China: mobilizing without the masses


Although repression has mounted, grassroots activism in China has not disappeared, notes Diana Fu, Assistant Professor of Asian Politics at the University of Toronto. Instead, it has taken more creative forms. As the Chinese proverb goes, “Top-down policy generates bottom-up counter-tactics.” Just as the Chinese government is adept at policy innovation, so too are Chinese activists, who are increasingly entrepreneurial when it comes to dissent, she writes for Foreign Affairs:

Unlike liberal democracies, where NGOs can mobilize people to take to the streets, China forbids public protests. As a result, Chinese activists have learned to mobilize without the masses. They lower their political risk by disguising their organizing behind the façade of individual or small-scale protests. Although the Chinese government has tolerated and even encouraged some spontaneous local protests, it does not allow NGOs to coordinate demonstrations. After all, protests without the backbone of civil society are less threatening.

One form of mobilizing, without having to take to the streets en masse, is through flash demonstrations. These are individual or small group protests that typically last no more than half an hour—long enough for activists to capture arresting photos of the demonstration, which then circulate on social media, but short enough to avoid undue attention from the authorities.  

“It is true that the immediate effects of seemingly individualistic forms of activism may be less noticeable,” adds Fu, the author of the forthcoming book Mobilizing Without the Masses: Control and Contention in China. “But what their behavior demonstrates is that despite the unprecedented crackdown on civil society, there will continue to be new bursts of defiance, both large and small.” RTWT

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