The Columbia University Press blog has published a post by Ho-fung Hong, author of the book “Protest with Chinese Characteristics,” who puts the recent protests in Wukan and Haimen in the context of other uprisings in Chinese history to argue that they were not as subversive as many think:
The Wukan protest, in particular, resonates with many great uprisings in China’s history such as the Leiyang rebellion of 1844. In the early 1840s, local intellectuals in Hunan’s Leiyang County adamantly petitioned higher authorities against local tax abuses. The arrest and torture of a leading petitioner unleashed an armed revolt in which villagers seized the county seat and set up their own local government, which was short-lived and was crushed by imperial government forces. After the crackdown, the grievances against the Qing state continued to brew in the area and prepared many locals to embrace the Taiping Rebellion that shook the very foundation of Qing rule in the 1850s.
Despite their democratic demand and parallel with uprisings in Chinese history, we should also notice the Wukan protesters’ emphasis of their loyalty to the central government and their begging for mercy and aid from the highest authorities. In the Haimen protest, we likewise see protesters kneel during their action to beg for intervention from higher authorities to stop the construction of a second power plant. In this regard, these protests are not much different from most other recent local protests that are militant against local authorities but submissive toward the central government. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, China watchers rested much hope on such confrontational local protests and cast them as precursors to larger-scale movements that could radically change the status quo. But these waves of unrest came and went and the party-state remained in control.
In my book, which surveys thousands of cases of protests in China’s imperial past, I found that similar waves of violent resistance against local governments, coupled with humble petitions to the power center (such as the wave in the early nineteenth century), cannot be explained simply by contingent political-economic factors, but had much to do with a deep-rooted Confucianist conception of authority and justice. Under this conception, abused subjects have a right to fight corrupt officials by any means necessary, but they should also count on the emperor as the loving grand patriarch to redress the injustice, just like children abused by their parents should look to their grandparents or lineage elders for paternalist protection. Sometimes the imperial authorities would compromise to the most submissive protesters as a way to exemplify mercy and increase legitimacy.
See also previous CDT coverage of the Wukan incident and analysis published in its aftermath (in reverse chronological order):