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Unrest in China: ‘Using the bottom to squeeze the middle’

March 3, 2014
Written by

Mary Gallagher, associate professor of political science and director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan.

Protests and strikes are often considered to be a threat to the Chinese regime and a major worry for the Communist Party. But political scientist Mary Gallagher takes a different view. She argues that a high number of disputes can actually be a good sign. The unrest is not a side effect of China’s system, she says. It’s actually part of the system itself – a tool for implementing policies.

Gallagher says the government uses the demonstrations to put pressure on local officials to carry out reforms. She calls it: “Using the bottom to squeeze the middle.” At the top is the central government. Local officials and employers are in the middle, and the striking workers or angry masses are at the bottom.

China initially tried relying on its legal system to resolve workplace conflict, but the legal institutions were too weak. Now, the party is getting more directly involved in settling disputes, particularly collective ones that pose the biggest threat to social instability, Gallagher says.

It’s extremely costly and inefficient for the government to intervene directly in labor conflicts. So far, it has been working, but Gallagher questions whether the approach is sustainable. She says it’s a choice the party has made to avoid political reforms and collective organization.

Below are edited excerpts from a fascinating lecture by Gallagher, associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan. She gave the talk on Feb. 25 at the university’s Center for Chinese Studies, where she serves as director. A video of the talk is available here.

Controlling local governments

“For autocratic governments, threats to the regime often come from inside the regime itself, not from outside the regime. The Communist Party has to deal with various challenges. One of the significant challenges it is facing is controlling local governments. There is a lot of conflict about where China should go and how reform should be pursued. Local governments are much more focused – traditionally during the reform period – on growth. And the central government is concerned not only about growth but about other social issues, such as the environment and labor and regulatory standards.”

Unrest and reforms

“Conflict increases in big jumps as laws are passed. When the labor contract law went into effect in 2008, disputes doubled in that year. The social insurance law that started extending social insurance to migrants went into effect in 2010, and there was another big jump during 2010. There were other things going on. There was the global financial crisis that led to a lot of unemployment among migrant workers, and we may expect to see another big jump after the 2012 revisions to the labor subcontracting go into effect. This is not unexpected given that people’s expectations are increasing as the laws become more protective. So what has happened since 2008, and this is the story about instability, is that the party has not stepped back from these policies of more protection and increasing interest in things that are about social justice and inequality – not just economic growth. The government has had to take a more direct role in settling social instability, so they can’t leave it to the legal system. From 1995 to 2008, there was a reliance on the legal system – on arbitration and litigation to handle workplace disputes. More and more the party is stepping  in directly to settle disputes, particularly collective disputes, that threaten social instability.”

More of the disputes are going to informal but party-led mediation through neighborhood committees, street-level committees, mediation at the company and the arbitration system. More and more of it has been done ad-hoc at the very grassroots level. So the government – as a response to the instability and social pressure – has not gone in the direction of liberalization, democratization and giving the trade unions more power. It has gone in the direction of directly handling social instability.”

Mass mobilization instead of democracy

“I want to call China’s authoritarianism populist because by using the bottom to squeeze the middle it is using bottom-level social pressure to put pressure on local governments and firms from the central government. It’s not a story of democratization. It’s a story of mass mobilization, which is perhaps what we might want to say is traditional Communist Chinese culture from the Maoist period. Because legal institutions function poorly, there is a spillover effect of protests and the government needs to step in and reassert itself. So conflict between employers and workers is increasingly more about conflict between workers and the state. If the company is unresponsive, you go to the government and you do something big to get the government’s attention and to get a settlement. We often hear about social conflict in the media. We hear about the threats of instability and we hear about how the government is worried. But I just want to point out that social conflict is actually part of the government’s own policy. The government is using social conflict as a way to drive policy reform.”

Disputes as positive signs

“A sign of high disputes is a good sign in China. If you look across provincial variation in terms of disputes, the places with the highest number of disputes are places like Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong. They are not places like Shaanxi. They are not places where you see a lot of workplace death, for example. So the places with very high levels of death from mining or unsafe working conditions tend to occur in provinces that don’t have a high rate of disputes. That’s not to say conditions are perfect in a place like Guangdong because you also have significant problems there as well. You have a lot of occupational disease and injury in those places as well. But you also have a lot of disputes.”

Managing protests with money and violence

“There is variation in the way local governments respond to labor protests. There are places that I know better, such as Shanghai and Guangdong, where there is a lot of money and you use money. You just buy people off with money. You use money in a very effective way. You make sure the leaders are treated much more harshly than the followers. When you read about protests in other parts of China that are much poorer – I haven’t studied this systematically – but what I would expect is that violence is a much more important tool right at the get-go. If you have money, money is better because it will keep things tapped down and relatively more stable. But if you don’t have money, violence becomes more of a tool.”

The media’s role

“Censorship can happen at the local level and at the central level. If you follow certain strikes or protests, you can sometimes see the tipping point where censorship steps in. So the Honda strikes and the Foxconn suicides in 2010 were reported widely in the Chinese domestic media and were not heavily censored. The Foxconn suicides got more publicity in China because they were more dramatic and emotional and harder to explain: Why would  young people would be committing suicide in a copycat fashion? Wen Jiabao, who was premier at the time, did not directly make a statement on the Honda strikes, but he was asked about them in a press conference, and he said that Chinese workers’ wages should go up, which seemed to indicate support for the strikes. At the point when the workers began to demand their own independent union, censorship began. It’s a system that’s flexible. It tries to tweak both censorship and publicity in a way to help the government promote policies that it supports but also not allow for things it does not support.”

Encouraging extreme behavior

“People don’t see the legal system as something that is going to save them. The legal system is part of a strategy that also requires public attention, social pressure and often something that I think is more and more evident: extreme behavior. You have to do something that is equally extreme to get the government’s attention and to get the government to play a more proactive role. It may be very unsustainable and inefficient but again it is a decision to avoid the kind of reforms that people thought were necessary, such as political liberalization.”

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