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Yueran Zhang senior contributor

Will China’s Future Bring More Violence, or More Democracy?

Qidong Party Secretary Sun Jianhua, sans shirt

Recent demonstrations in Shifang, Sichuan over a planned molybdenum copper plant and Qidong, Jiangsu over a proposed wastewater pipeline have taught us about the violent side of social unrest in China. In Shifang, the protest turned into a bloody fight between police and protestors which resulted in serious injuries to both sides. In Qidong, protestors broke into government buildings, damaged property, and stripped the city’s Communist Party Secretary of his shirt.

Worried and upset, netizens in China have started to question why outbursts of violence have become a seemingly inseparable part of mass disturbances.

The causes of violence 

One would expect law enforcement authorities facing angry protesters and impending chaos to first appease the protestors and mitigate any factors that may lead to violence. Yet the authorities in Shifang and Qidong did just the opposite. After citizens walked onto the street, the Shifang government did not provide for any means for communicating with demonstrators; instead, it called forth an overwhelming brigade of riot police to “keep the situation under control.” In Qidong, although the government knew of the July 28 protest in advance, its immediate response was to coerce citizens through various public and private channels not to participate, even sending text messages to students’ parents warning of “unnecessary harm” should their children join the protesters. These measures only deepened citizen mistrust and hostility towards the government. 

A Shifang protester nurses his wounds

On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, liberal columnist Zhao Chu (@赵楚) argues that the government’s incompetence and irresponsibility were the direct causes of the violence. “There are two reasons why local mass demonstrations historically become violent: First, when the government doesn’t give a proper, on-time response with sincerity and responsibility; second, when government officials abuse their law enforcement powers to secure their reputation and positions.” {{1}}[[1]]历来地方的群体性维权抗争事件滋生出社会暴力,最后演化成全武行只有两个原因:一是地方政府在事件初起时无诚意、无责任感与无合理、及时应对;二是最后地方老爷们为保名声和地位,滥用暴力,强力弹压。[[1]] 

But the protesters also bear some measure of responsibility. In both demonstrations, participants showed little degree of pre-planning and organization. They lacked a strategy to communicate their demands efficiently, keep the crowd peaceful, and negotiate with the government. Chinese citizens still need to learn how to organize themselves, not only during street protests but on an ongoing basis. Columnist Chen Min (@笑蜀)’s statement is indicative: “I always advocate for peaceful, rational and orderly social movements, but premised on a fully organized citizenry.”{{2}}[[2]]我坚决主张公民维权追求和平理性有序。但这有个前提,就是公民充分组织化。[[2]] Journalist Shen Yachuan (@还是石扉客) agrees, adding that current Chinese society has never had an opportunity to practice community organizing. “With the channels of public participation obstructed and no opportunities to learn how to become citizens, to expect participants of street protests to be gentle and disciplined is an unrealistic dream in the short term.”{{3}}[[3]]在一个长期以来公共参与管道严重阻塞、公民训练基本阙如的地方,要求公众在街头运动中个个都如谦谦君子,我看至少在短时期内是脱离现实的书生之见。[[3]]

Under a political system where authorities prioritize “maintaining social stability” (维持社会稳定) above all else, mass street disturbances have become one of the very few ways citizens can compel government to hear their collective voice. @冉云飞2011 notes that unless the government opens up systemic, normalized channels for common people to influence public decision-making, similar tragedies will continue to occur. “Unless the government guarantees citizens’ institutional right to protect their interests, similar demonstrations will happen frequently. As long as the government continues to block any reasonable means for the people to voice their concerns, there is no real public opinion to keep the government accountable. The people will inevitably feel helpless.” {{4}}[[4]]不在制度上保障民众理性维护自己合法权益,而是听任地方政府在表面政绩和自身利益的驱使下胡来,那么像什邡、启东这样的事只会越来越多和频密。政府的颟顸断绝了民众理性诉求的渠道,根本缺乏对政府的民意制衡,必使民众深感无助。[[4]]

What does the future hold?

In searching for a long term solution to end violent street demonstrations, some commenters have cited the example of the organized and largely peaceful large-scale protest in 2006 by the so-called “Red Shirts” in Taiwan. Yet, Taiwan’s society did not learn community organizing and social mobilization overnight. It is the result of a long journey of struggle, compromise and progress, dating back to violent demonstrations like the 228 Incident in 1947 (a protest in Taipei which turned into an island-wide military massacre of dissidents) and the Formosa Incident of 1979 (where street protestors were put down by riot police and tried in military court). Following decades of trial and error, civil society in Taiwan is now much developed. What happened in Shifang and Qidong may be the first step in the same journey for citizens of the People’s Republic. 

A smartphone increasingly seems like an indispensable aid to protesters

Even in Qidong, there are a few signs that public demonstrations are evolving. Despite turning violent at the end, both the protestors and the authorities in Qidong evinced a maturity not seen in past incidents. A few days before the protest, citizens made an infographic to provide background details on the proposed pipeline and to articulate their claims. The infographic also urged people to “protest peacefully and rationally.” During the demonstration, most of the police officers appeared to show restraint. The police department (@启东市公安局) tweeted real-life updates on Weibo, and advised people to go home after the government released its decision to cancel the project. As a result of these efforts, no deaths nor severe injuries have been reported so far.

Although netizens remain unsure of how much violence to expect from future mass protests, they seem to have reached consensus that incidents of social unrest similar to those in Shifang and Qidong will be more frequent. Pent-up opposition to a model of economic development that pursues speed at great cost to the environment is now combining with a growing desire for political engagement–and with over 500 million users on China’s microblogs, the tools for such engagement are increasingly at hand. Professor He Bing (@何兵), a legal scholar, argues that the trend marks a new era for the country. “The country is going from the era of rural struggles to the era of urban struggles; from the era of individual petitioners to the era of collective challenges to state power.”{{5}}[[5]]国家正在从农民的抗争,进入市民的抗争时代。从访民的抗争进入全民的抗争时代。[[5]]

[Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Sun Jianhua as the Mayor of Qidong. He is the city's Party Secretary, not the Mayor. We're sorry for the error.]

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Yueran Zhang

Yueran Zhang is a student at Duke University, class of 2015, currently majoring in sociology and math. He spent all of his life before college in Beijing.