- Collective Resistance in China: Why Popular Protests Succeed or Fail, and: Popular Protest in China
Recent decades have witnessed a dramatic increase in documented incidents of collective action in China. Scholarship on modes of resistance in contemporary China has likewise burgeoned. In the prologue to Popular Protest in China, Sidney Tarrow writes, "A diverse and changing society is producing a rich and complex panoply of studies of contentious politics" (O'Brien, p. 4). Both of the books discussed here represent fine examples of this scholarship. Popular Protest in China is notable in that the contributors employ the "political process model" in crafting their research. The essays in this volume point to the utility of applying comparative concepts to the Chinese case as well as suggest ways in which the Chinese example can contribute to the broader academic discourse on social [End Page 100] movements. Yongshun Cai's Collective Resistance in China: Why Popular Protests Succeed or Fail is significant as a work that focuses on the relationship between popular protest and policy change, a major lacuna in the scholarship to date. Equally welcome is the breadth of Cai's inquiry: The cases explored in his book cross the rural-urban divide and cover a variety of issues important to Chinese citizens today, ranging from labor protests to environmental concerns to official corruption. Taken together, the two texts not only illuminate the processes of protest in contemporary China but also present the Chinese case as an illustrative example of contentious politics in a nondemocratic regime.
In the paragraphs that follow, I will discuss the books in turn. Drawing on Kevin O'Brien and Rachel Stern's introduction in Popular Protest in China, I have chosen to organize my discussion of that text thematically. O'Brien and Stern detail three theoretical concepts from the contentious politics literature that have been highlighted by the authors in this volume: political opportunity structures, framing, and mobilizing structures. I have reproduced these terms in a more general sense, choosing to examine the individual articles with respect to understanding the conditions under which protest is possible, the ways in which dissent is articulated, and the methods by which collective action is achieved. The subsequent discussion of Collective Resistance in China: Why Popular Protests Succeed or Fail is more straightforward, following the progression of Cai's methodological arguments. As should be evident from the following, these works complement each other in several ways, sharing common approaches and corroborating common findings. Taken together, the books present a nuanced and variegated picture of the distinctive attributes defining protest in contemporary China.
When and how are popular protests possible in illiberal states such as the People's Republic of China (PRC)? In his article in Popular Protest in China as well as in his book, Yongshun Cai emphasizes that the success of collective resistance is always highly conditional. Protesters must carefully evaluate political opportunity structures in both framing and timing their dissent. In his article, "Disruptive Collective Action in the Reform Era," Cai examines the circumstances that distinguish successful cases of disruptive protest. Noting that citizens' protest movements are frequently directed against local authorities, Cai argues that effective action "is likely to draw attention from the central government or other upper-level authorities" (O'Brien, p. 168). Intervention or the threat of intervention from higher authorities is often sufficient to impel the local government to address the protesters' demands. Cai identifies conditions that increase the likelihood of intervention: a protest that involves casualties and garners significant media exposure is "highly likely" to gain notice (O'Brien, p. 169). Likewise, large-scale movements, in particular...