CLAREMONT, Calif. – In July 2012, roughly 12,000 residents from around Shifang city in Sichuan province, China, gathered in front of municipal government buildings to protest the construction of a copper refinery. Although many local residents recognized the government’s efforts to create jobs, they were upset by the lack of consultation with the public and failure to address environmental concerns adequately.

The protest gathered tens of thousands of participants, according to reports from the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper. In response, authorities deployed about 8,000 police along major roads. Riot police eventually shot tear gas to disperse the crowd and arrested 27.

Thirty years after the pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square in Beijing that were put down violently with the world watching, the government’s approach toward protests have evolved from those drastic tactics – and so have the protests themselves.

On May 13, 1989, a small gathering of student protesters started a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square at the center of the Chinese capital. Three weeks later, the government sent hundreds of, possibly a few thousand, armed troops and scores of tanks to clear the streets with force. On the night of  June 3-4, as troops headed toward the demonstrators, they opened fire. The government had waited for three weeks before moving to quell the protest – and ended up using overwhelming force.

“Chinese authorities learned their lesson after Tiananmen Square,” said Minxin Pei, an expert on Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College in California. “Troops are trained to kill. They cannot be used in repressing protests.”

Nowadays, the Chinese approach has become more subtle. “Since 1989, China has invested a lot into anti-riot control.” Pei said in an interview. “The police nowadays have much better training and equipment than in the 1980s. And they have developed a standard operating procedure.”

With censorship as the first step, China can derail protests before they even begin. Experts estimate that China has around 2 million people monitoring public opinion online. The authorities limit not only website content, but also internet access .

“Once Beijing sees the possibility of an on-street protest or crowd gathering, which are generally called ‘instability factors,’ it will immediately resort to force to stop it,” Hu Jia, one of China’s best-known civil rights activists, told the Globe and Mail in 2018.

These days when a protest occurs, the government has developed a more gentle way of getting its message across which does not involve clearing away crowds within hours as military actions do. They “bring out some local leaders … to get them (the protesters) to be satisfied and send them all home,” Robert Griffiths, a career U.S. diplomat and former consul general in Shanghai, said in a presentation to CMC students last month. “They go in later and find out who the main leaders were and hold them in detention.”

The Chinese approach of handling protests has changed not only out of fear of history repeating itself. The nature of protests has also changed drastically. What prompts citizens to protest in recent years is no longer discontent with the Communist Party, but the drive to resolve social problems.

“After Tiananmen Square, the number of protests has proliferated. But you no longer have large-scale political protests, or no more explicitly political protest at all,” Pei said. “The predominant reasons for people to protest are now environmental issues, land disputes and unpaid wages.”

Pei believes that two defining features of protest have changed over time: scale and intensity. “The ’89 democracy movement had 5 to 10 million participants protesting in over 200 cities. Nowadays protests are all local, geographically isolated from each other,” he said. “Tiananmen Square was meant to be an organized, peaceful demonstration. But now, sometimes protests are very violent because there are no leaders.”

There are more than 180,000 “mass incidents” (the Chinese way of describing civil unrest) across the country in a year, or over 550 daily, according to Chinese sociology professor Sun Liping of Tsinghua University in Beijing. The majority of protests in China concern local grievances.

“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, or to challenge the power of the central government is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a speech in Hong Kong in July 2017. Policymakers and China experts closely noted his comments, as he was speaking on the 20th anniversary of the handover of the territory by Britain to China in 1997.

One should not overinterpret the rise of economic protests as a forecast of  the regime’s collapse. However, unlike in 1989, today there is the internet and mass media such as microblogs. With the power of such media, a single protest can evolve into widespread civil unrest.

Leadership in China has a growing concern about whether their efforts to limit protests are enough. With increasingly limited means of expression, there is only narrow opportunities for Chinese citizens to express their discontent. That makes the trend of legions of small protests worthy of the world’s attention.

(By Evelyn Zixuan Wang; March 10, 2019)

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