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  • Can Nonviolent Action Shape Policy?People Power in East Asia and in the West
  • Walter C. Clemens Jr. (bio)
Brian Christopher Jones, ed., Law and Politics of the Taiwan Sunflower and Hong Kong Umbrella Movements (New York: Routledge, 2017).
Jing Chen, Useful Complaints: How Petitions Assist Decentralized Authoritarianism in China (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016).

Besides the hard power and soft power of governments and nonstate actors such as al-Qaeda, there is people power—nonviolent action by individuals and groups to alter government and its policies from below or outside. The anthology edited by Brian Christopher Jones and the monograph by Jing Chen provide authoritative case studies that illustrate both the possibilities and limitations of citizen action to shape government policy. Each book is a must for anyone concerned with the future of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China. Each volume raises issues for other countries as well, including the United States. Let us consider the broader context of nonviolent action in greater China and worldwide.

There is a huge literature on nonviolent protest, both as passive resistance and as active struggle (Powers and Vogele 1997). For most of recorded history, people power without weapons did not count for much. Nonviolent action by those who wished to challenge or change political authority was nearly unthinkable in most major countries. Instead, protesters resorted to violence, as in the German Peasants’ Revolts of the sixteenth century. Starting in eighteenth-century Europe and the United States, however, the potential of nonviolent action increased with growing acceptance of the belief that political authority requires the consent of the [End Page 285] governed. Still, the American and French Revolutions were achieved with much violence.

A few individuals helped change the prospects of nonviolent resistance. Henry David Thoreau refused in 1849 to pay taxes to a government that permitted slavery and was invading Mexico. Thoreau acted alone in bearing witness against public wrongs—unlike the large-scale civil disobedience practiced by Martin Luther King, Jr., in the hope of actually changing the law. Ideas on civil disobedience have ricocheted around the world—from Lev Tolstoy’s Russia to Mahatma Gandhi’s India, King’s America, Lech Walesa’s Poland, Tiananmen Square, and the streets of Taipei and Hong Kong in 2014—usually with near-term losses but sometimes with long-term wins (Clemens 2014).

More than two millennia before the rise of republican and communist China, kings of the Zhou dynasty asserted that heaven would bless the authority of a just ruler but would withdraw its mandate from a despot. The Mandate of Heaven would then transfer to those who would rule best. Throughout Chinese history, rebels who opposed the ruling dynasty claimed that the Mandate of Heaven had passed, giving them the right to revolt and then rule. In China, as elsewhere across the globe, armed rebellions took place, but political change by nonviolent action was rare. As the Manchu dynasty weakened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Sun Yatsen and other Chinese who had studied in the West brought to China the idea that the demos should rule.

China experienced many strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, and uprisings in the twentieth century. China’s first large-scale, nonviolent direct action was the March Fourth movement in 1919. Thousands of students and intellectuals, joined by business people and workers, protested the Paris treaty permitting Japan to take over many previously German privileges in China. The protests and strikes in May 1919 persuaded the government to reject the treaty but failed to secure broad reforms in politics, science, and literature. Though a strong nationalist, Chiang Kai-shek and other Confucian traditionalists criticized the May Fourth movement for corrupting youth: it weakened respect for authority and allowed inroads for Western culture. Still, May Fourth became an inspiring symbol of student activism. Subsequent mobilizations often occurred on its [End Page 286] anniversary. There followed significant protests against both nationalist and communist policies and practices in 1923–1924, 1925–1927, 1931, 1936–1937, 1942, and 1945–1946 (Li 1997b).

Open dissent became more difficult after 1949, when communists prevailed in China’s civil war, because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) permitted no political action except that organized by...


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