Argument

China Ridicules U.S. Protests Out of Fear of Its Own People

The Chinese Communist Party crushes demonstrations—and with it shuts off change.

Workers gather on a square before the government headquarters in Wenling, in China's Zhejiang province, to protest after an extensive crackdown on workplace safety standards forced the closure of more than 4,500 shoe factories, on Feb. 17, 2014.
Workers gather on a square before the government headquarters in Wenling, in China's Zhejiang province, to protest after an extensive crackdown on workplace safety standards forced the closure of more than 4,500 shoe factories, on Feb. 17, 2014. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on May 30 tweeted “I can’t breathe” in response to the U.S. State Department’s criticism of a proposed national security law for Hong Kong. This clapback neatly captures the recent eagerness of Chinese state media and officials to amplify the George Floyd marches and criticize the U.S. government for police brutality and racism.

At first glance, the Chinese party-state has been handed a rhetorical gift. As the United States explodes in nationwide demonstrations over police violence against Black Americans, Chinese officials are using the unrest to deflect condemnation for abuses against their own citizens. They can readily accuse the United States of “hypocritical double standards” for failing to live up to its venerated principles.

There’s certainly some truth to the accusation of violent or illiberal responses to the protests. Widespread curfews denied many Americans their fundamental right to assembly and free expression. Thousands of protesters have been arrested, most for violating curfews. Police have widely employed tear gas, rubber bullets, and other violent dispersal tactics. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, as of June 15, had documented at least 325 attacks and more than 59 arrests of journalists. President Donald Trump and some of his political allies threatened to deploy the military against citizens.

But on deeper examination, these mass demonstrations are fraught territory for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While it wants to frame the unrest as an indictment of American democracy, the reality is that nationwide collective action for government accountability is democracy in action. When the politically marginalized can no longer wait for officials or lawmakers to effect justice, they take to the streets to shift narratives and demand resolution. The George Floyd protests, composed of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in more than 2,000 locations in the United States, can already claim some notable achievements, such as repurposing police funding for social services. The House and Senate have both proposed laws to counter impunity for police violence.

We’ll set aside for now that, as Ho-fung Hung pointed out recently in Foreign Policy, the CCP is not a credible ally for human rights. We’ll also bookmark that Hua bafflingly tweeted “All lives matter” two days after “I can’t breathe” and the history of racism toward ethnic minorities and Africans in China itself.

What’s more important is that the CCP’s rush to paint the George Floyd protests as a sign of failure is indicative of its anxiety toward social movements. Indeed, widespread demonstrations are conspicuously absent in China.

This is not to say Chinese citizens don’t protest. Far from it. The most recent state-released data on so-called “mass incidents”—party-speak for unauthorized gatherings and other social unrest—indicates there were about 180,000 such events in 2010. That information used to be released regularly, until the CCP decided the number was too risky to publicize. In 2016, the researchers Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu were arrested for collecting and publishing data about the frequency, size, and nature of Chinese protests. Before losing their freedom, the research duo managed to record nearly 30,000 events in 2015 alone. The academics Han Zhang and Jennifer Pan identified some 136,000 collective action events between 2010 and 2017 by applying a deep-learning algorithm to analyze Weibo posts.

Lu and Li’s research found that approximately half of demonstrations were led by workers and peasants—a ratio mirroring analysis of mass incidents by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences—protesting labor rights abuses, forced evictions, and corrupt local officials. These rural residents and migrant workers, a population of some 560 million, disproportionally hold low-wage jobs and are denied some entitlements or rights granted to urban residents. At least a fifth of demonstrations were led by urban residents cheated by developers or protesting environmental degradation. Some end up petitioning the government’s Bureau of Letters and Visits, joining the ranks of millions who subject themselves to years of waiting and police abuse for an unlikely chance of a successful appeal.

While China does not lack for grievances or dissent, the party-state has long honed a security apparatus specifically designed to prevent localized activism from developing into a movement. It averts mobilization by employing surveillance, heavily censoring online speech, and dismantling activist networks. When a protest emerges, police use a combination of repression and negotiation to contain and squelch the unrest as early as possible. The scholars Ching Kwan Lee and Yonghong Zhang call this system “bargained authoritarianism.” The CCP euphemistically refers to it as “stability maintenance,” and it was allocated nearly $200 billion in 2018, exceeding or equal to its defense budget.

The consequence is, as intended, the curbing of cross-geographical and sustained mobilizations that could create leverage for political concessions. With some exception for nationalist protests—which the CCP has permitted and even encouraged in limited, atomized groups—social movements are barely able to get off the ground before the state extinguishes them. This is especially true since Xi Jinping took over as CCP leader in 2012, instituting more restrictions on independent civil society, consolidating the party’s monopoly on political discourse, and emphasizing the nonnegotiability of stability maintenance.

In the context of a party-state that takes such great pains to crush collective action, the CCP’s keenness to comment on the George Floyd protests presents an occasion to consider some recent Chinese movements that never were.

In early 2013, activists began organizing protests in multiple cities to demand officials publicly disclose their financial assets. They posted event photos online to spread the word. The demonstrations were inspired by the New Citizens Movement, founded by the legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, which advocates civic participation in political life. By March, police started arresting the protesters, and dozens were ultimately sentenced to years in prison. This occurred just months after Xi pledged to fight corruption. The crackdown on these activists made clear that he did not intend for the public to play a major role in anti-graft efforts. Had the movement been allowed to evolve, perhaps attention would have turned to the immense wealth accumulated by top leaders’ families, including Xi’s own.

Some of the anti-corruption demonstrators, having been released from jail, convened a small meeting in December 2019 to discuss politics. Within weeks, police rounded up several people on the charge of “inciting subversion” for attending the meeting, including Xu. That the activists could face years of incarceration just for a private discussion reflects the greater intolerance for dissent since their 2013 campaign.

Chinese feminists have also faced obstacles in recent efforts to build a movement. Up to five years ago, a network of activists was able to conduct performance protests across the country to raise awareness about sexual harassment and gender inequality. But in 2015, ahead of International Women’s Day, five leading feminists were detained for 37 days because of a plan to hand out stickers about sexual harassment on public transport in multiple cities.

Feminists have since adapted to a more restrictive environment for street demonstrations by taking the movement online. A #MeToo campaign expanded quickly on Weibo and WeChat in January 2018 through a “networked guerrilla movement” that relied on decentralized posting and creative use of coded language to circumvent censors. It culminated in a petition signed by 8,000 people demanding that universities address sexual harassment on campus. In a tentative victory, the government has since introduced anti-sexual harassment provisions in a draft civil code.

But the state has extracted a substantial cost. It retaliated by heavily censoring terms related to the #MeToo campaign and, on International Women’s Day in 2018, by shutting down the social media accounts of Feminist Voices and Anti-Sexual Harassment (ATSH), two important feminist platforms that between them had hundreds of thousands of followers. Authorities shut down a feminist NGO in December 2018 and detained ATSH founder Huang Xueqin in October 2019.

A feminist activist involved in the #MeToo campaign, Yue Xin, was also detained in August 2018. But the pretext was linked to a separate effort to snuff out a labor rights movement. In July 2018, workers at the Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen demonstrated against the arrests of fellow workers who wanted to form a grassroots union at the company. Dozens of self-professed Marxist students, including Yue, traveled to Shenzhen from around the country to join the workers in protest. Other university students demonstrated in solidarity on their campuses. As the Jasic protests garnered attention inside and outside China, the government responded harshly, detaining over 130 workers, students, and labor activists over the subsequent 11 months. Staff of at least 10 labor NGOs were impacted.

As noted above, labor grievances are a common driver of protests in China. What made the Jasic movement unique was that workers demanded power in the workplace through a functioning union, and it quickly attracted cross-geographical, cross-class solidarity. By international standards, it was a nascent, small-scale labor action. But it contained enough ingredients of a social movement to merit the state’s widespread and thorough suppression. The CCP has surely not forgotten that the 1989 pro-democracy movement was a powerful alliance of workers and students.

Understanding the party’s memory of Tiananmen, Yue published an open letter to Xi just days before she was detained, reassuring that: “We [student activists] are not foreign forces or a student movement, and we don’t have any political demands. We just want justice for Jasic workers.” But even those modest demands were a bridge too far. Chinese people believing they can drive social change from the bottom through organization and dissent is an idea that terrifies the CCP.

This anxiety, since the start of the George Floyd protests, has motivated the party-state in domestically oriented media to emphasize incidents of looting and violence, downplaying the larger social movement. Such framing has contributed to Weibo posts with the hashtag “U.S. riots” accumulating 5 billion views. The CCP must portray the protests as a chaotic political failure, for fear that China’s own economically or socially marginalized groups may appreciate the potential power of collective action.

Kevin Slaten researches civic space, rights activism, and politics in Asia.

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