Repertoires of resistance and repression: The authoritarian governance arena

The repression of protests in authoritarian states is an issue of compelling interest to social scientists studying human-rights violations. This paper focuses on how regimes of social control and systematic repression are related to collective resistance in authoritarian states. It discusses two new and related perspectives in protest research, field theory and a players-and-arenas focus, and applies them to collective resistance in repressive states. The concept of a field of governance helps to systematize the dynamic complexity among a diverse cast of players by locating them in the arena of strategic interaction. Drawing on area studies and the author’s research projects in several authoritarian states – China, Russia, Spain, Iran, Egypt and Syria – we identify the teams of players and their repertoires as a first step to analyze strategic choices vis-à-vis field position. The study presents a fine-grained analysis of the interaction among various state actors, ranging from political elites, economic elites, different levels of state security apparatus (state, county, municipal), and local vigilantes and party thugs. On the state side of the playing field, interaction is shaped by what we describe as the repressive repertoire. On the other side are those challengers who collectively resist state intrusion and engage state actors. There we find diverse activist groups resisting in creative ways to challenge and make claims in repressive contexts, which we call the resistance repertoire. The paper concludes by reflecting on the process of repertoire change and emergence.

1. Introduction

This article argues that recognizing the complexity of the players in the authoritarian state, and conceptualizing its mobilization-repression nexus as a changing and evolving arena, is more empirically accurate than studies that tend to dichotomously portray challenging groups confronting the state. Our study explores the patterns of interaction among the various players in terms of a strategic, performance-based approach that builds on Tilly’s concept of repertoires of contention (Tilly 1978, 1995, 2006, 2008), integrating it with field and arena perspectives, and asking how challengers’ repertoires change as arenas of governance evolve to open or close opportunities for action.

Past research has partly recognized the diversity of the authoritarian state and what this means for oppositional mobilization1, but has not developed out of nor engaged in an integrated theory-building enterprise that can account for how state diversity engages challenger diversity in terms of protest development. Moreover, in high-capacity authoritarian states, the cast of actors is quite distinct from players in liberal democracies, and we will show that so too are the kinds of collective action that they engage in. It is important that social scientists recognize these patterns as we ponder the challenges to liberal democracies as rightist-populist parties gain traction. How can we theorize the trajectories of challenging movements as political space closes and social control increases? Broad conceptualizations of states and oppositions tend miss this fine-grained empirical reality wherein many contingencies reside. This may be why Lichbach (1987: 293) once pondered, „Why have scholars theorized and reported all possible curves to fit the impact of repression on dissent?“

Lichbach’s words were recorded thirty years ago, and we will review how our understanding of the mobilization-repression nexus has evolved since then in a later section. For now, however, we point out that recent theoretical developments in the field of contentious politics that lay stress on strategic interaction, dynamics of contention, and its mechanisms, open new insights to the authoritarian mobilization-repression nexus and ways to analyze it. They highlight the repertoires of engagement unique to authoritarian states, as well as resources – or capital in a Bourdieusian sense – that shape their actions and outcomes. This is a dark dance in which players on each side monitor the other and weigh their actions based on perceptions (Johnston 2012).We call the shared patterns of engagement the repertoires of repression on the part of state actors, and the repertoires of resistance on the part of challengers. We conceptualize them as normative understandings of how contention is strategized and unfolds, which help define the arenas of contention in the authoritarian state. These rules partly determine the trajectories of anti-authoritarian, democratic resistance and challenge.

2. Field dynamics in social movement theory

A trend in social movement research is the increasing emphasis on the dynamism of and strategic interaction within mobilization processes. The seeds of this trend go back twenty years to McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly’s program to identify the „robust processes“ that operate in all episodes of political challenge (McAdam/Tarrow/Tilly 1996, 2001; McAdam/Tarrow 2011). It is fair to say that researchers of social movements and protest today increasingly recognize that important insights into collective action and its impacts come from dynamic, strategic, and processual perspectives.2

A more recent trend that builds on this observation is field theory3, which emphasizes how political actors compete and strategically respond to each others’ moves. In social theory, the notion of a field is strongly identified with the work of Bourdieu (1993; see also Bourdieu/Wacquant 1992), who applied it tandem with concepts of capital and habitus. Field concepts were also present in early social movement analysis via concepts such as „multi-organizational fields“ (Curtis/Zurcher 1973), „movement sectors“ (McCarthy/Zald 1977) or „movement areas“ (Melucci 1985), where the focus was the strategic interaction among movement actors, especially social movement organizations. Like these earlier treatments, we deemphasize Bourdieu’s concept of capital in favor of the competitive-jockeying emphasis that both the field and arena metaphors invoke. Notably, this shift also refocuses of social movement research away for „the movement“ to the fields or arenas where competition among various movement players and their targets take place and to the sequential actions and reactions that evolve. McAdam/Boudet (2012) observe that this shift is a palliative that counters the movement-centric quality of a great deal of past research, whereby researchers „sample on the dependent variable“ – namely, the social movement – rather than on contentious politics and the patterned interactions or mechanisms that define their field of play (McAdam/Tarrow/Tilly 2001).

Related to field theory is a strategically focused, players-and-arenas perspective recently elaborated by Duyvendak/Jasper (2015). These authors push the field-competition metaphor toward more social-constructionist and finer-grained analytical focus by deemphasizing the stakes that are in contention (as foci of action) in favor of the agentic social definition of the game by the players. Duyvendak/Jasper observe (2015: 18) that a „field’s form of competition is usually taken for granted [and] agreement is assumed to govern some parts of the field (cognitive understandings, goals, norms of behavior), while conflict governs others (competition for the stakes of the field), with a clear boundary between them.“ They note that this risks overlooking the diversity of players, the player’s’ definitions of what is occurring, and the changing rules of the game, and thus prefer to speak of arenas rather than fields. This shift in terms emphasizes the more fluid elements of membership, goal definition, rules of the game, and spatialization, which, they imply, approaches symbolic interactionism (ibid.: 22-23). As we will show, opening the door for greater diversity among players, levels of play, iterative ground rules, and changing stakes is a more empirically accurate way of conceptualizing the game between actors resisting authoritarian social control and the numerous levels of state enforcement charged with constraining those actors. It is fair to say that field and arena approaches applied to the mobilization-repression nexus outside the Western liberal democracies are almost completely absent in the literature. The key insight that these perspectives offer is that, in authoritarian regimes, the interaction of multiple state agencies and elite actors with a diffuse and evolving strategic actors in contentious opposition constitutes an empirical domain in its own right. This domain has its own emergent practices, logic, and patterns, which can be analyzed via Tilly’s concept of repertoires (Tilly 1978, 1995, 2006, 2008), as a way to capture the rule-governed and normative qualities of how the complex state and a diverse opposition confront each other. Repertoires, as normative constructs, are part of the social capital that the players bring to their encounters with each other.

3. The mobilization-repression nexus

Regardless of regime type – open or closed, liberal or authoritarian – researchers of the mobilization-repression nexus have long recognized that both parties in the game seek to influence each other – through protest actions for the challengers and through social control strategies for the state.4 It is well known that state elites and the security agencies that do their bidding closely monitor expressions of dissent.5 A consistent finding is that oppositional movements that challenge state security are met with strong repression6, but the effects are variable depending on the type of regime and repressive tactics. In authoritarian South Korea, Chang (2008) found that repression actually increased network alliances within social movements but decreased overt protests. Starr and colleagues (2008) suggest that state surveillance tends to destabilize dissident groups, but others find that it radicalizes them.7 Loveman (1998) found that military repression stimulated protests actions in several South American authoritarian regimes, indicating a threshold beyond which repression is seen as so disproportional as to spur protests. Yet this threshold is regime-specific and determined by many factors, as indicated by the brutal repressions in Tiananmen Square, 1989, or in Plaza de Tres Culturas, Mexico City, 1968, which stifled further mobilizations rather than encouraging them. Knowing where this line lies is the „dictators dilemma“ (Francisco 2005), namely, applying enough repression to quell protest but not too much to cause blowback.

Reasons for these variable findings partly reside in regime characteristics. More than twenty years ago, Linz and Stepan (1996) noted that the constrained capacity of authoritarian states permits space for limited pluralism and civil society to exist, and for oppositional networks to percolate below the surface of civic life. This insight is essential to our field approach, and on a macrolevel, state capacity to control not only territory but to penetrate citizens’ daily routines is a key variable shaping the field of contention. In high-capacity states with intensive social control, surveillance, and repression – totalitarian states such as North Korea – viable space for collective opposition is severely limited, which tends to drive expressions of opposition into Scott’s (1990) „hidden arbors,“ while publicly the observer sees deference, acquiescence, and „preference falsification“ (Kuran 1995). Linz and Stepan also identified sultanistic regimes as personalistic dictatorships, that typically have low state capacity, less economic development and less elaborated civil society.

Power, corruption, and plunder are concentrated in a small elite circle that is dependent on the leader’s beneficence. The key characteristics are (1) low state capacity compared to totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, (2) a reliance on patrimonial-clientistic relations that benefit political elites, and (3) a tendency for brutal repression because legitimacy concerns are less relevant to the regime. According to Boudreau (2004: 154) these kinds of factors combine to change „how participants and authorities calculate victory and defeat, expense and opportunity.“

Such typologies of state structure are useful in identifying key characteristics, but they offer only a static view of state systems, which – in line with a dynamic field approach – have been increasingly recognized by research as complex and changeful over the long term. Elite interests shift (Slater 2010), and today, popular sentiments are pushed by global pressures and digital media. Citizen assessments move, congeal, and move again, putting new pressures on regime officials. Parsa (2000), analyzing revolutions against the authoritarian states of Iran, Nicaragua, and Philippines, identifies four key actors in the movement phase of regime change: students, clergy, workers, and economic elites. Schock (2005), focusing on movement strategies of nonviolence, shows that tactical variety and flexibility among different actors in the long term are key elements of movement success. Movement strategy can impel shifts in elite preference and weaken authoritarian regimes. Repressive states also may vary on dimensions of bureaucratization, professionalization of a technocratic elite (O’Donnell/Schmitter 1984), the role of the military (Geddes 1999), and historical precedents of collective action (Boudreau 2004). In our reading, however, this literature tends to underestimate the effects of state corruption, which is endemic in all these regimes – not just sultanistic cleptocracies – and central to understanding the authoritarian field of play. This is because self-enrichment and cronyism are primary drivers among state actors where the absence of checks and balances, of independent branches of government, and of rule of law open opportunities for corruption in state and party. In China and Russia, corruption occurs at all levels of state and party administration, from top to the bottom and from the center to the periphery. On the movement side, ubiquitous corruption and elite conspicuous consumption help define the arena of contention. They are widely apparent to citizens and frequently discussed among them in private settings, which drives discontent and illegitimacy. On the state side, turf battles over spoils are but one of several factors that cause divisions within the authoritarian state, creating spaces for collective action.

As an elaboration of analyses that seek to statistically model state complexity (Ortiz 2013; Maher and Peterson 2008), our research comparatively examines patterns of how multiple levels of state administration and the different security agencies interact with oppositional actors. We draw not only on area literatures but also our own research in several authoritarian states to examine these dimensions of state repression.8 The goal is to take what Duyvendak/Jasper (2015: 18) characterize as the crucial first step in arena analysis, namely, recognizing the multiple players, their interactions, and their motives. On the one hand, the multiplicity of levels complicates any assessment of the dynamics of authoritarian contention by bringing into the analysis different strategies and locales by which security agents come into contact with opposition activists – sometimes arresting them, sometimes beating them, sometimes turning their backs, sometimes diverting efforts and attention to other matters – most notably corrupt self-enrichment and bribery. And then, our fine-grained fieldwork even reveals instance when security agencies facilitate the opposition.

On the other side of the playing arena, additional dynamism is introduced by recognizing the diversity and creativity that activists employ in avoiding social control and in taking advantage of interstices created by the complexity of social control administration and the conflicts of interest therein. We close this section with the observation that the social science of oppositional movements in authoritarian regimes cannot ignore these dimensions of the diverse and dynamic field of strategic contention. We begin the next section with the observation that the multiple players and strategies are difficult to capture if studies look only at collective action in the modern repertoire, that is protest actions typical of open and democratic regimes. Thus, to elaborate our approach, we probe the role of collective action repertoires in field and arena theories, and specify two concepts relevant to the analysis of collective action in closed societies: a repressive repertoire on the part of the state, and a resistance repertoire on the part of the opposition.

4. Repertoires and arenas

The standard modern repertoire of marches, demonstrations, protest rallies, petitions, speeches, meetings, and so on, goes a long way in defining what a social movement is in the liberal democracies of Europe and North America. While these forms of collective action sometimes occur in authoritarian regimes9, under conditions of closed political participation they are obviously not frequent. Police repression and widespread surveillance strongly inhibit their development and/or preempt it. It is also important to recognize that protests and demonstrations are ineffective means of grievance articulation because, in authoritarian states, responsiveness of state and party officials is low, the mass media are controlled, and the apparent apolitical quiescence of the vast majority of citizens would seem to impede oppositional momentum. All these are factors constituting the unique arena of political contention in repressive regimes.

Charles Tilly’s historical research (1995, 2006, 2008) played the greatest role in directing analytical attention to the concept of repertoire in social movement and protest research. He introduced the notion in his seminal book, From Mobilization to Revolution (1978: 151-152), at a time when the study of collective action focused on its rational organization and interest-driven incentives.10 Later, Tilly (1995) showed how changing society and politics in late eighteenth-century Great Britain gave rise to new forms of collective action. While he did not draw upon process-and-mechanism concepts, which he was simultaneously developing (McAdam/Tarrow/Tilly 1996), his linkage of changes in society, in politics, and in the emergent arena of citizen participation carried a strong dynamic element. Urbanization, industrialization, and new political alignments meant not only the erosion of traditional issues of normative conformity and communal obligations, but also of the traditional repertoire of collective action, which tended to be local, parochial, and ritualistically shaped by traditional village cultures. The rise of the modern repertoire – widely invoked to this day in open polities – occurred as new arenas of contention emerged in the modern state. This dynamic element was deemphasized as the repertoire concept was incorporated into political process theory, which for years paradigmatically guided social movement research in North America and Europe.11 The original dynamic and policy-arena foci were frozen in favor of the modern repertoire’s „strong“ patterned qualities (Tilly 2006: 40; Wada 2016). It is fair to make the generalization that the play of strategic adjustment and mutual interaction were deemphasized in favor of the „structure of political opportunities.“

The dynamic element is also seen when we recognize that eighteenth-century Great Britain was not a free and open democracy at the time of the shift. It was an autocracy, for which innovative forms of collective action were necessary to push state elites towards greater responsiveness and to elicit citizen participation. Tilly (1995) argued that collective action in the traditional repertoire did not answer to the increasingly national scope of the modern British state. Nor could it get the attention of the political classes because of its parochial focus and particularistic and quaintly rustic tactics – such as charivaris in France and Katzenmusik in Germany. A new repertoire of action, one appropriate to emergent national political arena and new rules that demanded elite responsiveness, was needed. Thus, its development is best seen in terms of emergent and changing arenas of contention among both new and old players of the game. Applied to modern authoritarianisms, this prompts the analyst to look for similar kinds of innovation as arenas of contentious change. These can become new repertoires that, under different conditions, might too move governance and political contention – slowly but inexorably – towards more democratic practices. We offer the proposition here that discernible patterns can be identified, emerging under broadly repressive conditions, which we call the resistance repertoire.

Awareness of effective tactics accumulates to build a growing and emergent stock of appropriate collective actions. This information is shared and/or recognized among social actors on both sides in the field of play – what we will call the field of authoritarian contention. This cultural knowledge constitutes a practical and normative understanding of acceptable behavior, which answers to Fligstein/McAdam’s call (2012) that a comprehensive theory of fields must reconcile interest-based strategy and cultural-interpretative elements of social action. Repertoires become shared normative elements guiding political contention as players interpret and respond to the actions of others. They can be said to loosely contain and shape the field of play through their influence on how actors develop their performances: guiding influences similar to the distribution of Bourieusian social capital, but not determinative ones. Tilly uses the metaphor of a jazz performance to describe the effect of repertoires (2006), in which performers elaborate upon a melody and take it in new directions as they react to one another’s improvisations. A propos of the opening and closing of repressive tactics in arenas of contention, as antiauthoritarian movements promote democratic liberalizations and as state regimes adjust, repertoires change, or – in the words of an arenas approach, new understandings of collective action emerge as challengers strategically adapt their performances to the other actors in the field of play. Like performances of improvisational jazz, these adaptations are creative but not random. They are shaped by the social capital of prevailing practical knowledge of what works on both sides.

5. The repressive repertoire

We begin our analysis on the relational side that encompasses the state and its security apparatus – arguably, the least studied in terms of fine-grained distinctions, and often taken for granted. When we say taken for granted, we refer to comparative projects using, for example, World Handbook of Political Indicators IV or „Military Personnel as Percentage of Labor Force“ (SOC08 in USAID), for national measures of social control. These are helpful for comparisons that reveal larger patterns, but often miss variations at the country, provincial, and municipal levels, and ride on the assumption that repressive tactics are uniformly and consistently applied, both spatially and regarding policy domains. An arenas perspective calls for a fine-grained examination of the state to identify (1) players that are often missed, and (2) levels of analysis that are sometimes ignored. These two points are the foci of this section. We argue that social control is, in reality, riven with competition, lapses, administrative turf wars, redundancies, and complex commitments among state actors. The importance of this is that it commonly opens free spaces for the opposition and opportunities to practice and modify its repertoire of resistance, the topic of the subsequent section.12

5.1 National Repressive Policy Arena
Regarding the players, the contentious politics literature recognizes that elite divisions at the national level create critical openings for the opposition: McAdam/Tarrow/Tilly (2001) characterize them as a key mechanism in democratic transition; Goodwin (2002) notes that they are definitional of revolutionary situations; and Amenta/Young (1999) note that they affect the implementation of policies. Political process theory holds that channels of elite access and challengers’ perceptions of elite divisions are key factors as challenging groups strategize action. In authoritarian states, comparative research widely recognizes that elite division is a critical element in regime demise. Slater (2010) identifies elite defections to be at the heart of the cross-class coalitions in successful democratic movements, as in the Philippines. Boudreau (2004) looks at elite response strategies of democratic challenges, emphasizing the dynamics of „state attack and movement response.“ In contrast, Slater describes the „protection pact“ of Malaysian elites who unified in support of the authoritarian state, bringing critical resources to insure regime longevity. These studies, which emphasize agency among different state actors, are important first steps, but the deconstruction of the authoritarian state can be pushed beyond elite interests of politicians and businessmen.

In authoritarian states, it is typical that the national military plays a prominent role in protest repression and social control.13 However, a players-and-arenas perspective reveals that the military is not always correctly analyzed as a homogeneous actor. There are special units, elite divisions, and republican guards chosen for loyalty to the president, and which can play key roles in resisting regime transition. The division between the military and special units and militias or elite security units gives rise to spaces of opportunity for the opposition. During the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, the army refused to fire on protesters, but security forces and hired thugs waded into protests on Friday, January 29, 2011. In the next two days, the Egyptian army that stood between protesters and the mukhabarat and armed supporters of the regime who had been called out by the ruling party. The military’s role in the fall of the Mubarak regime in 2011 was crucial.

Within the military command structure, officers must take caution in ordering conscripts to fire on protesting youth with whom they can identify strongly, risking breakdown in chain of command. This occurred numerous times in the radicalization of Syrian protests and their descent into civil war. In northern Syria town of Jisr al-Shoughour, lower-level desertions had been reported for weeks in 2011 as the regime mobilized the army against the protesters. A large military operation against this Sunni stronghold meant that many Sunni conscripts were ordered to fire on townspeople. Scores refused, and some officers defected to aid the townspeople in their resistance (Zoeph/Shadid 2011). Recognition of potential breeches of loyalty is one of the main reasons for the multilayered organization of military force in authoritarian states: special units, praetorian guards, militias, and mercenaries.

5.2 Regional and Local Variations
In al-Assad’s Syria, prior to the civil war, there were no less than eighteen different branches of police, security and military intelligence apparatus in the major cities.

Provincial and local police and officials are the main points of contact of most citizens with the repressive state. Local police, militias, and inspectors are poorly paid, which commonly translates into bribe taking and shakedowns of the local populace. Sanctioned and even encouraged by officials who sometimes take their percentage of shakedown money and fines, the corruption and brutality of low-level enforcement agencies are major sources of grievances and claims among citizens in authoritarian regimes. In China, for example, frequent themes of citizen protests are land seizures of officials, who minimize compensation and resell it at great profit. Protests and petitions against seizures do not go unrecognized by sectors of the party elite, who call for crackdowns on corruption.14

At the provincial and municipal levels in China, agents of the City and Urban Administration and Law Enforcement Bureaus, known as chengguan, are widely held in disdain for their corruption and brutality. A recent viral narrative in China described the beating, arrest, and execution of a street vendor and can be taken as a reflection of the widespread dissatisfaction with local-level enforcement common in authoritarian states. Reminiscent of Mohamed Bouazizi’s police beating and self-immolation, which began the Arab Spring in Tunisia, several chengguan confronted Xia Junfeng and his wife in May 2009 as they were selling grilled meat on the streets of Shenyang. The chengguan dismantled the unlicensed cart, threw Xia’s meat skewers to the street, and beat him, which led to a fight in which two chennguan were stabbed and killed by Xia with his carving knife. No one disputed Xia’s guilt, but discussion of his trial and execution (in 2013) spread rapidly on the Chinese Internet, with blog posts charging that he had been unfairly condemned to death. His treatment was compared to Gu Kailai, the wife of the disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai, who killed a British citizen, and whose death sentence was suspended. The intensity of Internet traffic attests to how injustices at municipal and provincial levels have powerful resonance and how they reflect attribution of complicity to national political elites.

Researchers of political repression note that local actors on the „unofficial“ state side are often overlooked in comparative approaches to repression,15 are informally organized bands of thugs, ruffians, vigilantes, local militias, and even foreign mercenaries, which are commonly employed as enforcers and protectors of spheres of influence and graft for corrupt officials. These groups include gangsters, party members, and off-duty policemen known for their brutality, physical intimidation, and violent efficiency. In some repressive situations shakedowns, violence, and enforcement have become so widespread that entrepreneurs have organized businesses that do the bidding of clients (Volkov 2002). In authoritarian settings, it is common that these unofficial agents are used to enforce compliance and instill fear, especially during periods of increased dissident activity, or to terrorize individual citizens whose actions pose threats to political elites. Kaddafi armed his supporters in Tripoli to intimidate citizens from protesting and brought in mercenary thugs from Chad for enforcement (Therolf 2011). Local officials use thugs to protect their own venal interests, such as in the case of Qian Yunhui who had been a vocal advocate against illegal land seizures in China. Several witnesses saw him being held down by a group of men as a truck ran over him. Pictures of his body went viral on the Chinese Internet (Yang/Wong 2011), because of their poignancy but also because land disputes are common citizen grievances in China. Ong (2015) reports how villagers in Zhengzhou who stood up against land evictions enforced by thugs and others linked to the local government were violently confronted, resulting the many injuries and the death of an elderly woman. Forced evictions, leveling of houses with construction machinery, and forced land expropriations are phenomena that commonly occur in China, widely documented by Amnesty International (2012).

Thugs, rather than the police, are often used to intimidate reporters whose stories implicate officials, as in the case of Mikhail Beketov, a newspaper editor who had often written about official corruption in Russia. His car was blown up, and he was badly beaten. Although the police promised an investigation, the case remains unsolved. According to one observer:

"These types of attacks or other means of intimidation . . . serve as unnerving deterrents [in Russia]. And in a few cases, in recent years the violence in the country has escalated into contract killings. Corruption is widespread and the government functions poorly, but most journalists and nonprofit groups shy away from delving deeply into these problems." (Levy 2010)

One plausible estimate holds that over one hundred newspaper reporters and editors have been murdered since 2000 in Russia.

5.3 The Microlevel Arena
Inconsistencies and conflict within state agencies of social control occur at the microscopic level of analysis. In one of our field projects, we interviewed a former Communist Party member who had worked as a censor for the Ministry of Information in a former Soviet Republic. He was interviewed six years after the dissolution of Soviet Union and the subsequent independence of its autochthonous republics. We had been given the respondent’s name by other oppositional activists, with the clear implication that he was known for his quiet activism within the ministry. In his words:

"I did what I could. There were people we answered to, and we were watched and had to be careful. But, for example, when, my boss was on vacation or had other projects, I could let things pass that otherwise would not go [books, collections of poetry, magazine articles]. I had to be cautious. One did what one could. I was not a hero. Some people were without fear, but I had a family and children and had to take care of them, but I did what I could within the system. I had decided that I could be more use working within the system."

The quote was initially used to support observations about the forms of hidden resistance in repressive states (Johnston/Mueller 2001) in the vein of Scott (1985, 1990) and Bayat (1997, 2003, 2013). It remains a poignant statement, yet, at the time, comprised but one piece of the evidence for the claim of a small but pervasive subterranean opposition (see the next section). It is a finding that we stand by in what can be characterized as a weapons-of-the-weak perspective to political opposition, but we now see there was much more going on, namely, the regime and its opposition exist in a dynamic relationship that extends to microscopic, quotidian levels of individual agency within agencies of social control.

We encountered this again several years later, in the context of different project, during a conversation with a Syrian democratic activist (Johnston 2015). He was a physician who lived comfortably in his Damascus neighborhood. He had not hidden his opposition to the al-Assad regime, and his anti-regime activities were known to the Mukhaharat. One evening, an agent of the secret service (and neighbor) came to his house and told him that he would be arrested soon, and that he should flee as soon as possible, which he did. Now a resident of the U.S., he owes his safety, and that of his family, to this example of what we might characterize as the „porousness“ of the social control apparatus. My research in the former Soviet Union offers another example: one respondent described a member of the nomenklatura who sometimes participated in discussions among intellectual circles. When the talk went „too far“ politically, they would warn participants not to cross the line and put them in an awkward position.

These microlevel cases of conflicting interests among agents of social control are not uncommon, and they subtly create small openings for the opposition. The key insight is that authoritarian social control embraces multiple dimensions and a multileveled administrative apparatus. Most conspicuously, as the last examples demonstrate, it cannot be conceived as a hermetically sealed juggernaut of repression. Rather its porousness directs the analyst’s attention to consider the „arenas of play“ among activists and repressive agents created by these gaps. To date, these players and these levels of analysis have been undertheorized dimensions of the state and its opposition in the analysis of authoritarian systems.

5.4 Authoritarian Corruption
As second arena that permeates authoritarian states is web of bribes, shakedowns, and corruption upon which contemporary authoritarian regimes are built. At upper and middle levels of the state, opportunities for self-enrichment and the distribution of jobs, contracts, favors for family members, are powerful tools for mitigating overt political opposition. At the lower levels of state authority, many citizens find employment in the state-controlled aspects of economy (state-owned industries), administration (the various functions of the high-capacity state, such as health, education, welfare), the social control apparatus (police and army), and party administration. This creates a large pool of citizens whose interests reside clearly with the status quo, namely, a state regime where the rule of law and institutional checks and balances are weakened.

The effect is to create a climate in which the use of thuggery and state-sanctioned violence, as mentioned earlier, is tolerated by many. A second effect is a critical mass of citizens who remain quiescent about corrupt practices and who eschew political dissent. Kuran (1995) accords this public quiescence a critical role in the stability of East European communism. His concept of preference falsification describes a mass groupthink that operates to stifle communication about regime dissatisfaction (see also Ermakoff 2008).

Kuran reasons that fear of reprisals brings down a curtain of silence that keeps social actors from voicing their true thoughts and attitudes, which, in turn keeps those with moral and practical grievances locked in the perception that they are alone in their dissent. Yet, a main insight from an areans-and-players approach is that this curtain of silence is more correctly characterized as riven with points wear, and, often, outright tears, partly from imperfections in the weave (the topic of this section) and partly from constant pressure from small sectors of the population for whom quiescence is intolerable (the next section).

6. The resistance repertoire

Kuran’s (1995) analysis of the revolutions against communism lays stress on international developments – the rise of Polish Solidarity movement, for example, or the fall of the Berlin Wall – to account for how citizens elsewhere break their quiescence. Although international trends can play a role – as evident in how protest diffused in the Arab Spring – Kuran’s hypothesis of preference falsification misses three key empirical elements highlighted by a fine-grained arenas perspective: (1) the fundamental point of the previous section that the social control apparatus is never monolithic such that it hermetically seals off all dissent; (2) the fundamental point of this section that acts of resistance and protest are creatively carved out of interactions where social control breaks down and islands of freedom are claimed by innovative repertoires by dissident actors; and (3) points one and two are related in a strategic field of play that evolves and develops over time. The various actors – in the agencies of state security and the activists they pursue – monitor each other and seek advantage.

Kuran also deemphasizes how the creative actions of dissidents serve to „trigger“ changes in the prevailing discourse, a central concept in Gamson/Fireman/Rytina’s (1982) seminal analysis of how quiescence is transformed into collective action.

Triggering is a parallel concept to the classical social-psychological concept of risky shift, which traces how the surface tension of group conformity can be broken by open discussion as opposed to conformist pressures fueled by silence. For the shift to occur, often the outspokenness of just one or two members is sufficient. Gamson/Fireman/Rytina’s (1982) focus-group exercises demonstrated that outspoken group members are critical to fomenting rebellion in small group settings. Applied more broadly to repressive contexts, several groupings occur time and time again whose actions erode public quiescence. Their collective actions comprise a key element of the resistance repertoire, and can help bring more participants into collective action. The more that participate, the more recognizable repertoire as movements gain momentum.

6.1 Triggering Groups
It is plausible that in any given population there are some citizens who, by virtue of character, personal commitment, but mostly because of their embeddedness in a network of dissident social relations, are able to manage their fear (socially) and take greater risks (collectively) for their principles. In Hungary, 1956, there were vanguard students who first raised their voice of dissent, which found wide resonance. In the late 1970s in Poland, workers and small groups like KOR and ROPCiO increasingly challenged deteriorating economic conditions, leading to the independent Solidary union in the summer of 1980. Also, in the Soviet Union, dissident intellectuals, artists, and writers began to voice their criticisms in the late 1970s. For these, the atmosphere of state corruption, censorship, and the unjust and unequal application of the law were especially stifling of their creativity, principles, and moral commitments that motivated their work.16

There was a poignant example from the waning years of Soviet power that circulated widely among activist circles. A group of students targeted a statue of Lenin in the central plaza of Kaunas, in the Lithuanian SSR. The statue portrayed Lenin’s iconic monumental pose: a determined countenance, an outstretched hand beckoning to the working classes, and his other hand behind his back. The students’ clandestine raid in the early morning placed a mound of excrement in Lenin’s outstretched hand, and a loaf of bread in his hand behind his back. The symbolism was clear: the Communist Party offers load of sh_t, and it does not even deliver on the bare necessities of life. It did not take long for authorities to bring the statue back to normal, but not before thousands saw it on their way to work in the morning.

This is just one example of triggering actions aimed at reminding the broader population that (1) there is an opposition out there that is willing to take risks; and (2) with guile and creativity, oppositional statements can be made public. Such symbolic actions are important components of the resistance repertoire, and we encountered numerous forms in the course of our research: the placement of flowers, flags, crosses, candles, and so on, in symbolic locations. Flowers appeared at the gates of the Gdansk shipyard to commemorate the anniversary of the deaths of striking workers. In Lvov, Ukraine, flowers appeared on the anniversary of the republic at the site of a statue of a national hero (Johnston 2006). The painting of political graffiti, usually a collective action rather than an individual one, is also a display of opposition. Political graffiti were common sights in Latin American authoritarian regimes, in Egypt during the Arab Spring, in the Iranian democracy movement in 2009, and in Syria before the civil war. In China responses to corruption among officials often receives instant criticism on the internet. Nepotism and the abuse of power were immortalized in the name „Li Gang“ after a young man involved in a car accident, for which he was at fault, tried to scare off the gathering crowd by shouting, „My father is Li Gang.“ The phrase went viral on the internet and became a symbolic expression of the abuse of official power and the growing wealth gap. In China and Russia, by taking advantage of a mix of censorship and openness online, dissidents – and even everyday net users – are able to creatively circumvent official oversight and maintain an occasionally influential online public presence (Johnston/Carnesecca 2014).

6.2 Duplicity
A key element in the resistance repertoire is its use of duplicity. Research projects in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe17 have shown how duplicity permeates public discourse. A frequent statement from respondents is that there is a „double-mindedness“ to talk at work and in official functions such as neighborhood, school, or party meetings. One learns not to speak one’s mind publicly, but to guard one’s words and monitor reactions. However, among trusted friends and in circles of acquaintances considered safe, with careful vigilance to who is participating, one can „speak the truth.“

In Leninist regimes, this double-mindedness permeated select official organizations, such that their legal status served as an excuse to carve out centers of oppositional speech. Members gathered, talked, and sometimes took part in activities that pushed the limits of what the regime defined as acceptable. These groups used public buildings, filed official budgets and political reports, but their activities frequently had an implicit oppositional character. People who were private opponents of the regime flocked to these activities as locales where quiescence was transcended. The key point is that, although not numerous, such groups and organizations occur throughout repressive states as free spaces of guarded oppositional talk. The double-speak of public discourse is suspended temporarily in such settings. These findings also indicate that Kuran’s concept of preference falsification requires an important qualification, namely, that although it may be the prevailing rule for public discourse for most of the population, there are segments of the population for whom it is not. Oppositional talk, we suggest, is a function of specific social contexts and speech situations (Johnston 2005). It is the most fundamental manifestation of „street politics,“ and „weapons of the weak“ as noted by Bayet (2001) and Scott (1985).

In our fieldwork in several former authoritarian regimes, respondents had no trouble identifying groups and organizations known for their veiled oppositional milieu. Social and recreational groups sometimes perform this role (folk-dancing groups, ethnographic study groups, folk music groups, local historical societies, and drama clubs). It is also common that religious organizations are covert centers of veiled political activity: churches in the Philippines, South Korea, El Salvador, Nicaragua, GDR, Lithuania, the Ukraine, and, of course, in Poland, where the Roman Catholic Church played a central role in the development of the Solidarity movement; Buddhist temples Tibet and Myanmar; Sufi orders in Chechnya, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s political conflict, and the outbreaks of Syrian violence in 2000. Finally, intellectual and artistic groups are often sites of political discussion (jazz circles, literary salons, book clubs, theater groups, cinema societies, and language study groups). Like dissident networks, they cluster here because members’ creativity and/or inquisitiveness are stifled by the authoritarian state.

6.3 Creativity
Many symbolic protest actions in authoritarian settings stand out by virtue of their creativity.18 Movement leaders and activists strategically select tactics that can reduce the fear of participants, such as in Belarus in 2011. Security personnel had difficulty breaking up protest actions by students who gathered publicly to clap or set their mobile phones to go off simultaneously. The cacophony of ring tones said nothing overtly about political protest, but that it was organized and accomplished despite police presence was enough of a political statement. Like the examples mentioned earlier, such an action will not bring down the regime, but rather its importance lies in how it communicates broadly that participants are unwilling to remain quiet. Also, the use of mobile phones and microblogs for protest coordination point to how activists can stay one step ahead of the security forces through technical expertise and innovation, something that the police – mostly low-paid and uneducated – typically do not have.

In China, the state recognizes the oppositional potential of the internet, social media, micro-blogs, as well as the sophistication of high-tech activists in circumventing the Great Firewall that the state has thrown up around the internet, search engines, and micro-blog platforms. Such restrictions were the root cause for Google pulling out of China in early 2010, and the banning of Twitter and Facebook in 2009, all to be replaced by homegrown alternatives that are easier to control. As a result, one dissident’s first post on the Chinese platform, Shou, was purged within five minutes (Ansfield 2010). That same year, the entire region of Xinjiang, where anti-Han riots occurred in July, had its internet service completely blacked out for more than six months. Even so, with creativity and guile, activists can challenge the censor-state.

On the one hand, news of political turmoil is routinely repressed in China. Riots in Lhasa or Urumqui find no space in Chinese dailies. The State Ministry of Propaganda sends out weekly lists of the stories that cannot be covered in print and broadcast media. During the 2011 popular mobilizations in Egypt, newspapers, broadcast media, and Internet in China were mute on the subject (Wong/Barbosa 2011). On the other hand, the complexity controlling internet outlets means that censorship is circumvented because of creativity takes advantage of ineptitude. To take one example, a classified advertisement appearing in the Chengdu Evening News gave homage to the mothers who lost children at the Tiananmen Square massacre. The meaning of the ad slipped by the staff: „Saluting the strong mothers of victims of 64“ was its cryptic text. Six-four is a common shorthand for the repression on June 4 (6-4), 1989, when hundreds of students were killed by the People’s Liberation Army. The advertisement referred to those few mothers who, despite an absolute ban on speaking of the massacre, have continued to call for an investigation. It seems that the young woman who accepted the ad was unaware of the significance of the „64“ reference, and was told it was the date of a mining disaster when she asked the person placing the ad. News of the defiant ad went viral on the Internet before censors were able to intervene. The Ministry of Propaganda had the final word, however, because three editors at the newspaper were fired in retaliation.

For reporters and editors, there are always a few who are willing to see how far they can creatively go in pursuit of journalistic freedom. In June 2010, Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis Daily), a paper in the Pearl River Delta region known for its provocative editorials and investigative journalism published a cartoon that also made veiled references the Tiananmen Square massacre. The blackboard image drawn by a child (the cartoon was one of several commemorating International Children’s Day on June 1) depicts a lone figure standing in front of a line of tanks and suggests the well-known photo from 1989, when a sole student protester attempted to block the advance of tanks towards the square to clear protestors. The cartoon (figure 1) was removed after the image began to circulate online with comments about Tiananmen Square events. Note that in the upper left of the chalkboard there is also a torch that replicates the one held by the iconic Goddess of Democracy at the Tiananmen demonstrations (the other notations also are indirect references to the student movement, see Earp 2010). The point is that, like the news blackout of anti-Mubarak protests, the regime attempted to strictly enforce silence about events surrounding Tiananmen Square protests, but cracks in the system open opportunities to creatively circumvent censorship.

These examples provide good characterizations of the relationship between state and opposition at local levels of the authoritarian state. We see it reported perhaps more frequently regarding press freedoms because Western reporters in China, Iran, Russia, and elsewhere, are especially attuned to media issues. But the general conclusions are that small openings and cracks occur (1) because of the heroism of some actors, such as reporter Shi Tao, who was sentenced to a 10-year prison term for e-mailing to the West the Ministry of Propaganda’s directives about Tiananmen Square coverage. (2) Free spaces occur because of mistakes, ineptitude, complexity, and the huge task of implementing total control in complex societies. (3) They also are carved out through the complicity of some agents who, as small acts of rebellion against quiescence and pervasive control, let prohibited material pass. (4) They occur because of the inherent creativity of activists who can find ways to evade restrictions that the authorities never contemplated, for example, the fascinating case of Chinese internet phenomenon of the „grass mud horse“ which went viral several years ago.19 In all these cases, the effect is not so much giant strides in the political opposition, but rather keeping alive among the populace, frequently outraged at the small everyday injustices and encounters with official corruption, the hope that a political opposition is out there.

7. Conclusion

Keeping this hope alive is important for transitions to more democratic governance. The more that high-capacity authoritarian states tolerate these small and creative forms of protests, the more they run the risk of more public and broadly supported protest actions in the future – the proverbial slippery slope from the regime’s point of view. Moreover, in the arena where various agencies of social control confront the creativity of the resistance repertoire, the long-term advantage would seem to reside with the activists, a suggestive hypothesis for further research. Social science has produced an extensive literature on the more recognizable collective action forms of protest mobilization as repressive states crumble, but the focus of this essay has been on the less apparent foundations that activists lay before the modern repertoire begins to appear more broadly and more publicly. The creative and duplicitous collective actions discussed in these pages represent those first whispers that, indeed, the Emperor has no clothes, thereby planting the seeds from which broad-based social movements demand expanded rights in repressive contexts.


1 Dong/Kriesi/Kuebler 2015; O’Brien/Li 2006; Straughn 2005.

2 Alimi/Bosi/Demitriou 2012; Bosi/Demitriou/Malthaner 2014; della Porta/Gbikpi 2012; Soule/King 2008.

3 Goldstone 2001; Fligstein/McAdam 2012; McAdam/Boudet 2012.

4 Hoover/Kowaleswki 1992; Lichbach 1987; Moore 1998; Soule/Davenport 2009; Rasler 1996; Clarke 2011.

5 della Porta 1995; della Porta/Reiter 1998.

6 Cingranelli/Richards 1999; Davenport 2005b; Regan/Henderson 2002.

7 Varon 2004; Zwerman/Steinhoff 2005.

8 This article revisits data from several earlier research projects and collaborations on opposition movements in authoritarian states as well as several current field studies and comparative studies (Johnston 2005, 2006, 2015; Johnston/Aarelaid 2000; Johnston/Carnesecca 2014; Johnston/Snow 1998). We shift the emphasis from successes won from oppositions’ creativity to how resistance unfolds in relation to gaps in the repressive repertoire. Some successes may even occur from facilitation – sometimes subtle, sometimes more direct – that occurs because of the complexity of the social control apparatus. This is a feature of authoritarian social control that is undertheorized in the literature, and which this article explores.

9 Boudreau 2004; Schock 2005; Slater 2010; Ortiz 2013.

10 Tilly observed that Mancur Olson once described the concept of repertoire as a „dangerous idea”, no doubt because of its implications of cultural and ideational influence, which were at odds with prevailing interest-based theories in sociology and political science about collective action.

11 Kitschelt 1986; Koopmans/Kriesi 1995; Kriesi 1995; McAdam 1999.

12 Research on state-protester interaction in repressive settings has long recognized a „prevailing strategy“ of social control (Koopmans/Kriesi 1995) that tolerates some groups and activities, and crushing others, as part of a general repressive policy. China’s control of the Internet and the recent crackdown on virtual private networks might be said to be examples. Other examples are the Philippines, where the Marcos regime tolerated moderate activists, which allowed a network of civic groups to develop and push for policy reforms (Slater 2010). In comparison with the armed insurgency in the countryside, civic groups were cast as people the regime could work (Boudreau 2004). In China, Cai (2010; Cai et al. 2015) found that the regime tolerates small-scale, local protest events, called „troublemaking tactics“ by authorities, but does not allow broad challenging fronts on social issues to develop. Ethnic-minority collective action is strictly forbidden, nor are any challenges – direct or implied – to the Communist Party.

13 Belkin/Schofer 2003; Nepstad 2015: ch 7; Pfaff 2006; Powell 2012; Quinlivan 1999.

14 This is the current strategic interaction occurring at various administrative levels in China, as the General Secretary Xi Jinping seeks to control widespread official corruption and bribe taking (Buckley 2013).

15 Davenport 2005a; Earl 2006; White 1993.

16 A highly risk-tolerant group is composed of students and youths. This generational pattern is probably because of cognitive orientations characteristic of young adults that makes them more fearless and passionate (Johnston 2011), and for reasons of social location and freedom from family responsibilities. These activists are noteworthy because they take great risks to perpetrate seemingly small symbolic acts of defiance against the regime.

17 Johnston/Snow 1998; Johnston/Tart 2000; Johnston 2006.

18 Related to duplicity, protest actions in authoritarian settings are often creatively duplicitous.

19 In early 2009 animated video to a children’s song about a mythical „grass-mud horse“ went viral in China. A fictional nature documentary about the creature did too, and blogs about the grass-mud horse’s struggle against the evil river crab spread widely across the internet. In Chinese, „grass-mud horse“ sounds very similar to an especially foul obscenity. The word for river crab is hexie, and can be pronounced to mean both „harmonious“ or „river crab.“ Building a „harmonious society“ is a central theme of Communist Party leadership, but bloggers have used „river crab“ to signal instances of hypocrisy or corruption by state actors. Government algorithms did not detect the duplicity because the phonetics of „grass-mud horse“ and „river crab“ were written in different characters. „Scenes of alpaca-like creatures romping to Disney-style sounds of a children’s chorus quickly turn shocking – then, to many Chinese, hilarious – as it becomes clear that the songs fairly burst with disgusting language“ (Wines 2009). The grass-mud horse became an icon of resistance to censorship in China.


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Der Autor/The Author

Hank Johnston ist Professor am Department of Sociology, San Diego State University (USA) sowie Gründer und Herausgeber der Fachzeitschrift »Mobilization: An International Quarterly«.