The Power of Protests | History Today - 6 minutes read

student boycott rally on the University Mall at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK),  2 September 2019.
Student boycott rally on the University Mall at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), 2 September 2019 © Justin Chin/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Scandals associated with China’s Zero-Covid policy, in particular the tragedy of the Ürümqi residential block fire, triggered a series of protests in early December 2022. What started as silent tributes to the ten people who died in the Ürümqi fire developed into protests against the ruling Communist Party. Apart from advocating the lifting of lockdowns, the demonstrators held blank sheets of paper to express their dissatisfaction towards the government’s media censorship and shouted for freedom and democracy. Most of the protesters were young adults, university students in particular.

‘The student protest movement is a precise barometer of China’s politics. To understand student protests is to understand the climate of China’s politics’, wrote the renowned Communist scholar Hu Sheng in 1947. Not long after the Chinese people had won their resistance war against Japanese aggression in 1945, an agonising civil war between the ruling KMT party and its challenger the CPC was moving into a stage of stridency. During this period students held successive large-scale protests. Behind these protests stood the CPC. As the CPC leader Mao Zedong argued in 1947, the use of student protests as the ‘second front’ had supplemented the CPC’s military struggle against the KMT government.

On Christmas Eve 1946, a 19-year-old Peking University student was raped by two American soldiers in public. In this period the US maintained close ties with the KMT government and peace talks between KMT and CPC had gone awry. President Truman was a firm supporter of KMT’s increasingly authoritarian leader Chiang Kai-shek and American armed forces remained stationed in major cities across China.

News about the incident was reported by a small local news agency, but was quickly suppressed. However, the CPC recognised this incident as a chance to attack its ‘enemy’ by highlighting the KMT’s inability to protect its own people. The news, heavily embellished, was leaked to radical student unions by CPC underground networks and spread fast. The story ignited indignation and outrage. For conservative Chinese people at the time, sexual offences committed by foreigners were particularly scandalous and intolerable. In addition, there had already been much news about American soldiers’ behaviour before this incident. At first the outrage was only expressed in universities through posters and student panels. However, on 31 December 1946, the CPC directed its cadres to organise student protests in ‘every major city’ and actively employed pro-communist press to make the protests into what the media scholars Elihu Katz and Daniel Dayan would call a ‘media event’. The strategy was successful. In less than two weeks, large-scale protests appeared in 26 major cities and reportedly more than 500,000 students participated. The protests also succeeded in binding the discourse of anti-America and the agenda of anti-KMT together.

The KMT was adept at containing student protests and employed tactics which would be familiar to China observers today. First, while suppressing dissent, state media reported that many universities had already warned their students not to go outside alone at night, and that the victim and the perpetrators had chatted at the cinema before the incident. The official media narrative implied that the victim was also to blame.

The second tactic was spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation. The KMT spread rumours that the victim was actually a member of the CPC and that the incident was in fact a covert mission. It was alleged that the CPC deployed her to seduce the soldiers and thereby create this anti-America and anti-government campaign.

The third tactic was to divide the student activist groups from within. The KMT arranged for their party cadres to join the student protests, where they either persuaded their radical peers to trust the party-government and calmly wait for the justice process, or incited riots to loot shops and offices so as to delegitimise the protests. The cadres also wrote to parents persuading them to ask their children to leave the demonstrations and to go back to school.

When all these failed, arrests were the most effective method to crack down on protests and silence unwanted anti-KMT slogans.

A number of scholars and university teachers, including the principals of the prestigious Tsinghua and Peking Universities, were opposed to the protests. This does not mean that they were not sympathetic to the students; rather, they did not want their students to be taken advantage of. They asked students not to participate and to instead ‘just read books’. Parents were either indifferent to or angry with their children for joining the protesters. Many non-partisan newspapers blamed the ‘politicised’ students for ‘disrupting social order’ and petitioned the education authority to ‘save the innocent students’ from political manipulations, which in turn legitimised the KMT’s suppression activities. In 1947, the KMT government introduced laws on curtailing student protests, making their arrests and suppression a legal and necessary measure for the ‘maintenance of social order’.

What did these protests bring about? There was no ‘justice’; the perpetrators were acquitted of all charges. The American troops withdrew in 1947, but this had already been planned before the protests, according to the US military representative in China. As for the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, it remained relatively stable, only faltering after later military defeats.

In the past hundred years, Chinese student protests have had little impact towards ending dictatorships. They have seldom resulted in policy change, unless such changes had already been planned by the authorities. Twentieth-century history, and the bipartisan rivalry in particular, has taught the CPC how to handle protests and counter protests. That history also teaches us what to expect from protests in China today.

In mid-December 2022, China finally moved away from its Zero-Covid policies, but it was not the protests that prompted this. In fact, the central government had already released new policies (i.e., ‘the 20 new measures’) abandoning key aspects of the Zero-Covid strategy a few months before the protests. As the policy relaxation had met with resistance, the protests, while seeming antagonistic, came closer to legitimising the government’s initial plans for change. The protests were instead used by the central government to convince people to accept the policy relaxation and this accelerated the removal of Zero-Covid. More significantly, this allowed the radical voices advocating freedom and democracy to be contained quickly as if nothing had happened. And so the one-party regime remains intact.

Yi Guo is Associate Professor in Media and History at Chongqing University and author of Freedom of the Press in China: A Conceptual History, 1831-1949 (Amsterdam University Press, 2020).

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