For at least the past decade, China has witnessed tens of thousands of mass social protests per year. In 2005, the last year in which Chinese authorities released figures, there were 87,000 such protests. Scholars and observers have estimated that roughly the same number has occurred in each subsequent year. These protests have been the subject of a great deal of media coverage in the West, with the typical takeaway being that China is a simmering cauldron of unrest, perpetually on the verge of bubbling over. Yet the reality is far more complex. Since 1990, almost none of these movements have been overtly political in nature. And generally speaking, China’s political leaders have done an adequate job of responding to these protests, with the result that although mass protests should not be expected to subside, they should not be viewed as the harbinger of large-scale political upheaval in the country either.
China has a long and storied history of social protest movements. They span from the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions of the mid- to late-1800s, to the Communist Revolution of the mid-1900s, to the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, to the political protests of the 1980s, to the multifaceted mass protests that have been prevalent since the early 1990s. Since the beginning of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule in China in 1949, China’s ruling regime has even fostered mass protests, both directly through overt encouragement and indirectly through its responses.