How China Stays Stable Despite 500 Protests Every Day

An informal practice of within-system dissent has allowed the Communist Party to maintain stability even with thousands of riots and demonstrations, but what happens if the economy falters?

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Residents of the village of Wukan hold a banner welcoming government officials, who had been expelled in earlier protests, back into the village / AP

About a week after protesters in the southeastern Chinese village of Wukan forced out all police and political officials, establishing a brief independence from Beijing, they taped a sign to the wall of the makeshift press center where foreign reporters congregated. It instructed journalists, in English and in Chinese, not to call their movement an uprising. "We are not a revolt. We support the Communist Party. We love our country," it read.

Wukan's movement in December was not as unusual as it might have seemed. China saw 180,000 protests, riots, and mass demonstrations in 2010 alone -- on average about 500 every day -- a number that has likely since increased. The villagers' complaints were common ones: local officials exploiting land sales for personal gain and violently repressing dissent (a village advocate had died while in police custody). That the protesters won some real concessions from the authorities was also not unheard of, although the one-sidedness of their victory was rare, as was the international media attention they garnered (that media attention likely secured the victory, for now).

But what is perhaps most remarkable, and remarkably typical, of the Wukan movement was the protesters' insistence on declaring fealty to the Chinese Communist Party. Though China's 2011 could have possibly seen more mass demonstrations than the entire Arab world, this is one reason that China probably remains far away from an Arab Spring-style revolutionary movement. Popular movements here seem to express relatively narrow complaints, want to work within the system rather than topple it, and treat the Communist Party as legitimate. Protests appear to be part of the system, not a challenge to it -- a sort of release valve for popular anger that, if anything, could have actually strengthened the Party by giving them a way to address that anger while maintaining autocratic rule. In the absence of real democracy, this give-and-take between state and society could actually help maintain political stability in China -- for now.

That tradition goes back at least a decade, to a climax of labor movement protests in spring 2002. In the steel city of Liaoyang that May, thousands of workers massed in protest. Corrupt local officials had siphoned small fortunes out of the town's factories, forcing many of them to shut down and send their workers home without their pensions, which the officials had also plundered. Liaoyang's problems then, like Wukan's today, were not atypical: the national movement toward privatization had given party officials special access, allowing them to get rich overnight as part of a new and burgeoning crony capitalist class while powerless workers went hungry.

As in Wukan last month, Liaoyang's 2002 protest was exceptional for its size -- tens of thousands marched over several days, shutting down the city and forcing senior Communist Party officials to respond -- but its leaders deliberately stopped short, even after being attacked by security forces, of publicly questioning the Communist Party's total rule. They wrote letters to senior officials, whom they addressed as "respected elder" or "beloved," emphasizing that the protesters were loyal to the Communist Party and asking only for those officials to enforce preexisting laws against corruption.

Philip Pan, a former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief, reported in his 2008 book Out of Mao's Shadow that the protest leaders privately agreed that single-party rule was the underlying cause of Liaoyang's problems, but were afraid to publicly criticize it or call for democracy and ultimately decided to appeal to senior Party leaders rather than challenge them.

As long as the political system remained unchanged, they agreed, those with positions of power could always abuse it, and workers could hope only for marginal improvements in their lives. For real progress, they thought democratic reform was necessary, and they believed that most workers supported such a goal. But they also knew that persuading workers to participate in a protest advocating democratic change would be all but impossible. The workers had internalized the lessons of the Tiananmen massacre. Everybody knew that the party would quickly crush a direct challenge to its authority, and nobody wanted to go to prison. People were too afraid.

The memory of Tiananmen has faded in the decade since 2002. But the dynamic of China's hundreds of daily demonstrations has remained the same. So has the Party's uncanny ability to keep dissent both "within-system" and small-scale, almost never revolutionary in nature or even publicly critical of the autocracy inherent in Communist Party rule.

Officials are too smart to believe their own rhetoric about the benevolence or necessary permanence of single-party rule -- the CPP is not Bashar al-Assad, and they know better than to meet every dissenter with a bullet. But so are Chinese, whether activists or workers, aware of the Party's sensitivity to popular anger. So, over time, an informal but well-honed process has developed. And though it allows protesters to often come away unscathed and sometimes with real concessions, just like in Las Vegas, the house always wins. Again, from Out of Mao's Shadow:

Workers from other factories were staging similar protests every day [in spring 2002] across the rust belt. Like the men and women from [Liaoyang], they had concluded that such acts of desperation and defiance, while risky, were the most effective way to draw attention to their problems in a political system in which the media, courts, and labor unions were controlled by the party. When they sought help through formal channels, the party ignored them. But when they took to the streets, the party snapped to attention. Party officials could be recklessly corrupt, but they were also a nervous and fearful bunch. They understood the depth of discontent with their rule, and they worried that any protest, if handled improperly, could gain momentum and spin out of control. The workers used this fear to their advantage. The bigger and more disruptive the protest, they realized, the quicker the party would respond and the more likely it would be to address their concerns. But if workers were able to win concessions by protesting, the party always gained more than it gave away. It defused demonstrations by dividing workers, paying some while holding out against others, and in doing so, it blunted demands for systemic change, too.

The protests at Liaoyang ultimately won two of their biggest demands: a large chunk of their pensions and the imprisonment of several corrupt local officials. The protest leaders, however, mostly ended up in prison along with the officials, whose seniors in the party escaped unscathed. The causes of the corruption -- single-party rule, state control over industry, a lack of checks against Party corruption -- went unaddressed, in part because the protests did not dare challenge them.

It's difficult to say how many of China's demonstrations are "within-system" like those in Liaoyang or Wukan, and it's impossible to say whether 2012's protests will keep the trend or if they will turn against the Party. But many of the factors likely preventing protests from going further -- perceived legitimacy of the Communist Party for the breakneck economic growth they help create, the continued availability of enough jobs and opportunities to keep individuals wary of risking too much for lofty ideals, and the ability of CCP leadership to keep its officials working generally within the public interest -- could be at risk if growth stalls.

The Democracy ReportRight now, the economic interests of the Party leadership, local officials and industry cronies, and Chinese citizenry generally line up. It's far from equitable, but it's enough to keep the three groups working in something close enough to unison to maintain political stability. But as the Chinese economy changes, so might that three-party balance.

As the national leadership knows, it will have to begin shifting the Chinese economy from exports to domestic consumption -- in other words, it will have to retool its economy to sell to Chinese as well as to wealthier foreigners. That could pit the Communist Party against some of the Chinese firms and individuals who have been enriched (and have entrenched their influence accordingly) by three decades of export-led growth. It's not clear whether CCP will be able to take on these Chinese economic interests. Some economists, such as Nouriel Roubini, are warning that China's leadership may not be politically capable of making the necessary economic changes, and that their failure could drastically slow the country's growth. If that happens, there's no telling whether China's "within-system" protests would stay that way.