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  • Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China by Xi Chen
  • Ho-fung Hung (bio)
Xi Chen. Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 256pp. Hardcover $95.00, isbn 978-1-107-01486-2.

In most studies of social movement in China and elsewhere, protest and authoritarianism are often treated as two contradictory phenomena. Contentious authoritarianism, therefore, seems to be a contradiction in term. Xi Chen, however, has made an intriguing case in this book about how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been tolerating or even facilitating contentious politics from below to help maintain its authoritarian rule.

The questions that the book addresses have been dealt with by many other authors: What accounted for the surge of social protests all over China in the 1990s and how did the CCP survive it? Many authors have given many different answers. Some argue the CCP dealt with these protests by repressing them selectively. It repressed those that started to spill over beyond a local region and develop coalitions with dissident intellectuals or those that manifested political demands, but it left the other self-limiting local protests with pure livelihoods demand alone. Some argue the ultimate source of stability of the CCP rule is the rapid economic growth and the performance legitimacy that such growth confers to the regime.

While all these previous works are asking why the CCP rule survived despite widespread protest and discontent, Chen’s novel argument is that the CCP rule survived because of such widespread protest. The core point of the book is that “[be]neath the surface of noise and anxiety [of protest], the whole political system remains stable.” As with these protests, “most disgruntled social groups can find a space for interest articulation” that makes the whole system more sustainable (p. 5).

After reviewing in the introduction the limitations of existing social movement literature in understanding the recent wave of Chinese protests, Chen uses the government data on petitions at the Hunan and Henan provinces to map in chapter 2, “The Surge in Social Protests from a Historical Perspective,” the trend of [End Page 429] collective petition and more disruptive protests that usually come with them. He finds that coinciding with the national trend documented in many other works, there was an unmistakable surge in collective petition and protests in the 1990s on. He also notices that such a surge could not be explained by increasing grievances caused by deepening market reform. If such a surge is caused mainly by mounting grievances, then there should be a surge of all collective and individual petitions. On the contrary, what he observes from the Henan and Hunan data is that the number of individual petitions remained more or less stable between the 1980s and 1990s and even showed a slight decline. Chen, therefore, asserts that the surge of collective protest in the 1990s is, indeed, a shift of aggrieved citizens’ action in articulating constant grievances.

In chapters 3 and 4, the author goes on to explain such shifts of action provided with constant grievances by looking into the changing political opportunities structure between the 1980s and the 1990s. He finds that the first key difference between the two periods is that, in the 1980s, the work units system was still intact while the system had dissolved in the 1990s. In the Mao era, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) exerted its social control via a myriad of work units and its associated institutions, such as the official labor unions. Citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had most aspects of their public and private lives embedded in particular work units. Cadres in such work units exercised the function of social monitoring, listening to as well as addressing grievances. As this system was still intact in the 1980s, citizens at that time would confine their contestation within the work unit and were less likely to resort to collective protest. However, when such systems were dismantled during the state enterprise reform in the 1990s, the CCP government was confronted with the citizens directly, without the mediation of the work units. In such situations, workers would be more tempted to employ collective...