Riding on the power of the masses? How different modes of mass mobilization shape local elite bargaining in China

Yanhua Deng, Zhenjie Yang, Xiao Ma

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


When local bureaucrats in China disagree with their superiors, official channels for achieving a policy revision are limited and generally ineffective. However, if the stakes involved are high, they may turn to the power of the masses and draw on public pressure to enhance their negotiating position. In such informal inter-bureaucratic bargaining, local officials might intentionally facilitate popular protest and lead to a situation we call ‘mobilized instability.’ More commonly, they borrow power from ‘consent instability,’ that is, they discreetly leak insider information and instruct their police forces to be exceptionally tolerant. In this article, we use the redistricting case in Changxing county, Zhejiang province as well as other incidents to show how local officials can strategically exploit public pressure, in the mode of ‘consent instability,’ to extract policy concessions. We introduce the concept of ‘mobilized instability’ through an examination of jurisdictional restructuring conflict in Daye county, Hubei province. This analysis suggests that reckless intermediaries might over-mobilize and radicalize the masses, thereby undermining intentions and leading to serious consequences for the public officials. The article concludes that the power of the masses may serve as a credible bargaining chip during informal elite bargaining, but it can also be risky for those who handle it poorly.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)559-582
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Chinese Governance
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Local bureaucrats
  • backfire
  • consent instability
  • informal elite bargaining
  • mobilized instability
  • the masses


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