In the past month, groups in China have been demanding that they be allowed to eat “Baozi.” Demands for these steamed buns – a common and ubiquitous bread-like food – were sparked by President Xi Jingpin’s visit to a bun-cafeteria in Beijing. His visit was part of a self-proclaimed effort on the part of the Chairman and his politburo to get closer to China’s 1.4 billion-strong ‘laobaixing,’ or ordinary people. But with China’s growing inequalities, and persistent public perceptions of corruption within his government, the Chairman’s visit instead rang out as a sign of the government’s continued isolation from the population.
With economic growth slowing and the cost of living rising, many Chinese families are finding their aspirations of joining China’s middle-class have been stifled. With economic inequality and income disparity in the country still high, there are signs of a growing sense of discontent among Chinese citizens that the existing system is not benefiting them. Despite the heavy censorship by Beijing, increased access to information through electronic media and greater mobility is revealing to citizens that, regardless of the economic reforms and the widely advertised ‘tigers’ and ‘flies’ anti-graft campaign, corruption within the government is rife, with a highly privileged political elite benefiting disproportionately from China’s economic growth. Following Chairman Xi’s chow-down at the eatery, demands for their right to eat the steamed buns were used by two groups to underscore their dissatisfaction. The groups’ grievances were as diverse as claims by residents for compensation for housing demolitions in Hangzhou city, to a small gathering of activists in Beijing protesting against corruption, falling living standards and hunger. In appropriating Chairman Xi’s effort and turning it on him by using the buns as a symbol of their common dissatisfaction, these protestors have been able to connect to each other through a common message, despite being separated by geography and differences in their precise demands. Knowingly or otherwise, these Chinese activists have been using one of the tools commonly used by non-violent social movements. But the power of symbolism in non-violent movements is just one of the reasons why they have been so effective throughout history and across the world.