Can Rightful Resistance Ever Cause Change in China?

By Corneill Spaapen

Throughout the 1980s, rural China went through some mass changes at the bottom end of society, with “rightful resistance” being an important part of creating some form of grassroots democracy in a country which has been dominated by one party for so long. However, it is difficult to envision this bottom up form of democracy ever going beyond the local level of governance, especially without any forms of violence.

O’Brien & Li give the theory of rightful resistance four main attributes: it operates close to the boundary of authorized channels; uses the power of rhetoric; uses the obligations of the powerful to reduce control (which is related to exploiting divisions within the state) and relies on rallying support from the people. What is distinctive about rightful resistance is the legitimacy of it – by sticking to the existing framework and not using violence, it is hard for political elites to discredit these movements. However, it is hard to see them maintaining this degree of legitimacy and causing any kind of change beyond local officials. Anything that goes above this, is met with brutal force and crackdowns to prevent this democracy from spreading.

An example of this is the city of Wukan. They elected their village chief in 2012, which was widely hailed at the time as a breakthrough for the grassroots democracy – he led the line against corrupt local authorities who had illegally seized and lined their pockets with the proceeds of selling it. The response of over a thousand police officers equipped with tear gas and rubber bullets blockading the village quickly found the chief, and arrested him. One villager even said that “it felt like we were pieces of tofu, beaten and smashed.”

Whilst this is only one example, it is hard for to envision rightful resistance causing changes beyond the implementation of grassroots democracy, especially the case in China. It may facilitate the beginning of a movement, but may never reach the full-blown levels of a revolution.