Tea with the Police

China's "soft" repression, and the dissenters response

Patchen Barrs

China’s growing economic power, combined with its centralized economy and authoritarian regime, is causing people around the world to take a critical look at the relationship between the Chinese government and political dissenters.

But Diana Fu says that common perceptions of the conflicts tend to be wrong about the nature of both sides. Fu, a political scientist who joined UTSC this year, studies the tools Chinese authorities use to suppress dissent, and the strategies activists use to organize under constraint.

“We think of the iconic image of the man standing in front of the tank during the 1989 democracy protest,” she says. “The state is a faceless machine. You have a man trying to protest against the regime—and not succeeding.”

But Fu says the vast majority of repression takes place in more quotidian ways.

“I’m studying ‘soft repression,’” she says. “If you are trying to organize illegally, for instance, you might get called in to have tea with a plainclothes policeman. During the tea they tell you, ‘If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to have problems.’ There’s no violence, but it is repressive, and it makes people self-censor.”

Fu has a scholarly interest in China. But she also knows that these issues matter on a practical level.

“There’s a lot of talk about soft power,” she says. “China is flexing its economic muscle abroad, and it’s also trying to influence other countries and cultures.”

Fu says that those Chinese citizens who stand up to their government do so for many reasons. Questions of democracy aren't necessarily near the top of the list.

“If you talk to activists in China, many are not pushing for democracy per se,” she says. “They’re pushing for a better life—better wages, better living conditions, bureaucrats that will respond to them.”

Theoretically, China could respond to those types of demands and still maintain its current style of government. If the country continues to prosper without moving toward democracy, it will present a conundrum for the rest of the world, as countries figure out how to interact with this global powerhouse.