People in China frequently challenge those in power, despite a nationwide ‘stability maintenance’ program aimed at nipping popular protest in the bid, according to the U.S.-based think tank Freedom House.
Despite pervasive surveillance, a “grid” system of law enforcement at the neighborhood level and targeted “stability maintenance” system aimed at controlling critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, the group has identified hundreds of incidents of public protest between June and September alone.
Ever-widening controls on freedom of speech, including recent moves to censor comments on online news stories, coupled with a slew of security laws continue to make public dissent risky or just technically very difficult.
Yet the group’s China Dissent Monitor documented 668 incidents of protest and other dissent in mainland China in just four months to the end of September 2022, it said in a recent report.
More than three quarters of these protests consisted of “demonstrations, marches, and obstructing roads,” the report found.
“We documented many other modes of dissent as well, including occupations, strikes, protest banners and graffiti, and notable online dissent such as large-scale hashtag campaigns and viral posts,” it said.
It cited demonstrations by hundreds of parents in the northern city of Xi’an after their children suffered food poisoning linked to a tutoring company, Kid Castle, as well as protests against a real estate developer in the eastern city of Hangzhou by owners of half-completed apartments.
In the northern province of Hebei, residents blocked a road with bicycles and motorbikes in protests over plans to build a new road bypassing their village, while construction workers in the northeastern city of Shenyang hung banners from a residential building to demand unpaid wages from a property developer, it said, adding that many of the protests were “violently” suppressed by police.
“Such protests are a daily occurrence in China,” the report said. “Not only is dissent in China frequent, it’s also widespread.”
It said the monitor has tracked protests in nearly every province and metropolitan area since June, often formed by “decentralized movements” facilitated by social media.
However, many protests were on specific issues, and didn’t seek to challenge Communist Party rule or Xi Jinping’s leadership, the report found.
“The issues that most often galvanized people included stalled housing, fraud, labor rights violations, COVID-19 policies, corruption, and land rights,” it said, adding that the protests had led to some kind of positive action by the authorities in at least 37 cases.
However, any form of protest is still regarded as a threat, the report said.
“The Chinese Communist Party treats the act of collectively, publicly challenging any authority as a potential threat … particularly when the protesters can win concessions,” it said.
“This is why ‘social stability’ is ingrained in all levels of governance and … why Xi has put so much emphasis on choking civic space and securitizing society: the aim is to reduce the ability of citizens to mobilize,” it said.
China’s internet regulator recently announced rule changes requiring service providers to screen any public comments on news stories with effect from Dec. 15.
Kevin Slaten, who heads the China Dissent Monitor, said the majority of protests — 214 out of the 668 counted between June and September — were by people who had paid in advance for apartments in buildings that were then left unfinished by developers.
He said it was hard to tell whether protests are on the rise, however, as the group lacks enough data from last year.
Popular anger simmers
Former 1989 student protest leader Zhou Fengsuo, who founded the U.S.-based rights group Humanitarian China, said there is plenty of popular anger against the government simmering beneath the surface.
“The anger of the people can no longer be restrained, and it feels like being on the edge of a volcano,” Zhou told RFA. “Particularly this year; nobody has been able to escape the impact of the zero-COVID policy.”
He said the recent lone protest from a Beijing traffic bridge calling for elections and for Xi Jinping to step down was symptomatic of that anger.
“People used to just seek a quiet life, accepting humiliation and being silenced as the price for that,” he said.
“But now, a lot of people who used to pretend they could just live quietly can’t pretend that any more.”
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.