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 say government-encouraged outburst of nationalistic fervor. Although such protests grab the media headlines more frequently, most protests in China, according to our data, are smaller in scale and related to local issues. The largest single-location protest since Tiananmen Square in our data sample was the Shifang incident in Sichuan province. The demonstration of July 1-2, 2012, which sought to stop construction of an environmentally damaging copper plant, drew roughly 12,000 participants from a city of half a million. Although the police dispersed the crowds by shooting tear gas, the protest rattled the local government enough that it canceled the building plans.

The incident was small compared to those that have rocked Hong Kong since the territory was handed over from the United Kingdom to China in 1997. The largest, in 2003, drew 500,000, roughly seven percent of the city’s population, to the streets to rally against the Basic Law Article 23, under which “any act of sedition” would be punishable by law.

Even though protests in Hong Kong are larger in scale, protests happen more frequently in mainland China. According to a broad scholarly consensus, there are more than 130,000 protests per year, or nearly 400 daily, with fewer than 250 (less than one percent) involving more than 100 people. (It is worth noting, however, that the last time the government released an official number of “mass incidents” in 2005, it said there were 87,000 a year, though it’s not clear how it defines “mass incidents.”) In Hong Kong, the total number of protests per year is less than 100, although again, some of the difference could be due to a lack of reporting on smaller events. The Hong Kong government claimed that it had handled only three strikes in 2014, and that “the average number of working days lost per 1,000 salaried workers was 0.04, which is among the lowest in the world.”

Tyler Headley and Cole Tanigawa-Lau

Although previous studies of protests in China cite land disputes as the leading cause of protests on the mainland, our data shows that, at least in 2015, this is changing. That year, around 68 percent of protests were wage-related. In 2014, the National Bureau of Statistics of China wrote that per capita, disposable income amounted to $3,300. According to the 2015 U.S. Congressional Committee Report on China, the average wage growth in China has slowed from 22 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2015. The report further found that minimum wages in many Chinese cities were “insufficient to cover basic living expenses.”                              

Given the economic nature of these grievances, it is perhaps not surprising that the bulk of the protests occur in China’s coastal regions—the country’s manufacturing heartland. Since President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, most protests have taken place in Guangdong, China’s most populous province and home to Foxconn, the Taiwanese-owned factory that makes Apple products. More than half of the protests in Guangdong took place in only two places: Shenzhen and Dongguan, major factory cities. Shandong, another coastal factory province and China’s second most populous one, had the second largest number of protests.

Of course, there are protests about other things: social security was the second most common reason for protests in our database. Environmental concerns was the third. Last December, pollution was so bad that the government was forced to issue two red alerts, warning citizens in Beijing to stay indoors and urging schools to close for the week. As one official explained to me, though, bigger concerns such as regime change are generally off the table. Many Chinese do not even believe that regime change would lead to individual gains. Further, even if they find fault with their local governments, he said, they may generally view the Communist Party favorably.

More than 1,000 IBM workers protested at an IBM factory in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, March 7, 2014.
Alex Lee / Reuters

Of course, government repression also plays a role in the lack of protests for sweeping change. Since large gatherings are illegal and considered “hostile to China’s socialist system” under Article 35 of the constitution, many mainland Chinese citizens take “strolls” in groups of two or three around the factories or other public spaces. Even then, they are often arrested for what the government calls “protesting.” As one Chinese official, who asked not to be identified, explained to us, “Protests and assemblies in China generally require approval from local governments. Large protests also require leadership and organization. In the United States, worker unions often play this role.” But in China, such organizations are often government run. “Unions in China, such as worker’s unions, student’s unions, commercial unions, usually have strong ties to the government,” the official told us. For instance, in the mainland, the official mission of most workers’ unions is “promoting harmony,” rather than protecting workers’ rights. Since legal unions must accept the authority of the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions, they cannot organize strikes. Without these networks, it’s incredibly difficult to act and bargain collectively.

Denying opportunities for leadership—controlling the unions, for one, as well as jailing of outspoken human rights activists and lawyers and silencing prominent dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei—is key to the government’s strategy in suppressing protests. Although it is difficult to assess what deterrent effect this policy has, it is worth noting that almost every prominent Chinese dissident is either working from outside China or is in prison. At a local level, the same dynamic plays out. In 2011, for example, a number of Chinese activists used online forums to plan pro-democracy protests across 27 cities, but due to a government crackdown on the organizers and foreign journalists, as well as the use of soldiers to patrol potential protest grounds and intimidate prospective participants, protests occurred in only two cities. As one Chinese citizen told us, “It’s fine if you say something controversial, just as long as nobody is listening.”

Tyler Headley and Cole Tanigawa-Lau

Another deterrent is the government’s lack of qualms about heavy-handed suppression. Our data suggests that, of protests involving 100 or more people in China, roughly 20 percent involved arrests or violence, which is more likely to occur during political, ethnic, or, especially, grievance-based protests. For instance, last year in Shandong, taxi drivers went on strike over a ride-sharing application, Kuaidi, that had started hurting their business. The riot police broke up the protest by firing openly into the crowd. Although no one was killed, one taxi driver was struck in the leg by a bullet. In 2015 in Shanghai, almost 300 tire factory workers protested against unpaid wages, and several of them were beaten and many more were arrested.

Although the Chinese government has not changed its stance toward protests, in recent years, it seems that they have become more frequent across China and in Hong Kong. When comparing the number of protests under the last president Hu Jintao and the current one, our data shows more than double in the average number of wage-related protests involving 100 or more per year between the two regimes. (But it must be noted that there might be some sampling bias; there may be more data in recent years than during the years under Hu.) As Chinese economic growth continues to slow, Beijing must be doubly concerned. One sign that it is getting nervous is that the government has further reined in the media. At the end of February, President Xi Jinping toured the headquarters of its three state-run news organizations. He cautioned Chinese Central Television to “explain developments in the Chinese economy and society objectively, truthfully, and comprehensively,” a not-so-subtle hint to tread carefully when running bad economic news. The government has already sought to control pessimistic reports of the economy—fining journalists, for instance—for fear of undermining confidence in the Chinese stock market. Xi also told Xinhua News, “All news media run by the party must work to speak for the party’s will and its propositions.”

It thus wasn’t surprising when the Chinese government overreacted last week to a headline in a liberal Chinese newspaper that, when read normally, seemed to be a plain description of Xi’s new policy toward the media, but when read vertically with a headline about the death of a former Chinese politician seemed to subtly criticize the party’s media crackdown. It is unclear whether the double meaning was intentional, but an editor was fired for the mistake. As Beijing comes under greater pressure and as it tries to head off widespread protest, many such incidents are sure to follow.

It is dangerous to overinterpret the rise of economic protests and assume that the regime change will collapse. Even so, these frequent, small-scale demonstrations are important and worth paying attention to. In a country with limited means of expression, they offer a small window into the discontent of the Chinese people.

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  • TYLER Y. HEADLEY studies conflict and human rights at New York University Abu Dhabi. He previously lived in Shanghai.
  • COLE TANIGAWA-LAU is an undergraduate and a research assistant at New York University Abu Dhabi.
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