On SAGE Insight: What Drives People to Protest in an Authoritarian Country?

Article title: What Drives People to Protest in an Authoritarian Country? Resources and Rewards vs Risks of Protests in Urban and Rural China

From Political Studies

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While the existing literature on social movements has provided plenty of inspiration for the motivating factors of political participation in Western liberal democracies, we know relatively little about the extent to which the literature is applicable to authoritarian states. There are some key distinctions between institutionalized and non-institutionalized forms of political participation, such as voting and protest. Voting is relatively effortless and incurs lower costs compared to protest. However, in authoritarian countries where voting is conspicuously absent, protests can become an important form of political participation. Second, protests incur considerably higher costs and pose higher risks for participants in authoritarian states compared to their counterparts in liberal democracies. Protestors in illiberal states face high risk of reprisal and state repression that may result in loss of income or even incarceration and loss of freedom.

The data in this paper come from the CGSS 2010, a nationwide representative survey, administered by the National Survey Research Center at the Renmin University of China. The 2010 survey used a four-stage stratified sampling scheme to sample 11,783 adults age 18 years and above in Mainland China. The study compares personal income, educational level and individual’s participation in collective contention.

The study observes that that as urban residents become wealthier over time, they will increasingly turn to protests as a form of political participation. The research finds strong evidence to support a negative association between education level and likelihood of protest, which stands in contrast to the positive effect of education found in democratic societies. Protests in China are conventionally about material grievances rather than a demand for democratization. Researchers also find the organizational basis for contentious politics to be lacking in China, which is completely unsurprising given the nature of its political system. Protestors in China as in other authoritarian countries have a different benefit–cost calculus compared to those in democratic societies. Authors believe the logic of political participation, such as the effects of income and education, rewards vs risks calculation of protestors, and organizational basis for contentious politics, such as trade unions, could be similarly applied to other illiberal states where fewer mobilizing structures are available, and aggrieved citizens face considerably higher costs when they take their grievances to the street.

Abstract

What drives people to protest in an authoritarian country? Drawing from a rich set of individual-level data from the China General Social Survey 2010, we address the question of protest participation by focusing on the factors of resources, and rewards vs risks, that might be unique to protestors in an authoritarian state. We find strong evidence for education, typically conceived as a key enabling resource in protests, to be negatively associated with likelihood of participation. There are, however, significant differences between political behavior in urban and rural samples. We find some, though rather weak, evidence to suggest that as urban residents become wealthier over time, they will increasingly turn to protests as a form of political participation, demanding greater accountability of government and corporate actions.

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Article details
What Drives People to Protest in an Authoritarian Country? Resources and Rewards vs Risks of Protests in Urban and Rural China
Lynette H Ong, Donglin Han First Published March 27, 2018 Research Article
DOI: 10.1177/0032321718763558
Political Studies


     
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