, even one that could be seen as a partial victory. In the end, Liu was among the last protesters to leave Tiananmen Square in the wee hours of June 4; as soldiers were firing on civilians nearby, he helped broker a deal that provided safe passage out of the plaza for many of the students who had remained there with him. He was later jailed for his alleged role as one of the inspirational “black hands” behind the movement, the first but not the last time he would end up a prisoner of conscience.

Other important participants in the 1989 uprising were neither students nor professionals but young workers. Members of this group were gunned down in greater numbers than were educated youths in the Beijing massacre and the related one that took place in Chengdu, one of Sichuan’s largest cities. And some of them too, like Liu Xiaobo and student leader Wang Dan, ended up serving extended prison terms. This was the case, for instance, with Han Dongfang, who played a key part in 1989 in forming one of the autonomous labor unions that partnered with the student unions springing up on campuses throughout China. One of the main reasons the Communist Party’s leaders called in the troops was because, with Solidarity’s rise in mind (that organization, ironically, won its first electoral victory on the very day of the Beijing massacre), they feared what first the East German authorities and later those in other state socialist settings referred to as the “Polish disease.” If that illness had a Chinese poster child, it was Han.

Flash forward twenty years and we find protests on the Chinese mainland again making headlines, but with a couple of important twists. It is true that there are continuities with 1989, relating to both the cast of characters involved and some of the issues. For example, one of the most important recent acts of dissent involved Liu Xiaobo—a leader of the Charter 08 petition drive. And in 2010, as in 1989, workers clamoring for greater rights and talking of the need for autonomous unions challenged the authorities (though Han, while still involved in labor activism, is now based in Hong Kong rather than the mainland). And now, as then, anger at official corruption fuels many protests. On balance, however, the contrasts with 1989 are more striking than the similarities.

MANY THINGS have changed since 1989, and to understand these shifts and the complexities of the current landscape of dissent, struggle, and state action in China, it is worth focusing on how differently the highest-profile protests of late 2008 and mid-2010 ended.

The 2008 protest took the form of an Internet petition drive calling for expanded civil liberties. Its name, the “Charter 08” struggle, honored a document, co-authored by Liu Xiaobo, which was modeled on Charter 77, crafted by Václav Havel and other Czech dissidents thirty years earlier. The effort led, on December 25, 2009, to Liu, still a gadfly critic of the government and a proponent of moderate rather than militant political action, being sentenced to eleven years in jail. He was called not a “black hand” this time, but rather someone guilty of “inciting subversion of state power,” due to his role in writing and promoting Charter 08, which to date has been signed by more than 8,000 supporters in China and abroad.

Popular media outlets in the West typically reported on Liu’s sentence as if it were business as usual in China. This is a perspective surely shaped by still-sharp memories of the violent crackdown of 1989. Westerners have grown to expect that protest and disorder will be met with government suppression and speedy trials for movement leaders. Some Chinese bloggers placed Liu’s conviction into a slightly longer historical frame. They called attention to the fact that Wei Jingsheng (one of the relatively small number of Chinese dissidents in exile to criticize the Nobel Peace Prize committee’s 2010 choice, arguing that someone less moderate than Liu would have been a better choice) had been sentenced to thirteen years for writing “The Fifth Modernization,” a famous manifesto of the Democracy Wall Movement (1978–1980). They asked rhetorically if all that China had accomplished was to become a place where speaking your mind led to a prison term that was twenty-four months shorter than it had been three decades ago.

Less than six months after Liu’s sentencing, when protests in China appeared in the news again, however, the outcome was very different—even though one part of the struggle, a call for autonomous unions, had 1989 echoes. The main site of the mid-2010 unrest was Honda car plants in the country’s southeast, where workers went on strike to demand higher wages and the right to form their own unions, complaining that the only legally recognized representative of worker interests in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), the state-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), was a spineless organization.

The Honda strikes came at a tense moment, for stories had begun to circulate of a rash of suicides by young workers who leaped to their deaths from buildings at the massive Foxconn plants in the same part of China. And the walkouts at these car plants soon inspired similar actions elsewhere in the country. Yet the government did not treat the strikers harshly, but rather took a largely hands-off approach, waiting for the unrest to fizzle, as it did within a few weeks.

The protests sparked sensationalist headlines in international newspapers, such as “Chinese Workers Challenge Beijing’s Authority” (Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2010) and “An Independent Labor Movement Stirs in China” (New York Times, June 10, 2010). Accounts like these gave foreign readers the impression that the strikes were more important and novel than they really were.

In fact, labor activism has a long tradition in China: work stoppages between the 1920s and 1940s were part of mass movements that helped propel the Communist Party to power, and there have been some important labor actions since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949—including a 1957 strike wave that Harvard political scientist Elizabeth Perry has written about at length. Exaggerated reports on the springtime strikes, even by some respected Western media outlets, not only effaced an important part of China’s past but encouraged readers to wait with bated breath for a government crackdown that never came. By mid-June, most workers, having gained material concessions but not the right to form independent unions, were back on the job, and the story of automakers in China had moved from the front pages to the business section (where one focus was the shift of factories to parts of the country with a larger labor surplus). The government had not taken any dramatic action.

Here we have two seemingly irreconcilable cases. The first is that of a single intellectual activist who was sentenced to more than a decade in jail for online activity, while the second is that of thousands of workers, spread out in many locales (there were strikes as far north as Shanghai and Tianjin, though most actions occurred in South China), taking to the streets in protest without suffering any obvious consequences. One way to make sense of this disparity is to understand this: in post-Tiananmen China, not all protests are created equal.

WITH THE Cold War and Tiananmen Square in mind, many Americans might assume that any disruptive action in China will draw the same government response. But authorities in Beijing appear to calibrate their reactions to protest according to a complicated calculus that involves questions of history, nationalism, ethnicity, and generation. It is not simply the size of a particular movement that matters (though that is certainly not insignificant), but also the issues it tackles, how well-organized those involved seem to be, and the targets of its proposals for change.

The May work stoppages were economic protests, but they also touched on issues of history and nationalism. We would expect that they were especially tricky for Beijing to negotiate, given the official narrative of the Chinese Revolution as a series of events that played out between the 1910s and 1949. This story line, which focuses on the leading role of the Communist Party in struggles against misgovernment at home and bullying from abroad, has been repeated continually in patriotic education campaigns during the past six decades, with particular emphasis more recently on the cruelty of Japanese imperialism. And it gets special attention in the media every time the anniversaries of sacred revolutionary events are marked.

One of these is the 1925 May 30th Movement—a struggle that began, as the 2010 strike wave did, with mid-May protests by Chinese workers at Japanese-run factories. The Honda protests were certainly not inspired by the events of 1925 (there were immediate causes rooted in pay rates and working conditions), but the timing clearly affected how some people in the PRC thought about the strikes and related issues such as the Foxconn suicides. (In early June, several mainland Web sites ran a commentary whose title can be translated as “The Honda Strikers and the Foxconn Leapers—Remembering the May 30th Movement.”) The timing created a situation in which it would have been very awkward for China’s leaders to be seen as siding with Japanese capitalists.

Popular unrest of many kinds poses a dilemma for the Communist Party because of the story it tells about the first half of the twentieth century. The Party boasts of being founded by participants in the May 4th Movement of 1919, which began with students marching in Beijing to decry Japanese imperialism and the immorality of Chinese officials. And it celebrates the leading role it played in subsequent struggles against foreign bullying and domestic misgovernment. This awareness of history explains why Chinese leaders were especially lenient when dealing with protests that could be framed as a struggle between Chinese actors and representatives of a country that was targeted during the 1925 anti-imperialist May 30th Movement.

Describing the strikes as a Chinese-versus-Japanese struggle enabled workers to draw on anti-Japanese sentiment that has been circulating in China. The workers were not just protesting against the foreign owners of their factory, they were taking aim at representatives of China’s one-time invader. The Honda work stoppages were almost unassailable, from the perspective of the CCP: to take action against striking workers would have been to contradict the party’s own narrative of legitimacy as well as appear sympathetic to the concerns of foreign factory owners. The “almost” in that phrase is important to remember, though, for had the isolated or at most loosely linked protests at various factories become more tightly connected and had talk of forming an independent union become a central rather than a subsidiary theme of the struggle, Beijing’s continuing fear of the “Polish disease” would have trumped its worry about seeming to side with Japanese factory owners against Chinese workers. Had the protests escalated rather than dissipated, the response would have been much tougher, with arrests of leaders and intimidation of followers, as happened during a 2002 strike wave in northeast China.

WHEN A protest highlights divisions within the Chinese nation, it almost always draws swift and harsh retaliation from the government. Two recent examples are the riots that broke out in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009. Government actions in both locations were immediate and decisive, demonstrating none of the wait-and-see attitude evident during the labor strikes of 2010. The reason for this disparity is clear: in both locations, residents took to the streets to express their discontent with Beijing’s treatment of these two “special autonomous regions” (SARs) and the ethnic minorities living within their borders.

A bit of history is necessary to explain the background to these present-day frustrations. Both Tibet and Xinjiang lie on China’s western border with inner Asia, and both have historically been the homes of ethnic groups (Tibetans in Tibet, Uyghurs in Xinjiang) sharing little in common with the Han Chinese of the east. Debates about the extent to which the regions “belong” to China are among the most fractious in the country: the government asserts that Tibet and Xinjiang have been integral parts of China for centuries, while Tibetans and Uyghurs claim that their homelands were not brought under Chinese control until more recent decades. Though officially granted the SAR designation and theoretically entitled to self-governance free of interference from Beijing, “autonomous” doesn’t describe the political reality. Attempts by Tibetans and Uyghurs to make Tibet and Xinjiang function more like independent states or even just to take a more active role in governing the regions, are regarded by Beijing as “splittism” (fenlie) and considered a threat to national security. Afraid of losing its control over the vast lands of Tibet and Xinjiang—together, the two regions represent approximately one-third of China’s territory—the government takes a harsh view of anyone speaking out against its right to rule these regions.

One way that leaders in Beijing have sought to consolidate their hold on Tibet and Xinjiang has been to encourage Han Chinese to migrate from the east as part of the government’s “Open Up the West” campaign. Intended to promote economic development in the far reaches of the country, the campaign is attacked by Tibetans and Uyghurs as internal colonialism, a government-approved way of pushing them to the margins of society as easterners grow wealthy.

The discontent this policy has fostered was visible in the Tibetan riots of March 2008, when police took action against hundreds of Buddhist monks in Lhasa attempting to commemorate the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising (which resulted in the Dalai Lama’s flight to India). As news of the stifled protest spread, Lhasa erupted in violence and Tibetans set fire to almost a thousand stores in the city owned by non-Tibetans, either Han Chinese or members of the Hui ethnicity, a Muslim group whose members can be found in many parts of China. Days of riots continued across the Tibetan plateau, followed by months of government restrictions on activities within the SAR.

A little more than a year later, in July 2009, the scene looked much the same in Xinjiang’s capital city of Ürümqi, as battles broke out between the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and protesting Uyghurs. A confrontation at a factory in southern China, in which Han and Uyghur workers had clashed and two Uyghurs had been killed, provided the spark that ignited those riots. Demonstrators in Xinjiang called for an official investigation into the two deaths, and the scene turned violent when the PAP arrived to end the protest. Several tumultuous days of demonstrations followed. Details are still sketchy, but the Chinese government’s official account states that the majority of those wounded and killed were Han targeted by Uyghurs.

In the aftermath of both these riots, the government arrested large numbers of Tibetans and Uyghurs. Dozens of those arrested received death sentences. The government also attempted to control the popular narrative concerning the riots, imposing communications blackouts in Tibet and Xinjiang and organizing official press junkets to both regions after tensions had eased. Fearful of the potential that ethnic violence has to divide the country, the Chinese government takes swift and sure action against protests that touch on the country’s treatment of ethnic minorities.

Though small in numbers relative to the rest of the country’s population, Tibetans and Uyghurs occupy an enormous space in the political minds of China’s leadership. This is evident each time unrest breaks out in the SARs, eliciting an almost immediate reaction from Beijing, whose leaders seek to maintain the official line of ethnic and political harmony in the country. While Beijing’s response to labor protests or online political activity might be hard to predict—it is highly dependent on context—demonstrations that threaten to expose ethnic tensions within the country are almost guaranteed to provoke a rapid and decisive reaction.

IN THE West, popular media coverage of China’s recent past often swings between two types of stories. There are those that emphasize how much and how quickly China has transformed itself in recent decades, in which journalists enthuse about skyscrapers in Shanghai and KFC in Kunming. And then there are stories that stress the endurance of the past, in which reporters remind their audiences of the tight control the CCP maintains over the media, the economy, and many other aspects of Chinese society. Readers might find themselves wondering: is the big story how much China has changed since the days of Mao—or how little?

When we make protest the focus of our analysis, we see how futile it is to ask this question. For while there are significant continuities in some story lines—the presence of figures like Liu Xiaobo and the harsh government response to certain demonstrations—in other cases we see clear signs of change. There are continuities with 1989, both with regard to repression and grievances—for anger at official corruption was a major driving force behind the Tiananmen protests and remains a common source of anger at the government to this day. There are also notable novelties.

One of the many examples of a shift in the winds is the rising importance of middle-class protests, of the sort that in the West are sometimes called NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) struggles. A notable case in point came early in 2008, when homeowners went on “strolls” of protest (they did not call what they did a march, as they strove to make it as nonconfrontational as possible) in central Shanghai. Their complaint was that they had not been consulted about a planned extension of the city’s superfast magnetic levitation (Maglev) train line—an extension that they argued would diminish the property values of their homes and perhaps pose a health risk to their families.

These Shanghai strollers, like other middle-class demonstrators in recent years (such as groups in Xiamen that sought the closure or relocation of a chemical plant near their homes), succeeded in achieving their goal without attracting much opposition from the government. This was in marked contrast to the protestors who took to the streets of Lhasa only weeks after the Shanghai demonstrations. Shanghai’s strollers were not only expressing their wishes through actions that were palatable to the government, but also making a more moderate request: that the government follow through on its stated goals of improving the quality of life of those it represents. These homeowners, in other words, were not challenging the legitimacy of the CCP’s rule, but simply asking that the party do a better job.

There are tens of thousands of protests in China each year, but the vast majority of them stay out of the headlines, both in China and overseas. They are typically small, localized demonstrations taking aim at specific problems or voicing concern over specific issues, and as such do not represent a threat to Chinese stability. Even protests that have a wider geographic appeal, such as this year’s labor demonstrations, can be treated lightly if the government does not feel its legitimacy is under fire and activists do not band together across class lines and regional divides. Activities, though, that draw or seem to have the potential to draw support across generations, across classes, and across the country—such as Charter 08—are much more threatening to the government. For when these unfold, it is not just foreign observers who recall the events of 1989, but also China’s leaders.


Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is editor of the “China Beat” blog/electronic magazine, a graduate student in history at the University of California, Irvine, and a past contributor to, the History News Network, and YaleGlobal.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history and chair of the department at the University of California, Irvine, and the author, most recently, of Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (2009) and China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (2010).