Protests and the public sphere


Every society has its own traditions of protest, things that people can do that will get them attention and hopefully enable them to get redress for their grievances without getting shot. Of course these traditions are changing all the time. King’s importation of Gandhi’s techniques of non-violent protest to the U.S. is a good example. Of course these techniques are not entirely portable. In States of Ireland Connor Cruise O’Brian has an account of ‘non-violent’ protest marches in Belfast. The marchers, overwhelmingly Catholic, marched through various Protestant neighborhoods carrying signs and singing songs in favor of an end to the Troubles. As O’Brian points out, the marchers seemed to be unaware of the political traditions of Northern Ireland, where “members of our ethnic group marching through your ethnic group’s neighborhood yelling and beating drums” was not called a peace march.

China also has traditions of protest and is developing new ones all the time. One example of this comes from Ching Kwan Lee’s Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt. Lots of people who used to have Iron Rice Bowl jobs in state industries are owed pensions and are not getting them. How do these pensioners protest? By standing in traffic.

Every time the central government announces publicly that pensions must be paid in full, we are very upset. All of us have television at home and we always watch it. Who would not know about these announce­ments? Every day, elderly people gather in the elderly activity room in our neighborhood, smoking and playing chess, poker, or mahjong. Someone comments on our unpaid pensions and makes a spur-of-the-moment suggestion to block the road. When we get angry, we just go instantly, or say tomorrow morning at 8 or at 9. Once we arrive at the destination, we don’t utter a word. We have no banner or slogan, just stand there. We just want to create public opinion, pressuring leaders of the Machinery and Electrical Works Bureau to talk to the enterprise director. There would usually be several hundred retirees. It’s not a large number it you consider that we have 1,500 retirees in the entire work unit. Traffic police would arrive several minutes after we begin blocking. They would not intervene, just ask politely which enterprise we are from. They say they are just doing their job, and urge us to try our best to move toward the sidewalk. Police would come too, and they would , even urge the traffic police not to push us too hard. They are afraid that elderly people will get hurt, and then the whole incident will become incendiary. Passersby who are on bikes are very sympathetic and are just curious to know which enterprise we are from. But people in buses or automobiles would swear at us, saying, “Those who should die live uselessly.” . . . Very soon, local government officials would come and we would tell them that we are owed our pensions and have no money to see the doctor. They usually are very patient. Once they promise to investigate or to get us paid the following week, we would just disband and go home. The more workers present, the higher the level of officials who would come down to talk to us.

Why this form of protest? Well, a dance marathon is sort of out of the question for these people.

Look, we are people in our seventies and eighties; our bodies are falling apart. We could barely walk. We could only stand still. Standing there on the road is hurtful enough, let alone marches and rallies. My feet and legs are all sore. When we were young, in the Cultural Revolution, we could roam around town and demonstrate. We are too old for that.1

The other advantage of standing in the road is that it fits into a script of protest that makes them look serious but not too radical. Protest needs to be seen by the “public” as something to be taken seriously (that’s why hunger strikes are popular. Even one person starving themselves has weight.) and yet not too out there.2 Lee’s protesters are pretty clear that they want to keep their actions in the script of respectful petitioning.

We don’t want to block railways. Those are major national arteries. We elderly workers are reasonable and we have a good sense of state policy. In Liaoyang and Anshan workers blocked railways and bad things hap­pened to them—public security officers were sent in. If any injury or death occurs, the nature of our action will be changed. . . . We are also conscientious about orderly petition. First we approach our own enter­prise, and if there is no response, we go to the superior department, and then to the city government. You have to follow the bureaucratic hierar­chy of proceeding from lower to higher levels. Then things will be easier.

At least in these cases the method seems to work. By emphasizing their age, ill-health and respect for order and the system the petitioning pensioners are usually able to to get themselves some money. Never all the money they are owed, but some. Given the way they protest the state can hardly send in people to bust heads, and they get sympathy at least from the bike-riding class, if not from the car driving class, and this public sympathy is something that the state will force the enterprise directors to respect.

  1. As Lee points out, this is the generation that has really been punished by Communism. They starved as kids after the Great Leap, were on the firing line for the Cultural Revolution and the Reform era came late enough that the only benefit they are seeing is loosing their pensions. 

  2. P.J. O’Rourke had a great sneer at the People In Black you sometimes see protesting on American campuses “Apparently life sucks when you are a nineteen year old rich kid” 


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