This paper explores the selective and instrumental use of political opportunity in Chinese contentious politics through the study of a rural environmental protest. By considering the transmission of political opportunity through different levels of government, it also analyses the phenomenon of leakage of political opportunity. We argue that political opportunities can be divided into soft and hard types, which are weighted differently by activists. In the protest we examine, the villagers had various political opportunities at their disposal. They used them selectively, preferring the opportunities arising from changes to land policy, which were relatively hard and had a higher level of operability than environmental political opportunities—despite their grievances being largely connected with environmental damage. The hard, land-oriented opportunities, however, went through a process of leakage and then became merely symbolic, due to the local government’s manipulation of policy implementation. However, although they were well aware that the symbolic political opportunities were not genuine, the protesters still acted as if they were real and exploited them instrumentally.
- Environmental protest
- hard political opportunity
- soft political opportunity
- symbolic political opportunity