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Repression Backfires: tactical radicalization and protest spectacle in rural China


In spring 2005, villagers in Dongyang County, Zhejiang were unhappy. For four years they had been complaining about pollution emitted by 13 factories located in the Zhuxi Chemical Park, but nothing had been done. So they set up a tent encampment to block delivery of supplies to the factories. At first, they employed restrained tactics, including going about daily life in the tents, badgering cadres sent to demobilize them, and kowtowing. After a harsh repression produced hundreds of injuries and left dozens of damaged vehicles and other evidence of police action strewn about, the tent-sitters switched to more aggressive tactics, including denouncing local leaders, carrying out mock funerals, interrogating factory owners and ransacking the homes of ‘traitors’. The authorities' ill-considered and poorly-timed repression led to tactical escalation, helped draw thousands of people to the scene, and ultimately resulted in the chemical park being closed. This episode speaks to the ‘dissent–repression nexus’ and suggests that repression can be counterproductive when it encourages protesters to ratchet up their tactics and a ‘protest spectacle’ ensues. In today's China, striking displays and theatrical performances, especially in the wake of a crackdown, can attract an audience, bring in financial support and create a carnival-like atmosphere in which popular acclaim, the breakdown of social order and the inversion of power hierarchies grants protesters leverage and induces the authorities to make concessions.

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