What are the criteria for a protest to be a strong incentivizing factor for policy change in China?


Workers across China have dismantled some of the physical signs of the country’s zero-Covid controls, peeling health code scanning signs off metro station walls and closing some checkpoints after the government unveiled an overhaul of its pandemic policy.

It seems China decided to change its COVID policy after multiple protests across the country. I thought China rarely listened to the demands of the protestors, but in this case they did. I am wondering in what situation the Chinese leadership seriously considers policy change due to protests. There seem to be other historical precedents I am not aware of and I would like to know how useful protests are in China to change the course of government policies.

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    Keep in mind that the Chinese leadership will do its darnedest best not to let out what would constitute successful protesting factors. Just like any government, really. Dec 9, 2022 at 7:51
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    One criterion for authoritarian governments is whether the protests seem likely to continue escalating and possibly lead to a violent uprising, and whether responding with violence would squash the protests or make them more widespread.
    – NotThatGuy
    Dec 9, 2022 at 14:07
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    Has the zero COVID policy in fact been changed?
    – BillOnne
    Dec 10, 2022 at 4:36

2 Answers 2


Chinese government repression is not inscrutably arbitrary, but instead primarily focused against threats to the regime. That also means that there is room for compromise and limited tolerance of protests that do not fundamentally threaten the regime.

Even with the incident on Tiananmen square on June 4th 1989, typically held up as the prime example of Chinese government repression, we can see that in the lead up the government was willing to make some compromises and opened dialogue with the protestors. The point where the government turned to repression was the point when senior officials started feeling that the protests had begun to threaten the fundamental political order. The internal division among the top officials before the fateful vote for martial law was between those who felt the protests threatened to overthrow the regime itself, and those that felt the movement only wanted reforms. In other words, the difference was between those who saw the movement as fundamentally anti-Party and those who saw it as demanding reform within the system.

This distinction continues into the modern day in the policy of the government. Environmental protestors are substantially less repressed than other types of protestors and the (central) government does often accede to localized protests with localized demands. Protestors in Hunan protesting mismanagement by local rural banks succeeded in getting the central government to announce compensation for their deposits. Protests about delays in construction of pre-sold homes related to the recent real estate crisis succeeded in causing the government to place pressure on developers to accelerate construction and the government pressed banks to give developers the liquidity they need. The case of the chained trafficked woman and the beating in a restaurant of a woman who rejected a man's advances, both led to arrests after national outrage happened. The common thread running through all of this is that none of these protests have demands that fundamentally threaten the political order of the regime.

Contrast the attitude of the government in those cases to the ruthless attitude towards Uyghur and Tibetan separatism, both of which make demands that necessarily threaten the stability of the current regime.

Even with the Hong Kong protests, whose demands for political reforms did fundamentally threaten the political order of the regime, the government did give concessions to begin with, like withdrawing the extradition bill. But note that withdrawing the bill did not relate to any of the demands for political reforms the protestors put forth.

On a side note, it's true that many of these protests are still repressed to some degree. But it's important here to distinguish between the central government and local governments, the latter of which often takes a more heavy-handed approach to protestors in general because local protests aren't good for the political careers of local political leaders, and oftentimes, the central government is somewhat more conciliatory than local governments.

In sum, the Chinese government does not repress for the sake of repression. It is pragmatic, and selectively represses protests and social movements that threaten the fundamental nature of the political order, while it is more open to compromise when demands do not threaten the fundamental nature of the political order.

In the case of the COVID protests, the demands of protestors for the government to relax pandemic restrictions clearly is not a fundamental threat to the political order of the regime, so it's not surprising that the government is willing to compromise.

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    I'll add that some of the protestors were calling for change to Covid policies (not a threat to the regime) while others were calling for Xi to step down (definitely a threat). By acquiescing to the former demands, the government satisfies many of the protestors so that the latter demands lose momentum. That way the threat to the regime fizzles out without the government having to make a scene by quashing it
    – T Hummus
    Dec 9, 2022 at 18:19
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    I’m totally on board with this answer until we get to the last paragraph. The zero-covid policy was touted as a major nationalist success, a way in which China’s government was better than the West’s, and making any changes to it was resisted for a very long time. Furthermore, the sudden turn-around and rapid about-face certainly risks, at the very least, a major spike in covid cases and deaths, and may well reveal to the populace weaknesses in the Chinese vaccine. A sense that the government was in any way wrong about zero covid, deaths to disease, failures in R&D, these could be threats.
    – KRyan
    Dec 10, 2022 at 3:07
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    @KRyan Sure, any type of compromise with any type of protest in some way shows weakness. Showing weakness is an inevitable part of any compromise, and clearly that isn't a strong enough reason for the Chinese government to avoid compromise. Certainly it doesn't like to, but the government isn't allergic to backing down and being wrong sometimes, if that's what it needs to do to compromise. For example, even as the HK protests snowballed into a general protest against the regime, the government scrapped the extradition bill.
    – H Huang
    Dec 10, 2022 at 4:15

China has a one-party system. While we like to envision it as a very top-down dictatorially controlled system, it is also decentralised to some extent where local leaders have a lot of leeway in their territory.

China has five levels of government. Under the national administration, there are 31 province-level regions, then 333 municipalities, 2,800 counties and, finally, at the bottom, more than 40,000 townships. Within each jurisdiction, leaders enjoy considerable autonomy over economic and social policymaking. They govern like national leaders, only with a reduced sphere of influence.

... Local leaders are closer to their people compared with decision-makers in the distant capital; they have better knowledge of local conditions and are more capable of coming up with policies tailored to local needs and endowments. They develop closer connections with their constituents and identify more closely with their interests than with the ideology of central leaders.

The one-party system doesn't mean that you can't be political in China. It just means that you can only do politics by being part of the only political party allowed in China. And like with any society and political parties around the world, political factions exist in China too within the one-party. And they all lobby with the leadership for their faction to gain influence. This model ensures that there is a carefully controlled "pressure release valve" for the citizens in the Chinese political system to also criticise the government.

... the central government allows room for discussion on social media partly in order to collect information on local governance. Censors don’t suppress everything that is critical of the government. Chinese netizens make all kinds of complaints about local officials on social media platforms such as WeChat, Weibo and Douyin, and scandals or misconduct that starts trending is often met with swift punishment.

In effect, the system ensures that politicking is tolerated in China as long as it doesn't go against the party or is a threat to the top leaders. It also ensures that protests cannot happen without the support of the local party leaders. (Otherwise, such protestors can be deemed to be against the party / leadership / government and will be crushed brutally). How local party leaders also deal with tensions and protests in their locality is also used as a yardstick by the party leaders to determine the leadership capability of the local leaders.

With the stringent Covid measures that China is implementing, you can be sure that there were certain political factions backed by chinese businesses that also disagreed with the leadership and government. I speculate that these political factions backed the local party leaders to covertly or overtly support the protests, and even organise it. The big bosses of the party than became aware of how much political dissatisfaction these policies are causing across the spectrum of society - from the poor workers to the rich businessmen - and decided to act pragmatically in their own interest, and that of China.

Source: What The West Misunderstands About Power In China

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