Global Political Risk: China “Social Unrest” Numbers, the Chengguan and the Watermelon Seller, and the Economic Slowdown

By lambert strether of Corrente.

Here’s another in my series of quote dumps on protests by country; this time, I thought I’d focus exclusively on China. Much of this material comes from official media, and I’m not making any representations as to accuracy of the report; more sources, please! I tried to get some sense of the scale and variety of “social unrest” (ginormous, but then it would be), the role of the state, and the current seeming shift in the Party’s economic policy toward a slower growth rate, however motivated. China is (duh) just a huge topic, so your expertise in commments will be most welcome.

Four-Day Strike at Henan Appliance Maker Ends Caixin Online, 2012-10-12. Stale, but look at the demands.

On October 9, workers gathered in front of company’s headquarters in Xinxiang, in the central province of Henan, to demand a pay rise, and over the next two days the number of striking employees rose. Workers were also angry at how the company was managed. Xinfei’s employees say the company lost money last year due to bad management. They point to Xinfei competitor Haier Group, which has remained profitable even as the global economy weakened.

Chinese Anger Over Pollution Becomes Main Cause of Social Unrest Bloomberg, 2013-03-06

Pollution has replaced land disputes as the main cause of social unrest in China, a retired Communist Party official said, as delegates to the country’s legislature lamented environmental degradation.

China now sees 30,000 to 50,000 so-called mass incidents every year, Chen Jiping, a former leading member of the party’s Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs, said yesterday. Increased use of mobile phones and the Internet has allowed protesters to show their anger more effectively, he said.

How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression American Political Science Review 107, no. 2 (May 2013)

Using modern computer-assisted text analytic methods that we adapt to and validate in the Chinese language, we compare the substantive content of posts censored to those not censored over time in each of 85 topic areas. Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content.

Why China Can Handle Social Unrest Atlantic, 2013-05-21

[The southwestern Chinese city of Kunming] has played host to major protests over the planned construction of an paraxylene (PX) plant in the nearby city of Anning. The protests, which involved a crowd of between one and two thousand people, led Kunming’s mayor Li Weirong to offer to halt construction of the plant if enough people wished to do so.

[T]he Kunming protests were hardly unusual in China; in fact, a larger, similar protest roiled the southeastern city of Xiamen in 2007, and concerns over PX has also led to unrest elsewhere in China. Social unrest is so common in the country, in fact, that an estimate of 180,000 “mass incidents” occurred in 2011 alone. In other words, an average of over 400 disturbances to the public order happened every day that year in China.

In a world where the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor ignites a regional series of revolutions, China’s ability to contain unrest is pretty remarkable. How do they do it?

One reason is this: The government does its homework. Beijing collects extremely detailed information about public unrest (hence the “mass incidents” figure), pinpointing individuals most responsible for organizing protests and preventing them from spreading the word to other parts of the country. … Secondly, the nature of social unrest in China is simply different than in other countries. Whereas the Arab Spring protesters expressed dissatisfaction with the performance with their government as a whole, their Chinese counterparts tend to focus on specific, local issues in which a clear resolution is possible.

The “Diaosi” social class: presage of impending social changes in China Ministry of Tofu, 2013-06-25

[W]hat seems really a formidable collective force are China’s underdog ‘diaosi’ class, consisting of five hundred million people. The literal English translation of the Chinese buzzword ‘diaosi’, ‘a fan of the penis’ is unsuitable for print in China. It first appeared in the online fan club of Li Yi, a ridiculously narcissistic and yet mediocre Chinese soccer player, where Li’s critics disparaged his admirers as ‘diaosi’. … Today, the most acceptable English translation for the word is “unprivileged loser”. By original definition, he is trapped in poverty and hardly scrapes by on paltry wages. He is mostly likely a rural migrant working as a street vendor, a construction worker, who has no property, no car or no girlfriend and spends most of his spare time in wet dreams in front of a crappy desktop at an underground internet cafe.

But in reality, countless white-collar workers, IT professionals and bank employees have jumped on the poor-mouthing wagon. A survey recently released by Giant Interactive Group, an online game developer and, an IT market analysis website, finds that 529 million Chinese identify themselves as an unprivileged loser. … [T]he underdog feeling stems more from insecurity and frustration than from a real lack of wealth, and the disparaging term offers them an emotional outlet. 42 percent of self-labeled ‘losers’ do own a property. Nine percent of them owned even more. But life is nevertheless a perennial struggle. With rising costs of living, static income, treacherous government economic policies, flawed social safety net and without the political umbrella, one’s hard-earned money can easily evaporate. In addition, to breathe clean air and eat safe food, one either has to be well-connected enough to have those carefully filtered and specially supplied, or rich enough to emigrate.

Recent Incident Highlights China’s Growing Labour Unrest Global Torchlight, 2013-06-28

Earlier this week, reports emerged that the American president of a U.S. medical products manufacturer was being held captive by some of his company’s Chinese workers at its plant outside of Beijing in a dispute over redundancy benefits and unpaid wages. While the matter was resolved and the executive released after nearly a week in the factory, it draws attention to a number of problems inherent to the Chinese labour market that are, in turn, generating considerable potential for grievances among workers. … The catalysts for this dispute reflect common problems in labour relations in China. For many reasons, labour costs are rising in the country and many foreign-owned employers are looking at opportunities to shift production to lower-cost labour markets like India and Vietnam. Moreover, as demand for manufactured goods remains stagnated in the wake of the continued global economic slowdown, some companies (including foreign- and state-owned ones) are finding it increasingly difficult to meet payroll obligations in a timely fashion. …

Local governments have the power to mediate in labour relations disputes; however, many workers simply do not trust these mechanisms given the prevalence of corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement within local government administration. Accordingly, employees increasingly take matters into their own hands in an effort to resolve their grievances with employers more directly.

The consequence is that labour-related unrest is growing and increasingly common in China. Indeed, there have been a number of incidents similar to this one in recent years. … Foreign companies need to be aware of the fact, however, that civil disobedience and violent unrest is becoming much more common in labour disputes in China.

Moreover, this incident demonstrates that employers cannot necessarily rely on the government to get involved in such disputes in their favour. While the authorities were present at the factory where this most recent incident occurred – they were, in fact, bringing the captive businessman food each day – they did not intervene to force his release. … Given the Chinese state’s pervasive concerns about the eruption of broad-based civil unrest, the authorities will ultimately adopt whichever strategy ensures that popular grievances are deflected away from the state. Hence, while the police have been quick to end large-scale labour disputes involving state-owned companies, this incident may indicate that they are much more likely to side with the workers in disputes where foreign employers are involved.

China plans 5-year anti-pollution effort Reuters, 2013-07-25 (Gallery: Choking on China 2013-04-08; gallery of pollution images).

China will invest $277 billion to fight air pollution over the next five years, state media said today.

The effort underscores the government’s concern about addressing a key source of social discontent.

China in Revolt Jacobin, 2013-07-08. China is vast. Read the whole thing.

Today, the Chinese working class is fighting. More than thirty years into the Communist Party’s project of market reform, China is undeniably the epicenter of global labor unrest. While there are no official statistics, it is certain that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of strikes take place each year. All of them are wildcat strikes – there is no such thing as a legal strike in China. So on a typical day anywhere from half a dozen to several dozen strikes are likely taking place.

More importantly, workers are winning, with many strikers capturing large wage increases above and beyond any legal requirements. Worker resistance has been a serious problem for the Chinese state and capital and, as in the United States in the 1930s, the central government has found itself forced to pass a raft of labor legislation. Minimum wages are going up by double digits in cities around the country and many workers are receiving social insurance payments for the first time.

But the least spectacular item in this catalog of resistance forms the essential backdrop to all the others: migrants, increasingly, have simply been refusing to take the bad jobs they used to flock to in the export processing zones of the southeast.

The Slow Boat from China Foreign Policy, 2013-07-09

Some six years ago, China’s then premier, Wen Jiabao, posed a paradox that came to be called the “Four Uns”: though China’s economy looked strong on the surface, Wen argued it was increasingly “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and ultimately unsustainable.” The debate those remarks sparked is now over, and a new Chinese growth model is at hand. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, enacted in 2011, calls for a shift to an economy driven increasingly by domestic consumption, rather than one driven largely by exports and investments. …

For its part, China’s new leadership is committed to rebalancing. With GDP growth slowing to 7.7 percent in the first quarter of 2013, and data for April and May pointing to more of the same, previous Chinese leaders would have quickly announced a new infrastructure program or other stimulus policies to spur the economy. By not introducing new spending initiatives, the government of Xi and Li has sent a strong signal that Beijing is now willing to accept slower growth.

Vendor Death Uproar Caixin Online, 2013-07-18 (more on the chengguan; and more).

On the morning of July 17, Deng Zhengjia arrived in Chengzhou city, Hunan Province to sell homegrown watermelons on the street. According to local media, his wife said urban management officials [chengguan] fatally attacked Deng after a dispute erupted.

Watermelon Vendor’s Death Triggers Backlash Against China’s Urban Management Officers Tea Leaf Nation, 2013-07-22 (more). Rashomon territory, except in Chinese.

At 9:47 p.m. on July 18, Li Chengpeng, one of China’s most famous bloggers, wrote: “Deng Zhengjia’s Chinese Dream was to grow sweeter melons, grow more melons, sell them earlier and get home in time to have dinner. How could you [authorities] keep talking about Chinese Dream when you even cannot protect a farmer’s dream? Be kinder to your citizens and take good care of your melons. You reap what you sow…Governing a nation is like planting watermelons [这个叫邓正加的瓜农,不过想把瓜种得甜一些,收获多一些,快快把西瓜卖完,好回家吃饭。这是他的中国梦。你连一个瓜农的梦都保护不了,怎么坐下来跟我们谈中国梦。对你的人民好一些,对你种的瓜珍惜一些。种瓜得瓜,种豆得豆……最后,治大国如种西瓜。].” In his lengthy essay, Li slammed the chengguan for their brutality. His essay was retweeted over 197,000 times. According to Yu Jianrong, a respected professor of social science, Li Chengpeng has been asked to keep silent for a month on Sina Weibo due to this essay.

Another popular tweet did not condemn the chengguan of Linwu County directly. Pretending to Be in New York, another popular Weibo celebrity, posted a series of photos of other cases of chengguan beating vendors. In one photo, a boy whose father’s stall was burned stared at the chengguan with intense hatred. The Weibo celebrity said that this particular image left the deepest impression on him: “If a government lets its children have such expression in eyes, even it has made remarkable economic achievements, I will never like it. [这几年城管打人的新闻天天有,但我印象最深的一直是这两个孩子,哥哥仇恨的眼神和妹妹无助的痛哭。我不知道照片的出处和时间,只知道这事发生在2007年以前,两个孩子的父亲是下岗工人,摆了一个报摊,但被城管烧了。一个政府如果让它的孩子有这样的眼神,不管它取得多大的经济成就,我永远不会喜欢它。]”

Even the official Weibo account of the People’s Daily, the mouth piece of Communist Party, posted: “Behind the collapse of the public image of the chengguan is mass indignation over out-of-line infringements on the rights of citizens[城管形象屡屡崩塌,背后是公众对公权力越界逾矩的气愤].” It urged the government of Linwu County to launch an investigation and reveal the truth quickly.

Though the concrete reason behind the death of Deng Zhengjia has not yet been ascertained, many people are convinced that the chengguan are murderers, and continue to mock phrases like “suddenly collapsed and died” with acrimonious criticism.

Say Hello to China’s Brewing Financial Crisis 2013-07-21

The problem is that very little is known about just how much debt Chinese banks have taken on amid that country’s infrastructure-fueled growth. This has resulted in fears that a massive credit bubble may be about to pop. If that’s true, the results could be catastrophic. …

Much of China’s economic growth at the municipal level has been underwritten by rising real estate prices, and if the torrid growth of those prices begin to taper, bank collapses are not out of the question, a scenario not unlike the 2008 financial crisis in the United States.

Chinese corruption: the ultimate protests Guardian, 2013-07-22. System D as a social indicator.

One of the most reliable indications that things are not well in an economy or a society is a rise in street trading and increased harshness in enforcing the rules that control it. When people can’t find proper jobs or can’t stand the ones that are available, they go to the streets with a barrow-load of vegetables, a swatch of scarves or a tray of cheap plastic toys. Sometimes they have licences; often they do not. Then the police or their auxiliaries appear, one day taking bribes, the next day confiscating produce, but in either case standing between ordinary men and women and what they see as their right, and sometimes their desperate need, to make a living.

China Sees 7% as Bottom-Line Growth Tolerable in Slowdown Bloomberg, 2013-07-23

Expansion below 7 percent won’t be accepted because China needs to achieve a moderately prosperous society by 2020, according to a commentary published July 21 by the official Xinhua News Agency and credited to reporter Wang Yuewei. Li said at a recent meeting with economists that 7 percent is the “bottom line” and the nation can’t allow growth below that, the Beijing News reported today.

What Would a Hard Landing in China Mean for the World? ChinaFile 2013-07-23

The Party will roll over anyone or anything that gets in its way. But for the most part, the leadership runs scared of its own people’s expectations. For anybody under age 40, their baseline of economic life is a country with exponential growth that transforms people’s lives and provides bountiful opportunities. Those days are certainly gone. The people I talk to—rich, middle class, poor—share one thing in common: fear of the future. The poor that they have missed the boom. The middle class that their lifestyle is unsustainable. The rich that they can be dragged into a rigged courtroom at any time as the corruption crackdown focuses on those who were not born under a silver sickle.

China bans construction of government buildings for five years FT, 2013-07-24

[The five-year ban on the construction of government offices] applies to the expansion of existing buildings. The government vowed to strictly enforce the edict after similar policies in the past failed to stop local officials from indulging their taste for architecture on a monolithic scale.

Under the new ban, renovations of outdated offices will be permitted, but the approval process will be extremely strict and there will be no tolerance for “luxurious decorations”.

In announcing the ban, the state council tried to anticipate the ways local governments might circumvent the rules. It said expensive government buildings could not be built under different names such as “institutes” or “centres”.

It prohibited the expansion of existing buildings under the guise of “building repairs”. It also said government and party agencies were not permitted to accept any form of corporate sponsorship or to collaborate in any other way with companies to construct buildings.

China’s “New Kind of Terrorism” is Winning Hearts and Minds The Diplomat, 2013-07-24

The paralyzed petitioner from Shandong Province who set off a homemade bomb at Terminal 3 in Beijing’s Capital Airport over the weekend is finding a sympathetic audience online and in some of China’s official media.

For the past three years, China has seen several high-profile suicide bombings from disenchanted citizens and petitioners, all of whom receive at least some minor sympathy from the public. In Jiangxi Province in 2011, for instance, explosions ripped through three government buildings, killing three people, including the bomber, Qian Mingqi. It was later revealed that Qian’s vicious act was preceded by him spending a decade trying unsuccessfully to seek redress from authorities after his land was seized without compensation.

Despite the violence and deaths the explosions caused, Qian won over a lot of the public. One popular online commenter, for instance, said “Qian was no Bin Laden, he was one of the weak.”

A similar—though disputed—suicide bombing case in May of 2012 killed four people in Yunnan Province. More recently, in January of this year a suicide bomber in Guangzhou took his own life and injured several others over wages he was owed.

New Survey Finds China Unequal, Unemployed and Untrusting Online WSJ, 2013-07-26

The survey conducted by the China Family Panel Studies unit at Peking University — spanning 14,960 households across five provinces — pointed to worrying levels of inequality. In 2012, the bottom 25% of China’s households accounted for just 3.9% of total income, according to the survey, compared with 59% for the top 25% of earners. That gives China a gini coefficient — a widely used measure of inequality — of 0.49… The figure is also down from 0.51 in 2010, as rural incomes rise faster than urban ones.

Even so, by international and historical comparison, China’s inequality is at nose-bleed-inducing levels… The U.S. had a gini coefficient of 0.45 in 2007, according to the CIA. High inequality is associated with social unrest….

China orders cuts in output Philadelphia Inquirer, 2013-07-27

China’s government has ordered companies to close factories in 19 industries where overproduction has led to price-cutting wars, affirming its determination to push ahead with a painful economic restructuring despite slowing growth. The industry ministry issued orders late Thursday to more than 1,400 companies to cut excess capacity that has led to financial trouble for manufacturers. The affected industries include steel, cement, copper, and glass. It requires some companies to close outright.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. gantal

    According to every poll, taken over decades by Western agencies, the Chinese people overwhelmingly trust and approve of their government.

    And so they should: wages double every 10 years, 90% home ownership, peace, security, and the return of China to the world’s top table.

    Selective reporting like the pieces above – often the work of right wing propaganda tanks – are fine as long as they’re balanced by equally comprehensive reporting about China’s successes.

    That balance is completely lacking in the Western media and we are all the poorer for it. There is much we can learn from China’s policies, but we’ll never learn from them if we don’t know that they exist.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      But not, apparently, according to a poll taken by Peking University. Had you given consideration to the idea of actually reading the post?

      Adding… The other two times you popped up, you linked to a site called “In Praise of China.” Pro tip: If you want your site to look real, remove the “Sample Page” menu item and clean the viagra ads out of the commments.

      1. rjs

        i once put together a post titled “the coming chinese hegemony“; i believed it at the the time, now i’m not so sure…
        however, i dont think it will be social unrest that will waylay China…their prime working age population is shrinking every year, and there’s no easy way out of that demographic trap…
        their economy may top ours briefly later this decade, but by 2030 they’ll be on their way down, and India, with their young & educated workforce, will take their place on top of the economic heap…
        all bets are off, of course, if any of these countries gets into a major war in the interim..

    2. Code Name D

      But what about the reports of empty apartment buildings? Entire cities with no residences, priced well beyond the average wage. Something tells me that this 90% home ownerships figure is product of self delusional thinking. And now we have reports of real estate markets starting to flatten. Construction has already frozen in Ordos. Seems we’ve already seen this before.

      Those that fail to learn from history – are doomed to repeat it. Those that refuse to learn from history – shall become relies of the past.

  2. TheCatSaid

    Lambert, can you possibly mention “China” in your main heading link to this article?

  3. impermanence

    China has not yet learned the most precient lesson of the 20th century, which is, the most effective way to control a population is not through terror or fear or outright violence, but instead, through giving everybody EXACTLY what they [think] they want, be it cheap and plentiful fast-food, internet porn, drugs and alcohol, tv, AND credit!

  4. Short Plank

    “through giving everybody EXACTLY what they [think] they want, be it cheap and plentiful fast-food, internet porn, drugs and alcohol, tv, AND credit!”

    Well OK, if I don’t really want these things, what do I want?

  5. Hugh

    Thanks, great collection. Chinese authorities have two thousand years of examples of social unrest to tell them exactly what they can expect for themselves if the proles ever decide they are losing their grip and/or not delivering the goods.

    Demographic traps ignore the possibility of increased productivity through automation and technological innovation. You don’t need more workers if each worker is producing more. And these workers can at the same time support the social needs of older citizens.

    If countries like the China and the US move to or back to internal production for internal consumption, they will be do better in the future that’s coming. That is we have to understand that our current trajectories can not be maintained. Things are going to go severely sideways after 2030 due to overpopulation, climate change, resource depletion or too many demands on too few resources, pollution, and ecological damage. So no, India is never going to be the next China. The world kleptocratic order will collapse probably not into something better but more likely into regional and local feudalisms.

  6. jen

    Schiavenza, a casualty of California public miseducation and wannabe elite who couldn’t get into Kennedy or Woodrow Wilson, got picked up and nursed by the Eurasia Group, elephant graveyard of security-state knuckledraggers, and now he’s been put to work spreading NSA’s new lie, the repression gap:

    “The government does its homework. Beijing collects extremely detailed information about public unrest (hence the “mass incidents” figure), pinpointing individuals most responsible for organizing protests and preventing them from spreading the word to other parts of the country”

    Before his student loans came due, Schiavenza used to laud clever dissidents who twitted the CPC censors but now he’s consumed with admiration of China’s Big Brother. His Eurasia Group mentors have got him attributing to China what NSA says it needs to do to stop its own enemy within.

    Interestingly, his article was written with no evident awareness of FREENET, the measure rated most effective by China’s most resourceful dissidents. What are the censors’ countermeasures for that, one wonders? Don’t ask Schiavenza.

    Bù hǎo, bignose. Weak tit for a self-proclaimed China hand. You can tell he never got out of the secret-police sandbox to encounter any actual dissidents.

    He’s no Ames.

  7. The Rage

    Isn’t China due for another famine? People complained about Mao era famines, but they forget, that was nothing uncommon. Famine is a way of life. The ones in the 19th century were doozies as well.

  8. lxdr1f7

    China needs to promote more democratic systems of governance in order to instil more trust and effective governance of their society. The monetary system can be made more participatory and efficient if the central bank deals directly with the public instead of through banks.

  9. pebird

    If, in the US, a group of workers and/or consumers held a banker hostage, they would be immediately labeled as you-know-whats and taken out by a SWAT team.

    China looks a little enlightened occasionally.

    1. Nathanael


      I’ve been banging on for years about how the people will tolerate a hell of a lot, and if the government is even halfway reasonable, it doesn’t have to worry about a popular revolution.

      China’s government is halfway reasonable.

      The US government has started acting lunatic. Big difference.

  10. Jeff W

    “One reason is this: The government does its homework. Beijing collects extremely detailed information about public unrest (hence the “mass incidents” figure), pinpointing individuals most responsible for organizing protests and preventing them from spreading the word to other parts of the country.”

    “Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content.”

    “If in the West ‘there is no alternative,’ in China the two official alternatives are a frictionless and efficient capitalist technocracy (the Singaporean fantasy) or unmitigated, feral, and profoundly irrational political violence.” — “China in Revolt” Jacobin

    Excellent compendium of snapshots, lambert!

    My take on all these, as illustrated by the quotes I’ve pulled out, is this:

    The Party and the government does do its homework. One over-riding concern for over 30 years has been avoiding the fate of the CCCP and no matter who gets the blame (Gorbachev, the “system” as it was implemented in the Soviet Union or the West), the result has been learning how to be adaptive and how to manage the populace, which, for all the substantial social unrest, is managed— perhaps haphazardly and imperfectly but still managed.

    Censorship is obviously one way. As that quote from American Political Science Review indicates, the censorship is tilted more to preventing social mobilization than criticizing the state or its leaders (although the latter is censored also, as in the case of the New York Times story of the riches of Wen Jibao)—and, in fact, the presence of such criticism is a “selling point” for officials and others to point out how “open” China is, in contrast to Mao’s time.

    This “openness” of debate in China has its benefits, as indicated by this quote from a 2008 book review in The New Republic:

    [Anne-Marie] Brady [in Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China] reveals that China’s central propagandists have studied the theories of “manufacturing consent” by Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays, and have learned from media critics such as Noam Chomsky [again, “doing more homework”—Jeff], and—although she does not make quite this ultimate ironic point—emulate such Western visionaries of popular journalism as Rupert Murdoch. They know how diversity and contention within a permitted range of subjects render invisible the subjects forbidden by the regime and placed outside the perimeter; how naming and framing place inconvenient facts in a desired light. The department intervenes at all levels of the media hierarchy through a system of news guidance, post-publication review, and reward and punishment. Its most effective tool is a traditional Chinese invention rather than a Western import: a “you know what we mean” style of regulation that allows experimentation, tolerates ambiguity, and then punishes retroactively and arbitrarily.

    The efflorescence of creativity…is not a challenge to Party control. It enables that control. The lively art and music scenes, colorful newsstands, crowded bookstores, stylish clothing, experimental dance, innovative architecture, sexy advertising, rampant consumerism, luxurious housing, ebullient schlock, even the considerable scope for academic inquiry: this lightly patrolled free zone is not the antithesis but the twin of the permanent crackdown on the political frontier, where the few who insist on testing the regime are crowded to the cultural margin and generally ignored. In this sense the energetic new Chinese art that has caught the imagination of Western buyers, with its pictorial irony and cynicism, repudiation of history, detachment from the world, and love of stunts, is not the challenge to those in power it is sometimes construed to be. Rather, it is a secret joke that the regime shares with the artists and their audience–part of a new social contract that allows the children to have their sly fun so long as the grown-ups run the house.

    Brady argues that the end result of this sophisticated cultural programming differs little from the mass media in the West, where just as in China nothing important is discussed. Like American TV viewers and tabloid readers transfixed by the photo shoot of the teenage star Miley Cyrus and the debate over whether to lift the federal gas tax for the summer driving season, Chinese readers feel they are living in an environment of freedom. The difference is that even those motivated to do so have no way to break into the monopoly circle that decides on the fundamental issues that confront their society.

    To me, it’s a bit like Sheldon Wolin’s “inverted totalitarianism” from the other direction—a sort of “managed authoritarianism” that is not quite like our Western view of a 1984-style, heavy-handed “Soviet” one-party state (or its real-life North Korean counterpart).

    Regarding those two “official narratives” of technocratic perfection vs. violent chaos: I’ve often said to my friends in China that if the leaders could “Singaporize” China—Singapore being the ultimate “technocratic fantasy”—they would do it in an instant. It’s no accident that, prior to opening China’s first Special Economic Zone in in the then-sleepy fishing village of Shenzhen, Deng Xiao-ping made his first and only trip to Singapore and years later, Deng would say “Learn from Singapore.” But the other alternative—China as a violent, chaotic mess (harkening back to the Great Cultural Proletarian Revolution and earlier times)—is the one that does the heavy lifting: only maintenance of the status quo, goes the subtext (or, often, the overt message), prevents that. (A slightly different “chaos” narrative—“Look at how much better off China is than [democratic but messily chaotic] India”—gets trotted out as well in support of the status quo and as a dismissal of any reforms.)

    The other narrative is one we see in one of the comments above—the fantastic rise in living standards for hundreds of millions of people in China. (The exact numbers vary but the number is somewhere around 600 million lifted out of poverty over the past 35 years.) This historically unparalleled reduction in poverty no doubt accounts, at least partly, for the positive view that the large majority of Chinese have about the direction of their county. It would be difficult to imagine otherwise. But again that narrative serves to buttress, rightly or wrongly, the status quo. (Anecdotally, my friends in China, all middle class with their flat-screen TVs and privately-owned flats, remember how they grew up and how much better off they, and their parents, are now but that hardly translates into “trust” for the political system.)

    As for the ongoing, increasing labor unrest, there is no question in my mind, given the above, especially the fact that Beijing “studies” these incidents, that the government will attempt to manage it to the extent it can. If, in most strikes before 2010 (according to the Jacobin piece), workers were asking just for the wages due them, that’s hardly revolutionary. If workers, as in the 2010 Nanhai strike, were asking for, and got, a 50% wage increase of 800 RMB (about $117 at the time of the strike), that type of demand aligns with the government’s expressed desire to have a more consumption-based economy. (Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, in the 1960s and 1970s, very deliberately forced low-wage industries out of Singapore, a strategy that was probably not lost on the Chinese leadership.) I’d surmise that the government will “channel” worker unrest by allowing a narrow focus on securing higher wages and forcing (greater) adherence to contractual obligations—goals it wants to promote in any case—while diverting energy away from any real autonomous worker movement.

    1. Nathanael

      Bluntly, a country which routinely *agrees* to worker demands such as decent treatment and higher wages… well, that sort of government will not face a revolution.

      Why would it?

      That is in some ways a pretty decent government. People don’t usually ask for much, and will settle for relatively little. It’s when the government refuses them even that little amount, that is when they rebel.

  11. Nathanael

    “Beijing collects extremely detailed information about public unrest (hence the “mass incidents” figure), pinpointing individuals most responsible for organizing protests and preventing them from spreading the word to other parts of the country.”

    Silliness and fantasy. This has zero value for social control; zero.

    ” … Secondly, the nature of social unrest in China is simply different than in other countries. Whereas the Arab Spring protesters expressed dissatisfaction with the performance with their government as a whole, their Chinese counterparts tend to focus on specific, local issues in which a clear resolution is possible.”

    And the Chineses government has been making a point of giving in on every one of those local issues, like clockwork, and THAT is China’s “secret” to controlling unrest. It’s actually the same secret used by the kings of ancient times, and used by British nobility for thousands of years. It works.

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