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Abbey Heffer

August 9th, 2023

Popular protest won’t bring down the Chinese regime

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Abbey Heffer

August 9th, 2023

Popular protest won’t bring down the Chinese regime

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

China has changed dramatically since 1989. Yet, our understandings of protest in this huge, diverse country remain fixated on this one year — and just one location. Despite the violent repression of protesters, both in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and across the country, the events of 1989 did not lead to a reduction in protest. Between 1993 and 2002, instances of protest rose by up to 600%.[1] With protests on the up, Beijing needed to recalibrate its management of contentious events. Repression was clearly not enough.

While China scholars have been mapping China’s diverse protest management practices for decades, the rest of the world hasn’t quite caught up. Either we assume protest simply cannot happen under authoritarianism or we assume that any attempt will be immediately, violently repressed.

The international media repeatedly refer to protests in China as “rare”.[2] The New York Times alone reported on the “rare” Henan bank protests of July 2022, the “rare” Bridgeman protest in Beijing three months later, and the “rare” protests against COVID-related income issues in Guangzhou one month after that.[3] Only one of these events could be considered a rare form of protest in China. Despite this scarcity narrative, the China Labour Bulletin’s Strike Map recorded 679 labour protests in the first half of this year alone. In its first year of operation, the China Dissent Monitor has already recorded 1500 instances of protest. The Wickedonna database of protest events recorded over 70,000 cases between 2013-2016. For something so rare, protests happen a lot in China.

As protest is decidedly not rare in China, repression can be costly. Costs for both the regime and individual governments include police funding, equipment, and infrastructural damages, but also legitimacy. Even at the local level, the repression of “rightful resistance” can draw in more support for protesters, making it far harder to keep a protest quiet and contained.[4] Social media platforms like Weibo are full of solidarity for protesters, particularly vulnerable groups like migrant workers. Protests are such a routine occurrence that many of these social media posts read like traffic reports rather than subversive political acts. In this Weibo post, for example, the commenter recommends turning right before getting to the city hall to avoid traffic caused by migrant workers asking their “unscrupulous boss” for wages owed. And posts about protest aren’t always censored. Local news reporters often lend legitimacy to protests, interviewing at the scene. When visibility is high and the world is watching, local governments need to be careful when recklessly repressing protesters.

Large-scale databases of protest events in China, like those mentioned above, have allowed scholars to assess patterns of repression across a huge range of events, from large-scale mass incidents to one-person protests. This research has found that 1) Not all protests are repressed, 2) There is a pattern to which protests are repressed and which not, and 3) Citizens are able to use patterns of repression and responsiveness to assess whether or not to risk an act of public protest.[5] Less attention has been paid, however, to what comes after repression or not-repression.[6] A growing body of literature focuses on “concessions”, but not all protest management practices fit comfortably into the binary logic of repression versus concessions.[7] China scholars are particularly well placed to expand our understanding of protest management practices under authoritarianism. Chinese local governments provide an entire portfolio of diverse techniques and innovative responses to study.


If not repression, then what?

Protest management has changed a lot in the last twenty years, going from a “stability at all costs” reliance on repression to today’s far more diverse “innovative social governance” approach. In response to the central government’s demand for “innovative” responses to protest, some local governments have tried preventative methods. For example, Jing Vivian Zhan found that local governments rich in mineral resources did not invest heavily in increasing their coercive capacity — policing, anti-riot equipment, and public security infrastructure. Instead, these governments invested in redistributive programmes, providing social welfare to vulnerable groups most likely to resort to protest. The reality of the risk involved in the act of protest separates those with grievances which are “tolerable” from those whose grievances are serious enough that they are willing to risk repression.[8] If the local state has already invested in redistributive measures before a community turns to protest, they may be able to reduce the sense of urgency and disenfranchisement that pushes aggrieved groups to protest.

Other protest management approaches are bureaucratic, designed to diffuse tension and redirect protesters towards regime-controlled channels of conflict resolution, such as the petitions system or opening a direct line of contact with local civil servants at the appropriate bureau for their complaint.[9] As Ching Kwan Lee and Yonghong Zhang found in their extensive study of “bargained authoritarianism”, protesters can form non-zero-sum and surprisingly supportive “alliances” with regime actors at the local level. Though this bargaining takes place on an unequal playing field and prioritises short-term stability rather than solving long-term structural issues, it serves to reinforce the legitimacy of the state. By investing in their responsive capacity as well as their coercive capacity, local governments can demobilise a protest without the potential PR crisis associated with heavy-handed repression.[10]

Engagement does not, however, always solve the issues it claims to, nor do concessions. Lee and Zhang’s study, mentioned above, looked into a protest which attracted tens of thousands of participants against the construction of a highway in Shenzhen. Rather than cancelling construction, the local government offered concessions in the form of noise-reducing infrastructure. The protests then stopped, in the protesters’ words: “because the government had made concessions.”[11] The perception of success following concessions often results in a reduction of public support for a protest movement. Concessions remove the need for a protest by seemingly solving the issue being protested, effectively “killing” the movement.[12] Under bargained authoritarianism, concessions are portrayed as material rewards that savvy protesters set out to take for themselves and which local governments are willing to pay in exchange for social stability — all while avoiding the underlying structural issues that lead to protest.

These more sophisticated and seemingly-responsive protest management strategies can also serve some of the functions of repression. For example, what Huan He describes as “progressive legal repression” is local governments’ use of the law and bureaucracy as a tool for repression. Rather than relying on the police to arrest and file criminal charges against protesters, progressive legal repression encourages protesters to voice their complaints through the legal system. When faced with the likelihood of strong public support for a protest, the state can diffuse any immediate tension by channelling dissent into the bureaucracy. Whether or not the protesters get what they want, they are no longer on the streets. As Wang Hsin Hsien and Shan Yun Shi argue, the rule of law “both increases the legitimacy of authoritarian governments and suppresses civil society through the law”.[13]

Even the absence of repression can serve repressive purposes but, again, without running the risk of bad PR. Local governments can strategically ignore a protest, while secretly working to increase the cost for participants. Samson Yuen and Edmund W. Cheng call this “attrition”; demonstrating regime benevolence while intentionally undermining protest action.[14]

Some protest management practices are genuinely designed to address the underlying issues leaving aggrieved citizens with no choice but to protest. One example of how protester demands make their way into actual policy is through local policy experimentation.[15] Local governments can and do use protests to identify systemic issues and address them with policy changes. It therefore follows that policy experimentation, an integral part of the Chinese policy-making process, could be a part of this.

For example, in May 2010, workers in a Honda factory in Foshan protested unfair pay and working conditions. Their protest made the international news, with the New York Times reporting on the incident — and, yes, they referred to it as “rare”.[16] Just three months later, the city government issued an official call for pilot work to “improve working environments”, ensure “harmonious labour relations”, and establish a wage negotiation mechanism.[17]

In the now-famous “cancer villages” of Hubei — where pollution from local chemical plants contaminated agricultural products and water, poisoning local residents and deforming livestock — residents held protests lasting years.[18] The first wave of protests in 2010 were followed by a series of policy experiments, establishing agricultural safety demonstration zones and launching trials for monitoring toxic and harmful gaseous pollutants, ensuring drinking water safety, and institutionalising compensation arrangements. A trial policy published in 2013 mentioned the county where the protests started by name and required polluters to pay damages to those harmed by their polluting activities.

Even when the government represses a protest, local governments might still engage with protester demands through policy experiments aiming to address the issue being protested. In August 2018, taxi-drivers in the Guangdong city of Heyuan protested against the illegal activity of car hailing apps like Didi and Über. The protests were particularly violent; the aggrieved drivers using these car-hailing apps to locate Didi drivers and beat them up. Eleven drivers were arrested. Yet, by September, the Heyuan government had announced a trial policy placing car-hailing apps under the direct supervision of the local government, to keep an eye out for “illegal acts”. Interestingly, this same “trial” prohibited individuals with a “violent criminal record” from qualifying as taxi drivers. The trial seems to directly respond to the nature of the protest itself, punishing those eleven drivers who engaged in violence against other civilians while protesting.[19]


Where do we go from here?

Despite an obvious fascination with the management of protest under authoritarianism, very little attention is given to what comes after a protest, whether governments engage and, if so, what this looks like. In short, we care about whether protesters are repressed, but not if they are repressed and able to bring about a change in policy. Until this changes, we will continue to be surprised when instances of mass unrest, like what we saw in November last year, fail to overthrow the Chinese regime.

Protest is as much a part of ordinary life in China as it is a part of policymaking. Protests which directly threaten the regime itself are far more likely to be shut down and repressed. However, the vast majority of protests do not call for the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party and are met with a wide diversity of responses. It’s time we started talking about them.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.
成都西南交通大學的學生舉辦的燭光紀念儀式,哀悼烏魯木齊事件“ by Date20221127 is licensed under CC0 1.0.


[1] Steinhardt and Zhao 2014.

[2] Leng et al. 2022.

[3] Wang and Ramzy 2022; Wakabayashi and Fu 2022; Che and Liu 2022.

[4] O’Brien 1996.

[5] Göbel 2021; Zheng and Meng 2021; Li and Elfstrom 2021; China Dissent Monitor 2022.

[6] de Vogel 2021.

[7] Cai 2008, 414.

[8] Lorentzen 2013, 129.

[9] Liu 2017; Ding 2020.

[10] Elfstrom 2021.

[11] 2013, 1490.

[12] Davenport 2015, 26-8.

[13] 2022, 3.

[14] Yuen and Cheng 2017, 613.

[15] Heffer and Schubert 2023.

[16] Bradsher 2010.

[17] Fo Fu Ban [2010] No. 132.

[18] Heffer 2023.

[19] These eleven drivers used a car-hailing app to hail Didi drivers so that they could beat them up.


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Davenport, Christian. (2015). How Social Movements Die: Repression and Demobilisation of the Republic of New Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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About the author

Abbey Heffer

Abbey Heffer is a PhD researcher at the University of Tübingen and recipient of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation fellowship. Her research focuses on how diverse social actors express their interests and get what they want under Chinese authoritarianism, specifically through local policy experimentation and popular protest. Her recent work has been published by the China Quarterly, the European Council on Political Research and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation China Bulletin. As well as publishing for the academy, Abbey is passionate about democratising access to academic research through new technology and social media.

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