Routledge Research Encyclopedia of Chinese Studies: Chinese Social Activism section

Jie Chen (Editor)

Research output: Book/ReportEdited book/Anthologypeer-review


Based on the literature of social movements, social activism is defined as the part of civil society or semi-civil society in the Chinese case which advocates social or political change. This section focuses on the development of social activism in contemporary China since the reform era started in the late 1970s. The first decade of the reform unleashed calls for fundamental political reform and systemic change by the enlightened members of the society, particularly intellectuals, students and other elements of the urban communities, as exemplified by the Democracy Wall Movement (1978-79) and Tiananmen Democracy Movement (1989). Such campaigns were invariably quashed by the authorities. Activism calling for liberal democracy or changes of some fundamentals of the political regime has since become rare, low-key and of much lesser scale. On the other hand, environmentalists, feminists, rights lawyers, petitioners, labour activists, house church leaders, citizen reporters, and many other kinds of activism of grassroots NGOs (non-governmental organizations) started to emerge and develop since the mid-1990s as the mainstay of social activism. Such dynamics, more tolerated by the regime in varying degrees and during some stages of their evolution since they have largely operated within the existing legal parameters, reflect the emerging grievances and conflicts associated with social stratification and discrimination, environmental degradation, inequitable distribution of wealth, predatory practices of crony capitalism, and wide-spread official corruption and mishandling of issues relating to people’s wellbeing as the reform era progressed.

The regime-challenging/threatening type of activism has moved overseas. Political dissidents in exile carry the torch of Democracy Wall and Tiananmen, often collaborating with the expanding community of Falun Gong, Uyghur, Tibetan and Mongolian exiles and sympathetic Taiwanese activists. Meanwhile, Umbrella Movement (2014) and anti-extradition protests (2019) signify the rise of pro-democracy sentiment of people in Hong Kong. Imposition of a harsh national security law in the former colony has forced many pro-democracy activists to flee overseas, hence ushering in a new Hong Kong diasporic movement.

Activists in all these spheres, domestic and transnational, have become increasingly connected and assisted each other, due to the impact of advanced communication technologies and many shared tactical or strategic goals.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 31 Mar 2022


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