By Hongyi Lai.

The year 2011 is a sleepless year for the Chinese leaders as far as political stability was concerned.  While the state had succeeded in averting any significant re-play of the Jasmine Revolution, it failed to prevent the outbursts of mass riots and protests in a number of provinces. 

Early in the year the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East was still unfolding.  In February and March scattered attempts to organise public walks in China failed due to the state’s arrests, blocking of internet messages, and cold public reaction.  

Before the state breathed in relief, non-political unrests propped up in various localities.  The causes varied.   Some were triggered by environmental damages.  In May, a Mongolian herdsman who protested the damage of the pasture by the coal mining in Shiliinhot, Inner Mongolia, was killed by a drunk driver who worked for the coal mine.  This accident triggered days of protests by 500-2,000 Mongolian students and herds people.  The authorities quieted the protests through promises to punish the perpetrator and heed the protestors’ demand, and censorship of the internet and media.  Later, in September in Haining, Zhejiang, thousands of villagers protested the deadly diseases caused by the pollution from a U.S.-based company.  They clashed with the security forces of the company and the government.  At the end the government ordered the company to halt its operation and remedy the pollution issue. 

Even in the developed coastal areas migrant workers protested and rioted out of dissatisfaction with mistreatment by local authorities.  In June, in Xintang Town, Zengcheng City, Guangdong Province, the extraction and discrimination by local security guards and a rumour that a pregnant migrant woman was kicked and underwent abortion angered migrant workers from Sichuan.  Over 1000 of them protested and burned policy cars.  In late October in Zhili Town, Huzhou City, Zhejiang Province, in protest against the doubling of local taxes on migrant household sewing businesses and the beating of a business owner by the tax collectors, nearly 10,000 migrant workers from Anhui surrounded the local governmental office.  It escalated into riots. 

Other unrests were triggered by abuse of power.  In June, angered by the unexpected death of the chief of the local anti-corruption bureau in detention, several thousands of people in Lichuan, Hubei broke into the city government office.  The authorities calmed the protesters by holding a memorial meeting for the anti-graft chief, whom was regarded as a local hero and by arresting the police involved in his death. 

One of the most-watched protests was in Wukan Village, Lufeng City, Guangdong Province.  Starting from September, villagers staged protests against alleged corruption in land deals which the village officials signed with developers.  It led to a confrontation between thousands of villagers and the police.  In December, the provincial government agreed to recognise the council elected by the villagers.  Many hailed the peaceful solution as both the victory of the assertive villagers as well as the open-minded leaders of Guangdong.     

The expanding scale of protests suggests that despite rapid economic growth China suffers from weaknesses in its governance, such as corruption and abuse of power, as well as the inability of the government to prevent polluting projects.  Although non-political, these protests can easily mobilise thousands of people and destabilise the localities.  The policymakers can thus seek little comfort in avoiding the replay of the Middle-Eastern style revolution. 

Dr Hongyi Lai is Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute and Associate Professor of School of Contemporary Chinese Studies

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.



  1. Prof Lai, even though I agree these are not “revolutions”, why do you define protests against abuse of power as “non-political”? Protests that consciously aim to reaffirm the legal political rights of the citizenry, like the one in Wukan, are profoundly political IMHO, even if they don’t challenge the national government and leadership.

  2. Thanks for your good comments, Ouyang. Most of the protests in China, including the major ones, do not demand the change in the political regime (this is in a sharp contrast with the protests in the Middle East). Most of the protests were about social and economic problems and aim to defend social and economic rights, not political rights. Indeed, Wukan’s protests have political implications. In Wukan, the villagers were allowed, after persistent protests, to exercise their political rights to recall their village leaders. This has been a pleasant exception. In addition, their use of political rights has been limited to the village level, which the Chinese laws have allowed through sanctioning village elections and recalls of village leaders. In practice, however, villagers’ recall rights are probably not honoured regularly.

  3. From the article and comment it sounds as though the relevant processes and procedures are in place in terms of governance protocol and the government has moved fast and acted appropriately to respond to the distress of the Chinese people, a distress which seems warranted in many of these instances. Yet the problem you have identified is the root problem – corruption in high places. What is the solution to this problem? Would giving more power and independence to the judiciary improve matters? Or does the entire structure and function of Chinese polity need some kind of mass audit and upheaval? Is it simply a problem with the structure and function of the CCP due to entrenched elements and a lack of true and inspired leadership?

  4. I agree with that the protests are not of the Arabia Spring but of some spring bamboo shots which should not have been stamped underfoot for the sake of a good conscious that is for everybody and any society: China is no exception. “They are non-political,” I guess it tells that, in Prof. Lai’s observation, they were not manipulated by those as in China allegorically and historically identified as bearded in rivalry against the mustachio’d of that which is watching you.

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