In This Review

Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China
Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China
By Xi Chen
Cambridge University Press, 2011, 256 pp

This book puts forward a novel theory of social protest in a transitional authoritarian regime. Chen argues that contradictions between the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s ideology and its governance, along with changes in the country’s political and economic institutions, have provided more opportunities for ordinary Chinese citizens to press for their demands directly with the government. The party pays lip service to popular sovereignty and “rule according to law.” But its behavior denies both, thus legitimizing and fueling protest. The dismantling of official agricultural communes and many state-owned enterprises in the 1980s and 1990s has left local governments as the only place where aggrieved individuals can seek redress. Chen demonstrates that protesters get their way by adopting more confrontational tactics. But China’s rulers need not worry about a revolution, because social protest and official responses appear to have settled into an uneasy equilibrium, which Chen terms “contentious authoritarianism.” Within this equilibrium, protesters use the most effective tactics to gain concessions from pragmatic officials who choose to be flexible enough to respond to their demands. The author seems to suggest, provocatively, that low-intensity social conflict may function like a pressure valve mitigating more lethal systemic risks -- an argument sure to stimulate more debate and research.