Protest with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations, Riots, and Petitions in the Mid-Qing Dynasty

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Protest with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations, Riots, and Petitions in the Mid-Qing Dynasty by Ho-Fung Hung. Columbia University Press, 2011, 288 pp.

Contemporary newspaper readers often face contradictory stories about modern China that include reports of tremendous economic growth, accounts of widespread and often deadly protests, and descriptions of an authoritarian but adaptive regime. This contradiction is not a new condition and Ho-Fung Hung’s work, Protest with Chinese Characteristics, attempts to understand how economic changes and protests influenced the relationship between ruler and subject in China from the 1740’s through the 1830’s. This early modern period, encompassing the middle of the Qing dynasty’s two hundred and fifty year reign from 1644-1911, brings into focus enduring patterns of Chinese social mobilization, government policies, and ideological structures that Hong argues all continue to be expressed in contemporary disputes. While the subject of Chinese protests has been covered before, most successfully by Jeffrey Wasserstrom in Student Protests in Twentieth Century China, Hong breaks new ground by placing mid-Qing protests amid larger currents of world history and uses an array of sociological techniques to accentuate his fascinating case study narratives.

Hong presents economic change as the most important proximate cause of Chinese protests, with relative prosperity during the mid-seventeenth century slowly giving way under population growth and monetary problems to economic depression during the 1820-1830’s. Embedded within the story of gradual economic stagnation is the erosion of Qing government legitimacy. As a “foreign” and “barbarian” ethnic group in China, the Manchu conquerors who established the Qing dynasty sought to maintain support among the larger Han Chinese population through martial exploits and administrative efficiency. Hong argues that beginning with the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799), the moral behavior and administrative competence of the dynasty declined, highlighted most notably by the appointment of court favorite Heshen, whose name became synonymous with corruption. Consequently, Chinese began to lose faith in the ability of the government to function effectively and turned to increasingly violent protests.

Chronologically, Hong identifies three “waves” of protest in mid-Qing China: 1740-1759, 1776-1795, and 1820-1839. In the first period, 1740-1759, the Qing administration functioned smoothly, with a responsive bureaucracy and an increasingly liberalized commercial sector facilitating economic opportunity and general contentment. In this early period, peaceful demonstrations sought to engage the state to provide public goods and influence policy, such as famine relief or rent reductions. After 1760, when the Qing state ended its extensive frontier wars and policy of conquest in Central Asia, atrophy began to erode the competence of government administration. Coupled with widespread public disgust over the material and sexual excesses of the Qianlong Emperor’s court, protests became more violent and aggressive and were accompanied by increasing tax resistance. Eventually, riots and attacks on officials by bandits and smugglers broadened into a series of widespread revolts, such as the White Lotus Rebellion of 1796-1805, which directly challenged the Qing dynasty’s right to rule. In Hong’s third period, 1820-1839, the Qing state restored itself by brutally crushing revolts and through the political efforts of two Emperors, Jiaqing and Daoguang, who restored faith in the Qing dynasty’s ruling Manchu family. Although political opposition decreased after 1795, the 1820-1839 period saw increasing economic problems, and during this era petitions became the dominant form of protest, with Chinese attempting to directly contact senior officials with grievances that local officials had failed to act upon. While more peaceful than the 1776-1795 era, the 1820-1839 period highlights a political disconnect between the ordinary people’s faith in the Qing court rather than local officials. While this disconnect was politically useful to court officials, who could cynically place blame for unpopular or failed policies on local officials, it clearly shows that the general erosion in public trust of government had crippled the ability of the Qing dynasty to function with the support of the Chinese population.

As a sociologist, Hong relies on more theory than many readers, particularly historians, might be comfortable with, but thankfully he eschews postmodernist language. Hong uses a mixture of insights from Charles Tilly, E.P. Thompson, Clifford Geertz, and Immanuel Wallerstein, which should be accessible to most readers. A major objective of Hong’s use of theory is his attempt to situate the Chinese experience of protest alongside European and Japanese patterns. Hong seeks to challenge the notions of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Eric Hobsbawn that “pre-modern” protests were reactionary and ineffective compared to modern, structured forms of protest such as labor unions and socialist parties. Throughout the book, Hong demonstrates a solid grasp of both sociological theory and its importance to his project but the repeated comparisons to Europe quickly become excessive and tangential to an otherwise clean and focused analytical structure.

Although Protest with Chinese Characteristics is a very impressive work overall and has received several notable awards, some small flaws can leave the reader frustrated. Sourcing is opaque, and while I trust Hong’s scholarship, the footnotes are too limited for some readers to fully trust his more general conclusions. In a short book, two hundred and one pages of text, the limited space for comparison of the Qing protests to contemporary Chinese disputes is a lost opportunity that could have been remedied with one more chapter. Descriptions of the role and structure of the Qing government could also use more detail, for example how did the Jiaqing Emperor “restore” legitimacy, how were personnel decisions made, or how did the petition system work in practice? While these are small issues, they do make the book more appropriate to an academic audience with a solid background in sociology or Chinese studies, and not a casual reader or international relations scholar looking for contemporary insights. With these small caveats, Ho-Fung Hung’s Protest with Chinese Characteristics is a thought provoking, well-written and insightful attempt to understand the often tempestuous relations of China’s people and its authoritarian government.

Eric Setzekorn

George Washington University Department of History

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."