China’s Political Awakening?
Image Credit: Peter M

China’s Political Awakening?


The ongoing labour unrest in China is seen by many as a labour market response to uncompetitive wages offered by foreign companies. And, to a large extent, this is true. Changing demographics are reducing the supply of ultra-cheap young labourers from the countryside to coastal export-processing zones, giving labour more bargaining power.

But explaining China’s newly assertive workers purely on economic grounds misses the larger—and more interesting—political context. For labour activism is only one of the many signs of a broader political re-awakening in Chinese civil society.

For years, Western observers have been disheartened by the lack of political change in China. Modernization theory predicts that rapid economic progress should help liberalize the political system, but this hasn’t occurred in China since 1989. Until now.

In addition to migrant workers who have risked their jobs and personal safety in joining the strikes, China has seen other forms of civic activism and political assertiveness at the grassroots level.

What’s interesting about this new political reawakening is that on the surface it doesn’t look all that political. Instead of calling for democracy and freedom, participants in these activities focus on issues directly related to their economic interests, property rights and social justice. Examples include fighting off local governments’ attempts to build polluting factories, seize farmers’ land without compensation and evict urban residents from their homes. Criticism of government policy and performance in delivering public services and protecting social justice are routine in Chinese publications and on-line venues. And, of course, the ostensibly apolitical nature of such civic activism makes it much harder for the Communist Party to suppress it with brutal force.

Several forces have contributed to the reawakening. Clearly, the information revolution—a direct result of economic modernization—has helped change values and reduced the costs of organizing collective action. It has also magnified the political impact of such moves (even inspiring copycat action), while the rapidity with which the latest labour unrest has spread would have been inconceivable without the assistance of the Internet and cell phones.

Rising physical mobility of the population is another factor—as ordinary Chinese citizens have more opportunities to compare how conditions differ among China’s diverse localities, they acquire a greater awareness of the political and social injustice of their own surroundings and become less tolerant of such injustices.

Fair View
September 28, 2012 at 01:27

For once I find agreement with Pei Minxin.  This article at least tells truth unlike than the condescending rubbish and BS spouted by so-called reputable magazines like the Economist which tend to be insulting and disparaging, labelling any spontaneous Chinese protests or demonstrations as orchestrated by the government.  Such snotty attitude.  
As for that stupid commentor who referred to the Chinese government as Chicom, the Chinese government is, on the contrary,  way too capitalistic – supporting businessmen at the expense of environment and fair labour practices and land seizures.  If these are not idiotic Washington paid trolls, I don't know.

April 29, 2011 at 11:16

1.. farms… age

2. Industrial age.

3. Information Age Internet Age… computer age…..

4. One computer chip Now has 2-billion transistor……. and still growing…

china has now 1-billion cell phones…. 500 million on internet..

Moore’s law: double computing power in 2-years… computing power double in 2-years….

All humans on Earth can Now publish a Newspaper/Magazine/Journals/Radio/TV show/Webpages/Blogs/Email from a $200 computers.

Computers/Internet/Blogs Allow Universal communications.. Matter of time china will free free free.
Free China at about 2015/2020

August 27, 2010 at 13:59

I remembered that Deng Xiaoping once made a comment that China should become democratic only after its GDP per capita has reached $10,000. The current Chinese GDP per capita is only 40% of that number.
Do not forget that China is still a poor country. What China need the most right now are stability and economic growth, and China will be needing them above all else for the foreseeable future. China has always been heavily divided upon regional and urban-rural lines: it is nothing new and the CCP did not create it. Only a centralized government is capable of holding China together.

And do not presume the Chinese are fans of democracy. Their impression of Western democracy is more often than not similar to Liberum-Veto Poland. They would usually prefer a centralized state that gets the job done rather than a legislature that waste time bickering along partisan lines. Prominently, even the Tian’anmen Square protesters did not demand the overthrow of the government, but instead called for more citizen participation within the existing framework and a crackdown on widespread corruption.

Meanwhile China is becoming freer, albeit slowly. But progress is being made. Modern-day developed Asian democracies all had dark and despotic pasts. South Korea had Gwangju. Taiwan had “2.28.” And I do not even need to mention Japan’s militant past. What the West should exercise right now is patience. China is moving in the right direction. Criticizing China would only make it sensitive and provoke a backlash. The West should also keep in mind that China is inherently different culturally from the West. Even if China does become free, the result might not be something that the West will sigh at with relief.

August 27, 2010 at 13:44

Kent state and bonus marchers wasn’t that long ago. And don’t forget the governor of Illinois tried to sell Obama’s senate seat.

August 3, 2010 at 14:58

You could make the argument that there was a degree of tyranny here under GW Bush, what with all the wiretapping and tyrannically conquering Iraq after lying about WMDs, which resulted in 100s of thousands of deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians. But even back then, we had full freedom of press, assembly, etc. Tyranny is political structures in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Myanmar, etc. So to say that the US falls into the category of aforementioned dictatorships is naive at best and insane at worst

August 3, 2010 at 14:49

Your name is Illinois Joe so I’m assuming you’re American. Last I checked, we’ve got the most free society of any major country, so what are you smoking that made you say we live under tyranny?

July 26, 2010 at 09:01

Won’t be easy. Chicomms won’t just roll over. Gonna cost a few million liters of blood. Of course, we have our problems with tyranny here as well. I’ll be praying for you, China.

July 24, 2010 at 02:01

China’s government probably over estimates their power (as does the American public, for that matter). The US treads gingerly on many China concerns because its companies want access to the China market, not because of fear of China’s innate power. If China continues to shut off its markets then we will probably see a rapid shift in the US attitude toward China. After all, Indonesia and India both offer massive untapped markets as well.

July 23, 2010 at 03:34

Looks like a Chinese Tea Party! Godspeed to our brothers in China, let them overthrow their Communist oppressors.

Magnus T.M.
July 19, 2010 at 09:54

China needs a democracy revolution to overthrow the Chincoms. They will never voluntarily release their grip on power. Tens of millions may die but it’s better die for democracy than to live under slavery!
Tibet and East Turkestan must be liberated from the control of racist Chinese control. Excessive Chinese population should be removed Tibet and East Turkestan to allow those people to keep their culture pure and teach the Chinese a lesson for their racist arrogance.

July 17, 2010 at 21:31

“What’s interesting about this new political reawakening is that on the surface it doesn’t look all that political. Instead of calling for democracy and freedom, participants in these activities focus on issues directly related to their economic interests, property rights and social justice”.
Exactly! The fact that ordinary citizens are increasingly able to confront their local authorities speaks volumes about the encouraging changes in China. I get the impression, from reading different reports, that the average person is increasingly content with the improved climate in China, economically and socially.

July 17, 2010 at 07:49

Ilya, now that’s a nice Russian name. Perhaps you may have some inner knowledge about Russia, and perhaps it is my wishful thinking about Russia that shapes my written thoughts. I think I speak for most Americans that we want Russia and the US to be great friends, and I feel we share so many things in common. I mean, we both love pretty spies. Culturally, we are closer as people than with the Chinese, and yet there is an ache for the US, Russia and China to be closer together as friends, both politically and personally. Despite all this talk about spies and espionage between our countries, I think fundamentally, Americans want to be able to meet more Russians and Chinese, and, in fact, travel more to Russia and China, but I feel it is politics always standing in the way. In my opinion, Russia and China need to put their own people first and think about their needs: jobs, education, and freedom of expression, etc. Yet, what I see, especially in China, the CCP supporting its military first, and the weirdest thing is, who is China defending themselves against – its own people??? The CCP needs to treat its citizens better, work on improving the environment, and reduce its military build up since there is hardly a reason for such double digit increases in its military expenditures.

July 17, 2010 at 06:22

In 1991, the post-war Japanese Bubble popped. The Japanese economy has yet to fully recover.

In 2000, the Bubba Bubble popped. The resultant recession was mild with minimal unemployment and rapid recovery.

In 2007, the Democrats’ Unaffordable Housing Project Bubble popped. Recovery may take a while, since the Democrats’ “solution” is to create more bubbles in health care, energy, and entitlements.

The China Bubble will pop, it is just a matter of time. The Communist Party will not survive, but it is hard to say if the subsequent power structure will be better or worse.

July 17, 2010 at 04:08

I do see many changes in China among the Chinese people but I don’t see any good changes in the Party. In fact, the Party is going back to a more authoritarian & more totalitarian stance at least in the political arena. The CCP has turned Tibet & Xinjiang into police states under de facto martial law. Even Tibetan & Uighur intellectuals who merely criticize the CCP regime or protest local officials have been imprisoned. Many independent blogs & websites have been shut down & the Internet & news are still heavily censored. Throughout Chinese history whenever the govt became too corrupt & oppressive, the peasants revolted. I think another Chinese rebellion against the govt is inevitable as long as the CCP continues on its draconian course.

July 16, 2010 at 19:07

Marisa, do not be naive about “China’s old ally Russia siding more and more with the west”. Other than some superficial change in rhetoric (prompted by the “reset” initiated by Obama), it amounts to nothing. I’d expect China to align with the West much sooner than Russia.

Joohn D. Froelich
July 16, 2010 at 14:06

The convergence of increasing pressures comes to a head at 2019 to 2022, most likely early 2021. Demographic pressures from the single-child policy induced a shortage of about 40 million women. (Last time such a sex imbalance spawned the Tai Ping Rebellion’s 17-year civil war.) Labor dislocations, ethnic strife on the fringes, and other things all appear to have the same timing. It is similar to the Soviets 1989-91. Check info in “Politicometrics.”

July 16, 2010 at 09:00

Minxin Pei is not only a scholar and a good writer, but he also a person who possesses deep inner knowledge of China and the workings of its government. He understands the aspirations of the Chinese people, and he sees which direction the winds of reform are blowing. Nearly everyday, I think how wonderful it would be if the Chinese Communist Party were suddenly overthrown and replaced by a real democracy as we have in Europe or Canada or the US.

As much as I want that, I am also happy to see the gradual change in China from paternalistic authoritarianism to some form of representational government, of course, as long as it really happens. I am guessing that it will be gradual, and there are some indications that China will faced increased pressure in the coming years. My observations: 1)I see China’s old ally Russia siding more and more with the west as time goes, mainly because Russia is seeing China more as an enemy than the west, 2) The Chinese are becoming hungry for democracy and freedom of expression and they will not back down (too many of them have studied abroad and they like what they’ve seen), and 3) Many members of the CCP realize how tarnished China’s reputation is to the wider world and many do not share the vision of “World Han Domination”. There are many more things going on, but I think these are three things the CCP will have to deal with on an increasing basis.

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