While China’s rapid economic growth in the past three decades has elevated its global status, not all of its citizens have benefited. Striving to find jobs, seek compensation and build networks on the margins of society, laid-off workers of both state-owned and private enterprises, landless peasants in mega cities and fresh college graduates have suffered due to the radical market transition and the state’s retreat from public service delivery.
Workers are not the only victims of socioeconomic marginalization. Even people with household registration in major cities struggle to access their welfare benefits in times of hardship. Changes to the provincial and municipal social assistance programs dismiss the material and non-material needs of the urban poor.
The policy goal of raising welfare benefits for unemployed citizens runs counter to the administrative pressure to reduce caseloads in an official campaign to alleviate poverty. A lack of procedural transparency leads to abuse of power by low-ranking bureaucrats, such as when municipal and district officials forced Chinese Christian, Tibetan Buddhist and Uighur Muslim low-income households to embrace socialism against their faith in exchange for state welfare benefits.
This top-down mechanism of welfare allocation is primarily designed to discipline the poor, rather than address their immediate needs and look after their well-being. Such a managerial approach contradicts the principle of social governance that aims to engage with the general public.
Even though the Chinese authorities have delivered impressive results in poverty alleviation in the short term, the changes unleashed by the remarkable progress following rapid marketization often require a developmental state to forge a more collaborative partnership with civil society.
The historical context for today’s marginalization in China is both an impetus and challenge for creative engagement between state and society.
China is still run by an authoritarian state.
Economic globalization without political liberalization best characterizes the current political climate. The country entered an era of single-man rule after Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) last year removed all institutional obstacles and amended the constitution to allow him to govern the nation indefinitely.
The amendment surprised Western academics and journalists, who naively thought that as China became increasingly globalized, it would recognize the rights of its citizens and follow a path toward liberalization as Taiwan and South Korea did during the 1990s.
There is hardly a period in Chinese history when the ruling elite limited their power and willingly respected the consent of the people. Xi’s efforts to consolidate his absolute leadership derive from the long tradition of imperial obsession with control.
Faced with an escalating trade war with the US and a severe economic slowdown, a heightened sense of crisis prompts the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) dramatic totalitarian turn to silence internal dissent and suppress collective protests organized by all types of marginal groups.
Popular resistance has become a prominent form of civic engagement in China. Frequent outbursts of worker and peasant demonstrations, the proliferation of not-in-my-backyard campaigns against environmental pollution, the growth of online activism, and the calls for democracy and independence in Hong Kong reveal the danger of failed governance for the Chinese state.
Uniting people around a common cause, social media also confirms the state’s suspicion of the Internet’s liberalizing tendencies. The immense popularity of WeChat provides a powerful avenue for citizens to organize themselves and debate ideas and issues related to their sociopolitical rights.
WeChat allows users to form and launch group discussions that easily bypass the online surveillance of state authorities. When public security personnel censor these WeChat discussion groups, some activists move their networks to overseas apps designed to circulate encrypted information.
However, despite its vitality, the virtual space remains vulnerable to the state’s aggressive censorship. The different security and propaganda agencies of the Chinese communist state counter moves by social, political and religious activists with more restrictive regulatory measures.
Local bureaus of public security command popular activists to remove critical postings during sensitive periods, such as the annual June Fourth anniversary, or to shut down their Sina Weibo public accounts completely.
The CCP’s top leadership airs its resentment against innovative use of social media in its official prohibitions against the criticism of Xi’s domestic and foreign policies by its own party members.
As the Chinese state tightens its control over cyberspace, online struggles favoring rights recognition and opposing discrimination highlight their performative and contentious nature. Rituals of virtual activism include online anonymity as well as adherence to shared symbols and imageries highly visible among netizens. These rising grievances among netizens point to a people rife with frustrations and insecurities.
Citizens embrace non-disruptive tactics to elude immediate repression — and implicitly tell the Chinese state to keep out of private affairs — while challenging the pervasive narratives of state control and suppression. Their virtual, alternative discourse awakens and empowers others as it legitimizes protests against ideological hegemony and reimagines communal space.
We are witnessing a distinct moment in Chinese history. China’s manipulation of authoritarian rule and a market-oriented economy in state-led capitalism are a major source of domestic unrest. A rising and prosperous China that denies its citizens what they desire, such as healthcare, job security, interethnic and religious tolerance, gender equality and equal opportunity for all to advance by personal efforts is a China pushing frustrated sectors to organize themselves for collective action.
If the state cannot tolerate the pressures and outcomes of its appeal, it is bound to trap itself in a perpetual cycle of discontent and distrust.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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