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The best books on Popular Protest in China

recommended by Elizabeth Perry

To fully understand unrest in China today you have to go back to the 1930s and the circumstances which led to the Chinese Communist Party taking power, says Harvard political scientist Elizabeth Perry. She recommends the best books on popular protest in China.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

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If you had to choose just one book to understand popular protest in China, which would it be?

I suppose it would be Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow.

Edgar Snow is the American journalist who visited Mao and his comrades in 1936, when they were still viewed as ‘Red bandits’ and were hiding from the government in inaccessible places in northwestern China?

Yes, and in some ways it seems the most dated of the books I’ve chosen, because it presents a totally rosy portrait of the Communist revolution. But I think for understanding modern China it’s extremely important. And that’s because it does, in rather sympathetic but comprehensive detail, point out both the importance of the land revolution, and the nationalistic revolution, as key elements in Mao Zedong’s revolution.

What do you mean by the land revolution and the nationalistic revolution?

The land revolution was the taking away of land from landlords and redistributing it to peasants. It was the inequality of land distribution that was a very important element in generating support for the Chinese Communist revolution and a very important economic basis for it. And the Communists from the 1920s on, until they won power in 1949, and then afterwards, as a formal state policy, took away land from the landlords and redistributed it to peasants. Of course, after the Communist regime was established, land reform took a very different direction – with collectivisation and the establishment of communes and so forth.

The nationalistic revolution was China’s regaining of sovereignty from foreign powers. China, unlike many other countries, was not overtly colonised by the West. Nevertheless from the mid-19th century, the time of the Opium Wars onwards, large portions, especially of Chinese cities, became de facto colonies of Western countries. And there was a large foreign presence there: a missionary presence, a business presence, and a diplomatic presence. Also, in 1937 the Japanese invaded China. And Edgar Snow did his interviews for the book in 1936-7 with Mao and other leaders of the revolution as they were actively fighting the Japanese. So the book also gives a very good flavour for the rise of modern Chinese nationalism and the importance of nationalism in the Chinese Communist revolution. Edgar Snow’s book helps illuminate those two things probably more than any other I can think of.

And, in your view, it’s hard to understand contemporary China without understanding these two issues?

That’s right. For one thing, one of the things that is most challenging to the contemporary Chinese leadership is once again the land issue. After 1949, in the 1950s and early 1960s, land was collectivised. This meant that land in China technically belonged to the collective, which could be either the local village or a sub-village unit known as the production team. But, after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, after Deng Xiaoping launched his economic reforms, one of the things that followed was decollectivisation. And what one sees today is the selling of land by collective units in China. What local officials are doing is, in effect, selling that formerly collective land to developers. It’s particularly true in areas surrounding cities, but actually it’s true in much of China. And much of the protest one sees in China today is protest by farmers who are being dispossessed of their land.

And one has the situation today in China where there are well over 100 million migrant workers. They have left the countryside and are working in cities, but they receive – or have up until now received – much of their social support from the countryside, from the fact their families still have land back in the countryside. So, as these families are becoming dispossessed, it’s creating a real crisis of social security. And part of the reason the Chinese government recently has been so actively passing laws on property rights and on the circumstances under which one can or cannot transfer land out of collective hands into other hands, is because this problem is resurfacing. They are once again dealing with the problem of a dispossessed peasantry in the countryside. And so I think the land problem remains, although in changed form, really key to understanding the challenges that face the contemporary Chinese leadership.

So too does nationalism, and yet it too of course takes a different form. There is no Japanese military invasion that the Chinese leadership is currently fighting. But it sees itself in some ways as fighting a kind of intellectual or ideological or cultural invasion from other countries. It’s always under pressure to maintain its nationalist credentials. Especially in a situation where this is no longer a very strong Marxist-Leninist ideology in China, nationalism has become a tool that the leadership would like to use. But it’s a tricky one as nationalism can take lots of different forms.

By tricky, you mean that, because of Mao’s success in beating back foreigners from Chinese soil, nationalism is a key part of the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy. And yet they’re scared that it could come back to bite them.

Nationalism really is a two-edged sword. If you look at the major influential protest movements in China from the mid-19th century on, they have all had a very important element of nationalism within them. The book I have chosen by Joe Esherick, about the Boxer uprising, is about that: the Boxer rebellion was an early expression of popular nationalism against foreigners.

But nationalism was, over time, directed against the Chinese government as well. For example, the May 4 movement of 1919 began as a nationalistic movement, to protest about the fact that China was being disadvantaged by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. But that nationalism was not only directed against the foreign powers; it was also directed against the Chinese state that had capitulated to those foreign demands. And we see this again and again.

Very frequently, when you have nationalist protests in China (which seem to happen every few years, for example when NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, or early in the Bush administration, when there was the incident with the EP-3 spy plane) it’s just a very tricky issue for the Chinese leadership. On the one hand they don’t want to squash nationalistic protest because it’s important for people to feel proud about Chinese sovereignty. On the other hand, they’re also quite aware that nationalistic protest can quite easily morph into protests that are aimed against the state itself. And those, of course, become very problematic.

Again and again you’ll see in an early stage of a nationalistic protest the Chinese state providing a certain amount of support to the protesters. But, after a rather limited period of time, they try to demobilise that very same protest before it begins to take on other kinds of issues and becomes politically volatile.

Tell me a bit more about The Origins of the Boxer Uprising by Joseph Esherick.

One thing I should say about all of the books that I have chosen is that they are written by people who devoted an extraordinary effort into really getting inside these particular stories. And they did so either with an exceptional research effort, or with access to first-hand information about China. In the case of Joe Esherick, he spent 1979-80 in China. He was part of the first group of American academics (as was I) who came over to China that year. And he spent the year at Shandong University doing very detailed archival and oral history work. And what he comes up with is really a very novel interpretation of the Boxer Uprising, which emphasises the importance of local popular culture and local ecology in creating different strains of Boxer movements.

The Boxer uprising was, as you may know, the 1899-1900 rebellion against the foreign Christian presence in China. The Boxers attacked foreigners as well as Chinese Christians. Esherick shows how there were several different elements to it, led by different kinds of leaders, that reflected different local environments in Shandong. These really quite separate movements came together, with a big flood that occurred in the late 19th century. The Chinese government moved in and tried to suppress some of these movements, while at the same time encouraging other ones.

One of the things that I particularly like about the book is that it shows, first of all, the way in which many protest movements in China grow out of very local roots. They are very closely associated with different religious and cultural and socio-economic interests and traditions. And, secondly, the way in which much larger events – whether they’re natural disasters, or the involvement of foreign states or government officials – turn those local traditions into directions often quite different from the way they started.

Esherick’s book won major awards – the Fairbank Prize in East Asian History and the Joseph Levenson Prize. It was a double winner. And the reason for that was the high quality of the research and the innovative way in which he showed that the Boxers grew not out of what the foreigners were doing in China, but out of very old and deep-seated traditions of rural protest in North China.

Your Next Book is Son of the Revolution by Liang Heng.

This book really is a very easy read. It’s a memoir of Liang Heng who himself had been a rather young Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. And what I like about this book is that it gives a first-hand understanding of why Chinese during the Cultural Revolution did the things they did. We now look back on that period of the 1960s and say, ‘Oh, all of China went crazy, there was this large cult of personality, Chairman Mao manipulated everyone to do this, that, and the other.’

But I think Liang Heng gives a very good appreciation of the mindset of a young Chinese at that time. They really thought of Mao as a quasi-divine figure, and they had all of the energy and enthusiasm of new religious converts as they actively participated in the Cultural Revolution. And then he goes on to show the disillusionment of the Red Guards towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. They begin to realise that Chairman Mao isn’t quite the deity they thought he was, and they’re particularly dismayed when they are told that Mao’s closest comrade-in-arms, Lin Biao, the head of the military, has supposedly carried out an assassination attempt against the Chairman. They begin to lose their faith in the infallibility of Mao and of the Chinese Communist Party.

It is a book that, in very simple but engaging language, allows one to understand the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of actual participants in it. Instead of just seeing that period as something that was mobilised from on high, through coercive force by Mao, it allows one to understand much better why it was that there was such an outpouring of popular support for this extraordinary movement.

Is the Cultural Revolution still important today?

It’s very important because it’s the Cultural Revolution generation that is really in charge of China now. That generation of people, now in their early 60s, comprise the leadership of China in all sorts of different areas. They went through the Cultural Revolution, and they experienced the disillusionment of it. And yet many of them still retain a certain kind of idealism of the sort that they felt at the outset of the Cultural Revolution. And I think one can say that about both of the two paramount leaders of China today: Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.

Both of them clearly have a great deal of sympathy for people in the countryside, people who have not enjoyed the fruits of economic reform as much as people in the cities. Many of their current policies – the policy to develop some kind of universal medical insurance programme in China, the policy to try and get some sort of social safety net – are geared towards helping those who have been left behind. And I think those sympathies derive in large part from their Cultural Revolution experience, when they were sent down into the countryside and saw the massive inequalities in China.

Now they’re attempting to bring about change through laws, through government policies, through an institutionalised kind of method, rather than through mass mobilisation and disruption, which was Chairman Mao’s preferred way of trying to get things done. They remain interested in achieving many of the Cultural Revolution’s ideals, they see themselves as trying to continue that mission – though obviously through very different means. So I think it remains very important for understanding a lot about China today.

The whole reform era would not have happened with such urgency without the Cultural Revolution experience that preceded it. The first generation of post-Cultural Revolution leaders were trying to turn their backs on the Cultural Revolution. But I think in the current generation, one sees an effort to rebalance the ship of state and an appreciation that a lot of the inequalities and problems that motivated Mao to launch the Cultural Revolution have re-emerged in the reform period.

Does Liang Heng go down to the countryside to help the underprivileged?

His father is an intellectual who is sent out of the city to go and help the peasants, and Liang Heng goes with him. And he is quite shocked to see the conditions in the countryside and the difficulties the peasants face. And that’s typical of this generation of Chinese; so many of them spent, often, a decade down in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and became aware of a China that was very different from the one they had grown up in.

In 2005 I interviewed Guo Shuqing, the chairman of China Construction Bank, which is now the largest bank in the world, by some measures. He was being courted by the cream of Wall Street. He told me that during the Cultural Revolution he had been a goat-herder in the Gobi Desert. It was all so incongruous and I did feel, from the way he talked about things, that he was at the helm of the bank to help China, not to make money.

I do think that for so many people in China of that age group, the Cultural Revolution remains a very important yardstick against which they judge contemporary China. There is still a deep-seated kind of idealism in them. It’s not on my list but there is a book by Li Cheng, who is a political scientist at Brookings, called China’s Leaders: The New Generation. He talks about this current generation of Chinese leaders and how formative the Cultural Revolution experience was in their policies, and how that has differentiated them from the previous, the Jiang Zemin, the gung-ho development-no-matter-what generation. And that the current generation really have a rather different take on the problems of inequality and the problems of corruption and so forth.

Your next book Neither Gods nor Emperors, is about the student movement of 1989.

This is a rather interesting book by Craig Calhoun. He is a sociologist, not a China specialist. But he happened to be in Beijing at the time of the 1989 uprising and, unlike most China scholars, he was smart enough to stop other things he was doing and go out and study this remarkable movement that was unfolding around him. So he went out and conducted some guerrilla surveys among the students to find out what they were up to and what it was they wanted.

He ended up writing a book that stresses the way the students saw themselves as part of a long historical tradition of intellectual protest in China. He also points out that, over time, protests really change their character. So Calhoun is in Beijing throughout the course of the movement. And he saw it beginning as a very modest movement, in which students are asking for things like better food in their cafeteria and so on. Then as the movement gains steam, and gains new followers from other parts of the country, it becomes increasingly radicalised and the leaders come to see themselves as martyrs in the Chinese heroic tradition of intellectual martyrs.

One of the things that I find very interesting and important about that book, for the study not only of China but also of social movements more generally, is this appreciation that the things that actually may trigger protests at the beginning, are not necessarily the same things that explain how they unfold, and how they end. One really has to understand social protest as a process in which both the protesters themselves – and their relationship with the state – have a very important influence on how things change over time. So it’s a book that gives a very good understanding of what was on the mind of young democracy activists in 1989 in China and how diverse their concerns were.

For example, he makes the important point that democracy, as many of these young Chinese students saw it, had very little to do with free competitive elections. He quotes one young student who says, ‘Oh we have a much more fundamental and radical understanding of democracy than you liberal Americans! We read Rousseau and we care about the general will.’ So Calhoun suggests that, although the West really embraced this as a democracy movement, these young students in China really saw themselves much more in the tradition of the May 4 movement, or the New Culture Movement in China: a movement of intellectuals who are speaking out as the conscience of the country, who are very concerned about corruption, and are very anxious to safeguard the sovereignty of China. The student protesters saw themselves as the latter-day incarnation of earlier Chinese intellectual protesters and were not necessarily trying to turn China into a kind of blueprint of the US or England or some other liberal democracy.

Is an understanding of what drove the movement important today?

Well, for one thing, it explains how the Chinese state was able to demobilise the 1989 movement so quickly and permanently. If what they were in fact pressing for was greater influence by intellectuals and a stronger state, China has seen those things happen since 1989. What hasn’t happened since 1989 is democratisation. There have certainly been some important political reforms – more village elections and so on and so forth. Those predated 1989 and some of them have gathered steam since then.

But intellectuals these days do have considerable importance in Chinese society. There’s freedom for most of them to travel abroad, to come back and say all kinds of different things. And China has greatly enhanced its international status since 1989, in large part because of the success of the economic reforms. So these are the kinds of issues then that presumably might make another 1989 less likely, if 1989 really was about things other than creating a democracy in China.

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I think it was Wuer Kaixi, one of the student leaders in 1989, who when he was interviewed, in response to a question about why he was out there on the streets protesting, says something like, ‘Because we young Chinese want to be able to wear Nike shoes and take our girlfriends out to bars at nights and have a good time.’  And students can easily do all that now.

Calhoun’s book, by making it clear that there were a lot of different things on the minds of young Chinese protesters, quite aside from what Westerners might see as real democratisation, helps explain why it is that since 1989 the protests that have occurred have been less politicised and much more about local kinds of issues and economic concerns and interests.

And is that what your last book, Against The Law, is about?

Yes. My last book is by Ching Kwan Lee who is a sociologist at UCLA. She has done a considerable amount of fieldwork in China on labour protests. And in this book, she compares protests among workers in two different parts of China. One is the northeast, what she calls the rustbelt. And the other is the southeast, what she calls the sunbelt, although frankly there’s so much pollution down there, you hardly ever see the sunshine. So it’s a bit of a misnomer.

Up in the rustbelt you have workers being laid off from the major state-owned enterprises, and she points out that there protests are often framed in nostalgia for the security of the Maoist era. And down in the southeastern part of China, in Dongguan and Shenzhen and around there, you have migrant workers, largely female, who come from the countryside and are working in these new foreign-owned enterprises. And their protests do not hark back to the nostalgia of the Maoist era, and instead are really very much about ‘We need higher wages, we need better working conditions’.

But in both cases she suggests that the political dangers of these protests are fairly limited, so long as the state responds fairly sympathetically and intelligently to them. And she stresses the limited nature of what the workers are actually demanding. So I think it gives a good understanding, rather like Esherick’s book on the Boxers, of the fact that local political economies, local political cultures in China, give rise to very different kinds of protest traditions and it’s really only under unusual circumstances that these kinds of movements can become united and become politically terribly dangerous for the regime.

And is that your feeling as well, that there isn’t much threat to the regime in spite of all the protests that are always going on in China?

There’s always a possible threat, because accidents and contingencies are impossible to predict. But, on the whole, my reading is that the popular protests that we see in China today are really just a sign of ‘politics as usual’. China has always had a huge amount of popular protest, whether we’re talking about the late Imperial period or the Republican period or the Communist period. And for the most part this protest is about local kinds of issues.

Up to this point the Chinese government has been very skilful and very smart – not in every case, by any means, but on the whole – in responding to this protest. Therefore I see it as actually, in some respects, strengthening the Chinese regime. Because in a non-democratic system, where you don’t have popular elections, there are no good institutionalised channels for the state to learn what’s really on people’s minds. And so popular protests give the government a very good sense of the issues that people are concerned about; what they care about so much that they’re actually willing to risk danger and go out in the streets and raise a hue and a cry about it.

If the state has responded intelligently to many of these protests, can you give some examples?

In the 1990s, the bulk of the protests that one saw in China were about the tax burden that was crushing peasants, especially in the interior agricultural regions. In 2006 the Chinese government did a rather amazing thing: they abolished the agricultural land tax. So, for the first time in 2,600 years, China has no agricultural tax. And that was definitely a response to the large number of rural protests in the interior, which really did simmer down substantially after that.

Then, of course, we’ve seen this huge development of land protests, especially close to the cities, over the sale of land. There’s no doubt that the recent legislation on property right laws, and trying to figure out how to rationalise land transfers and so on, is a direct response to that problem.

There’s a variety of other instances – for example, the internet protests that developed after a college graduate from rural Hubei was beaten to death by police in Guangzhou. He’d been detained by Chinese police for being a migrant. And this resulted in a large internet protest about police brutality, and the central state responded by changing its laws about vagrancy.

Of course, the central government doesn’t respond in all cases. Sometimes protests are repressed, and often local officials do things that central officials don’t like and sometimes the state, through its officials, is extremely heavy-handed. But I would say that, on the whole, protest has been dealt with very effectively by the Chinese state, and it gives them a kind of reading on what people care about, what they are concerned about, and therefore what kinds of things it needs to respond to, in terms of its policies.

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So, yes, up to this point one should not interpret popular protest in China as somehow a signal that there is serious political instability, or that the regime is on the ropes. Quite the opposite. Popular protest is a normal part of Chinese politics, and it only becomes politically threatening if it’s clear that the state is not responding to people’s grievances.

But in any kind of non-institutionalised form of politics like protests there is always the danger that things are going to get out of hand and escalate and turn into something quite different from what they started out as. So I don’t completely discount the possibility that one of those protests could turn into the spark for a major political transformation. But I think, rather than focusing on that, we would actually have much more to say about Chinese politics if we focused on downplaying these protests as harbingers of regime change and understood better the way in which the regime has actually very skilfully changed many of its policies to respond to the demands that are articulated.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

June 4, 2009

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Elizabeth Perry

Elizabeth Perry

Elizabeth Perry was born to missionary parents in Shanghai in 1948, the year before the Chinese Communist revolution. A professor in the Department of Government at Harvard and director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, she is one of America's leading China scholars. Much of her research has been focused on popular protest and grassroots politics in mainland China.

Elizabeth Perry

Elizabeth Perry

Elizabeth Perry was born to missionary parents in Shanghai in 1948, the year before the Chinese Communist revolution. A professor in the Department of Government at Harvard and director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, she is one of America's leading China scholars. Much of her research has been focused on popular protest and grassroots politics in mainland China.