Studies of Contentious Politics in China

By Guobin Yang, University of Pennsylvania

Confining my discussion to Chinese-language publications only, I see three trends in the scholarship on contentious politics in China. The first is the rapidly growing quantity of academic journal articles in these areas. This is clear from a quick keyword search of the major Chinese academic journals database www.cnki.net. I searched for several Chinese phrases denoting social movements and collective action on March 20, 2015 in “abstract” rather than “full-text.” If a keyword like “mass incidents” appears in the abstract of an article, chances are the article is about some form of contentious politics (“mass incidents” being an official term for designating social protests). The results show an increasing number of articles in the past decade:

Mass incidents (qunti xing shijian) Social movements (shehui yundong) Collective action

(jiti xingdong)

Internet events

(wangluo shijian)

2004 16 63 53 7
2005 31 86 79 6
2006 54 102 111 13
2007 61 125 147 15
2008 81 148 157 45
2009 177 143 179 52
2010 196 148 209 84
2011 226 179 211 88
2012 237 207 264 69
2013 195 211 252 84
2014 176 225 236 67

The second trend is that much of the work focuses on internet-related activism and protest and in this, scholars of journalism and communication, not sociologists, seem to be taking the lead. Many articles on “mass incidents” deal with “internet mass incidents,” which is the official term for internet-triggered protest. Another euphemistic term for internet protest is internet events or new media events.

Considering the frequency of popular protest in China, online and offline, it is not surprising that Chinese scholars are producing more research on it. Indeed, the Chinese government provides some support through its social science funding mechanisms, since government leaders themselves want to better understand popular protest, if only in order to contain it more effectively. The large amount of research on contentious politics has generated many insightful analyses of contemporary protest activities. With major works by Charles Tilly, Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, Alain Touraine and many others all translated into Chinese, and with a younger generation of Chinese scholars fully competent in reading and using English-language scholarship, Western social movement theories and concepts have become standard references in these studies.

Considering that many Chinese scholars emphasize the importance of developing indigenous concepts and theories for analyzing Chinese realities, however, significant theoretical or conceptual breakthroughs remain few and far between. One exception is perhaps a book on rural protest by the sociologist Xing Ying. First published in Chinese in 2011, the book came out in English in 2013 titled A Study of the Stability of Contemporary Rural Chinese Society. It attracted attention in China because it uses a concept from traditional Chinese philosophy to explain why Chinese villagers protest. Called qi, the concept is translated as “vigor” in the English version and as “emotion” in the English title of the original Chinese edition. Neither translation is accurate, but roughly speaking, qi resembles the notion of “moral grammar” in Axel Honneth’s book The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Ying’s purpose in using qi to explain popular protest is similar to that of Honneth and many others in the social movement field, which is to try to overcome the dichotomy of reason and emotion in understanding the motivations for protest. In this sense, Ying’s book initiates an interesting conversation between Chinese and Western concepts and for that reason, merits the attention of scholars outside of China.

I should add, however, that more and more scholars in China are now publishing in English-language journals outside of China, including high-impact international journals. Due to space limits, unfortunately, I have to leave out their works.

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