China is an authoritarian state with different sophisticated strategies for dealing with popular contention. Research shows that the Chinese state sharply distinguishes between popular protests on materialist claims and those on nonmaterialist claims, but it is rarely recognized that in China civic activism faces a dramatically different political environment than noncivic activism. While the distinction between civic and noncivic activism has seldom played an important role in differentiating state strategies in democracies and some other authoritarian regimes, I contend that the Chinese state has developed sharply different strategies based on this distinction throughout the history of People’s Republic. To account for different strategic patterns, we need to investigate the functions that different types of popular collective action can fulfill and the threats they may pose to the regime. Using labor and feminist activism as examples, this article examines the evolution of the space for civic and noncivic activism in three historical periods—Mao’s era, the Reform era, and Xi’s era. It elucidates how regime transformations interacted with the nature of claims to produce different political environment for popular collective action in China.

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Author notes

* For helpful comments, I thank Greg Distelhorst, Diana Fu, Junyan Jiang, Jonathan Unger, and the participants of conferences at the University of Zurich, National Chengchi University in Taipei, and San Diego State University. The work was partially supported by a grant from the ResearchGrants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China (Project No, CUHK 14617517).

Xi Chen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Please direct all correspondence to the author at