Seeing Red: Challenges to Social Harmony in China


T. David Mason, The University of North Texas

T. David Mason is a professor of political science at the University of North Texas (UNT) and the director of UNT’s Peace Studies Program. He previously served as Associate Editor (2003-2007) and Editor-in-Chief (2007-2008) of International Studies Quarterly, a publication of the International Studies Association. Mason’s research on East Asian politics, land reform, civil conflict, and post-war peace has appeared in a number of journals, including the American Political Science Review, Journal of Politics, and Comparative Political Studies.

Recent news stories highlight ongoing disputes and protests in China. What are the main causes or instigating factors of this increasing social unrest?

The vast majority of these protests are focused on local issues. Some patterns that seem quite common across political subdivisions in China are protests that arise over land and labor disputes. The land disputes come up as urban economies grow and local governments expropriate land for industrial development. This involves both peasant farmers being evicted from their land so that the land can be devoted to other purposes and urban land disputes where people are displaced from their homes so that the land can be devoted to industrial development or infrastructure projects. In both cases the government is supposed to provide various forms of compensation to those affected, but, in many cases, that compensation has not been forthcoming or has fallen far short of what was promised.

The other motive for protests has been labor issues. In some cases the protests are motivated by the differential treatment of the employees of state owned enterprises (SOEs), private and cooperative firms (including township and village enterprises, or TVEs), and foreign owned firms. These grievances are exacerbated by the influx of over 100 million unregistered workers from the countryside into China’s cities. These rural residents can earn far more income in the city, but, because they are not registered residents, they are denied many of the social welfare benefits that registered residents of the city are entitled to. Moreover, rural migrant workers have the effect of crowding urban labor market, making it more difficult for urban residents to find employment, especially those who are being displaced as the state continues its program of selling off or closing unprofitable SOEs. SOE employees have always enjoyed a package of cradle-to-grave benefits often referred to as the “iron rice bowl.” As they lose those benefits and their jobs in SOEs, they face a labor market increasingly crowded by migrants from the countryside.

In what ways do the current protests compare or contrast to the Tiananmen Square Protest of 1989?

First, these events are local, not national in scope. There has not been a major national protest movement in China since Tiananmen Square, and this has been the longest period in the history of the PRC without such a movement. The protests of the last twenty years are focused on local grievances such as land and labor issues, and they are targeted against local governments, not necessarily the central party or government leadership. The goal of local protests is the resolution of immediate and tangible grievances. Unlike the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989, they are not protests calling for democratic reforms at the national level.

In your opinion, are labor strikes more likely to occur in foreign or local enterprises in China? Are strikes more common in any particular industries?

I don’t have a strong theoretical read on this question. My best guess would be that strikes are more likely in foreign-owned enterprises than in either state owned enterprises or other Chinese firms (cooperatives, TVEs, etc). SOEs have the power of the Chinese state behind them, and TVEs have local government ownership that gives their management recourse that a foreign firm might not have. The one factor that might make foreign firms less susceptible to strikes might be the strong incentives that local governments have to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). Therefore, they might be more willing to use the power of the local state to suppress strikes against foreign firms, so that their locale will be seen as one favorable to foreign firms.

How will the current protests and potential strikes affect foreign investment in China and, more specifically, the future of U.S.–China relations?

Protests are likely to be a deterrent to FDI, but the magnitude of that effect is by no means certain or significant. Protests continue to increase in frequency and diffuse spatially, as does FDI, so I’m not sure protests pose a major threat to FDI flows, at least not yet.

Given China’s recent leadership transition, what steps might—or, in your opinion, should—the new leader take to address issues of social unrest?

One thing to consider is whether the new Central Committee and Politburo have large delegations of officials from provincial, city, and local governments. There has been a trend toward this. If that is the case, you might see larger shares of the central party organs composed of officials who have powerful incentives to attract FDI. It is an engine of growth in local economies, and local officials’ career prospects are enhanced primarily by evidence of their ability to generate growth locally. If this is the case, then there might be some tensions emerging in those central organs, e.g., local officials whose interests in, say, relations with Taiwan and Japan and the U.S. are different from those of other central party or state entities.

Expanding FDI could generate a growing constituency within the leadership for a more Pacific foreign policy. On the other hand, there are emerging leadership dynamics that might lead the new leadership to give the organs most responsible for a given area of policy — e.g., the People’s Liberation Army on national security — more voice in formulating policy, while other interests might see their preferences overridden on these matters.

Feature Photo: cc/johntrathome'
Victor Chan
Victor Chan is a staff writer for The Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. He is interested in international affairs, trade policy, and public finance.

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