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Do Street Protests Work in China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

A rare street protest broke out in China’s biggest city and commercial capital on Saturday night, June 10, when residents of Shanghai marched against new housing rules that some residents claimed have caused the value of their property to plummet. Hundreds took to the streets, protestors were dragged off by police and detained, but by the next day, it appeared that the city’s housing authority made a concession to the protesters’ demands, tweaking the controversial policy. Chinese media were ordered not to cover the protests. What happened here? Has the government in Shanghai become more responsive to public pressure? Given the Chinese Communist Party’s history of repressing public protest and the current leadership’s intolerance of dissent, what does this incident mean? —The Editors

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In 2014, at the protests that came to be called the Umbrella Revolution, I watched a mainlander named Chen Ankun hold court before an audience of curious bystanders. He had hopped on a bus in rural Guangdong as soon as he heard about the demonstrations and now was giddy with excitement. “I support the masses!” he proclaimed. “Hong Kong wants to pick its government. I understand!” But Chen was very much an oddity. The protests had erupted during October’s Golden Week, and Hong Kong was overrun with mainland tourists on shopping sprees. Many were simply annoyed that the streets were blocked.

Did the Hong Kong demonstrations help inspire the Shanghai property protests? Though the students, store clerks, and retirees who comprised the Umbrella Revolution certainly harbored small grievances, their cause was idealistic and overtly political. It’s hard to compare their actions to demonstrations that grew out of a narrow property regulation. A better historical analogy for last weekend’s events would be the 2008 marches against extending Shanghai’s magnetic levitation train. In 2008, it was concern over noise and potential health hazards that brought residents to the streets.

That said, as any student of history knows, small-scale frustrations can sometimes morph into larger protests. The Shanghai government was wise to heed the frustration evident on Nanjing Road last weekend and switch course on the property regulations at the heart of the demonstrations. If I learned anything over eight years in the city, it was that real estate in Shanghai is personal.

It seems premature to guess where Shanghai’s policy on converting commercial housing to homes will end up. But the city government’s backing down from some of its earlier restrictions in the face of protest accords with much of what we know about the politics of public contention in China, showing how a set of fortuitous circumstances can occasionally come together to empower resistance against unpopular actions by the state.

City officials are under intense pressure to avert or disperse large-scale protests at all times. Normally, authorities have numerous means of containing, defusing, waiting out, or suppressing protests. Yet the 19th Party Congress, upcoming this fall, adds to the political stakes, as promotions are on the line. This provides one possible motivation for the Shanghai leadership to mollify the discontented.

To judge by news reports and video, the protesters would seem to fall into the category of the middle class, a generally favored social stratum in today’s China. Their cause concerned not political demands but housing-related property rights, as they sought to take possession of homes they had paid for or contracted to buy. These two facts together added up to a strong sense on the part of the aggrieved that they rightfully deserved relief from a policy that would have left them in the lurch. They surely felt 理直气壮 (lǐzhíqìzhuàng): emboldened by a conviction that their cause is indisputably just given the implicit social contract and the central place of private housing in the prevailing vision of a prosperous society. This case naturally brings to mind the 2008 protests by Shanghai homeowners against a proposed magnetic levitation train line to Hangzhou. There too, property-based claims seemed to carry the day, with popular resistance playing a role in the project’s being put on ice.

Moreover, rather than affecting merely a few households or a single property development, Shanghai’s recent policy change stood to hurt many tens of thousands of people. City governments routinely ignore the innumerable housing grievances generated by decades of pell-mell development, as Qin Shao memorably documented in Shanghai Gone. But when a policy hurts a whole category of residents cutting across districts and neighborhoods, the stage is set for a larger-scale reaction, one that officials cannot so easily stave off using the usual repertoire of repression.

No doubt social media enabled the affected population to mobilize and create a critical mass of public protesters. In this case, the protests were extraordinarily visible, taking place on Nanjing Road in the center of one of China’s premier cities. This too put extra pressure on the authorities to avert embarrassment.

In short, this unusual but not unprecedented situation seems to have brought together all the ingredients for a protest with the power to win policy concessions.

Street protests have always worked in China—that is, officials have always altered their behavior and their pronouncements in response to directed, sustained, widespread social disorder. The modern Chinese state, like its traditional predecessor, uses the level of rigor behind protest to measure government legitimacy. Their tolerance for protests, riots, and violence against officials is something that would be unthinkable in a representative democracy, in which we expect popular dissatisfaction to control what happens in the voting booth, not in the streets. But even we can see in our own society that if the representative institutions lose credibility, the expression of unhappiness in the streets rises. It is easy to understand—and to understand the state view of—the role of demonstrations and riots in a society that has never had any real representative institutions at all.

There are a few important qualifications here. The modern Chinese state is hundreds of times larger in relation to society than the traditional state was. Its tools of surveillance, suasion, deterrence, and punishment are of a much greater variety and scope. Its possibilities of preemptively silencing dissidence are infinitely greater than those of the imperial state. And communities today do not often have the kind of self-sufficiency that characterized local life in China before the 1950s, making the population as a whole much more dependent upon government.

But modern officials perpetuate many of the behaviors of the traditional officials, particularly wariness toward the population, occasional over-reaction to peaceful speech and demonstrations, and the tendency to use strategic applications of terror to compensate for a limited ability to find and calmly adjudicate all infringements of law. Modern officials know, as their predecessors did, that no state in China can withstand a united assault by the Chinese public, and their choices are dictated by that knowledge.

Like the empires, the current state prefers to publicly identify itself with the public by quaint pronouncements on benevolent government and expressions of sympathy with those oppressed or cheated by local officials or merchants. It is ready, as the imperial state was, to swiftly indict and severely punish individuals who can be smothered with blame for public unhappiness. These tools for defending the state and the status quo are as important now as ever before. They were integral to Mao Zedong’s—and, now, Xi Jinping’s—centralization of power, in roughly the way that great emperors used purges of officials for offenses against “the people” to strengthen their own grip.

When we think of the events of 1989, we tend to think of the events of June 4. When officials think of 1989, they think of the months of successful consolidation of a community of dissidence, in the heart of the capital. They know that they are still no match for a united public. They can try all their tricks to adjust public attitudes and behavior, but in the end, even if they prolong the struggle, it is they who must adjust, or go the way of other failed governments in China.

The protestors rallied on Nanjing Road at 8 p.m. sharp. They were shouting coordinated slogans such as “shangzhu liangyong, wang qianweijie.” One could see real anger on their faces, but their demand was moderate: the withdrawal of an unpopular city-level policy. Chinese officials are not afraid of common grievances, but any form of organized resistance makes them apprehensive.

The surprise, therefore, came not with the government concession, but with the protest’s spontaneous outbreak and its networked structure. Why did the party-state’s novel mechanisms to penetrate society and manage dissent not see the protest coming? Shanghai’s measures to sweep commercial-titled apartments were only introduced for two weeks. Beijing had already bowed to public pressure and eased similar measures. Why did the Shanghai protestors choose to take to the streets before exhausting other options?

If the property owners were networked via their respective homeowner associations, the social institutions nurtured by the party-state might have paradoxically worked against it. If their collective actions were spontaneous, the government’s attempt to sustain property speculation might have resulted in increased polarization in the society.

Even if these undercurrents are evolving, it is premature to assess their impacts. In recent years, the C.C.P. has already strengthened its party establishment in the urban grassroots. The realm of the relatively autonomous resident committees is contested by community workstations, which are the extensions of city governments. Moreover, many buyers of commercial housing, which is roughly half the price of private property, have little leverage from the official point of view. Not all of them have urban hukou; some of them are small business owners, and almost none of them can make a living without counting on the mercy of city apparatuses.

If we learned anything from the Wukan and Shifang protests, it was that offering immediate concession does not mean forgiving defiance. Local governments sometimes tolerate protests to absorb, erode, or suppress the diffusion of discontents and to protect the careers of senior officials. Protests also inform the authorities of the loopholes in stability maintenance or the changes in social expectations. However, when the timing is right, the organizational structure responsible for the mass incident will be dealt with.

Above all, the protest leaders have been arrested. The authorities will soon resolve these puzzles and invent new repertoires to contain the protests in the streets and discipline the dangerous elements in society.

The party-state’s repertoires to contain defiance have become more formidable and sophisticated than those of its authoritarian counterparts. Unlike in Russia or Thailand, dissidents in China normally do not disappear or face attacks by counter-mobilizers as the law enforcement is strong enough to acquire public confessions. Being motivated by self-interest or external forces is then conceived as an admissible cause. Coercion and litigation against activists, techniques widely used in Turkey and Singapore, are also unnecessary. The former strategy appears unwarranted, especially in coastal cities, whereas the latter is redundant, because protestors are soon deprived of livelihood and the platform to voice opinion once they are designated as dissidents.

To answer the question of whether street protests work in China, we should first unpack the image and reality of the party-state.