Commentary: Protests in India and China – When is Enough Enough?

The two recent waves of protest in India and China, while being very different in origin and character, share a number of common characteristics. Both are expressions of the popular dissatisfaction of citizens with their governments’ management of civil society and point a warning sign towards critical domestic issues that need to be addressed as a matter of urgency by their countries’ leaders. Both countries have increasingly well informed populations that are demanding fundamental governance reforms and the history of both countries has demonstrated that fully mobilised populations have the ability to sweep unresponsive or unwanted governments aside, albeit using very different methods. While leaders in both countries would do well to heed the voices of citizens, a closer look at the context and background of each wave of protests shows that the likely government response and longer term implications in each case will be quite distinct from one another. Indeed, the open airing of all the issues in India was in stark contrast to the inevitably more difficult airing and attempt at avoidance of the debate in China. India’s system clearly comes across as a messy, loud and ill-disciplined instrument at this stage and equally clearly faces the not to be under-estimated challenge of becoming a more effective machine suited to the long race. However, it leads us to the need to determine what happens beyond the short race where China’s measured, assured and well-oiled machine has clearly performed well.

In China, protests were sparked by an incident of direct editing of a weekly newspaper by a propaganda official. Nanfang Zhuomo (“Southern Weekly”), a privately owned, liberal leaning, weekly newspaper in Guangdong, has traditionally published annual, well-received and respected New Year’s greetings, in the form of an editorial covering a range of important domestic topics. This year, the paper’s greeting was censored directly by propaganda officials immediately before the paper went to press and without the knowledge or consent of its editors. The edits turned a strongly worded editorial about the importance of civil and personal rights into a generic article about China’s constitution quoting directly from the new year edition of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper.

This action triggered the authorship of an open letter signed by several prominent journalists criticising the provincial propaganda minister believed to be personally responsible for the editing. The letter, while focusing mainly on the actions of the official, touched on one of the critical issues central to the subsequent protests, stating: “His actions right now are being seen not just as representing the Guangdong provincial propaganda department, but as many people have asked online: All of these gestures of open dealing and open-mindedness among the new central leadership, are these for real or just for show?” A subsequent second letter, posted openly but addressed directly to Guangdong Party Secretary Hu Chunhua, was signed by a number of law professors, academics, writers, journalists and even media celebrities and called for the immediate removal of the provincial propaganda minister identified in the first letter.

Southern Weekly subsequently issued a statement that the edits to the letter had indeed been made by the paper’s own editors rather than a government official, sparking a mass walk-out by the paper’s staff who claim that the acting editor-in-chief had been pressured to issue a false statement at a meeting of the Communist Party committee of the paper attended by a provincial propaganda official. The striking journalists were subsequently joined by hundreds of ordinary citizens and petitioners demonstrating outside of the newspaper’s offices. Southern Weekly’s statement, on the other hand, became the subject of an editorial by Huanqiu Shibao, a government paper, which declared the matter settled and blaming the protests on “foreign agitators”. This editorial was subsequently run by every other newspapers and media site in China at the explicit request of the government, which in turn triggered the resignation of one paper’s publisher who refused to be associated with the reprinting of a government mandated op-ed. More recently, a deal is reported to have been struck whereby censors have promised to loosen future controls and the entire episode wound down when Southern Weekly’s journalists subsequently returned to work.

Tipping the Balance: Factors Driving Unrest

One way to look at these events is that China’s government has been successful enough in their economic development program to raise subsequent expectations of social and political change. President Xi Jingping has taken power at a time when this next change is ready to take its place among the top items on the agenda. What is clear from the recent protests is that the frustrations being expressed by protesters are about more than just censorship. A closer look exposes a number of different factors contributing to the strong and widespread nature of the protests.

  1. Balance of Accepted Media Censorship in China.Media censorship, a mainstay of Communist power in China, , while exercised firmly, has been largely exercised indirectly “through a complex combination of party monitoring of news content, legal restrictions on journalists, and financial incentives for self- censorship.”“An oppressive government is more to be feared than a tiger.” Confucius China’s journalists today are managing a delicate equilibrium in which censors are not expected to make direct edits to media content. Seen through this lens, the events at Southern Weekend upset the delicate status between the media and censors and the protests that followed in support of the media have leaned the country’s media away from the status quo of falling in line.
  2. Southern China Liberalism. Southern China, particularly Guangdong province, has long been at the vanguard of reform and opening in China. Deng Xiaoping started the country’s opening up with his 1992 “Southern Tour”, visiting factories and special economic zones in Guangdong, and the region continues to lead China in economic development and calls for social reform. The strong local reaction to the censorship can partly been seen as the result of its (politically more self-aware) citizens reacting strongly against perceived attacks on their rights. It is telling that President-elect Xi Jinping’s first trip in China following his election as Party Secretary was to Guangdong, in the footsteps of Deng’s Southern Tour and filled with reformist rhetoric.
  3. The “Obama” Effect. Mr. Xi’s own “Southern Tour” highlights perhaps the most telling factor at play in the protests. Since assuming leadership of the Party last November, Mr. Xi has repeatedly called for advancing reforms, both economic and social. His calls to revitalize what he has termed the “China Dream”, and the accompanying state propaganda praising him, has created high hopes for the implementation of widespread reforms. This has also inflated expectations of what he will or perhaps even can actually deliver, not unlike US President Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for what was widely perceived as a reward for actions he was still expected to take. In this context, the reaction to the event has been so strong because of the signaling effect that despite its rhetoric, the new leadership is seeking to further slow or even stall social reform.

Listening to the People

The Southern Weekly issue has been a litmus test of the Xi regime, providing an opportunity to demonstrate that its calls for reform are based on substance rather than rhetoric and signaling to both the public and hardliners in the party that reform is a one-way street. The silence from Beijing and the arrest of a number of the protesters in Guangdong does not bode well that the new leadership is ready to change the longstanding modus operandi, which, with 90,000 civil disturbances annually , has been to clamp down on protest. The vast majority of these civil disturbances are by the “I have witnessed the tremendous energy of the masses. On this foundation it is possible to accomplish any task whatsoever.”
Mao Zedong
country’s marginalized population, farmers and its migrant workers, protesting against government actions that threaten their livelihoods. These protests, on the other hand, have been driven by China’s middle classes, who have very little to gain directly (over the short term) from the protests but have a lot to lose by being identified as dissenters. China’s leaders of course are keen students of history, particularly China’s own, where despite the rhetoric of a proletarian-agrarian revolution, the success of the 1949 revolution required the support and involvement of and ultimately acceptance by the educated middle class. In this regard the Southern Weekend incident is an important warning, that when today’s educated and resourceful middle class gain their voice and learn to use it, China’s leadership will face a serious challenge to its sole control over the speed and shape of further reform.

In India, protests erupted in the capital New Delhi following the reporting of the brutal rape and torture of a young Delhi medical student by a gang. With the victim in a critical and failing condition, there was a groundswell of popular anger manifested in candlelight vigils and protests against the government. The media used the incident to shine a spotlight on violence against women in the country, and protests grew to a large enough proportion that the government tried to use force to disburse them, attracting additional media coverage and popular support for the protests. Sadly the victim of the attack, moved to Singapore in a last bid to save her life, died from the wounds inflicted on her.. The protests however continued with a widening series of demands for measures to increase security, particularly for women, and the effectiveness of the justice system.

Stepping back from the protests themselves to look at their broader context and drivers, it is important to consider that India has a long history of protest and a heritage of civil disobedience reaching back to the Independence Movement and the examples of non-violent action set by its spiritual leader, Mahatma Gandhi, revered in most of India and the world at large. The breadth and frequency of protests in India are in some ways evidence for the list of grievances held by ordinary Indians, who face crumbling infrastructure, corrupt officials and a lack of basic social services on a daily basis. Protests in India appear to occur whenever an egregious injustice occurs that exceeds citizens’ high levels of tolerance to government ineffectiveness and own their disadvantageous conditions. Accordingly, protests in India flare up suddenly and burn brightly, but also fade quickly as protesters’ initial outrage loses momentum. To an external observer, it appears as if the act of protesting is sometimes more important than the resolution of the problems that triggered them in the first place, being a spontaneous reaction or a pressure valve to blow off steam when the cumulative burden of unmet expectations becomes too great.

Government Failure: Factors Driving Protest

In some ways, the latest wave of protests appears to break the mold of other recent protest actions. The protesters were initiated by English-speaking, college graduates who are probably in the top 10% of the country by wealth and income, although the profile of participants changed over time as the protests developed and grew in scale. Stepping back, the recent protests highlight a number of broader trends that are driving dissatisfaction and unrest in India today:

    1. Role of Women in India. The case itself has highlighted in a graphic manner the extent of the gap that India faces in achieving its ambition to be a modern open democracy for all of its peoples. Improving the situation of women in India is a critical part of that. There is no doubt that the official statistic of 25,000 cases of rape in India falls well short of reality given the prevalence of underreporting in such matters worldwide. Gender inequity is a wider issue. A UN index in 2011 amalgamated details on female education and employment, women in politics, sexual and maternal health and more. It ranked India 134th out of 187 countries, worse than Saudi Arabia or Iraq. The gender gap in India provides a further example of the educational and social gap too. India today has 940 women per 1000 men, one of the lowest ratios in the world, implying widespread abortion of female foetus’ and possibly infanticide . On the other hand, India is one of the few countries in the world to have been (and by some accounts still is today) ruled by a woman (Indira Gandhi and her daughter in law Sonia, respectively) and women are actively involved in almost all aspects of government, work and society. In this regard, the case and subsequent protests highlights that India’s society today is fragmented and modernizing at different speeds. It also highlighted the urgent need to accelerate the pace of change and unify this change across the country.
    2. Middle Class Self-Mobilisation. The participation and leadership shown in the protests by India’s educated class has also been telling. The myth held by India’s middle and upper middle class that rape only occurs in slums and against lower caste women has now been unequivocally shattered, with the facts of the case and profile of the victim being too close to home to ignore, providing a call to action for the middle class. Similarly, the government’s responses, both the initial silence in the face of protest and then the use of force to try to break the protests, were experienced first-hand by students and other middle class protesters, a cross-section of the public typically used to seeing such treatment reserved for poorer and conflict ridden regions like Kashmir and the “interior” states. (The inset below provides a more detailed view from the middle class perspective).
    3. Government and Effectiveness. Finally, the current protests are also a clear indictment against wider government ineffectiveness, in this specific case with regards to providing basic security to its citizens. In Delhi, for example, only one third of the city’s 85,000 policemen are tasked with solving crimes or protecting the general public. The majority of the city’s police force provides government and “VIP” security, significantly reducing the security and quality of police service experienced by Delhi’s ordinary citizens.

However, in this instance the government’s eventual response, including the apprehension of the suspects and arraignment via fast track court has actually proven that India’s government can actually be highly effective, given proper incentives. This in turn has raised the question as to why tragedies and protests are required to focus government on what have been demonstrated to be solvable issues.

  1. Open Communication. What is naturally lost in the thousands of articles on the Delhi rape case is the openness with which Indians were themselves outraged and open about what is a heinous crime. Perhaps one of the most significant points for an observer of India and China is that the dirty facts of the case were dealt with in public. India has sufficient self-awareness to speak up on the issue. The media, government figures, educators and the public have actively engaged in the protest and dialogue on what this means for the fabric of Indian society. This in itself places India in a league above most of the peer group of developing and aspiring nations.

The events of the past month took, for a short period of time, educated, middle class involvement in public affairs to a new level. In terms of change, the protests have had a significant impact on the handling of one case in the justice system. Making a long-term difference to India however, will require more fundamental engagement by a broader set of the population and over an extended period of time.

The Hope for Long Term Change

India’s government today understands well the drivers and nature of its domestic protests and acts accordingly: its strategy of non-engagement and procrastination in the face of short-lived protests has allowed it to wade out popular outrage without effecting long-term or challenging changes. This strategy has served the government well even when faced with better-organised and planned protests: the unfolding of the 2011 anti-corruption movement by social activist Anna Hazare are a case in point where the government demonstrated that it in effect, could wait longer than Hazare could fast in protest. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Mahatma Gandhi
Although the enactment of far reaching legislation was agreed to at the time, implementation has stalled and the real impact of the movement to date has been minimal. The lack of a sign of enduring success thus far from the relatively well-organised anti-corruption movement means the jury is still out on the likely long term impact of the recent protests. India’s population has demonstrated that it can in fact pressure government for fundamental change. In history, doing so well required a leader with the vision shared by the masses and the political will to organise and persevere in the face of prolonged adversity. India today is a long way from meeting this requirement.

The Broader Conclusions

Some of the broader conclusions we can draw from the recent events in India and China that seem most relevant are laid out in the inset on the right. More narrowly, in a previous Sign of the Times we have demonstrated the correlation between economic and personal/political freedom globally as well as China’s need to transition to to more democratic, open, post-industrial society, having now reached what appear to be the limits of growth achievable through state-led industrial policies. Protest events like the Southern Weekly incident are a sign that it is time for China to turn its highly effective execution skills toward structuring the outstanding political and social reform. Post industrial societies are driven by innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, and without increasing freedom, including freedom of speech and the free flow of information, China cannot complete its aspired transformation and escape the middle income trap. More importantly, throughout history, every civilisation that has restricted knowledge and information has ultimately failed over the long-term. China’s leaders recognize that they will indeed need to unleash the free flow information in its society, and manage the subsequent consequences well if the country is to avoid this fate. The question is when.

In India the governance deficit is felt across all regions of the country and all aspects of society. In the Sign’s analysis on India Wide Open, we had explored how the lack of effective government retards education, slows down the flow of goods and services, handicaps the country’s corporations and restrains its entrepreneurs. India’s ambition to become a modern industrialised nation requires it to improve conditions across all of these dimensions, a shift that will require the empowerment and participation of the entire 1.2bn population, not just of the 50% that happens to be male. Arguably this will also require a shift in attitudes held by a wide section of society, but government has a critical role to play in education and awareness, without which this shift will be much slower. It is clear that democracy alone is not sufficient to create a modern and prosperous nation in the 21st century.

Both India and China are facing new realities and working through these issues with what looks like a limited road-map. China has demonstrated the value of top-down control by a tightly knit group of actors in winning the short race. India has a good chance of demonstrating the value of masses of individual actors acting ground up in winning the long race. China’s transition to running the long race requires a leap of faith on the part of its leaders that may be too difficult to make today but will only get more difficult as its success grows, while India’s ability to actually win the long race requires it to survive the pain of the short race.


1.    See appendix for definitions and sources

2.    The greeting, titled ‘China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism’, which called for the full implementation of the civil and personal rights described in China’s constitution was changed to ‘We Are Now Closer to Our Dream Than Ever Before’

3.    Virtually all Chinese companies are required to have a Communist Party committee which provide, “a shadow source of power and influence” (in the words of a recent U.S. Congressional report) on the management and decision making of a company.

4.    Freedom House

5.    China Academy of Social Sciences

6.    UN Gender Inequality Index

7.    UNICEF

8.    Sign of the Times April 2012