Debating Protests. On the Possibilities and Limits of Authoritarian Learning in China


H. Christoph Steinhardt, East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore



Research Questions
The Chinese authoritarian regime has proved to be rather resilient and adaptable. Faced with an increasingly individualised and pluralised society, China’s authoritarian leadership has developed the concept of "social management", which involves new forms of inclusive social development as well as improved institutions of social control: strengthened self-management at the lowest administrative level, the development of social organisations to represent the public’s interests, improved communication channels between the party-state and the public, the modernisation of public security work and the like. Based on the programmatic platform of a "harmonious society", the concept acknowledges public protests (offline as well as online) as (more or less) unavoidable expressions of discontent and clashes of interest.

The official concept of social management, and its promotion, indicates that the party-state is highly aware that it has to listen to public opinion more closely and further engage people in risk management if it really wants to identify social trouble spots and ease social conflicts. By acknowledging protests, the party has broadened the discursive space in China and enabled itself not only to listen to public opinion but also to "learn" from these conflicts – where it is not able to prevent them. The goal of these feedback loops is the fine-tuning of the party’s management methods and the avoidance of further escalation.

Contribution to International Research
In the growing literature on the adaptability of authoritarian regimes, including China, the regimes’ processes of observing, analysing, and learning have only recently attracted scholars’ attention. These processes are, however, hard to conceptualise. This project contributes to the emerging debate through its utilisation of the classical method of content analysis.

Research Design and Methods
In a first step, the project will identify major protests inside and outside of China that have attracted widespread attention from Chinese state-led media and Chinese scholars. Based on systemic and organisational learning theories, the study will then analyse the Chinese public discourse on these protests. Finally, it will look for conceptual adaptations that demonstrate both the Chinese party-state’s ability to "learn through conflict" and its limitations.

Preliminary Results
Still afflicted with a mistrust of its own population, and particularly of the more or less autonomous social organisations, the Chinese party-state wishes to "manage" society. It wants to improve and not reduce its capacity to direct. Consequently, its stability preservation and social management concepts follow a top-down approach and are geared to conservative ideas of management and control rather than to modern methods of governance.

Nevertheless, the agreed-upon concepts are by no means fixed and non-modifiable. On the contrary, they are constantly being recalibrated in view of new contentious events, both within and outside of China. This recalibration, however, takes place within the boundaries of the concepts themselves and is affected by disputes within the leadership or between the different levels of administration, particularly between the central and the local levels. Thus, the actual value of the learning that results from social conflicts may be limited.