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Ignoring grassroots struggles in China

First part of a series to feature on the PN blog about grassroots struggles in China.

In the last few decades, one of the major phenomena occurring on the global scale has been the rise of China. In 1978, the country opened to the outside world after nearly 30 years of almost non-existent contact with what lay outside its borders. Since then, China has grown incredibly, in economic terms, and in terms of the global political balance of power. In little more than 30 years, China has become the second largest economy of the world, and a major economic partner for most countries both in the Global North and in the Global South.

Global attention has been focusing on China more and more, attentively looking at the changes that have been occurring at the government level and at the Chinese Communist party (CCP) level, and what these might mean in terms of international relations. In March, Xi Jinping was formally elected general secretary of the Communist party, an event that has been given extensive media coverage throughout the world. No country can be indifferent to the destiny of China.

Nevertheless, in the Global North, attention to China is often limited to the mainstream, formal life of the country. Chinese civil society is rarely taken into account in the international media, and when something is said about it, it is often derogatory. ‘Lack of human rights’; ‘censorship’; ‘limited freedom of action, speech and thoughts’: these are all-too-often recurring terms in the mainstream discourse in the Global North when analysing Chinese civil society.
In this way, a stereotype that sees Chinese citizens as passive victims of development is maintained and reinforced, thus disempowering civil society and taking away any chance of ordinary people expressing their collective agency.

This kind of analysis is functional for a ‘westerner’ perspective on different levels. By depicting the limited freedom enjoyed in China, Western countries put themselves on a pedestal of democracy so they can look down upon the new gigantic global actor. At the same time, this kind of discourse and ‘othering’ reinforces models of government based on western values.

In so doing, the international media has often failed to capture the way Chinese civil society has evolved and changed in the last decades, its struggles against the government and the influence that it might have acquired.

For example, whereas the Tibetan case is sadly famous and has often reached high levels of attention in the international media, the same is not true of workers’ demonstrations in the factories in Guangdong, the biggest industrial centre in the world.

Through their struggles, people working in foreign manufacturers’ factories are managing to achieve increases in their salaries, and greater consideration for their voices at the management level. These achievements have nevertheless been widely ignored by international media, perhaps because they are not functional to the construction of the image of China as an anti-democratic regime.

Global observers also often ignore the rising presence of Chinese NGOs (non-governmental organisations).

Although the emerging middle class has largely benefited from Chinese economic development, and thus has little interest in changing the overall national system, the Chinese middle class is nevertheless often involved in grassroots and broadly-based NGOs that are quickly spreading out all over the country, covering issues such environmental degradation, legal consultation and advice, community development and poverty alleviation.

At the same time, although Chinese civil society still lacks both the strength and the independence necessary to pressure the state to move in a more democratic direction, the emergence of these NGOs signifies the Chinese leaders’ acknowledgment of the legitimacy of alternative forms of association in the public sphere.

The Chinese state is still authoritarian in many ways: particular groups’ requests are often ignored and their struggles repressed. Yet the government can no longer completely ignore the demands of its society.

Especially in a global context of turmoil such as the one in which we are living right now, with civil society rising on different sides of the world, China needs to take into consideration the risks entailed by ignoring its society’s demands.

In the same way, external observers should be able to see and report the changes happening within Chinese civil society.

Bloggers; workers; new religious movements; environmental groups; youth and student movements; journalists, literary writers and novelists; internal and international migrants; ethnic minorities: all these are civic actors whose role and demands cannot be ignored when analysing China and its rise.

Regardless of the immediate effects that their particular struggles might have on China as a whole and on local societies, their presence and activities in the long run will widen the democratic base of civil participation in the society.

Civil society will thus be an agent of change in the overall social context. Its role and evolution, and the relation it entails with the government, cannot be ignored when taking into consideration the changes occurring within China.

Chinese grassroots movements:

China Strikes is an associations that tracks strikes, protests and other contentious, collective actions taken by Chinese workers to defend their rights and interests

Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD)
is a registered non-governmental human rights organisation established in Dharamsala (India), where the exiled Tibetan government is settled, with the mission to protect the human rights of the Tibetan people in Tibet and promote the principles of democracy in the exile Tibetan community.

LS is a graduate student in development studies at SOAS, London; before moving to London, she lived in China for two years, between 2010 and 2012, studying, travelling and working. This post is the first in a series on Chinese grassroots struggles to be published on the Peace News blog.

Topics: Activism