Carlos Barria / Reuters Workers on strike blocking the entrance gate of Hi-P International factory in Shanghai, China, December 2, 2011.

Measuring Chinese Discontent

What Local Level Unrest Tells Us

Since the violent repression of student protests in Tiananmen Square 27 years ago, the world has watched Chinese protests with fascination. Western media widely covered and analyzed the 2012 marches in China against Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute and the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. But less attention has been paid to the protests that happen daily in mainland China, which are smaller but perhaps better indicators of the issues the Chinese people care about.

One reason for the oversight is that collecting data on small-scale gatherings is difficult because of media censorship. Studies of protests in China have relied on individual case studies and fragmented anecdotal evidence or on rough estimates and shaky statistical data. To get a more comprehensive look at protests in China, we looked at local-level protest data from the China Labour Bulletin and new data from the Google Database of Events, Language, and Tone; past academic papers; and original interviews with Chinese citizens and officials. We also limit our sample to protests that garnered at least 100 participants because we found that they were more reliably and evenly reported on.

In our study, we focused on street protests rather than on online demonstrations, simply because digital protests are so mutable and difficult to define. Tight censorship has led Chinese netizens to adopt coded language that is intended to disguise protest language—and it does a good job of doing so, even from researchers. A good, and amusing, example is Taylor Swift’s latest album. Because her initials, T.S., and the album’s name, “1989,” coincide with the details of the Tiananmen Square incident, millions of Chinese used her album as a proxy to critique the government. And for analysts, there is no reliable way to differentiate between a protestor and a Taylor Swift fan.

Factory workers smash an office during a protest at Kaida toy factory in Dongguan, Guangdong province, November 25, 2008.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands protests, which drew thousands across 84 cities, was a rare and some

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