China and Inner Asia
Labor contention in China manifests one of the most dramatic explosions of collective resistance triggered by economic issues, but often requires immediate responses from the local state. How does the grass-roots Chinese state manage to contain labor contention? The answers to this puzzle constitute a significant part of the strategies employed by authoritarian regimes to maintain their rule. Grounded on quantitative analysis of 950 events of labor contention in Guangdong Province from 2013 to 2015, I find that event size and disruption to social order are the most important factors influencing the likelihood of policing, and event size is also the most important factor influencing government mediation. This study also confirms a widespread speculation that in recent years, the police are less likely to repress labor contention events if they are kept within workplace. Surprisingly, the local state is not more likely to police labor contention events that target local governments, indicating that even lower-level governments have legitimacy concerns as well. Hence, instead of applying coercion indiscriminately to quell collective resistance, the Chinese police is becoming a more “professionalized” force, holding social stability as their bottom line. In addition, I draw data from detailed NGO reports and other online sources to understand the specific strategies in policing and government mediation on the ground: while the police close off space for contention when social stability is at risk, government mediation provides partial political openings within the bureaucratic apparatus for workers. Together, they weave an intricate web to constrain China’s contentious workers.