Bloomberg: Unlike Hong Kong, Protesters in China Find They Can Win

20 October 2014

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

By Shai Oster 
Oct 17, 2014

The image looks familiar: a generic public square occupied by dozens of tents.

Yet this wasn’t a photo of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. It’s a picture from inside mainland China. Hundreds of disgruntled apartment buyers in the city of Wuhan were demanding compensation from a bankrupt developer who never delivered the homes they paid for.

The protest worked. The local government mediated a solution with the bankrupt developer to give them money to finish construction, according to a report by Hubei Daily, a government-run media group.

It was another case of an unusual aspect of authoritarian China: As long as you don’t directly challenge the regime, demonstrations can work. Even as dissidents face stiff prison sentences, harassment, and even disappearances, for those who focus on apolitical causes, there’s a bit of leeway.

“Protest is the main way that ordinary people can exert some pressure on the government to obtain some concessions,” said Xi Chen, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Indeed, they are effective very often.”

As Hong Kong’s protests reach three weeks, the territory’s Chief Executive Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said he is ready to meet with student leaders next week to discuss “universal suffrage,” though over the weekend he said there is an “almost zero chance” China will back away from its decision to vet candidates for the city’s top position.

Frequent Protests

Tempers have flared throughout the protests, with police using tear gas on Sept. 28 and launching an investigation this week after TV footage appeared to show officers beating a demonstrator. Early on Oct. 15, police wielded batons and pepper spray in clashes with demonstrators blocking a key road into government buildings, arresting 45.

Across the border, despite a reputation for cracking down on unrest, China faces nearly 500 protests a day - and researchers say that in many cases demonstrators get at least some of what they want.

“If it’s an issue that can be resolved simply, then in most cases they will be resolved quickly,” said Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for Hong Kong-based labor right group China Labour Bulletin, which tracks labor unrest. “If it’s a pay dispute where workers are complaining about low wages or the boss is reducing overtime or bonuses, then workers go out on strike, a compromise reached and workers go back.”

Xi, author of the book “Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China,” said the number of reported protests in China has been increasing from around 10,000 a year to most recently 180,000 a year.

Most of the protests are driven by economic and social issues usually stemming from labor disputes or worries about pollution, he said. In these cases, local governments have developed a set of standard responses meant to contain the demonstrations locally and resolve them as quickly as possible.

That often means meeting with protesters to mediate and at least partly address their claims, reserving more severe police action until later -- unless their goals are overtly political, in which case they’re quickly suppressed.

“The standard procedure is try to maintain the issues in the local level, don’t escalate,” Xi said. “On that precondition, the local government can use a variety of strategies including repression, concessions, and persuasion. Very often if the protest is not strong enough, officials will use procrastination, just to delay and wear down the other side.”

Deadly Risks

Making mistakes can have deadly consequences. On Oct. 14, eight people died, including two villagers and six workers, in a clash in southwestern China over a land dispute, Caixin Magazine reported. Photos published in the official accounts of Chinese newspapers on microblog Weibo showed graphic images of bloodied men dressed in black, hog tied on the ground in a town near the provincial capital of Yunnan.

The history of modern street protest in China starts after the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, said Ding Xueliang, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. After memories of the violent repression started to fade by the mid-1990s, workers laid off in sweeping economic reforms of old state enterprises took to the streets to demand better compensation and social welfare, he said.

Then, by the early 2000s, issues relating to China’s massive urbanization drive came to the fore as farmers and urbanites were displaced by developers amid allegations of widespread corruption.

Pollution Protesters

Now, the hot button issues are environmental. In what was seen as a major victory for environmentalists, the government of Xiamen, a city in coastal Fujian province, was forced to relocate an 11 billion yuan ($1.8 billion) chemical plant out of a residential area in 2008 after street protests spurred by bloggers.

Since then, other cities have had to change plans after demonstrations. So-called NIMBY -- Not In My Back Yard -- protesters have fought against waste incinerators in southern Guangdong Province, wealthy eastern China’s Hangzhou and even in the capital Beijing.

Perhaps the most memorable protest in recent memory took place three years ago when the residents of a small southern China village called Wukan forced out of office local politicians they accused of colluding with property developers. After a standoff with police, the village won the right to elect their own representatives, with mixed results.

Release Valve

With few formal channels to express grievances, public protest is a reliable tool to make complaints heard. Public outcry contributed to a court dismissal of murder charges in the 2009 case of Deng Yujiao, a hotel waitress who stabbed to death a government official she thought wanted to rape her.

Local governments have strong financial incentives to keep protests quiet, Ding said. For example, if riot police are called in, local governments have to pay for their wages, food and lodging. And the central government allocates special funds to pay off protests, which local officials can sometimes skim, he said.

“Sometimes the deputy officials would negotiate with the protesters,” Hong Kong University’s Ding said “They will say ‘if we give you this money you go home. If you’re still here, we will have to get more police from outside, that will cost more and eventually that extra money will come from you guys.”

Political dissent is off limits, and that’s where Hong Kong’s movement runs into trouble.

“The issue here is entirely different,” Crothall said. “It’s entirely political, it’s a challenge to the authority of the Communist Party, the authority of the National People’s Congress. You don’t get much higher than that. This is much more serious, so it’s not so easy to resolve.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Shai Oster in Hong Kong at

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