Social unrest in China: A threat to regime legitimacy and the economy?

Social unrest in China: A threat to regime legitimacy and the economy?

Protest is now a common expression of social discontent in China, despite its illegality – but does the outbreak of social unrest impact regime legitimacy, and have the power to stunt the economy?

A setback of China’s high-speed economic growth under the one-party system has been the rise of widespread social unrest. The fallout of capitalist industrialisation has resulted in increasing instances of collective action staged by citizens, which demand that grievances rooted in a number of key contentious issues are addressed. Land disputes, labour strikes and environmental concerns have been frequently cited as the leading causes of protest across China in recent years, as the drive for growth has resulted in the destruction of farmland, the proliferation of polluting factories and waste plants, and poor labour rights. Yet despite the increase in social unrest, the iron grip of the Chinese Communist Party does not appear to be waning.

The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 posed a challenge to the legitimacy of the Chinese leadership, as students and workers called for greater democracy and free speech. They exposed divisions within the Party, which resulted in a violent crackdown on protestors, leaving the government apprehensive about the possibility of further clashes. To this day, however, the events of Tiananmen Square remain unique in provoking such a severe response from the central government and garnering widespread international attention. Whilst protest in China is all the more common now, citizen’s demands are usually focused on immediate concerns, such as compensation for wage arrears or land seizure, or for health defects linked to pollution. They are rarely revolutionary calls for the overthrow of the government as in the case of 1989, and tend to target local level government authorities.

The 2008 China Survey found that the most common pattern of government trust is ‘hierarchical trust’, whereby citizens have a higher degree of trust in the central government’s policy intent, but weaker trust in its ability to hold corrupt local officials to account. It is often local level corruption which sparks protests, and therefore the responsibility for addressing these issues usually lies with local level officials who are delegated the task of maintaining social stability. Research conducted by the Europe China Research & Advice Network reported that in contrast to the Arab Spring, social unrest does not appear to have a negative impact on the Chinese Communist Party’s one-party rule, yet it does impact upon social stability. Whilst social instability is not currently causing a seismic effect on the economy, if protests continue to proliferate and advance in coordination efforts, investor confidence may be shaken and aggregate investment may fall. This could result in an economic downturn, which could in turn negatively impact the mandate of the ruling elite.

Social unrest has not affected the legitimacy of the one-party rule by and large, but the tides could be changing. Aspects of the Thirteenth Five Year Plan and Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign place heavy emphasis on resolving popular issues of contention, yet since the central government has taken on responsibility for anti-corruption, new studies have found that the higher the number of reported graft cases in a prefecture, the more people in the area perceive Beijing as being more corrupt than their local government. In confronting social unrest, the government must strategically balance the responsibility between central and local divisions in order to settle disputes and avoid a legitimacy crisis. The containment of social unrest is crucial to the preservation of continued economic prosperity.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Robyn Kelly-Meyrick

Robyn holds a MSc in Political Science from the University of Amsterdam. Sh specialises in East Asian politics and previously attended the International Christian University in Tokyo, where she studied Japanese and International Relations.