For a one-party state that tolerates practically no open defiance of its authority, Beijing’s gentle handling of hundreds of striking truckers in Shanghai who had paralyzed operations at one of China’s largest container ports seems an anomaly. Instead of sending in riot police to break up the blockade last week, the authorities in Shanghai agreed to reduce fees levied on the truckers, who were angry over the charges and rising fuel prices.
The outcome of this incident couldn’t be more different from another recent event: the arrest of Ai Weiwei, one of China’s most prominent political activists. Ai has repeatedly defied the ruling Communist Party and, despite his international stature, Beijing decided to put him behind bars, ignoring widespread international condemnation.
The contrast between these two incidents raises an intriguing question: why does Beijing tolerate certain forms of protest, but represses others?Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
One obvious reason is that it depends on the nature of the protest. As a rule, a frontal challenge to the authority of the Chinese Communist Party, as Ai’s activities embodied, practically guarantees a harsh response from the government. But protest inspired by specific economic grievances, such as truckers’ ire over excessive fees, seems to fare better. In the eyes of the ruling party, the former constitutes an existential threat and so no concessions are seen as able to appease political activists rejecting the very legitimacy of the regime.
In contrast, the discontent generated by well-defined economic grievances can be treated with specific concessions. One quote, allegedly from a sitting senior Politburo member, says it all: ‘What are the contradictions among the people?’ the Politburo member supposedly asked. ‘(These contradictions) can all be solved by using renminbi.’
But things are a little more complicated than this. The reality is that even when dealing with protests or riots fuelled by specific socioeconomic grievances, the behavior of the Chinese authorities isn’t always consistent. Sometimes, government officials pacify protesters through the use of the renminbi, while other times they mercilessly crush such protest.
So how do we make sense of such apparent inconsistencies?
It seems that the type of response to social protest—harsh or soft—depends on a complex mix of factors such as who the protesters are, the resources and organizational capacity at their disposal, the economic sectors in which they are located, and the social repercussions of their protest. Generally speaking, highly organized protesters (such as truck drivers, discharged soldiers and officers of the People’s Liberation Army, and taxi drivers) tend to fare better. They also possess resources that can be easily and effectively deployed. Taxi and truck drivers, for example, can use their vehicles to paralyze traffic and produce instantaneous and widespread social and economic disruptions.