Author: Ho-fung Hung, The Johns Hopkins University
China recently experienced a spate of violent protests in the North and South.
Impressed by the scale and intensity of these incidents, some foreign media have portrayed them as preludes to a bigger wave of grassroots resistance that could crack open the authoritarian state.
We cannot rule out this possibility, only time will tell; but we should not forget that similar waves of confrontational protests were far from rare throughout the two decades after 1989. In the 1990s and 2000s, the media took a similar line on the plentiful rural tax riots, militant protests of laid-off workers, and confrontations triggered by other sources. They cast them as precursors to a larger-scale movement that could radically change the status quo. But these waves of unrest came and went, and the party-state remained venerated.
Accompanying the recent surges of violent resistance — which mostly target local authorities — is the rise of humble petitions in which disgruntled citizens from all over China travel to Beijing to file complaints at the central government office against local governments. These petitioners are usually non-confrontational, and frequently weep and kneel before government offices to seek sympathy from authorities.
Explanations for the stability of the authoritarian state, despite escalating social tensions, abound. Many are founded on short-term factors like the extended economic boom and organisational capacity of the Chinese Communist Party. If we look at Chinese history, we find many similar periods in which rising corruption on the part of the state and exploding popular grievances did not generate social upheavals disruptive enough to threaten the existing political order. What they did do was precipitate petitions at the imperial court in conjunction with violent resistance against local officials. In these instances the unrest never spilled over to higher level authorities.
In my new book (Chinese with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations, Riots, and Petitions in the Mid Qing Dynasty) I surveyed thousands of cases of confrontational and non-confrontational protests and their contexts from the mid eighteenth to the mid nineteenth century. I found that similar waves of violent resistance against local governments coupled with humble petitions to the power centre in Beijing, such as the wave in the early nineteenth century, cannot be explained simply by contingent political-economic factors, but had much to do with a deep-rooted Confucianist conception of authority and justice. Under this conception, abused subjects have all right to fight corrupt officials by any means necessary, but they should also count on the emperor as the loving grand patriarch to redress the injustice, just like children abused by their parents should look to their grandparents or lineage elders for paternalist protection.
Time and again this attitude brought petitions to the emperor — known as capital appeals or jingkong in imperial times — that shielded the imperial centre from popular unrest, helping the rulers survive major social crises. It should be noted though that this ‘safety valve’ for the central authorities only worked when the subjects generally trusted that their rulers were legitimate and morally righteous. Such trust could disappear easily, sometimes because of rumours about the emperor’s promiscuity, or sometimes because of the emperor’s perceived failure in performing certain critical functions (such as defending the empire against foreign aggressors). Once this trust disappeared, the process of humble petition to the imperial centre could suddenly recede and rebellion spring up in its place.
The escalating popular violence against local authorities and humble petition to the central government in the last two decades should be understood in light of this longstanding Confucianist conception of authority. This conception persists despite all the ideological and political revolutions of the twentieth century, and is constantly reproduced in popular legends, local historical dramas and TV series about the imperial past.
The perception of the central government is one of a loving grand patriarch who can do justice to downtrodden people and sanction his abusive officials. (It is not an accident that Premier Wen Jiabao once called himself ‘grandpa Wen’ — Wen yeye — in front of the people.) The Party’s actions and circumstances mirror the way a similar perception helped the Jiaqing and Daoguang emperors hold the empire together. This was despite deepening social and political crises in the 1810s through the 1840s, when the Qing defeat in the Opium War finally dispelled all popular trust in the imperial centre.
Given all this, we should not expect the growing social unrest today to necessarily destabilise the authoritarian status quo. But we should not be surprised if an unexpected singular event — such as a major economic blunder, a scandal involving the highest leaders or defeat in a geopolitical conflict — abruptly displaces the popular trust in the central government and precipitates a breakdown of the party-state.
Ho-fung Hung is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at The Johns Hopkins University.
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Confucianism and political dissent in China