As China prepares for a once-in-a-decade political transition, the country’s soon to be new leaders are facing a population increasingly willing to voice its opposition to government policies.
Take the southern city of Ningbo, for example, which is currently rocked by protests. Thousands of residents are speaking out against the construction of a petrochemical plant near their homes.
The number of such “mass incidents” is increasing, and it is directly linked to the growth of China’s middle class, says sociologist Wang Feng. He says as incomes rise, so do expectations.
“That is why we are looking at a society that has changed, and that is really ready for this individual pursuit and the rights of individualism,” Wang says.
Disputes over land ownership are a leading cause of social unrest in China, says lawyer Wang Cailiang, who represents land seizures victims.
"In 2003, in Jiangsu's Nanjing, there was the first self immolation for this reason, from that moment it started," he says. "People started to become more aware of their individual rights."
Wang meets with those who have had their land taken away by the government and developers. He says he’s not surprised the number of protests is increasing.
"Think about it, in a household when a house gets demolished, and they do not reach an agreement for compensation, at that point all the people around this household - the neighbors, the co-workers and family - they all feel a sense of humiliation. When this sense gets to a certain point, they actually gather together and that can get to a point of eruption," says Wang.
Discontent over corruption and taxes is another major issue. Last year, protestors in the eastern town Zhili torched cars and marched through the streets to protest taxes. In some cases, the government caved in to protesters’ demands, while simultaneously cracking down on instigators. China's government is debating ideas for when and how to reform.
“The current leaders are quite aware of them and have been talking about this for many years, they have just not been done," says sociologist Wang Feng. "So I think for the next leaders, they need to come in to really implement these bold reforms. Otherwise, well, time is running out.”
Delayed reforms can carry costs for China’s leadership. In Ningbo the local government promised to stop expanding the petrochemical plant pending a scientific debate. But by that time authorities had lost credibility, and it took days more for skeptical protesters to disperse.