China in the Era of Riots
The following is a preview article from the forthcoming first issue of the Chuang journal.
Denim and its Discontents
The story is now familiar: One morning in the spring of 2011, a migrant street vendor is harassed and beaten by police. That evening, rumors fly over the internet that the vendor has died. Hundreds of people gather in the streets, enraged by the apparent murder. They burn cars, loot ATMs and attack the riot police sent to disperse them. But they do not disperse. The riot spreads over several days, with participants growing into the thousands. Journalists who come to report on the events are held by security forces. Rumor of the uprising spreads over the internet even as the government uses all its resources to cut off access to the information.
Despite its striking similarity, this is not the story of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor, harassed by police, whose self-immolation sparked the Arab Spring. The man in the story above was instead Tang Xuecai (唐学才) a Sichuanese migrant in the city of Guangzhou. The riot took place in Xintang, one of the Pearl River Delta’s many manufacturing districts, this one specializing in denim, with the majority of the rioters themselves migrant laborers in factories making jeans for export. And, unlike the riots and strikes that followed the death of Bouazizi in Tunisia, the Xintang riot was ultimately crushed as police took control of the district, made mass arrests, and forced the majority of migrants back to work
Aside from this stark comparison, there was nothing particularly special about the Xintang riot. In a strictly quantitative sense, cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Dongguan in China’s Pearl River Delta (PRD) see more riots more regularly than even Athens. If one adds strikes, blockades and other such “mass incidents” to the list, Chinese protests regularly surpass global trends in scale and severity—especially since a lack (or exhaustion) of legal alternatives tends to transform what might be a benign picket or protest elsewhere into a multi-factory uprising that risks destroying millions of dollars of equipment. Yet we do not often see the avenues and alleys of Xintang as we see those of Athens, lined with burning cars as riot police advance and swarms of rioters scatter underneath the dim gold glow of a McDonalds sign. Instead, images of Athens burning are posed against the glowing skylines of China’s coastal cities, intercut with upward-trending graphs of productivity, profitability, progress.
Underneath the graphs, however, such “mass incidents” have been increasing over the last decade. This rising unrest is, in fact, recognized by numerous official sources, such as the Annual Report on China’s Rule of Law (No 12). Other than attempting to tally and taxonomize the “incidents,” this report also noted that roughly 30% of them took place in Guangdong province, in which the PRD is located. But many such reports, including this one, take only a small number of mass incidents reported in major media outlets and generalize from this subset. Others, such as the China Labor Bulletin’s strike map, mine reports from the Chinese internet in a much more systematic way, but the data stretches back only a few years. Their map is also intentionally focused on strikes, rather than all “mass incidents,” and therefore often excludes forms of unrest that are initiated outside the workplace and do not take the form of labor grievances.