By Fabio Angiolillo
Protests in China
The current protests in China are not yet a threat to regime survival, still they deliver an important message from young and highly educated citizens: Listen to us! Spontaneous protests have taken place across major Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and elsewhere. Young, highly educated, and relatively wealthy citizens continue to push them forward. In short, they are the social elite that composes one of the most important groups at the core of Chinese economic development.
To understand their actions, we must refrain from thinking of these protests as either a beginning or an end of a political process, but rather as a glimpse into a hidden political space that citizens grow into, especially within autocracies. Though citizens in authoritarian regimes do not experience politics in everyday life (at least compared to democracies), autocracies – especially those without formal elections – often lead citizens to cultivate their political ideas within their private sphere and expose them through a wide variety of actions, online and offline.
Many prominent sources have posted on Twitter associations between these protests with Tiananmen Protests in 1989. Others saw a closer resemblance to the Democracy Wall movements in 1978 and the April 5th movement in 1976. But I believe that these links both overstretch citizens’ demands and apply a conservative approach to the development of Chinese mass political participation. Although people showed bravery in being outspoken against the Chinese “Zero-COVID” policy, they have not asked for regime change nor have they organized as a political movement. Similarly, they have not experienced a recent regime change such as from Maoism in 1976-1978, they do not have anything like the Democracy Wall spaces in Beijing, nor has the central government encouraged them to share their thoughts publicly.
The Paradox of China
These citizens live in a highly stable regime. Most of them have gained economic opportunities from Chinese development, but they still seized the opportunity to demonstrate in public spaces without regard for the authorities. Still, this is not quite the classic contentious opposition to the government that we so often imagine. We remember moments when thousands of people rebel against a regime, seize public spaces, and demand political concessions that, ultimately, overthrows the regime.
Timor Kuran and James Scott may have explained how the political dissimulation of citizens towards a regime unfolds and its potential implications. But, even in one of the most closed autocracies, multiple forms of political attitudes exist between full-throated support and outright opposition. Adam Przeworski offers some insights into these nuances. The subtleties push us to delve deeper into the Chinese case.
The “paradox” of China is the relationship between citizens in the streets and the central government is stronger than we imagine. Both parties have their own expectations and rely on one another. Xi Jinping depends on young and highly educated citizens for his economic goals as well as to accomplish the progressive reform of the rank-and-file within the CCP. Whilst political reforms have never followed economic reforms in China, the CCP has progressively adapted its rank-and-file structure to its changing social structure. This means it has invested heavily in recruiting the new social elite of young and highly educated citizens.
On the other hand, social elites depend on Chinese development for their lifestyles and personal goals, so overthrowing a regime that has delivered impressive economic growth for decades is just not on the table. Nonetheless, this does not mean that their political stances are non-existent or staunchly follow the party line.
What is happening across many streets in China is an “active resistance” to some authoritarian policies. It grows especially fervent when the government disrupts citizens’ everyday lives. This active resistance is also not from citizens at the fringes of society but those at its very core. Through this lens, glimpses of protests against the harsh policy that confines them home have aligned with a political identity that the social elite has developed. Citizens signal boundaries to the central government. They expect the government to react to appropriately. Otherwise, it will further heighten tensions rather than reinforcing its strong relationship with the social elites.
Fabio Angiolillo is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Gothenburg and V-Dem Institute. His work focuses on comparative politics, authoritarian parties, party-society relationships, and Chinese politics. Follow him on Twitter @FabioAngiolillo or Mastodon @email@example.com
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