Neither Withdrawal nor Resistance: Adapting to Increased Repression in China

Neither Withdrawal nor Resistance: Adapting to Increased Repression in China

Kevin O'Brien - Jack M. Forcey Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley

Monday, April 8, 2024 - 4:30pm
Room 203, Henry R. Luce Hall See map
34 Hillhouse Avenue
New Haven, CT 06511

As repression grows in China, some pastors, lawyers and NGOs are neither resisting it nor withdrawing from the public sphere, but instead are finding ways to adapt. Coping strategies include: being transparent about their activities and maintaining close communication with the authorities; cultivating allies in the government and giving credit to officials for their achievements; keeping the size of their organizations non-threatening and consenting to a heightened Party presence; staying a safe distance from red lines and focusing on less controversial issues; encouraging their constituents to accept compromises and government priorities; distancing themselves from activists who speak out against restrictions; shedding connections with foreign countries; and arguing that loyalty and moderation are the best means to make progress. The hope is that cooperation and exhibiting an understanding view of the Party’s motives will preserve space to operate and suggest a path toward long-term co-existence. Accommodating pastors, lawyers and NGOs take the regime as a given and work with the state rather than against it. By doing so, they retain some agency, even as deepening authoritarianism blurs the line between accommodation and cooptation. Potentially restive professionals are directed away from activities and ways of thinking that the authorities do not like, and toward organizing themselves and acting in a manner that is deemed acceptable. They learn to avoid confrontation while they are steered to a safe place and rewarded (or at least tolerated) if they stay there.

Kevin O’Brien is the Jack M. Forcey Professor of Political Science at UC-Berkeley. He received a B.A. from Grinnell College and a Ph.D. from Yale University, and taught at Ohio State for over a decade before moving to Berkeley in 2000. His research focuses on contemporary Chinese politics, especially at the grassroots. His publications include Rightful Resistance in Rural China (with Lianjiang Li), as well as well as articles on local elections, fieldwork strategies, policy implementation, policing, and village-level political reform. Over the last decade, as his attention shifted from protest to “stability maintenance,” his work has centered on theories of popular contention, particularly as concerns types of repression that are neither “soft” nor “hard.” In the last few years he has written articles with his students (and students of his students) on street-level cops; bureaucrats who take part in protests; local officials who prevent migrants from receiving promised services; grassroots cadres who broker land taking; Protestant pastors who find ways to cope with increased repression; the implementation of government transparency; and an NGO whose earthquake reconstruction program failed after it lost the community’s trust. His main interest for many years has been the disaffected and downtrodden in society, and the strategies they use to improve their situation, as well as the front-line cadres and others who make political control real.