Dissertation Abstracts

Informal Norms and Protest Space—Why the Chinese Regime Remains Stable despite Rising Protests

Author: Li, Yao , yao_li@hks.harvard.edu
Department: Sociology
University: Johns Hopkins University, USA
Supervisor: Joel Andreas
Year of completion: 2015
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: regime resilience , contentious politics , informal norms , authoritarian regimes
Areas of Research: Comparative Sociology , Political Sociology , Social Transformations and Sociology of Development

Abstract

Scholarship has tended to see that rising protests in authoritarian states signal the decline of a regime. China abounds with protest, but the regime’s hold on power and capacity for governing remains strong. Why does the Chinese regime remain resilient amid mounting social protests? In my research, I distinguish two types of protests: regime-engaging and regime-threatening protests. In regime-engaging protests, both the state and protesters accept the legitimacy of the other side and are open to negotiation; whereas in regime-threatening protests, both authorities and protesters reject the legitimacy of the other side and close the door to negotiation. The two kinds of protests are ideal types and a protest may move from one to the other. Yet the distinction matters: regime-engaging protests help maintain regime legitimacy and resilience, whereas regime-threatening protests undermine them. Based on an original dataset, I conducted binary and multinomial logistic regression analysis to show that regime-engaging protests are prevalent in China. Further, case studies demonstrate that in regime-engaging protests, informal norms of contention play a role in regulating actions of both authorities and protesters and promoting both sides to work on resolving conflicts through dialogue, not force. By contrast, case studies of regime-threatening protests exhibit a vicious cycle of conflict escalation and pose a great challenge to the regime.
The above investigation has relied on both quantitative analysis and in-depth case studies. I have generated and analyzed a dataset of 1,418 protest events in China from 2001 to 2012, the largest nationwide dataset on protests in China. I also conducted seven case studies of regime-engaging protests along with three cases of regime-threatening protests, relying on 18-month fieldwork and rich accounts from journalistic and academic sources.
My dissertation contributes to explaining the resilience of the Chinese regime by showing how the regime is able to handle and contain protests. It helps deepen our understanding of complicated relationships between politics and resistance in authoritarian regimes. The conceptual model of regime-engaging and regime-threatening protests that I have developed can be employed to monitor the trajectory of political contention not only in China but also in other authoritarian regimes.

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