In a city in southern China, a dispute between citizens and the government turned ugly in late September. According to the People’s Daily newspaper, residents were incensed by plans to expand a garbage dump and by the compensation the authorities offered to people who had to move. After some stormed a government building, police arrested 26 protesters. The cops also confiscated 200 weapons, including knives and batons.
While the world is focused on the antigovernment protests taking place in Hong Kong, this demonstration—“hooliganism,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency called it—occurred in Shantou, about an hour’s flight from the former British colony. In Hong Kong, massive pro-democracy demonstrations have brought much of the city’s financial district to a standstill. In Shantou, part of Guangdong province, the issues were more mundane.
As Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders look for a solution in Hong Kong, they may be thinking just as much about the reaction in Shantou and countless other cities across China. That’s not lost on protester Chase Hui, a student at the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong. “If Hong Kong succeeds, then other cities in China will try to act as Hong Kong people do,” he says. That’s one reason censors have moved quickly to limit mainlanders’ access to news about the Hong Kong protests. “The authorities are obviously concerned it could lead to something in the mainland,” says Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, a pro-labor policy journal.
Hong Kong’s democracy movement could jeopardize one of China’s main goals: weiwen, or maintenance of stability. For more than a decade the government has been defusing labor unrest, including nationwide protests over the layoffs of 30 million state enterprise workers in the early 2000s. Now, with China’s exporters losing competitiveness and factories closing, workers are again restive. According to China Labour Bulletin, 40 percent of strikes from 2011 through 2013 occurred among factory workers—and almost 60 percent of those took place in Guangdong, the southern province adjacent to Hong Kong.
From 2000 through 2013, at least 10 protests have drawn more than 10,000 people. Research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences shows the most common triggers are land grabs by local officials, labor issues, pollution, and ethnic tensions. Underpaid teachers, Nimby homeowners, and coal miners have all taken to the streets at one point or another. There is no definitive tally of how many protests are staged each year in China, but one estimate by researchers at Nankai University put the number at 90,000 in 2009.
A typical demonstration: In the Guangdong city of Maoming, at least 1,000 people in April rallied against a planned plant to manufacture paraxylene, a toxic chemical used to make polyester. In large doses, the chemical can cause nerve damage. Some demonstrators threw rocks at police and set cars on fire. Paramilitary forces beat some in response.
The number of incidents increases each year, China Labour Bulletin indicates, in part because of the growing popularity of social media. “The ability of workers to organize strikes and protests, especially at larger factories, was enhanced … by the rapid development of social media and messaging platforms such as Weibo and WeChat, and the widespread availability of cheap smartphones,” the Bulletin noted in a recent report.
In coping with the spread of dissent, one favorite strategy of security forces has been “cutting off the head of the serpent,” in which the government arrests top organizers and puts them behind bars. Environmental activist Wu Lihong, who fought to clean up China’s largest freshwater lake, got a three-year sentence in 2007, even as the government ordered more than 1,000 polluting factories near the lake to shut down.
This year the government made use of the same strategy against the Uighur, a Muslim minority group. Ilham Tohti is a moderate scholar whom the government considered too influential among Uighurs upset at religious repression and limited economic opportunities. In August, Tohti received a life sentence for allegedly preaching separatism. In June a court in the eastern province of Jiangxi sentenced anticorruption activists Wei Zhongping and Liu Ping each to six-and-a-half-year terms in prison. In both cases the government assured the aggrieved parties—the Uighurs and everyone concerned about official corruption—that officials were making major efforts to solve the problems.
Legal activist Xu Zhiyong was once hailed in the Chinese press as the face of a new breed of socially conscious lawyers. In January he received a four-year sentence for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.” His real sin was spearheading the New Citizens Movement, an attempt to link supporters of greater citizen participation in governance across China.
Veteran labor-rights campaigner Zhang Zhiru earlier this year got involved in the largest strike in recent Chinese history. Some 40,000 workers at an Adidas supplier in Dongguan, also in Guangdong, demonstrated in April against insufficient social welfare payments and compensation. Internal security police took Zhang away for several days to a hotel outside the city of Guangzhou. Zhang says the police tried in vain to get him to say via Weibo that he was enjoying a holiday. “How could anyone in the labor movement ever take me seriously again?” he later asked. Once the strike ended, the police let him go.
So far the protesters in one Chinese city haven’t made common cause with demonstrators in another over a specific issue, and none has started a movement with broader political aims. Most of the demonstrations have ended quickly—a few hours, a few days, or at most a few weeks. Hong Kong’s movement is longer-lived and focuses on freedom and self-determination. Mainland China hasn’t seen such a protest since 1989, when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square.
Might China’s leaders stage another violent crackdown, this time in Hong Kong, simply as a lesson in weiwen for other Chinese? By law, the People’s Liberation Army can’t intervene, says Stan Chan, a student protester helping at a first-aid station. But down the street are the barracks of the PLA garrison where, says Chan, “they are watching what we do.”