Cases of activism in China have increased more than ten-fold in the past decade. Employment-related grievances accounted for the largest number of “mass incidents,” involving 1,000 to 10,000 or more individuals. Before, low-wage laborers tolerated poor working conditions in order to maintain wages. As wealth agglomerates and a middle class precipitates, Chinese increasingly demand higher wages, employer attention to the “details” of working life, and simple respect. Environmental protests have grown to the second largest motivation for social activism. Not only are they demanding better work conditions, but living conditions as well.
The medium of activism is changing as well. Social media activism has taken root in China as means to “organize without organizations.” The anonymity of collective mass media does not allow the government to isolate leaders in derailing social and political movements. However, Xi Jinping’s censorship and ideological control has reduced the number of large-scale protest movements and online activism. Increasing opinion is met with censorship, creating a delicate tension between the government and China’s social activists.
Given China’s suppressive past, social activism is under a global spotlight. Consequently, the government has strayed away from resorting to force in the suppression of dissent. Relational repression is becoming the increasingly common means to preserve social order. Relational repression uses social ties to persuade relatives, friends and fellow townspeople to stand down. Those who fail are subject to punishment, including suspension of salary, removal from office and prosecution. Social activism is the battleground between China’s liberalizing middle class and an authoritarian government. It is interesting to see how it will continue to evolve looking into the future.