Throughout the year the evidence of a slowdown in China's GDP growth rates has piled up - although some economists are still predicting this won't happen for a few more years, it now seems likely that China is nearing the limit, if it hasn't already passed it, of the growth rates it can achieve within the parameters of its political and economic systems.
Many commentators have suggested that factors such as China's ageing population lend urgency to China's development, so that, in per capita terms, the choice China faces is rapid growth or no growth, not low or moderate growth. Sustaining the high growth rates of recent decades over the long-term will require numerous structural transformations, the provision of effective public services, and reforms to China's financial sector which would threaten the party-state's capacity to hive off resources for patronage.
Put another way, a serious assault on corruption would give the CPC less leeway to buy off potential opponents in the middle and upper classes of Chinese society. As Minxin Pei has observed, China is the only country in history that has combined record growth with a record amount of non-performing loans (NPL).
An influential theory is that revolutions don't necessarily occur when one might intuitively think they would - that is, when conditions are at their worst - but rather when a gulf opens up between the expectations of the ruled and the capacity of the rulers to meet those expectations. This notion is usefully captured in the so-called Davies 'J-curve'.
If the J-curve model is correct, there is one group in China today that might be regarded as especially significant in driving the Party towards systemic reform - the large, and growing, number of unemployed or low-paid graduates eking out a subsistence existence in cramped urban lodgings, who believed that their degree is a ticket into the ascendant middle class.
There is a name for this new category - the ant tribe.
I am starting to think that China's ant tribes may have a significance in the future evolution of Chinese society far beyond their numbers - not in and by themselves, but by acting as a lightning rod for all kinds of other societal complaints and resentments. This is a point I will return to later.
First, I want to consider the reasons why China didn't go through a process of modernisation and democratisation equivalent to that which occurred in much of western Europe, facilitated by a rising and vocal middle class.
The first comparative study of China's modernisation that I want to examine is Barrington Moore Jr.'s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (summarised here).
According to the blurb of my Penguin edition, it "defines the course of change from agrarian to industrial state in the major countries of the world and demonstrates how the relationship between lord and peasant can, in various ways, produce parliamentary democracy, fascism or communism."
To most political science students, Moore's name will be synonymous with a pithy precis: "no bourgeoisie, no democracy." In short, Moore's argument is that, unlike in western Europe, Chinese landowners didn't respond to increased taxes by commercialising agriculture because they faced a different set of opportunities and political incentives. Therefore, China didn't develop a landed gentry independent of the centre which could form a legitimate opposition to the state when it resisted modernisation in response to domestic and foreign pressures.
Here are the fruits of Moore's comparative analysis.
|Barrington Moore Jr.|
In the absence of primogeniture, this was a way of preserving family fortunes: "Landed wealth came out of the bureaucracy and depended on the bureaucracy for its existence." And landlords tolerated official corruption because they knew they could rely on the forces of the state to suppress rebellious peasants.
Interestingly, Moore argues that changes in a given society's class structure will result in dramatically different outcomes, depending on the timing of such changes and the pattern of incentives they face at the outset of change. It is a classic situation of multiple equilibria - in theory, an identical event can happen in two societies (or in two historical periods in the same society) that, to begin with, differ only very slightly, yet the impact of that event can snowball in different directions and produce two very different societies.
Moreover, landowners restricted the expansion of market activity by turning into rentiers, rather than entrepreneurs:
It was because the Imperial bureaucracy remained the main route to attaining prosperity that the Chinese state lacked legitimate official opposition. Moore writes that historically, throughout Europe:
A legitimate opposition is something that the Manchu dynasty might have benefited from during the last half-century of its rule, when it confronted a similar dilemma to that which the CPC faces today:
The perceived gulf between rulers and ruled was only exacerbated by the gentry's traditional disdain for manual labour:
By contrast, villages in traditional China were relatively atomised social groupings: "The Chinese village, the basic cell of rural society in China as elsewhere, evidently lacked cohesiveness." One explanation for this is that there existed an ample supply of landless peasants who could move between villages to assist with labour-intensive rice cultivation, and since they could do it more cheaply, there was no requirement for mutual aid amongst fellow villagers - even if this meant prioritising labour exchanges between kinship groups.
The Japanese conquest was the "decisive ingredient" in China's process of regime change, as it drove the old officialdom out of the countryside and into the cities, leaving the peasantry free and undefended - this enabled "the elimination of the old elites and the forging of solidarity among the oppressed."
Theda Skocpol is another influential academic who has written about the Chinese revolutions of the twentieth-century in comparative perspective, in her book States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China - which originated as an article.
The Communists' most important contribution to the mobilisation of peasant resentments was to shield them from the landlords: "not a sense of grievances, or their ideological articulation, but rather simply protection from traditional social controls".
Here is a summary of Skocpol's comparison of the Chinese, French and Russian revolutions.
Skinner pioneered the extensive application of 'spatial analysis' to Chinese history, and specifically to the study of Chinese "standard marketing communities" (SMCs).
SMCs were more concentrated along the boundaries between counties and provinces - as shown by the annotated map below.
In an article - which would later become a book, Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China - Skinner argues that the key intermediaries between the rural peasantry and the Imperial state operated at the level of the SMC:
The SMC tended to be endogamous for the peasantry. Skinner writes that "Insofar as the Chinese peasant can be said to have lived in a self-contained world, that world is not the village but the SMC."
The book is full of fascinating maps and diagrams that show how different levels of SMCs coexisted and overlapped - and that indicate how the elites depended on these interconnections, as well as their being managed and regulated.
For our present purposes, I think the work of these three academics shows two things. At the general level, they show that - contrary to many mid-twentieth-century modernisation theorists - external conditions (i.e. how far later modernisers are behind the pioneers) matter just as much as internal ones in determining the direction of travel of developing states.
How does this inform our understanding of contemporary China's predicament? The earlier analysis regarding patronage and financial reform implied that China's one-party state depends on purchasing the allegiance of rising groups in society - and that it must do this without over-taxing the rest of society and threatening the economic growth that keeps replenishing the common pot. It is strikingly similar to how Moore sketched the workings of the late Imperial state:
|A NIMBY 'stroll' through Qingdao to oppose a |
substation being located there
At the moment, China’s economic growth is having a perverse effect on democratization: It makes the ruling elite even more reluctant to part with power. [...] At least for now, the party’s charm campaign is working: The social groups that are normally the forces of democratization have been politically neutralized."
|Lian Si: the man who coined the |
term "ant tribes"
The latter scenario is made more likely by several things - the power of vested interests in the Chinese state (reflected in CPC factions) to resist reform, the reduction of the Party's ruling ideology to the provision of a comfortable middle class lifestyle for all its people, and the growing presence of the ant tribes as an indication that, insofar as it keeps intervening to shores up the status quo (e.g. state sector-dominated stimulus packages), the Party is erecting systematic barriers to the attainment of even its own narrowly-defined vision for society.
Yes and no. I think that here is a crucial difference in the character of the student movements of the late 1980s compared with the pro-democracy currents inside China today, and - I would bet - on any significant bottom-up movement for change that emerges in the near future.
The difference is historical - it is based on the living memory of those who took part in earlier movements. In effect, the protests in the late 1980s took place during what seemed at the time to be a comparatively brief period of social and economic freedom, following decades of political instability and near-totalitarian social control.
You get an understanding of this historical dimension in the third and final instalment of the outstanding documentary series China: A Century of Revolution (it's worth watching in full, but the most relevant segment is from 53mins onwards):
For instance, the "capsule hotels" that found popularity with overnight travelling Japanese businessmen in the 1980s have found a new market amongst the ant tribes.
Many of these - such as the "Capsule Hotel Shinjuku 510" - opened some time earlier, but until recently they were only used to accomodate drunk people who'd missed the last bus home.
Here is an interesting discussion of the anxieties and aspirations of China's new middle class - and of those trying to join it:
The other thing about the ant tribes is that they are very web-savvy. They use available social media and online forums to try to make sense of the rapidly changing society around them, and of how it relates to their own predicament.
If the slowdown in China's growth is so pronounced as to generate a significant opposition movement, perhaps the same "unacceptable" gap between expectations and reality might open up for other segments of society. The ant tribes share concrete material interests with some of these groups; for instance, structural reform of the economy to dampen the speculation in real estate that is pricing them out of decent housing, and liberalisation of the hukou system of restrictions on internal migration, which prevents rural-urban migrants accessing state services. It is the combination of protests across classes or regions that so frightens the CPC - because it might divert middle class protesters from criticising government incompetence to posing fundamental questions about legitimacy.
The story is that the Party was founded after the student-led demonstrations that heralded the 'May Fourth Movement', and that they carried the hopes and dreams of the Movement through the long, dark years of Kuomintang rule to fruition and the unification of a divided nation after 1949. Thus the Party presents its having a monopoly of central governing power as a prerequisite for national unity, and the economic dynamism and international prestige that flows from it.
A basic problem faced by one-party states once they permit certain freedoms is that any grassroots opposition to their actions must be, by definition, non-partisan. This makes sense as far as it prevents organised and effective rival claims to legitimacy from emerging, but it also means that any opposition that does arise, and that could be interpreted as being political, does not do so under the kind of self-discipline that party structures impose on their individual members and representatives.
In his book Ballot Box China, Kerry Brown quotes a Chinese expert on China's village elections who stresses this point:
Numerous alternative trajectories are of course possible - my point is simply that the ant tribes share something important with the scholar-officials and landlords in China a century earlier, both groups being the potential basis for a new middle class society in their own time. It didn't work that way in the late Qing period because the centre was weak relative to the provinces, so the gentry had the opportunity to preserve traditional patterns of social existence in miniaturised form.
But nor does it seem likely that the Party will be able to continue to purchase the allegiance of all the most highly skilled and aspirational sections of society. In which case, we may see a rupture with more transformational consequences than comparable critical junctures and movements that have gone before.
Radical change needn't be revolutionary, nor will it necessary produce a form of liberal democracy that would be instantly recognisable in the West (for instance, China's rulers might adopt something like Daniel A. Bell's model of "Confucian democracy", with one elected chamber and one selected through examinations). Nevertheless, change seems to be unavoidable.
Judging from history, I'd bet that insect politics will be an important part of making that change happen.