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China's Informal Democracy

The Unknown Political Participation within China

Ryan Bagley
Ryan Bagley
41 min read

Table of Contents

This paper was written as part of my Political Science bachelor’s thesis while attending Brigham Young University-Hawaii. My advisor was Michael Murdock.

Tiananmen Square Protests
Thousands of students from local colleges and universities march to Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on May 4, 1989, to demonstrate for government reform. AP Photo/Mikami


Over the past decade, the People’s Republic of China has experienced an exponential  growth in the frequency and size of what China’s Public Security Ministry calls “mass  incidents,” or commonly known as protests. According to the Security Ministry, over 87,000  mass incidents were reported in 2005 (Quek 2009). The amount reported in 2003 was fifty  percent less (Quek 2009). Such astonishing numbers show an undeniable evolution in Chinese  politics. On an ever-growing scale, it appears that Chinese citizens are turning to the political  medium of protests to have their voices heard.

The substantial growth in the amount of protests highlights two evolving  characteristics of Chinese political participation. The first is that protests must be seen as the  most viable way to politically participate because there are no other effective mediums. In a  nation where there are only local elections and citizens have no real weight on the national  scene it can cause problems. Large-scale protests are substantial methods in getting the  attention of officials where letters and petitions would not. The second characteristic of  changing Chinese political participation is the proliferation of this trend. The simple fact is  that these growing rates of protests are affecting all of China and do not specifically target one  region. Protests might occur more often in certain areas of China but in general vary across  economic, geographic, and ethnic boundaries. In all of my research, there were no single, unyielding overall trends.

Breaking from the historical stereotype of being a repressive government, bent on  squashing any dissenting protests, the People’s Republic of China has entered a new era of  cooperation and flexibility. Where the government would normally clamp down with  violence, officials are listening and attempting to fulfill protestor’s requests. In some instances after protests had successfully swayed the government to act in their favor, official agents promised in the future to consult the public by going door to door (Jianmin, Pan 2009).  Other cases included millions of dollars of planned projects being moved, put on hold, or  heavily modified as a direct result of widespread popular protesting. Another case involved an  entire industrial park of a city being closed wholly because of civilian protests (Cody 2005).  To the cynical eye, such cases appear as exceptions to the normal outpouring of repressive  measures used by Chinese military and police that are frequently published in the  international media. Over the years, the average media reader has been put under a barrage of  stories describing the horrific actions taken against protesters in China. This is due to the  Western media’s focus on sensational and confrontational stories that sell. Despite this, the  fact that these cooperative cases even exist is evidence to the evolving nature of the political  process throughout the nation of China. The concessions protests are obtaining from the  government every few weeks would be completely unheard only a few years ago.

Again, drawing upon the cynical eye, it might appear that the rapidly growing amount  of protests within the nation of China signals a broader trend of social instability. This might  even go as far to triggering a loss of the government’s power and control over the nation.  Rather than fortifying this perspective, the range of cases researched show the opposite. In  every case except one, the reasons for protesting consisted of no anti-government sentiment  aimed at any sort of revolution. Even with corruption cases, officials accused by protestors were not identified with the government, which strives to maintain party integrity. The most  common reasons for protests were domestic and one-issue problems. These problems never  really put the protesters in direct confrontation to the government in a manner where the citizens wanted to overthrow the regime. As we will see later, Chinese citizens desire stable and conservative living.

Even with a growing trend of government cooperation, officials and police still strive  to maintain public order. Protestors that do handle themselves in violent ways are accordingly arrested to keep the public safe and to stop damages (Eckholm 2002). This is a far  departure from the precedent in China where simply presenting a dissenting opinion  warranted an arrest or internment at a re-education camp. When Chinese citizens can present  their demands to the public by protesting, even though it might contrast the government’s  goals, they are in essence as politically evolved as any other Western nation.

The status China is reaching is completely democratic but not in the traditional, Western definition. Through protests, the nation of China has reached a point where popular  movements matter. Officials have started to recognize the importance of maintaining political  stability and so are making concessions to achieve that end. Although they are non representative and informal, the growing number of protests embodies the method in which  citizens can essentially vote. Protests that are successful have made China an informal  democracy wherein the people can enact popular change.

Beijing's new Letters & Visits Office - near the South 4th Ring Road. Source: Elizabeth M. Lynch

Petitions and Protests Within China: Imperial and Republic

As one of the most advanced ancient civilizations in the world, some of the imperial dynasties of China had a simple method of governmental petitioning. More or less a formal letter, xinfang and shangfang, or “Letters and Visits” was a form of extrajudicial action  according to Elizabeth Lynch (2010). If a citizen experienced any sort of problem not solvable  by a lower ranking official, they would write these requests to higher officials with more  authority to decide on the case (Lynch 2010). The concept is that citizens whom have experienced corruption or negligence on the local level still maintain belief that a national, or  federal official would be better. This would ensure a regime to last for a significantly longer  amount of time. Modern democracies have adopted this ideology when citizens send letters to  congressional representatives and other officials. Petitions are not as new as Western  democracy but have existed for thousands of years throughout many Chinese dynasties.

Following the last imperial government, the Qing dynasty, the system of petition was  largely not used because of the tumultuous nature of power in the Chinese region. From 1911  to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, residents within China had no  singular government to petition. With the formation of the PRC the petition system was  reincorporated but was undoubtedly highly regulated as the Chinese Communist Party sought  to solidify opinion. Over the next sixty years the institution of petitioning continued but also  grew into the modern problem it is today.

Even though petitions have been useful for such a great length of time, the  contemporary backlog of “Letters and Visits” has choked any chance of resolution for petitioners. According to Chinese statistics, as related by Elizabeth Lynch, the petitioning  system in China receives roughly “five million petitions each year…many outside China  consider it more around ten million…[and] is largely a failure” (2010). With the inundation of  petitions, many citizens never resolve their claim and “are there for years” (Lynch 2010).  Given a system so overwhelmed and unresponsive, the best way people have discovered to be  heard is to create a protest that attracts the public’s attention. This is normally the last method  since it is the most confrontational and dangerous but in some cases is easily progressed due  to the bureaucratic tie-ups of petitioning. In the city of Huaxi, which will be discussed later,  protestors attempted to use all other forms before using protests (Cody 2005). In a sense, Chinese citizens have reinvested their political communication by using protests when  petitions are problematic. Chinese culture in itself might demand some sort of outlet for  demands on authority and with one method exhausted they have utilizing another.

A "lawyer" of sorts to help others with the petitioning process - Beijing, China. Source: Elizabeth M. Lynch

State of the New Political Medium

The method of protesting in China has changed entirely from decades earlier. Not only  is there a significant growth in the occurrence of protests but the tactics used on both sides are  becoming extremely sophisticated. According to Murray Tanner, the amount of protests  reported from 1993 to 1999 grew 268% (2004). In no year did the growth of protests fall  below nine percent and even spiked to 25 and 67 percent in 1997 and 1998, respectively  (Tanner 2004). A few years later between 2003 and 2005 the amount of protests increased  another fifty percent in a matter of only two years (Quek 2009). Such inordinate growth  signals that something is indeed occurring within the political system of China that cannot be  easily reversed. No nation experiences such altering statistics without some sort of significant  change in the political relationship between citizens and government. This could also, more  specifically, be the unwritten expectations each party has for the other.

The total unchecked growth in modern protests China is experiencing could be a result  of many reasons. As mentioned before, the largely useless system of petitions has turned  citizens to another way in communicating their grievances to the government. Another reason  could be based on the idea of the “snowball” effect. When only one protests succeeds in  achieving its aim, others look to their example as hope that their own goals can be reached through government concession. Once another protest succeeds the cycle continues,  especially on a regional level such as with protests in the Taishi, where protests spread to  other nearby villages (Cody 2005). An additional reason lies in the technologically advancing  state of China. With the plethora of civil projects such as the Three Gorges dam and the  nation wide high-speed bullet train project, the displacement of citizens is unavoidable.  Compare this to periods of time decades ago when such large projects were unheard of. The final reason might be that the levels of dissatisfaction and corruption have risen in China  during recent years. This reason also plays into using protests as an alternative source for  communication but more specifically shows the fundamental problem of the current system.  Dissatisfaction would explain the rise in protests because citizens are not normally in contact  with core government functionaries. So they must turn to other means to achieve satisfaction. Despite the rising amount of protests there have also been changes in the way  Chinese people and police approach protests.

Police Attitude: Foundational Tremors

Police have begun to treat protests differently over the past few years with their own  specific aims at maintaining social stability. According to Murray Tanner, in an unusually  transparent way, police are acknowledging cases of protest where before their existence was  simply denied (2004). Also, in an effort to target the cause of protests, police come into  contact with citizens before demonstrations are held. In any of China’s major cities these  tactics include “employee buy-offs, repression, and divide and conquer tactics that any  historian of Carnegie, Pinkerton and the early U.S. labor movement would instantly  recognize” (Tanner 2004). This is a brilliant tactic utilized by the police of China. By  targeting individuals, police separate the broad popular movement into manageable sections.  Handling these small sections is much easier than facing the full popular movement that  might consist of upwards to sixty thousand angry protestors. Without the mass crowds of  fellow supporters, many individuals would crack under police pressure during a violent three  on one engagement. Even with these questionable tactics, police also realize the situation the  nation is in.

Chinese police know that violence is not the solution to ending protests and the use of  these tactics, such as combating anti-government demonstrations, are no longer justified. Police are “conceding that protest [are] widespread and [they] enjoy growing popular sympathy” according to Murray Tanner (2004). Furthermore they are “scrambling to learn new anti protest techniques aimed at containing and defusing, rather than brutally squelching,  demonstrations” (Tanner 2004). Specifically from the change in popular opinion, the police of  China have altered their actions accordingly. It is unsure whether the source of this change  originated in the previously mentioned popular sympathy or official government instructions  that could have in turn been influenced by popular sympathy. Undoubtedly it was a  combination of all the above but looking at anything popular that influenced the entire system  means something reached its mark. Besides the use of less violence, police and officials are  increasingly aware that most protests are not aimed against the government. Modern Chinese  police “increasingly admit that most demonstrators are motivated by legitimate grievances  against rapacious managers and corrupt local officials, and are not just pawns of anti Communist conspirators (Tanner 2004). This is a significant impact on perspective for the  police where in the era of Tiananmen Square, some protestors were seen as the enemy to the  state. Now that police and government officials realize these citizens have credible grievances  not aimed at revolution, it would be much easier for them to help them or step aside if directly  confronted. It would also make it much harder for police to use violent repressive tactics on a  group with a cause they would champion themselves if caught in the situation. This change in  the definition and perception of protests has changed the whole way in which the government  deals with them. Although violent cases still occur, such as the one in Taishi in late 2005, they  are certainly on the decline compared to previous decades. What matters most is that the relationship between police and protestors has changed dramatically, which would allow for  new, unprecedented outcomes.

Tiananmen Square Protests Dense Crowd
A truck is almost buried in people as it makes its way through the crowd of thousands gathered in Tiananmen Square in a pro-democracy rally, on May 17, 1989. AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami


As the police have evolved to deal with protests, so have citizens in becoming  effective at protesting. Protestors have abandoned their tactics of “deliberately small-scale,  self-contained [methods] they adopted in the 1990s to avoid repression” (Tanner 2004) and are expanding in the opposite way. In a growing trend, protests no longer fear the wide  sweeping arm of the government because the government no longer acts that way. The  consequences and punishments must have lessened or been less frequently utilized for  something such as this to happen. Also, the government fears social instability. Going  opposite of the 1990s, “protests are expanding in average size, becoming more organized and  confrontational, and increasingly link demonstrators from several workplaces or  neighborhoods” (Tanner 2004). It is astonishing to read such a change in the social scene in a  matter of only a decade or two. Protestors are going against everything that made them  survive a few years ago in what seemingly is now the successful method. This type of  boisterous behavior further reveals not only the change in Chinese citizens but also their perception of the government and what they expect from it.

Being able to organize large movements that are confrontational without being swiftly  repressed by police speaks volumes about the recent transformation of the government.  Without the government of two decades ago, Chinese protests are becoming more confident  and expectant of their ability to demonstrate. A popular saying in China says, as related by  Murray Tanner, “Causing a big ruckus wins you a big solution; a small ruckus wins a small  solution; and without a ruckus, you get no solution” (2004). This has never been truer for Chinese citizens wishing to have their voices heard. Passing up methods such as the messy  State Bureau of Letters and Calls that can last years (Lynch 2010), citizens turn to a medium  that has been increasingly successful. There are really no other ways for citizens to grab the  attention of senior officials. Protests are then probably the most significant modern method of  viable political participation for Chinese citizens on matters above the local level or in the  case of local corruption, the only method.

Weighty Political Medium

Today in China, protests are a significant medium in which citizens can be heard. Not  only are protests “heard” by local officials, but also are often the tools used to reach a national  audience. In addition to a national audience, protests are more able to reach the international  theater with improvements in technology. Analysts and undergraduate researchers like myself  look to protests in China as representations of trends and political transformations. It is  certainly easier to look at exponentially growing trends of social demonstrations than the  closed doors of the Chinese Communist Party. In the words of Wu Xian following a protest in  Xiamen that moved a 1.4 billion dollar chemical facility, “The protest increased people’s  awareness about democracy. People now know they can express their opinions and be heard”  (Bristow 2008). Although this statement is probably unique to the situation in Xiamen, which  will be discussed later, the mentality of that existing in China is surreal. The term surreal  perfectly describes someone’s reaction to such a statement after studying the politics of China  only fifteen years ago. With protestors’ modern successes there do exist specific parameters  that add effectiveness to demonstrations.

In probably the most obvious characteristic of effective protests, having a large  attendance is absolutely necessary. With no protestors there is no protest. The more individuals that are part of the protest the more important it seems to local, national, and  international viewers. This comes from basic democratic theory wherein the more people who  support an idea the more “fit” it seems. If ten people in a city wanted a cleaner public  transportation system and demonstrated, it would hardly matter to the government or media.  Instead, if close to a thousand or even ten thousand demonstrated, the amount of attention and  weight behind the protest increases dramatically over the previous example. This proves to be  the result in nearly all the successful protests that obtained government concessions.

Outnumbered in Huaxi

In the city of Huaxi, China, a protest erupted in the middle of 2005 following the  chronic pollution from a nearby industrial park of mostly chemical plants that produced  plastics. Following two weeks of a sort of camp sit-in, where elderly protestors occupied an  industrial park with tents (Cody 2005), a crackdown of 3,000 police occurred. The elderly  protestors had pitched tents in an effort to stop the pollution of the 82.3-acre park that the city  had opposed from the beginning but had been forced in by municipal authorities (Cody 2005).  In response to the crackdown, 20,000 peasants from the immediate region descended on the  industrial park where police were tearing down tents and dispersing the elderly demonstrators.  A battle ensued once the two groups made contact and the protestors “were in no mood to  bow to authority” following four years of claims that the park had been causing significant  environmental damage (Cody 2005). Since the protestors outnumbered the police  significantly, the battle was won in the demonstrators favor and the industrial park was once  again occupied. After police fled, protestors wrecked and flipped over cars. Comically, when  migrant workers snuck into the courtyard later that day to scavenge for parts among destroyed  vehicles, villagers called the police but they refused to respond (Cody 2005). With the industrial park once again under the control of the protestors, demonstrations continued until headway was made into closing the park.
Six of the thirteen factories were ordered to move out of Huaxi for good and officials  organized groups that went around to peasant homes, urging them to stop their protests (Cody 2005). Once some of these conditions were met, the tents were taken down at the parks but  “activists said they put the town council and officials on notice that if the factories started  operating again, the tents [would] go back up” (Cody 2005). The audacity for these activists  to threaten the government correlates with the invulnerable group mentality they had during  the height of demonstrations. Rather than use extremely repressive tools, such as the military,  officials are using surgically precise, smaller three on one tactics that were discussed in the  last section. Even though police have vowed to begin an investigation into whom the leaders  of the riots were, they will certainly be careful in conducting themselves.

Following a drawn out ordeal that eventually ended in the industrial parks closure, the  significance of numbers is demonstrated. Although this case is more of an overwhelming  force of numbers it nonetheless signaled a distinct and popular opinion that the government  had to respect. In two aspects the government had to respect the decision of the people, both  in the incapacity to stop the protests, and the overwhelming popular majority. Going against  the popular majority on the scale of Huaxi would create a fiasco the government has no desire  to seek. Not to mention, the requests these protestors made are moderately reasonable  and non-revolutionary. Nothing is really inherently changed in the power and legitimacy of  the CCP by removing polluting factories next to a village. No one wants to live next to an  eighty-acre industrial park that is destroying the local environment. The only thing threatening  the government in this case is the snowball effect where other cities and villages demand that their needs are met. The number of those attending protests really influenced the types of  decisions the government faced and was a factor in Huaxi. With more protestors, the success  of the demonstrations becomes more realistic.

Another characteristic of effective protests is the ability to draw attention to the  demonstration. The whole point of protesting is to draw attention to an issue and the more  attention you garner, the more successful the protest. Attention is gained from many things  including the amount of people protesting, property damage you inflict, number of people  who know about the protest, and the sensational worthiness of the incident causing the  protest. Within the recent history of China, attention was not as attractive with the repressive  nature of the government concerning ideology contrary to the Chinese Communist Party. But  now with the growing proliferation of protests, unprecedented cooperation of the government,  and rapid communication with new technology, increased attention only legitimizes a protest.  The target audience of attention may be something only above the local or municipal  government but could even include the international theater. At different levels the attention  certainly equals a different response. A corruption protest covered by the media in the same  province does not gain much effective attention. Comparatively, an incident broadcasted  around the world draws both international pressure and the complete attention of national  leaders.

Even the national attention of the Chinese Communist Party can be valuable if  officials are willing. After a protest involving tens of thousands of people in the city of  Liaoyang, China, a team of “anti graft investigators” was sent to the city (Eckholm 2002). This  act resulted in the arrest of several officials originally named in the protest. In another protest  involving tens of thousands, farmers demonstrated to obtain better compensation after a dam was planned that would flood their land. Thereafter, the Pubugou dam project in the Sichuan  province was put on hold by the intervention of the central government and a party official  was sacked (Lim 2004). This is not always the case as the Tibetan protests before the 2008  Olympics in China show. Protestors experienced a fierce violent crackdown despite  worldwide attention. This might change as China continues to integrate itself into the global  economic and political scene where it does not want to sever potential trade deals with  sensitive nations.

Jumping ahead in an effort to steal the attention of senior officials on the national  scene is not what protestors do regularly. Lower methods of calling on the government are far  easier and less dangerous for both citizens and police. During the industrial park protest in  Huaxi, China, villagers wrote an open letter to the municipal government following the leak  of a confidential report. In this report Party Secretary Wang Wei warned, “pollution from the  industrial park was a danger to residents and agriculture” (Cody 2005). Even with this  evidence the municipal government “turned a deaf ear” (Cody 2005). Following the municipal  rejection, villagers sent a delegation to the Zhejiang provincial headquarters in Hangzhou and  Beijing. In Beijing, the delegation left petitions at the “premier's” office and the State  Environmental Protection Administration” (Cody 2005). Again the villagers were rejected and  turned to the previously discussed protests. What this pre-case highlights is the last resort use  of protests. Most individuals do not go outside with a sign and overturn cars after they are  wronged; they usually seek normal methods of resolution. Chinese citizens are attempting to  communicate with the government with various concerns and are not able to have them heard.  A potential solution to forestalling these epic protests is opening up the petition system the  protestors could not utilize in the Huaxi case. For the economic middle class in China, they are already familiar with how useless the lower system is and sometimes leap directly to  protests.

Middle Class: Protestors Poster Child

Among any group of protestors in China, none are more effective than the affluent  middle class. Rising from poverty over the last few decades, the Chinese middle class has  filled the role of the nation’s growing economy. The Chinese Academy of Social Science’s  report in 2004 defined the middle class as “families with assets valued from 150,000  [$18,137] to 300,000 yuan [$36,275]” (Zhigang 2004). Members of the Chinese middle class  are able to do more than comfortably survive; they increasingly have modern appliances, luxury cars, and homes. With this increasing affluence, certain demands upon the government  begin to form from the middle class. These demands are generally based in a desire for a  “more sustainable and healthy development of the Chinese economy” (Zhigang 2004) for  whatever specific reason. For a growing middle class, “the moderate and conservative  ideology of the main stratum tends to be accepted as the mainstream ideology of a society and  thus helps safeguard social stability by forcing out extremism” (Zhigang 2004). With this  explanation it is easier to view the “mass-incident” growth in China in a much safer  perspective.

Members of the middle-class see actions outside of the moderate spectrum and wish to  move back to something stable and moderated. Such incidents include both protests in  Shanghai or Xiamen where projects were introduced that would negatively affect many  citizens. In either case, property values of citizens would be extremely depreciated if the  proposed projects were built. For any workingman with or without a family, this would prove  unnecessarily uprooting. Getting kicked out of a house you just managed to get financing for or abandoning a symbolic “home” structure is far from stable. These cases will be discussed  below. Besides the desire for the mainstream, middle class citizens also want a voice in the  decisions affecting them. This is fulfilled either through government consultation or in the  form of protest demonstrations.

In addition to middle class citizens demanding more from the government they are  also gaining much more respect from officials because of their importance. The middle class  in China is significantly wealthier than the majority of the rest of the nation. Economic  incentives for officials are thus an important motivation in keeping the middle class happy or  satisfied. The government cannot easily brush aside individuals who make the economy run,  unlike poor peasants. Additionally, the occupations of many middle class workers are of  necessity to the efficiency of a community or a region. Take all middle class workers out of  the city’s economy for a day during a protest and officials will certainly see the negative  effects on the economy. This method could even work if the protests' political clout with  officials is small. By taking hostage of the economy through mass absence, attention for a  cause would rapidly be gained. With all the important factors associated with the middle class  in its relation to society in general it is no wonder the following cases ended how they did. In  both Xiamen and Shanghai the emerging power of the middle class played a substantial role  in their positive outcomes. Looking at both of these cases dramatically illustrates the possible  picture of a future China and where the majority of political power rests.

Xiamen “has listened to the opinions expressed”

In the eastern province of Fujian, the city of Xiamen experienced a mass incident of its  own in early 2008. Following a request by the government for the public opinion of a planned  petrochemical plant in the southeastern part of town, there were “mass demonstrations” (Beck 2008) and public opposition. Exact numbers are unclear over the multiple accounts of the  demonstration but were enough to create a situation that was “almost out of control” and  included “thousands” (Beck 2008) when a government building was attacked. In addition to  demonstrations, the use of modern technology was used to oppose the construction of the  chemical plant. According to USA Today, nearly one million text messages were sent in  “protesting possible pollution dangers” (2007). Despite the fluff that text messages might  appear as, they are still a part of the demonstration process, if only at a lesser level of  importance and effectiveness.

The Xiamen protests were also different in another way because they involved more  than the usual poor peasants. Protesters included “Xiamen’s rising middle class, who are  educated, wealthy, and less willing to meekly accept government orders” (Bristow 2008). A  sense of environmental awareness also comes from the middle class besides those who  concentrate on it entirely. An individual surnamed Lin said during the Xiamen incident that,  “economic development is fine, but not if it damages our environment and health” (Bristow 2008). The more realistic reason behind environmental concern is the property damage such  projects are usually associated with. When the chemical plant was announced, an area near  the planned location experienced a crash in real estate prices. Once the plant was effectively  cancelled, real estate prices doubled in a matter of months (Bristow 2008). This goes back to  the notion of a moderated, stable environment the middle class desires. Someone who recently  put all his or her finances into a home and is threatened by a large project, such as Mrs. Lin,  does not want their “investment damaged” (Bristow 2008). In an effort to avoid situations  Mrs. Lin experienced and the public anger, officials are increasingly consulting the public. Such a public caring request by the government is rare in China. Not only did the  government invite the public to express their opinions but conducted several more  environmental assessments to explore the chemical plant’s impact. In an uncharacteristic way,  the government of China might becoming more aware of the environmental impact of its  rapid industrialization. USA Today notes that, “the…government, long indifferent to the environmental cost of China’s economy, has become more sensitive to pollution complaints  after accidents that polluted rivers…disrupting water supplies to major cities” (2007). This perhaps reveals governmental experiences with past protests due to problems that could have  easily been changed. Since the government in Fujian province was so careful in planning a  chemical plant within Xiamen they must have had trouble with earlier projects. Previous  projects must have caused damaging pollution that triggered protests or construction began on  industrial plants without moderate public approval. Both of these reveal the level of care  officials are handling themselves with in order to meet public satisfaction.

After Xiamen, officials saw the response to their public opinion invitation, and were then aware of the broad public opposition to the project. Rather than going against an opinion,  which had obviously been displayed, officials decided to scrap the chemical plant. Ding  Guoyan, a deputy mayor, was quoted by a news agency in China saying, “The city  government has listened to the opinions expressed and has decided, after careful deliberation,  that the project must be re-evaluated” (USA Today 2007). Again, this signals a growing  awareness of Chinese officials concerning popular opinion. With public consultation, officials  are either afraid of a large public backlash or the trouble it brings. In any way, it signals a  heightening and warming relationship between citizens and government.

Shanghai Bullet Train

As part of China’s $300 billion dollar high-speed bullet train planned to link a  majority of the east coast and sections of the interior, a link in Shanghai became a problem.  The particular section that caused a public response was a connection from Shanghai to the  southern city of Hangzhou and ultimately ended in a change of the train’s route (Powell 2009). The main claim of protestors was that the planned route of the train was too close to  their homes. The proximity to their homes caused three problems in the eyes of protestors.  One was that the train, which was a magnetic levitation train, would cause health problems  from effects due to the strong magnets used on the train. Second, was that property values  would plunge next to the route where the train would travel more than 220 miles per hour.  The final reason was that the government did not consult the public as to whom the route of  the train would affect (Kurtenbach 2009). In the end the route of the train was changed to  avoid the most densely populated areas. Protestors actually “created enough of a ruckus that  Premiere Wen Jiabao himself interceded and forced a change in the lines route” (Powell 2009). This entire incident breaks with the Chinese precedent of handling disputes raised by  its citizens.

It has been the practice of the government to ignore these disputes outright for much  of the past decade. Shanghai, which has a population of only twenty million, has “relocated  millions for urban renewal projects” (Kurtenbach 2009). Outside of Shanghai million more  have undoubtedly been relocated for government projects. It is interesting that this specific  case was able to successfully achieve their cause when others have obviously failed. The most  appropriate explanation is a lucky combination of events, timing, and the characteristics of the  protestors. Many of the protestors were middle class citizens, with “increasing affluence, [that] left many residents expecting more opportunities to be heard” (Kurtenbach 2009).  Additionally, protestors have been utilizing other mediums to garner support for the  demonstrations. These include being able to comment on a city government website (Chan,  Klamann 2008) and meetings with local officials (Kurtenbach 2009). With all of these  contributing factors the protestors were able to draw a positive response from the government  and succeed.

Social Stability: Primary Goal

The most important goal for any successful government is achieving social stability.  Without social stability little else can be achieved. This is not absolute social stability, as there  are an infinite amount of reasons for people to not be satisfied with the government. Instead,  the goal of achieving social stability is met by a majority of the population. With a majority of  people happy with the government, the problems that would occur with larger ratios of  instability would not plague the nation. The healthy ratio cannot be measured the same across  many nations but is uniquely individual. For the government of the People’s Republic of  China, however, attaining this ratio has lately been difficult. The growing phenomenon of  “social unrest…is seen by the ruling Chinese Communist Party as the biggest challenge to its  rule” (Quek 2009). In the government’s attempt to remedy this problem the recent success of  so many protests are revealed. More often, demonstrators and protesters in China are getting  what they want because of the threat of social unrest. Internal studies in China have even  cautioned officials to comply with protests to avoid social unrest. Dr. Wang Erping from the  Chinese Academy of Sciences said, “scholars researching the phenomenon have advised  China’s leaders since 2005 to listen more to the voices and complaints of the ordinary people  in order to minimize unrest” (Quek 2009). What results is the strangely formed political situation that modern China has developed. Although China is not as regimented as other  Western nations, it seems to have adopted a type of informal democracy that has, so far,  yielded powerful results.

For China to have moved from the type of government it was during the Mao Zedong  years to the increasingly co-operational one of today is tremendously significant for world  politics. Not only does providing greater cooperation change politics internally but it may also influence international politics. It is only a matter of time before substantial influence is  communicated to Chinese leaders on dissatisfactory foreign affairs decisions. Of course this  new power can and will probably move to other areas of normally governmental  responsibility. But for now, protests are simply achieving small, local goals. Even on this  scale the transformation of China seems readily apparent. The West continually condemns the  Chinese for being undemocratic but in fact they are moving to an informal democracy very rapidly. In all the  cases discussed in this paper, the use of democracy has already been achieved. These popular  protests have affected the decisions of government entities to a desired end result.

Pro-democracy protesters link arms at Tiananmen Square
Pro-democracy protesters link arms to hold back angry crowds, preventing them from chasing a retreating group of soldiers near the Great Hall of the People, on June 3, 1989 in Beijing. Protesters were angered by an earlier attack upon students and citizens using tear gas and truncheons. People in the background stand atop buses used as a roadblock. AP Photo/Mark Avary

Organic Democracy

Influencing governmental decision making by issuing a popular opinion is a loose but  viable definition of democracy. Despite the medium used, something other than filling out a  ballot can still be a popular opinion. If anything, attending a protest lasting longer than a few  days and involving potentially violent consequences shows more commitment. Chinese  citizens must profoundly believe in whatever their cause might be to participate in something  so dangerous. Growing up in China, all citizens must have seen the long precedent of violent  government suppression. Compare this to any other dusty Western democracy where a piece  of paper is checked in a matter of minutes in order to vote. Often, the majority of citizens do not even vote. Certainly the growing trend in China is significantly more organically  democratic than most other Western nations. When Chinese citizens decide to become  committed to a cause they are much more dedicated than their Western counterparts because  of the tremendous risk. This commitment will provide protests that citizens are genuinely  supportive of and will avoid superfluous political battles often seen in the West.

The goals that Chinese citizens campaign for will not be radical and in fact will be  moderated to the mainstream middle class political ideology as previously covered. This is  half the reason that officials in China are not fighting against this growing movement of  informal democracy. The needs and desires of Chinese citizens are not as radical as the  Chinese Communist Party has historically resisted and suppressed. All Chinese citizens want is a comfortable, conservative, and stable life. The other half of the reason is that the  government can really do nothing about it. If the government did have the capability to ignore  the common people they certainly would in order to benefit from fulfilling their own goals.  But quiet the opposite is true, as the Chinese government is increasingly growing limber in  accommodating the demands of protesters.

Flexible Communists

When a nation that squashed student protests with tanks nearly two decades ago has  now moved a billion dollar chemical plant after demonstrations, something has changed.  Moving from Tiananmen Square to the relocation of a chemical plant in Xiamen has been a  long road for the nation of China. At this point, the communist regime has never been so  cooperative with its own citizens. This cooperation has not been the rare exception but has  been a growing trend. Besides the cases mentioned in previous sections, there are many  other protests that the Chinese government has listened to and has resolved in favor of demonstrators. Not only is the government more responsive to the demands of its citizens, it is  increasingly flexible in fulfilling those demands. Either out of a heightened respect for the  needs of civilians or the fear of social instability, the government has abandoned the precedent  of nearly its entire existence. Regardless of the motivation behind the government being so  flexible is the fact that it is indeed cooperative when historical precedent should deny it.

In the previously discussed cases of Xiamen and Shanghai, the economic costs in  complying with protestors were enough to make the government seem almost benevolent. The  Xiamen chemical plant that had to be moved due to popular protests was a 1.4 billion dollar  facility according to USA Today (2007). In the city the plant was later built, the cost for the  plant was 2.6 billion dollars (Jacobs 2009). In addition to other costs, abandoning construction  and moving the facility to a different city certainly accounted for a portion of the 1.2 billion  dollar increase. For the project to even be approved for the new city of Chengdu, a portion of  the construction budget had to be dedicated to ecological safeguards. Once this was promised  the project continued with six percent of the budget dedicated to environmental protection  (Jacobs 2009). Six percent of 2.6 billion turns out to be $156 million dedicated to avoiding the  problem that got it kicked out of Xiamen. In Shanghai the government compensated residents  who were in the path of the train’s route and were provided with new apartments (Kurtenbach 2009). This does not even cover the amount it cost the government to change the train’s route.  In these two cases alone, billions of dollars were lost to the government and private  companies to comply with protestors. If the Chinese government’s respect for their citizens  could be quantified by monetary amounts, both these and the following cases would be  surprising to any critical observer.

Despite the subsequent cases being neither chronologically or geographically cohesive  they are nonetheless representative of the government’s investment into the desires of its  citizens. The most recent case involves attempted forced evictions of artists in Beijing by  developer’s thugs. After a publicized protest the local government compensated the artists  within the district six million Yuan, or $880,000 dollars (Tao 2010). Beside an out of  character compensation, the local government vowed to start an investigation, install security  cameras, repair damaged property, and protect the artists from future attack (Canaves 2010).  In another case of protests opposing a planned chemical plant in Chengdu, $565 million  dollars of the total project costs were relocated for environmental protection (Wong 2008).  Additionally, the parent company stated, in an attempt to gain public support, “the Sichuan  refinery project will install advanced equipment and improve environmental protection  facilities with strict pollution preventions” (Wong 2008). Such measures by industry are  extremely costly and dramatically reduce the profit margin.

Sometimes entire projects are closed entirely. In Hunan province, the city of Liuyang  closed their chemical factory “forever”-following protests of cadmium pollution (Le, Pomfret 2009). Highlighting the case of Huaxi again, it is important to note that the entire industrial  park closed directly from protests by residents (Cody 2005). Also, in the city of Nansha, a five  billion dollar oil refinery and petrochemical plant was moved after protests from the  community (Shanghai Daily 2009). The economic significance of all these cases yields  powerful insights into the government’s flexibility. Some are more economically logically  than others such as the cadmium pollution incident. The amount of public health damage and  political anger were not at all equal amounts in terms of absolute costs. More often than not,  though, the costs to fulfill public demands were tremendously substantial.

Garbage incinerators are also another hot topic in China as the government struggles  to handle the growing urban populations with adequate garbage disposal. In the cities of  Guangzhou, Beijing, and Quanzhou all planned projects faced trouble. Following a significant  protest in Guangzhou the planned incinerator project was put on hold so that officials could  start a half-year long consultation process with the public (Jianmin, Pan 2009). The closure of  the plant not only costs money to abandon construction but also adds costs to maintain other  types of garbage disposal processes. In the time it takes to install another garbage disposal  process, it will cost the government a lot of money to keep the city moderately clean. In the  city of Quanzhou, residents protested a polluting water treatment plant. The government  responded by promising a reinforcement of environmental cooperation, a full environmental  assessment, and free medical aid for those affected (Xinhua 2009). All of these measures were  significantly costly.

Certainly, at times, officials weighed the cost of going against the public with a significant lack of popular opinion and then decided which was more valuable. In this  perspective it generally degrades the relationship of government to citizens because they are  merely afraid and not genuinely interested in citizens' needs. As stated before, modern Chinese  police “increasingly admit that most demonstrators are motivated by legitimate grievances…”  (Tanner 2004). There probably exists a definite middle ground where officials care for their  citizens in addition to fearing their power. Even if officials do not genuinely regard the  welfare of their citizens as important it still signals a substantial growth in citizenry power.  Chinese citizens have seized an unprecedented time by becoming increasingly effective at  getting what they demand through demonstrations.

Official Accountability

Not only are protestors able to convince the government of utilizing vast amounts of  monetary resources to fulfill demands, they can also bring intense scrutiny on government or  corporate officials. Official corruption throughout China can range from as high as Shanghai’s Communist Party Secretary Chen Liangyu, to lower officials (French 2007). The  geographical range of corruption is wide throughout China but is more frequent in certain areas. When obvious abuses are happening, citizens become angry about it and accordingly  protest. More often than not, the government ignores the protests. In some cases previously  discussed, such as Liuyang, Liaoyang, and Luoyang, the opposite is the case. These three  unique cases all ended with local government officials being sacked by either the municipal or  national government. Following a disco fire in Luoyang that killed 309 and sparked massive  protests about building codes, twelve officials were detained (CBS 2000). In Liaoyang,  leaders who had been accused by protestors six months earlier were arrested following an  investigation by the national government (Eckholm 2002). Not only does this signal a great  deal of confidence locals can place in the national government but shows that the CCP is very  interested in maintaining the integrity of the party.

When the Xianghe Chemical Factory in Liuyang was discovered to be leaking  cadmium into the surrounding region, officials did not immediately respond. Citizens then  held a “number of high profile mass incidents, which turned violent and prompted media  criticism of officials' failure to respond quickly” (Le, Pomfret 2009). With the added attention,  demonstrators were able to get the plant closed down. Adding to the victory, the director of  the plant and the head of the municipal Environmental Protection Bureau were also sacked  (Le, Pomfret 2009). Given the gravity of the environmental poisoning that occurred, the government's reaction would seem normal in any other country. For the Chinese, however,  this is a significant step in recent times to make environmental protection a priority in  fulfilling Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society” (French 2007). Normally, the People’s Republic  of China is more concerned with modernizing its industry rather than hurting the profits of  factories. After going about business with this attitude the Chinese government has perhaps  seen the fallacy of disregarding the environment in the pursuit of low costs.

Additional cases include the response of the government during the SARS outbreak in  2003 and a land seizure protest. In Linzhou, a city in the Zhejiang province, protests erupted  after officials brought in SARS patients from another city and treated them incorrectly (USA  Today 2003). After bringing in patients from Hujiayao, officials kept them at the police  station in fear of contaminating the hospital. Protests erupted because citizens claimed  officials were endangering the population due to patients being kept in non-medical facilities  (USA Today 2003). With hundreds and protestors and the internationally watched SARS  episode, the government fired the head of the city Disease Prevention Center and the Health  Director for handling the patients improperly (USA Today 2003). Even though the  government was quick to handle any sort of outbreak during the SARS episode, which was an  international scare, protestors were able to draw attention specifically to their city. Without  such a popular response many of the officials would most likely not have been punished as  severely. After local officials paid no heed to farmers in Hanyuan, who would be flooded off  their land due to a dam project, they protested over inadequate compensation (Lim 2004). The  central government intervened after the municipal government could not handle the tens of  thousands of protesters and closed construction on the dam. During the investigation, the  national government sacked at least one official who had under compensated the farmers (Lim 2004). Giving into protestors might send the wrong message such as, “large scale protests are  the best way to solve grievances” (Lim 2004). Officials decided to do this instead of risking  immense social instability, which is the underlying reason behind the entire trend being  discussed.

Exploring these cases has presented two different explanations for the behavior of the  Chinese government. One is that the government is now seeing the validity of most of these  protesters' claims to injustice. Top leaders are undoubtedly aware of corruption throughout  their vast nation and so must send messages to keep lower officials in line. There is perhaps  no better way to dispose of corrupt officials than with the support of the local citizens. Giving  citizens the ability to root out corruption provides them with substantial satisfaction in  maintaining the integrity of the nation. More accurately, it also acts as a sort of safety valve  where citizens can channel their frustration with the host of corruption problems throughout  China. Rather than directing the 1.3 billion potential protestors at the whole Chinese  government, national leaders are directing them at corrupt officials. This, in essence, saves the  Chinese Communist Party from direct conflict while allowing citizens to sack former parts of  the party. The second explanation is far more dangerous.

The more likely reason is that the government is beginning to realize the power their  vast population commands. Fearing social instability, national government officials are  looking for ways to “buy off” demonstrators in an attempt to regain civil order. In most cases  the demands of protestors are simple and easy to meet and are therefore far more readily  utilized than repressing citizens. The latter would only fuel the fire in an ever-downward  spiraling cycle of growing protests. For example, the request by the farmers in Hanyuan to  stop the dam is rather easy to fulfill and would in turn send tens of thousands of angry farmers away from the streets. By a simple measurement of cost versus cost, the people of China have  gained a substantial amount of bargaining power with the Chinese government. This has only  been done after government officials realize the risk of social instability that comes with  large, popular protests. More loosely, this also reflects a growing positive relationship  between citizens and government. Additionally, improving relations might come from government fears about the potential energy of instability.


The People’s Republic of China is experiencing the greatest political transformation  since its revolutionary beginning. Through the medium of protests, the citizens of China are  gaining additional power in obtaining governmental cooperation. In an unprecedented trend, a  growth in the amount of protests and the effectiveness of those protests is undeniable.  Between the years of 2003 and 2005 the amount of “mass incidents” grew by 50% and is  continuing this growth, albeit at a lesser rate. On an ever-growing scale, it appears that  Chinese citizens are turning to the political medium of protests to have their voices heard. The  substantial growth in the amount of protests highlights two evolving characteristics of  Chinese political participation. Firstly, large-scale protests are substantial methods in getting  the attention of officials where letters and petitions would not. No other political method  available to the common person in China is as effective in large numbers. Secondly, breaking  from the stereotype of a repressive government, bent on stalling any dissenting protests, the  People’s Republic of China has entered a new era of cooperation and flexibility. The amount  of monetary resources the government invests in fulfilling demonstrators’ demands is growing  substantially. The frequency of officials cooperating with protestors has increased  dramatically. This is because social instability is the greatest problem facing the leaders of China and so they must be flexible in order to stop widespread unrest. The resulting political  climate has radically changed relations between citizens and government in degrees never  before seen.

Although China is experiencing this radical change in their political climate, there are  still tremendous problems with repression from the government. For every case I found where  the protestors were able to garner governmental cooperation there were at least two where the  demonstration was ignored or repressed. In numerous cities such as Taishi and Panlong,  violent measures were taken by the government to quell the protests. In Dongzhou, near  Shanwei, police opened fire on protestors and killed three by official count and more by  witnesses (BBC 2005). Government actions worse than this still happen, such as the long  crackdown of Falun Gong. Horrible things still happen in China but the main point is not  related to the overall number of cooperative and uncooperative incidents of protests. What  matters is the simple fact that cooperative protests are happening on an ever-increasing scale.  A decade ago, any chance the government had in fulfilling protestor’s demands were slim to  none. In the present day, protests of a large nature have hope in achieving what they go out to  demonstrate. There is still a significant chance the protests will end badly with government  repression but that chance is rapidly dwindling. This is because the government can no longer  use such measures without causing further political instability and so they must cooperate.

In studying this topic there were many research limitations. In order to gather as many  cases as possible I used new articles as the primary source for all of my cases. In many  instances the depth of reporting was lacking to a few paragraphs, which was barely adequate.  With these accounts I attempted to find additional sources for the same case in order to  provide a more wholesome picture. The process of gathering these cases was also limited.

Using Google News Archives in addition to other news services’ archives such as Reuters,  The New York Times, BBC, China Daily, and Xinhua News yielded few results.  Unfortunately, there is no better way to search the vastness of contemporary media. The  process could certainly be expedited and provide more results if there was familiarity with  major past protests. Using these major protests as a gateway could allow for further cases as I  did when branching out. Starting with high profile cases such as Xiamen I located the incident  in Guangdong and Zhangzhou by looking at references in the articles. This technique could be  recycled with other cases once an individual was familiar with major cases.

Drawing from the media as a primary source for this paper creates a few problems.  Since the media is a for profit institution, many of the stories covered by agencies were  sensationalist and aimed to expose the shortfalls of the Chinese Communist Party governance.  Rather than seeking a generalizable view about the outcome of protests, the media highlights  the latest suppression with high conflict. These perspectives highlight the stereotype most  Westerners view the nation of China. This does no affect specific cases since most journalists  are eager to point out the success of Chinese citizens. Instead, this type of “good story”  seeking attitude might abandon cases where the resolution was positive but lacked overall  “newsworthiness”. As for the media within China, it is watched closely by the government  and closely censored to avoid demonstration proliferation. Due to what some people call the  “snow-ball” effect where the victory of one protest in a city creates expectations in another  city, the government clamps down on information. This is perhaps the biggest culprit  compared to any other research limitation. With government censorship in place to avoid the  spread of protests, it is impossible to know the magnitude of victorious protests.

The future of China seems headed in a specific direction due to the evidence of this  research. Even with the specific bias of collecting specifically positive cases, the mere fact  that these cases exist is a testament to the political transformation in China. Unlike the current  view on China, which places it as a suppressive communist institution, it is in reality a far  more democratic system. This democracy is not the traditional definition of democracy and is  entirely informal. Rather than voting, the citizens of China attend protests to have their  opinions be heard. The amount of people attending, the frequency, and the effectiveness of  protests are all increasing. In an exponentially growing cycle, Chinese citizens see the trend  and also wish to put forth their own voice. Responding to this cycle, the government realizes  the immense power that citizens have. The future of this movement is assuredly mirrored to  the past five years where protests increased in addition to government cooperation. The  relationship between citizens and government will continually equalize as demonstrators  increasingly make demands. Government officials will have to maintain their flexibility with  protestors in order to maintain political stability despite most concessions being economically  inefficient. In China of the immediate future, the political process looks increasingly informally democratic, with the power continually transferring to the people.


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