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What Drives China's Protest Boom? Labor Disputes and Land Grabs

Workers gathering on a square before the government headquarters in Wenling, east China's Zhejiang province on Feb. 17

Photograph by AFP via Getty Images

Workers gathering on a square before the government headquarters in Wenling, east China's Zhejiang province on Feb. 17

What are the main reasons Chinese take to the streets, picket government offices, and besiege factory gates? A recent report by the Chinese Academy of Social Science provides some answers on why people protest, a question that keeps China’s party officials awake at night.

Most protests erupt over labor disputes and land grabs, according to the Annual Report on China’s Rule of Law No 12 (2014), also known as the Blue Book of Rule of Law. The analysis reviewed 871 “mass incidents”—protests involving more than 100 people—carried out by more than 2.2 million people from January 2000 through September of last year, as the official China Daily reported.

As China’s leaders push for faster urbanization, with plans to convert hundreds of millions more farmers into city dwellers, land disputes are a growing problem likely to get even bigger. “In land acquisitions and forced demolitions, for example, many officials often overlook public interest,” Shan Guangnai of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told the official newspaper. 

The majority of the protests involved fewer than 1,000 people. Still, almost one-third of the incidents included between 1,000 and 10,0000 people, and 10 megaprotests involved more than 10,000 people demonstrating en masse. Of the largest, half were protesting pollution issues. The two other main causes were traffic accidents and conflicts involving China’s many ethnic groups, which include Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs, and Mongolians.

Almost one-half of the protests were directed at government, with disputes due to problems with law enforcement, land acquisitions, and forced demolitions involving local officials, plus various other rights issues. The remainder of the demonstrations focused on conflicts with enterprises, landlords, schools, and village committees. The large majority of protests—about four-fifths—were organized rather than spontaneous, and 36 incidents resulted in a total of 79 deaths.

The report also showed that protests occur most often in more-developed regions, including eastern and southern China, with Guangdong province alone accounting for about 30 percent. And the number of incidents is rising each year.

Roberts is Bloomberg Businessweek's Asia News Editor and China bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter @dtiffroberts.

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