Linshui Protests: China’s Paradoxical Approach to Protest Coverage

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This piece is written about the protests that are currently unfolding in Linshui, China.

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Chinese police clashing with protesters. Source: Weibo

A violent protest erupted in China yesterday following the demonstration of thousands of people at the displeasure of the government’s decision not to build a high speed rail through the city of Linshui that would have been key to its development. Despite the lack of media coverage, I thought I would write my thoughts. The response of the Chinese government warrants special attention as China in the past year has not hesitated to express its own ‘concern’ about the protests that exploded in Baltimore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Chinese residents were seen hurling rocks at swathes of police, foreign journalists were assaulted and detained, and Chinese SWAT teams were deployed to ‘maintain order’. The pictures and videos show a backdrop of half-completed concrete buildings, and the squads of armoured police evokes a comparison to what is currently happening in disaffected parts of the United States.

The Linshui protest is interesting, because it is a ‘pro-development’ instead of an ‘anti-development’ protest. The largest protests in recent Chinese history have so far been against the fast pace of growth and the associated environmental degradation. However, this time it was sparked by the  decision to build a shorter but cheaper high speed rail around the city instead of through it. This is a superpower which has so far maintained domestic order primarily by trading civil rights for economic development, and the promise of that is being challenged here.

“China Guang’an SWAT attack the Linshui people” – Source: Revolution News

First, it is interesting to compare the disparity in the media coverage. ‘Western media’ has reported ‘as many as 30,000 residents [which] marched to demand construction’. In contrast, I struggled and eventually found a short Xinhua article in Chinese describing it more as a ‘congregation incident’ of an unspecified number of people where about ‘100 people loitered’ afterwards but the police has ‘so far maintained order’. It gave me quite an eerie feeling about bias and censorship that exists in any mass media.

Although the catalyst for the protests appears to be ‘economic’ as opposed to ‘non-economic’, the two are increasingly interlinked in China. I don’t think one can separate the economic from the political. How will the Chinese media coverage develop if the protests continue, seeing it has chastised the recent protests in democracies such as Taiwan and the United States?

In my mind, the answer has to be framed by the justifications of political legitimacy in China. There are generally two schools of thought commonly used to defend the one-party rule of the Communist Party in China. The first is the idea that ‘Asian’ people hold intrinsically different values which make them focus on the collective and defer to authority. This is not necessarily a argument based on racial naturalism; it is too easy to point to Asian populations that have formed or integrated quite well into liberal democracies. Instead it is the argument that points to the incidents of history and culture in China, such as Confucianism and centuries of dynastic rule. These have allegedly instilled in a people norms which have become incompatible with democracy. This could be seen as the cynical invention of illiberal governments to defend their hold on power, but it should not be forgotten that Western media also find it incredibly attractive, recently citing it as an explanatory reason for the tragedy and deaths that occurred in the sinking of the South Korean ferry, MV Sewol.

Perhaps the better justification is one which the Communist Party is increasingly recognising through its speeches and actions – that they (need to) derive their political legitimacy to rule through economic development, which can become difficult as their economy slows and their citizens become more educated and wealthy. Despite censorship and attempts to control the lens through which information is viewed, most pervasively through nationalism, Chinese citizens now have widespread knowledge about a world outside of their political system. To some extent, Hong Kong can be seen as an incubator for their experiment in democracy-lite without explicit acknowledgement. Today, the two biggest challengers to their system are Taiwan (the ‘other’ China) and United States (the ‘other’ superpower), both of which they must somehow discredit.

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Linshui residents protesting a regional high-speed rail link bypassing their region – Source: Weibo

Turning back to the Chinese media – Xinhua News serves as the mouthpiece and thus a window into the Communist Party. Therefore, they must criticise both the protests in Taiwan and the United States; but interestingly for distinct and largely conflicting reasons. An odd tension exists for the Chinese government. Regarding Taiwan, China has waited and wanted to sign the the Cross Strait Services Trade Agreement with the current and relatively pro-Chinese Taiwanese government, but the opportunity was interrupted by a series of demonstrations and occupations. The unusual result of this has meant that the Chinese government had to implicitly recognise the system of democracy that elected the government in Taiwan, while having to play down the activism against it in the streets. Indeed, the student protest was labelled as ‘juvenile’ instead of portraying the whole debacle as an outright failure of democracy.

In contrast the Chinese government has adopted the opposite paradigm with the United States. It views the American system of government as ineffective and ultimately not reflective of the will of the people. Accordingly, Xinhua is okay with portraying the Baltimore and Ferguson protests somewhat sympathetically, slamming the United States government in its ability to deliver to a significant demographic of its people. However, in doing this it also showed its unintended and tacit acceptance of civil disobedience. This is a fine line for the Chinese government and both interpretations are dangerous for the Communist Party if they are not navigated precisely.

To what extent the Chinese people recognises this tension may be fatal to the existing institutions in China. The Chinese government can only ignore the protests for so long, with an active Chinese twitter (weibo) and internal migration. One way, and perhaps the only way, the Chinese government can reconcile these conflicting narratives without any fundamental change to its governance is that it may have to pivot away from these arguments about the people’s ‘hypothetical will’ and focus on its ability to maintain ‘stability’.

However, the promise of stability is a circular and empty one. It may be useful for criticising foreign protests, but it is not for domestic ones. Its value is only ex ante instead of ex post facto. It may seem obvious – but if the communist party ‘stabilises’ this protest, the ‘stabilisation’ only becomes a symptom of an unrest that necessarily preceded it; mere stability ignores the reasons for action for those who feel a growing dissonance between their lives and beliefs and the ones which the Communist Party promises and purports. The allure and illusion of stability can only be maintained if the conditions that maintain stability can itself be maintained. In short, there is no escape from the original dilemma. It is still economic development or a return to the problematic argument of ‘Asian Values’ and authoritarian-rule.

This is not to say these issues of development, nationalism and democracy are specific to China. In all honesty, the Chinese government probably recognises these problems but have their hands tied by inertia and political forces. One might think that parts of the Chinese government are genuinely and ideologically in denial. Even though no government is a fully rational actor, maybe the current approach is actually a calibrated approach to a calculated risk. Or perhaps, China has already crossed the Rubicon, and there may be little that can be done except to delay or minimise the damage. Whichever it may be, what is happening in Linshui is a microcosm of the contradiction that exists in the rest of China, and the effectiveness of the media’s response will be a litmus test for the country’s future.

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