Viewpoint: Are protests moving China backwards?

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Thousands of people protest outside the local government offices in Qidong in the eastern China province of Jiangsu, 28 July 2012
Image caption,
People are increasingly taking to the streets to protest against perceived injustice

Protests are increasingly common in China and some have resulted in high-profile concessions. But is this a sign that China is moving closer to democracy and the rule of law? As part of a series on challenges for China's new leaders, Prof Wenfang Tang of the University of Iowa explains why this may not be the case.

Every time a protest breaks out in China, the outside world sees it as a sign that the communist regime is weakening, with China moving one step closer to democracy.

Yet Chinese opinion polls consistently show strong public support for the central government in Beijing, despite the protests that erupt around the country.

In fact, the protests can help the Communist Party gain support, slowing the development of civil society and making democracy an increasingly distant hope.

Public protests, or mass incidents, have risen rapidly in recent years. There were 180,000 mass incidents in 2010, compared to only 10,000 in 1994 and 74,000 in 2004, the New York Times reported.

The scale of these incidents ranges from a few protesters or petitioners to as many as 100,000 - challenging the government is no longer the business of a few dissidents and public intellectuals.

Recent high-profile incidents - such as the land dispute in Wukan, the mining plant dispute in Shifang, the waste water processing plant dispute in Qidong, and protests against a chef's death in Shishou and a young girl's drowning in Wengan - have been reported by Western media.

These incidents have generated considerable excitement among Chinese dissidents and some Western media outlets, who tend to describe them as the harbinger of political change, a stepping stone towards democracy, or the beginning of the collapse of the authoritarian regime.

If the "collapse" view is true, one should expect declining public support for the Chinese government. But public opinion surveys conducted by Chinese and Western scholars, including a recent survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, show a persistently high level of support for the Beijing government.

Obviously, such strong support will not lead to the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) any time soon.

Mob mentality

Part of the reason is the CCP's successful use of mass incidents to promote and consolidate its own power.

The protest in Wukan, where villagers drove out local officials in a widely-publicised stand-off over a land grab, was ultimately calmed when provincial officials intervened and removed the local officials. State media subsequently ran pieces censuring them and promising better ways of addressing such disputes.

By shifting public anger to economic organisations, local governments and individual government officials, the central and provincial governments are bypassing normal judicial procedures and local bureaucratic institutions, and establishing direct dialogue with the public. In return, they gain people's trust and support.

Such an approach, however, encourages the public to disobey the legal system and even nurtures the development of mob mentality as a way of expressing frustration.

China is returning to a populist authoritarian society in which the leaders and the masses are directly linked without the "buffer zone" of a civil society, such as elections, the rule of law and autonomous social organisations like labour unions.

In its frantic appeal to public opinion, government leaders frequently disrupt the legal system - for example, by compensating petitioners who refuse to accept court decisions.

In the cases of the chef who fell to his death from a hotel building in Shishou and the 17-year-old girl who drowned in Wengan, both families and local residents refused to accept the medical examiners' reports because they did not find evidence of murder.

As a result, families and local citizens organised large protests. The higher-level governments responded by appeasing the very public they feared, and so intervened by compensating the families, regardless of the medical examiners' findings.

Such interference cooled public anger temporarily, but in the process demonstrated a complete disregard for the rule of law.

Going backwards?

Outside China, observers often view the internet as the hope for democracy, based on the assumption that it will effectively organise the public, break through news censorship and quickly disseminate information. Certainly the early stages of the Arab Spring seemed to reinforce that view.

In China, however, the internet is often used as "human flesh search engine" to recklessly expose people's private information. It may be true that those exposed did unethical or unpopular things. But such vigilantism neglects the legal process and urges people to take justice into their own hands.

It is Red Guards in action all over again, showing that in some situations the reflexes of the Cultural Revolution are still intact.

Image caption,
Red Guards took justice into their own hands during the Cultural Revolution

Red Guard-like behaviour was also seen in the protest against the waste water processing plant in Qidong. The protesters stripped the mayor and the party secretary, and forced them to put on environmental protection T-shirts. Both officials were later fired by the higher-level government.

In Jinan, a female police officer triggered another mass protest when she got into a row with some street vendors. Demonstrators dragged her out of a police car, poured water on her and made her kneel and apologise. As a result, she lost her job.

These incidents seem a repeat of rallies during the Cultural Revolution when frenzied mobs criticised government officials and even beat them.

In the Wukan and Shishou incidents as well as others, many protesters held banners calling for direct intervention by Beijing, while condemning local officials. The response from the top satisfies those at the bottom and in return, produces political loyalty and support for the CCP. But this process moves China further away from civil society and democracy.

For those who mistakenly see these mass incidents as hopeful rays in a democratic pre-dawn, it may be time to consider that the dark side of Chinese mob mentality may ultimately block the sun.