Why China Can Handle Social Unrest

Recent protests in Kunming reveal an increasing consciousness of environmental rights in the country. But do they threaten the Communist Party's grip on power?


Demonstrators hold up Chinese flags and yell slogans during a protest in Kunming, Yunnan province, September 15, 2012.(Wong Campion/Reuters)

The southwestern Chinese city of Kunming has a reputation for being one of China's sleepier provincial capitals, a place famous for its pleasant weather and laid-back vibe. But twice in the past month, Kunming has played host to major protests over the planned construction of an paraxylene (PX) plant in the nearby city of Anning. The protests, which involved a crowd of between one and two thousand people, led Kunming's mayor Li Weirong to offer to halt construction of the plant if enough people wished to do so.

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The protests received significant international attention because they combined two major, hot-button issues in China: environmental pollution and government corruption. But the Kunming protests were hardly unusual in China; in fact, a larger, similar protest roiled the southeastern city of Xiamen in 2007, and concerns over PX has also led to unrest elsewhere in China. Social unrest is so common in the country, in fact, that an estimate of 180,000 "mass incidents" occurred in 2011 alone. In other words, an average of over 400 disturbances to the public order happened every day that year in China. 

Given this figure, you'd think that Beijing would be paralyzed with unrest, unable to deal with anything else. But this isn't true: the Chinese government remains broadly popular with the public, and no uprising since 1989 has come remotely close to threatening the Communist Party's grip on power. In a world where the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor ignites a regional series of revolutions, China's ability to contain unrest is pretty remarkable. How do they do it?

One reason is this: The government does its homework.  Beijing collects extremely detailed information about public unrest (hence the "mass incidents" figure), pinpointing individuals most responsible for organizing protests and preventing them from spreading the word to other parts of the country. According to Scot Tanner, an expert on Chinese social unrest at CNA, a Washington, DC area research institute, protest leaders who attempt to travel to a new city are often met by police officers instructed to escort them back home.  And while the government tolerates internet dissent to a certain extent, censors immediately nix any calls for collective action, thereby letting would-be dissidents let out a bit of steam without posing a threat to the regime. "It's stunning that 33 years after the creation of the Solidarity movement in Poland, nothing similar has emerged in China -- not even close," says Tanner. Independent organizations capable of organizing widespread demonstrations against the government simply don't exist in China.

Secondly, the nature of social unrest in China is simply different than in other countries. Whereas the Arab Spring protesters expressed dissatisfaction with the performance with their government as a whole, their Chinese counterparts tend to focus on specific, local issues in which a clear resolution is possible. In Kunming, for example, protesters were mainly motivated by the government's failure to release an environmental impact report for the PX plant; none, at least publicly, questioned the prevalence of corruption within the Communist Party as a whole. Three decades of continuous economic growth, after all, has bought the party credibility that most other regimes would envy. 

Does this mean that the Communist Party is immune to a protest escalating into a existential threat? Not necessarily. For one thing, the rise of online social media makes it more difficult for Beijing to shape the media narrative surrounding a particular story. While official media reports of the protest were muted, word quickly spread on Sina Weibo and other micro-blog platforms, a pattern seen with previous events such as the 2011 Wenzhou train collision.  Also -- environmental concerns, which worsen every year in China, have a unique potential to unify disparate groups of society in a way that land confiscation and other grievances cannot. Both the rich and poor, for instance, notice air pollution and contaminated water.

But clearly, the Chinese government has, in the quarter-century since Tiananmen Square, figured out a way to manage social unrest in a way that other authoritarian systems have not. As Tanner warns, however, nothing lasts forever. 

"Nobody saw the collapse of the Soviet Union coming, after all,"