Protests in China will not bring change

Years of the government’s unyielding restraint and manipulation over citizen’s lives are unlikely to end.

Although some protests have occurred this year in China, they are not a threat to the government [GALLO/GETTY]

As China prepares for leadership succession, clashes between the people and the authorities steal the headlines, as if foreshadowing a semblance of Arab Spring taking place. “The Protester” may have won the coveted label of TIME person of the year, but they seem less consequential in China. Despite a dramatic increase in the number of “mass incidents”, as it is euphemistically termed in China, none of them will deal a deathblow to unseat the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is still a stretch for electoral democracy to take place.

In the most serious case of social unrest in China this year, about 1,000 villagers from Wukan participated in a mass rally. Their antagonisms focused on two issues: Illegal land sales by officials and the death of one of the villagers on  December 11, Xue Jinbo, who was advocating a resolution on the land dispute.

According to interviews, officials have been confiscating public land since the 1990s and selling it without any or little recompense to the peasants. The long-simmering grievances erupted this week as the largest portion of land was sold off while villagers battled with rising inflation. The villagers not only demanded the return of their land, but also in a markedly democratic style, chased the officials out of town and elected their own local representatives.

Villagers in Haimen city also recently rose up against the expansion of a coal-fueled power plant. Pollution by existing factories has already damaged the local fishing industry. In anger, they mobbed a government office while blocking a highway. This acrimony towards pollution, however, is nothing new. Environmental concerns have been one of the major seeds of discontentment.

In August this year, Dalian faced similar demonstrations. A relatively wealthy city where Davos Men had arrived for the World Economic Forum seemed like the least likely place for protests. But on August 14, about 12,000 people poured into People’s Square to demand the shut down and immediate relocation of a chemical plant.

Will protests spread?

Protests are often highlighted as an aspect of democracy – after all that was how Mubarak and Gaddafi were defeated. With the rising number of large-scale protests gaining international attention, they are seemingly a destabilising force.  China is already facing mounting problems at the top that could undermine CCP’s control over the country.

Seven out of nine seats in the Politburo Standing Committee, which consists of the CCP’s dominant leadership, will be vacated by next fall. Two candidates emerge atop the competition. Bo Xilai is known for reviving the “red culture”, harkening wistfully back to the era of Chairman Mao, and as a hardline leftist advocating social equality. Wang Yang, Party Chief of Guangdong, on the other hand, advocates the Guangdong Model – a liberal approach to economic and political reforms. This leadership transition is made more complex because of their vastly contrasting political style. Whoever wins the coveted position will steer China in a different direction.

On the economic front, China struggles to curb the implications of a housing bubble burst; the deflation could result in a massive bailout of local governments by the central bank, and even send shockwaves beyond the shores of the country leading to a global decline in demand for copper and iron.

Chinese farmers protest land seizures

While political and economic challenges coupled with bottom-up pressures from social unrest could chip at CCP’s grip on the country, I am doubtful of any revolutionary changes.

Despite the larger scope of concessions given to the villagers of Wukan, China’s approach to handling the protest has been run-of-the-mill. The same skillful formula is applied to all the protests with a routinised mastery: First, authorities quell demonstrations with extensive force and capture the leaders.

The authorities at the county or province often then address the source of the outrage. In the case of Wukan, besides addressing their main concern with the land grabs, the olive branch by the provincial officials included a rare recognition of their democratically elected government.

Rather than seeing the Wukan example as a harbinger for change, it instead starkly reveals the motives of the Chinese authorities. The villagers of Wukan had initially planed a march to the nearby city, escalating the issue beyond the acceptable level as implicitly designated by the government. The point of the concession – as with all others – prevents the protest from spreading to other cities and coalescing into a broad base social movement. While certain discussions such as criticising local authorities are acceptable, linking up with other protestors in a national network is taboo.

Careful terminology

Unlike the protests in Egypt and Libya, where social media became an integral aspect spreading awareness and organising the masses, eventually toppling the dictators, the CCP monitors the Internet like a hawk. Armies of censors troll the web to eviscerate articles and comments that the government does not like. The blocking of words on Sina Weibo related to “Wukan” mirrors the intensity of the demonstrations.

When the protest march was postponed, keywords related to “Wukan” were unblocked. By keeping protests localised, the CCP also spreads the message that protests are not a result of underlying root causes: that it is not about the lack of check and balances, and real reforms, at the provincial levels that led to insufferable acts by hubristic local authorities; but simply, a group of people displeased issues that emerge arbitrarily.  

This manipulation by the CCP is not without success. Whether rights consciousness, which would incite a mass movement throughout the country, is rising among citizens is questionable. While local dissent against corrupt officials is common, the anger is not directed at the CCP itself. One of the protesters was quoted saying: “I do have concerns” over the lack of progress. But I do believe this country is ruled by law, so I do believe the central government will do whatever it has to do to help us.”

Reporters who arrived at Wukan’s self-made press center saw a note imploring them not to term the protest as an “uprising”.

“We are not a revolt,” it said. “We support the Communist Party. We love our country.”

In a blog post titled “Discussing Revolution”, popular blogger Han Han also explains why he thinks China does not need a revolution. According to Mr Han:  “With the exception of intellectuals and those working in the media industry, most Chinese find themselves ‘free’ and unless injustice befalls upon them, they do not see the need to concern themselves with issues of ‘justice’.”

Testifying to the CCP’s domination, Han Han says democracy will not work in China, as the central government could easily spend trillions of dollars on buying votes.

The quandaries beleaguering the CCP in the coming year will be widespread. But it is unlikely that the years of the CCP’s unyielding restraint and manipulation over every aspect of citizens’ lives will loosen at this critical juncture as they prepare for a leadership transition.

Tng Ying Hui is a blogger and journalist.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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