China’s market reforms have led to a boon in economic choice, but the nation faces ever-widening and sometimes violent social unrest. U.S. policymakers might infer that growth in protests and demonstrations implies a burgeoning democratic movement. However, China’s social unrest overwhelmingly reflects unavoidable and narrowly parochial side-effects of China’s successful reforms and rapid growth, side effects worsened by local corruption. In a new Carnegie Policy Brief, China’s Social Unrest: The Story Behind the Stories, Senior Associate Albert Keidel explores the consequences of a rapidly changing economy on China’s record of unrest.

Increased social unrest could, nevertheless, undermine China’s leadership effectiveness, and Communist Party officials are raising alarms about national security risks. Since 1993, reports of “mass disturbances” in China rose by nearly 10-fold. In his Policy Brief, Keidel identifies root causes for this social unrest -- price reforms that disenfranchise subsidized urban groups, state enterprise layoffs, investment shifts away from traditional industrial centers in the interior towards coastal locations, rural-to-urban migration, urban growth’s expropriation of farmland, and failures in compensation schemes. Keidel suggests that efforts to combat corruption coupled with further reforms to strengthen dispute resolution tools could mitigate social unrest.

Keidel also prescribes a proactive role for the U.S. in improving international understanding of China’s reform challenges by facilitating China’s participation in international policy conclaves like the G-8. Two-way exchanges on the nature of unrest and steps for handling it could help China reduce its reliance on draconian measures.

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Albert Keidel is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.