Monday 24 September 2012


One of the facets of studying modern China that fascinates me greatly is the apparent tendency towards exceptionalism in Western Sinology and the backlash from other social science disciplines. Is there something unique and significant about China's developmental story - or is it, in its fundamentals, just a repeat of what has been before?

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.

Here is how the economist and expert on China's banking system Victor Shih describes the necessity for - and political risks of - financial reform:

"Why does China have an economy that is highly unequal and dominated by the state? Despite economic reforms that liberalized goods markets and the labour market, the state continues to hold a tight grip over most of the financial institutions. The financial sector in essence takes money from foreign exchange earnings and from household savings and channels it to state-owned firms controlled by the central or local government. Having little choice, households in China must deposit money in the state banks, and when there’s inflation as there is today, they earn a negative real interest rate from the banks because the government fixes deposit rates at a level that is below inflation.

Meanwhile, real estate developers with political connections and large state-owned enterprises can borrow money at interest rates that are near zero in real terms. In effect, the Chinese financial system channels wealth from ordinary households to a small handful of connected insiders and state-owned firms. To be sure, other Asian countries have also pursued this state-led financing model. But China has pursued it for the longest period of time."

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.

But the book is also a reminder that the Chinese state resisted democratisation with "divide-and-rule" tactics that kept the masses relatively isolated from eachother, and that late Imperial advances towards liberal democracy can be perceived as having fuelled the tortured, drawn-out fragmentation of China, rather than having acted as a unifying force. 
Barrington Moore Jr.

For Moore, the institution of the family preserved the traditional pattern of life in Imperial China in the following way: families pooled their resources to finance the studies of their most academically able members; the ablest members would then sit examinations in order to acquire a post in the imperial bureaucracy; bureaucrats used their position to extract resources from those who lived under their jurisdiction ("formally illegal but socially accepted corruption"); and they used this wealth to buy up land to repay their relatives, thus closing the circle.

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.

In other words, if China had started to industrialise only a short while earlier, when the authority of the central state was stronger, the emergent bourgeoisie might have placed their bets with the centre and helped to reunify a fraying empire. But, following the Opium Wars, the arrival of industrialisation was oriented towards restless provincial authorities, and so exacerbated a process of political fragmentation already underway:

"The main Chinese push toward industrialisation came from provincial foci of power, with very little input from the Imperial government... Commercial and industrial elements on the make can be expected to turn for protection to whatever political groups have real power. If it is the king, well and good; his power will wax. If it is a local official, the opposite will be true."

Moreover, landowners restricted the expansion of market activity by turning into rentiers, rather than entrepreneurs:

"There was no rapidly growing urban population with at least moderately diffused and increasing prosperity that could act as a stimulus to rationalised production for the market... If his [landowner's] farm were in the neighbourhood of a city, it was much simpler and easier for him to sit back and rent his land to peasant tenants, letting the competition for land drive up his income with very little effort on his part... Economically this process meant the growth of absentee landlordism near the cities. Sociologically it contributed to the partial fusion of sections of the former gentry and the wealthier elements in the cities."

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:

"One may perceive at some point the development of estates, what German historians call Stande, status groups with a substantial degree of corporate identity and publicly recognised immunities that they defended jealously against other groups and especially against the crown... The Chinese landed upper classes did not develop any significant principled opposition to the Imperial system."

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:

"One the one hand, it needed greater revenue to put down internal rebellion... On the other hand, it could not obtain this revenue without destroying the whole system of gentry privileges.... Raising the government's revenues would have made necessary the introduction of an efficient system of taxation and putting an end to the officials' habit of pocketing the lion's share of what the government took from its subjects. Thus the government would have had to eliminate a major source of the gentry's income and encourage the growth of a social class that inevitably would have competed more and more successfully with the gentry. As long as the government itself rested on the gentry, such a course was most unlikely."

Late Imperial and early Republican China was a society "in which commercial influences were eating away at the peasant proprietorship and concentrating wealth in the hands of a new social formation, a fusion between parts of the old ruling class and new elements rising in the cities." And yet the old ruling class remained a check on the rising elements: "Moneymaking activities represented a dangerous threat to the scholar-officials because it constituted an alternative ladder of prestige and an alternative ground of legitimacy for high social status."

The perceived gulf between rulers and ruled was only exacerbated by the gentry's traditional disdain for manual labour:

"The government and the upper classes performed no function that the peasants regarded as essential for their way of life. Hence the link between rulers and ruled was weak and largely artificial, liable to snap under any severe strain."

By the second half of the nineteenth-century, the only effective link between the peasants and the upper class was the clan, which constituted the bedrock of "peasant conservatism." But the clan, in turn, depended on a decaying system of collective land ownership, which supported examination entrants and provided an informal welfare net for clan members in hard times.

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.

Consequently, "Chinese society was such as to make possible the creation of huge masses of human debris, tinder easily ignited by an insurrectionary spark. [...] The mass basis of the revolution...was a land-short peasantry." But, in a crucial passage, Moore emphasises that deprivation alone is insufficient for explaining regime change - there also needs to be a sense that indefensible deprivation is inseparable from the status quo, a loss of trust in the capacity of the prevailing system to reform itself:

"Massive poverty and exploitation in and by themselves are not enough to provide a revolutionary situation. There must also be felt injustice built into the social structure, that is, either new demands on the victims or some reason for the victims to feel that old demands are no longer justifiable. The decay of the upper classes in China provided this indispensable ingredient. The gentry had lost their raison d'etre and turned into landlord-usurers pure and simple."

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.

According to Skocpol, "agrarian bureaucracies" like traditional China were "inherently vulnerable to peasant rebellions", precisely because of the aforementioned blurred distinction between landlords and scholar-officials.

She also follows Moore in recognising that the timing of China's incipient modernisation meant that it fuelled centrifugal social forces already in motion, and that if China's industrialisation had begun a half-century earlier, "officials would never have been allowed to serve in their home provinces, and thus local and regional groups of gentry would have lacked institutional support for concerted opposition against central initiatives." Instead, all the political and administrative reforms of the late Manchu dynasty - including the establishment of provincial assemblies - were converted into new powers for the new gentry class.

Theda Skocpol
The forces that were centrifugal at a national level must also be conceptualised as centripetal forces at the sub-national level. China was breaking up because bureaucratic institutions that had until that time provided "at least the semblance of unified governance" were weakened, and the marketing communities - clusters of towns and villages that were the basic framework of a peasant's social existence - closed in on themselves, casting out landless members. It was a vicious spiral, as more out-migration fed in-migration elsewhere, undercutting of wages, indebtedness, impoverishment, and so on.

In short, it was a beggar-thy-neighbour strategy for trying to restore kinship and clan as meaningful economic units, which only strengthened the atomising pressure of commercialisation:

"Precisely because normal traditional Chinese agrarian-class relations were significantly commercialised, local prosperity depended upon overall administrative stability, and peasants were not cushioned against economic dislocations by kin or village communal ties."

Paradoxically, this made the Communists' task of peasant recruitment both more difficult and more rewarding: it meant that they had to penetrate rural regions much more deeply, right down to the most local social structures, in order to build a following, but it also meant that, once this penetration was achieved, they had a better chance of mobilising these relatively small and cohesive units.

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.

The scholar most closely associated with the study of Chinese marketing communities in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century is George William Skinner.

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:

"These Janus-faced "brokers" - whether cultural, political, or economic - operated at the level of the standard market town, not the village. It was the SMC that they linked to - or, depending on one's perspective - isolated from the institutions of the larger society... Insofar as the intermediate marketing system is a social community, it is normally one that excludes both peasantry and bureaucratic elite."

In other words, a self-conscious and exclusive stratum of "the gentlemanly elite and the merchants of the market town" mediated communication and influence between the state and the masses, and between rural and urban areas, in late Imperial China.

"The crucial negotations whereby "gentry" capital is invested in the...artisan manufacture and commercial enterprise of the intermediate marketing system and, on the other, the capital of the artisan and tradesman is invested in agricultural land and translated into the coin of social respectability - these dealings are carried the market towns."

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.

More pertinently, they show how the traditional Chinese gentry retained their power and authority during and after the collapse of the Qing dynasty by keeping Chinese society divided along various dimensions (e.g. rural-urban, intra-rural, intra-urban) and by masquerading as a unifying force at the level of the marketing community. In so doing, they forged a social equilibrium that, according to Moore, could have lasted a lot longer were it not for the exogenous shock of the Japanese invasion.

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:

"The system was highly exploitative in the strictly objective sense of taking more out of the society in resources than it put back in the form of services rendered. On the other hand, because it had to be exploitative in order to work at all, it also had to leave the underlying population very much to its own devices."

A NIMBY 'stroll' through Qingdao to oppose a
substation being located there

Furthermore, we can detect in the writings of Minxin Pei (a consistent critic of China's present-day state-led model - which he calls "crony capitalism with Chinese characteristics - the marriage between unchecked power and illicit wealth") the same close relationship between political position and wealth accumulation that Theda Skocpol insisted made the Imperial state particularly prone to rebellions:

"Democratic transitions in developing countries are often triggered by economic crises blamed on the incompetence and mismanagement of the ancien régime. China hasn’t experienced that crisis yet. Meanwhile, the riches available to the ruling class tend to drown any movement for democratic reform from within the elite. Political power has become more valuable because it can be converted into wealth and privilege unimaginable in the past.

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 other lesson of history is that timing matters - if China's economy requires exacting structural reforms that will squeeze elite groups whose support the Party needs, it would be better for the Party if it embarked on those reforms while the state is still relatively unified, and it kept the middle classes fighting amongst themselves for access to the (albeit diminished) Party coffers. If it were to postpone reform until the economy had already slowed and latent divisions in society had resurfaced, it might drive the middle classes into the arms of one or another of those dissatisfied groupings and strengthen the forces of opposition.

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.


Haven't we been here before, though? Disgruntled students protesting for democracy (variously defined) against a backdrop of economic difficulties?

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.

This gave the protests a sense of urgency and drama, but it also led the protagonists to issue increasingly unrealistic demands and to  reject any compromise with the authorities. Their spirit was one of aiming as high as possible, not necessarily with any realistic hope of achieving their stated goals, but of making the maximum possible use of the freedom available to them while it lasted - since recent history had shown what the Party giveth, it can just as easily take away.

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):

I think that any substantial student-led democracy movement that emerged today would probably have more realistic and clearly-defined objectives (in this context, it is interesting to note that the exiled activist Wei Jingsheng criticised the Nobel committee's decision to give the Prize to Liu Xiaobo, whose 'Charter '08' Wei deems too tame), due not just to the fact that their strategic context has changed from one of "reform or reversal" to "reform or stagnation", but also because it could add to its ranks the most disillusioned of the ant tribes.

In Imperial China, families made financial sacrifices to put their most gifted sons through the examination system in the hope that they would recoup their losses by having a relative working for the Imperial bureaucracy. In the twenty-first century, Chinese families spend vast sums to send their ablest young men and women to university, but, in an increasing number of cases, the expectation of reciprocity is being revealed to be an illusion.

In the process, a vast amount of human capital is being wasted as the children of rural families find that they are earning less with their academic degrees (with too many graduates, following government policies to expand higher education, and too few graduate-level jobs) than the millions of uneducated rural migrants who have moved to the cities to work in factories and warehouses. Many of them are too ashamed to return home to find work and so they eke out a precarious existence in tightly-packed accomodation in the cities.

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.

Many ants remain optimistic that with enough hard work, they will break into the dream lifestyle of the middle class, and they often exaggerate their career successes to anxious relatives back home (although, in the long run, these high expectations could be just as damaging for the Party as despair, if the J-curve is to be believed).

According to a report on the ant tribe phenomenon in the Huffington Post: "

"The Chinese born after 1980 are among the most privileged generation in China's long history. Living after the communist government gave up the radical politics that tossed their parents and grandparents between chaos and penury, they have known only ever-rising levels of prosperity."

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.

What this means is that China's current political economy, while it has delivered record growth to date, has also fostered a class which, though still numerically small, is defined by the distance between its expectations and actually existing conditions. The ant tribes might be expected to play a significant role in any future protest movement that emerges and publicly challenges the authority of the CPC to enforce "business as usual." As Skocpol observes of revolutions in the modern era: "Radical leadership in social revolutions came specifically from the ranks of skilled and/or university-educated marginal elites oriented to state employments."

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.

Writing in Dissent about protests in China, Maura Elizabeth Cunningham and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom make the salient observation that:

"When a protest highlights division within the Chinese nation, it almost always draws swift and harsh retaliation from the government... Popular unrest of many kinds poses a dillemma for the Communist Party because of the story it tells about the first half of the twentieth century."

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.

Perhaps a combination of two things will finally make the Party's efforts to sustain the status quo untenable - a sharp or unsteady downturn in growth, and a widespread belief that the one-party state is detrimental, not conducive, to the idea of "One China." I think that the Party's pursuit of "business as usual" will be irreversibly damaged only when both these remaining sources of its legitimacy are broken - wealth and nationalism. One can imagine a scenario in which slower growth brings simmering societal tensions to the fore, and these are then transformed into collective political movements which, in turn, brings factional disputes within the Party to the surface.

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.

Put differently, parties - at least in theory, if not always in practice - can act as restraints on people wishing to speak underneath their banner, and they can prevent individual members making unrealistic, short-termist or inconsistent promises to the masses, which might come back to haunt the party's collective interests.

In his book Ballot Box China, Kerry Brown quotes a Chinese expert on China's village elections who stresses this point:

"There are no parties. People stand for themselves. So, in some senses, they are too free.... They end up a lot of the time as a total free-for-all. At least political parties would rein people in and discipline them a bit... Accountability is the biggest issue. That is the way you discipline democracy."

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.

Beijing's authority today, though not without its weaknesses (e.g. in tax collection), is far stronger than China's national powers in the early twentieth-century. It would be much harder for groups like the ant tribes to try to carve out an existence independent of the goals and priorities emanating from the top.

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.