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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Protests in China

Carrefour protest in Beijing

China has witnessed a visible increase over the past ten years in the number of protests, demonstrations, and riots over a variety of issues. Areas of social problems that have stimulated collective protests include factory conditions, non-payment of wages, factory closures, environmental problems (both large and small), and land and property takeovers by developers and the state.

It isn't surprising that social conditions in China have given rise to causes of protest. Rapid growth has stimulated large movements of people and migrant workers, development has created massive environmental problems for localities, and opportunities for development have created conflicts between developers and local people over land and property rights. Following the terrible earthquake in Sichuan and the collapse of many buildings and schools with tragic loss of life, there was a wave of angry protests by parents against corrupt building practices. So there are plenty of possible causes for protest in China today.

What is more surprising, though, is that the state has not been successful so far in muzzling protest, or in keeping news of local protests from reaching the international public.

YouTube provides a surprisingly wide window on protests in China and other parts of the world. It is worth viewing a sampling of clips from YouTube that surface when one searches for Chinese protest.  The following clips were collected in January 2009.  But here is a sobering fact: most of these clips have disappeared from YouTube with a message indicating that they violate "terms of use."  One is forced to speculate about the pressures that brought this about.

Unemployment for Chinese migrant workers

Labor protest in Shanghai

Shoe factory protest for back wages

Environmental protest in Xiamen

Protest about water pollution in Xiamen

Parents protesting children's death in Sichuan

Will the sociology of the future be able to use the contents of YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook as an important empirical indicator of social change in societies such as China, Malaysia, or Russia?  One thing is evident from this small experiment: YouTube is not an archive, and researchers are well advised to capture and document the items they want to study.

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