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Congressional Research Service, "Social Unrest in China," May 8, 2006

A Congressional Research Service report prepared by Thomas Lum.
May 8, 2006


In the past few years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has experienced rising social unrest, including protests, demonstrations, picketing, and group petitioning. According to PRC official sources, “public order disturbances” have grown by nearly 50% in the past two years, from 58,000 incidents in 2003 to 87,000 in 2005. Although political observers have described social unrest among farmers and workers since the early 1990s, recent protest activities have been broader in scope, larger in average size, greater in frequency, and more brash than those of a decade ago. Fears of greater unrest have triggered debates with the Communist Party leadership about the pace of economic reforms and the proper way to respond to protesters.

Workers in state-owned enterprises and the special economic zones producing goods for export, peasants and urban residents who have lost their farmland or homes to development projects, and others have engaged in mass protests, some of them violent, often after having exhausted legal channels for resolving grievances. A December 2005 clash between villagers and police in Dongzhou village, southeastern Guangdong province, in which 3-20 villagers were killed, has became a symbol of the depth of anger of those with grievances and the inability of Chinese administrative, legal, and political institutions to resolve disputes peacefully. U.S. interests regarding social unrest in China include human rights concerns, ongoing U.S.-funded democracy and rule-of-law programs in the country, the effects of social unrest on U.S. investments in China, and the effects on PRC foreign policy.

Growing disparities of income, official corruption, and the lack of democratic institutions are likely to continue to fuel social unrest. The potential for widespread social upheaval has captured the keen attention of the Communist Party leadership. However, in the medium term, the PRC government is likely to be able to contain protests through policies that mix accommodation and violence and that promote continued economic growth. Most analysts do not expect social unrest to evolve into a national political movement unless linkages among disaffected groups strengthen and other social groups, particularly the middle class, intellectuals, and students, join the protests as well.

Policy options for Congress include increasing assistance for local democracy, civil society, rule-of-law, and environmental programs in China, supporting a free press and independent judiciary, and pressing the Chinese government to respect the rights of protestors and release jailed activists. December 15, 2005, a bi-partisan group of U.S. congressional leaders submitted a letter to the PRC Ambassador to the United States, Zhou Wenzhong, expressing “deep concern” over the shooting incident in Dongzhou.

This report, which will be updated periodically, discusses the causes of growing social unrest in China and describes recent incidents, explains how the PRC government responds to protest activities,  analyzes implications for PRC politics, and provides policy options for Congress.

The full report can be found here.

Click here for a listing of reports released by the Congressional Research Service.