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Protest Leadership in Rural China*

  • Lianjiang Li and Kevin J. O'brien

Rural protest leaders in China play a number of roles. Among others, they lead the charge, shape collective claims, recruit activists and mobilize the public, devise and orchestrate acts of contention, and organize cross-community efforts. Protest leaders emerge in two main ways. Long-standing public figures initiate popular action on their own or in response to requests from other villagers; and ordinary villagers evolve into protest leaders when efforts to seek redress for a personal grievance fail. Rural officials sometimes attempt to co-opt or buy off protest leaders, but more often turn to repression. Although cracking down may inhibit further contention, at other times it firms up the determination of protest leaders and makes them more prone to adopt confrontational tactics, partly by enhancing their popular support, partly by increasing the costs of withdrawal.

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* For helpful comments, we would like to thank Yongshun Cai, Feng Chen, Xi Chen, David Meyer, Rachael Stern, Sidney Tarrow and Guobin Yang. Special note should be made of Professor Yu Jianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who kindly shared some of his interview transcripts with us. Generous financial support was provided by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong and the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of California-Berkeley.

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The China Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0305-7410
  • EISSN: 1468-2648
  • URL: /core/journals/china-quarterly
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