How soft suppression may be benefiting activists

Yesterday we looked at three soft suppression tactics commonly used in China to end confrontations before they come to a head. These concepts from recent papers by  Kevin O’Brien and Rachel Stern were: using family members to negotiate with protesters, often with threats that these family members would lose their jobs or pensions (relational repression); vague boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable speech; and the traditional harsh punishments without clear explanations that push observers to see warnings for their own work (morality parables). Today I want to use these ideas to explore how these gov’t tactics can work to the protesters’ advantage, and how these soft suppression failures factored into the recent violence in Shifang.

Relational Repression (link)

As Kevin O’Brien saw in the protests in Zhejiang, while many people did engage in “thought work,” there was also a group that refused to participate. While protests are often viewed as one side against another, there is often a large group caught in the between the factions. In Zhejiang, village officials with little stake in the project were pressured by higher-ups to coax villagers and distant relatives to give up their protests, these officials did not want to lose their standing with their neighbors and shirked the responsibility of “thought work.”

Also, just as family members can apply pressure for family members to give up a protest, family members can pressure relatives to join the protest. The thought of losing position within a family can be more threatening than losing a job. As O’Brien observed after the protest, punishments were not carried out as extensively as has been initially claimed by the gov’t, with only those who had failed to persuade close relatives losing positions. This made gov’t officials more likely to ignore their leaders calls for “thought work.”

In Shifang students were held by the gov’t to try and force protesters to leave the streets. This was met with an overwhelming response by classmates and family members to call for their release. In this situation teachers could claim little control over their students (protecting their jobs) and tacitly allow their students to protest to keep their favor.

Armed with this knowledge, activists would be wise to reaffirm family connections prior to engaging in protests so as to minimize any potential leverage over themselves.

Mixed Signals and Control Parables (Link 1Link 2)

Mixed Signals and Control Parables work very well for limiting action from those who are risk adverse, but at the same time provides incentives for a few to explore where the boundaries are. I think in the most notable example of this Ai Weiwei, who became globally recognized through his habitual line crossing. Even while under house arrest, he has published a series of op-eds in foreign papers, raised millions of yuan, and has sustained his typical manic presence on Twitter. While he is an exceptional case, activists are drawing their own lessons from him – that breaking the rules does not always end ones career or ruin ones reputation.  Chen Guangcheng’s escape provided other lessons, that the central gov’t is emphatically not a source of justice for activists and that foreign coverage can help to ensure safety.

The murkiness in what can and can’t be discussed in the media leads to an absence of discussion about China’s activists, giving them the space they need to test the boundaries. There is almost complete silence on Ai and Chen in the Chinese press, as it is unsure of what line of attack it should take (although they do try from time to time). These attacks have also become less successful as the media struggles to regain credibility after being written off as nothing more than gov’t mouthpieces.

In Shifang, and countless other protests, the conflict between health concerns and business is not a clearly demarcated area. Protests over these issues do turn violent with some regularity, but these are rarely mentioned in the Chinese press, while successful movements, like the one in Tianjin are celebrated as examples of the Party listening to the concerns of the people. This lopsided reporting may give protesters a false impression of what the risk and rewards may be for taking to the streets.

Armed with this understanding, Chinese activists continue to pursue a number of new avenues for change to which there are no preset responses.  The local gov’ts are left to struggle with whether or not this will be approved of by the higher levels of authority, and what priority they should place on preventing it before they can act. These small openings give the opportunity for dissent to take root.

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