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State-Society Relations in China – A Conference Report

Host: The conference was hosted by the Fudan Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Social Sciences and the Fudan University Contemporary China Research Centre

Conference Dates: 29-30 June, 2013

Conference Theme: State-Society Relations in the New Era: Lessons from and for China

Prominent Scholars in the Conference: From Mainland, some of the prominent scholars who spoke in the conference were Xu Yong (Dean and Professor of Central China Normal University), Kang Xiaoguang (Director of the Centre of Non-Profit Organizations and Professor of School of Public Administration, Renmin University), Xu Xianglin (School of Government, Peking University). The conference also saw speakers from Qinghua, Renmin University, Zhejiang University, Shenzhen University, East China Normal University, and Shanghai. Some of the non-Chinese scholars present in the conference were Joseph Fewsmith and Dorothy Solinger.

Topics Presented

The conference was very tightly scheduled with 7-8 speakers in one panel. Apparently Prof Guo Sujian (currently with IAS, Fudan and the chief organizer) revealed that he thought he mailed more than 60 scholars to participate in the conference so that at least 35-40 will turn up but to his surprise more or less all the speakers turned up. It was a conference which saw presentations on wide array of topics. As far as Chinese scholars are concerned some of the noteworthy ones were, ‘State Governance: A Theoretical Paradigm for the Study of China’, ‘Exploring the concepts of “State and Society” in Contemporary China’, ‘Theory of “Small Government, Big Society” Revisited’, ‘The Co-existence of Strong State and Strong Society: Drawing Inspiration from Alexis De Tocqueville’, ‘De-politicized Civil Society: A Three folding Analysis of State and Society Relations’, ‘The State-Society Relations beyond the “Wukan Incident”, why Violence?’ ‘What Influences the Behavior of Public Contention in Mainland China?’ As far as non Chinese scholars are concerned some of the interesting ones were ‘Governance Experiments: Adaptation and Innovation in Chinese State-Society Relations’ (Nele Noesselt, Research Fellow, GIGA Institute of Asian Studies), ‘In Lieu of Civil Society and Pluralism: How and Why the CPC Monopolizes Governance in the PRC’ (Josef Mahoney of East China Normal University, Shanghai), ‘Demographic Characteristics, Subjective Motivations, and Citizen Feedback in Online Chinese Policymaking’ (Steven Balla of George Washington University), and ‘Implementation of Environmental Transparency Regulations: when do Local Officials Block Central reforms to State-Society relations?’(Peter Lorentzen of UC Berkley). The writer presented a paper titled ‘Governance and Social Transformation in China’.

Gist of some of the Papers Presented in the Conference

Prof Xu Yong in his keynote speech spoke about the uniqueness of state-society relations in China and spoke about the 3 concepts of ‘market society’, ‘autonomous society’ and ‘network society’. He spoke about the increasing power of society in the reforms era and how this has led to increasing vitality of the state. Drawing parallels with the classical state-society separation paradigm he argued that in China societal growth is a positive factor addressing state defects. There are certain defects which are an offshoot of reforms but the state alone cannot tackle these problems. For instance, China has village committees (> 600,000) and urban neighborhood committees (> 100,000) and such committees are statutory for self-governance. These committees are intermediaries between the state and the society in China. This arrangement also has led to social networks at lower costs. However this has led o a very critical problem. Cadres working in these committees are not employed by the state and the use their own wisdom to solve social problems creating issues for the state. In the context of a ‘network society’ it was argued that the past twenty years have witnessed increasing growth of social autonomy and social organizations with the growth of technology and this networked society has brought in new set of complexities. In today’s networked society the state will have to confront public opinion and therefore one is seeing a gradual shift in the way the Chinese state is functioning vis-à-vis its society, that is, a gradual but clear shift from ‘mobilization politics’ to ‘responsive politics’ leading to calls for a changes in cadres and leaders’ responsibilities. In China, state-society relations are determined by the market logic of capital expansion and profit maximization. Expansion of a marketised state and company state has also led to increasing public power without adequate checks and balances and at times it has also led to privatization of public power in the form of abuse of power. The best example in this regard is the corruption in the railways in china. Marketisation has led to selfish pursuit of self interests driven by profit motives because of which there is a very large incoherence between individual goals and social goals. Lastly, Prof Xu pointed out that the rural migration to urban areas has led to a very strange phenomenon where urban dwellers have been completely left out of the civil society discourse. In fact, Prof Xu opined, ‘civil society’ is non-existent and an ‘imagined concept’ in China necessitating growth of illegal organizations to solve individual and collective interests. This also leads to possibilities of the state buying many of these groups to have ‘rigid stability’. Closely related to it is the possibility of occurrence of cases where the state may due to certain deficiencies fail to bur these organizations and the growing societal autonomy may over a period of time lead to ‘fundamentalism’.

One senior scholar (Xu Xianglin of Peking University) spoke about the current predicament of the party state in China by stating that it faces the dilemma of ‘to be or not to be’ and characterized current political situation in China as one facing the negative effects of transitioning. As a result the Chinese state is employing and investing a lot of political resources for what is called ‘stability maintenance’. He contended that one should not speak of political reforms in China in the same vein as one speaks of reforms in other democratic systems. He substantiated his argument by saying that democracy as a form of government is based on typology of governments which has been devised by scholars on the basis of theoretical paradigms designed by taking into consideration western social realities and thus based on social ignorance of ‘state capacity’. Therefore, he argued, the question to ponder for scholars of Chinese politics is ‘is it possible to use new models of state governance and then compare societies’ rather than having comparisons on absolute lines like ‘democracy versus dictatorship’. Consequently there is a need to diversify basis for governance which can take into consideration the core value systems of a society, nature of the market economy, and prevalent state-society relations. He characterized the current transitioning crisis in China as a function of the internal institutional crisis and concluded that in China state-society relations should be mutually augmentative.

In one of the presentations one Chinese scholar pointed out that the history of political culture of China gives us ample evidence that the state-society relations in China has seen more of successful experiments with centralization and therefore one needs to take the unique Chinese context ( historically and politically) when we discuss state-society relations in China. In the earlier eras China used to be a centralized imperial state covering all realms and the boundaries between the state and society was non-existent. However, there been a strong tradition of family and clans and therefore in this sense the state is family writ large. As a result the social realm in China was based on consanguinity and so the need to distinguish ‘publicness’ and ‘socialness’ in China with the latter connoting those ‘social acts’ which are committed in accordance with unquestioned respect to the imperial authority. In this sense ‘social autonomy’ has been historically non-existent in China. Therefore, it can be argued that it will be difficult for China to move from ‘socialness’ to ‘publicness’. Yan Jirong of Peking University in his paper spoke about how the Chinese government today is worried about the prospect of ‘civil society’ becoming a ‘society of mobs’ and how this has led to the Chinese government’s stress on’ political control and social management’. In this regard the dilemma of the Chinese state ranges from seeking to become a Leviathan to one becoming more liberal to the non state actors,(recent WUKAN incident is an example in this regard). Therefore, it is very crucial to have a healthy interaction between state and society on the basis of a more robust ‘public affairs management’. Closely related to this is the question of ‘good governance’ which among other things includes performance with concrete outcomes. To affect productive outcomes on the policy front it necessary not only to have a collaborative arrangement between state and society but also there should be proper co-ordination.

Yet another interesting presentation was the one on state-peasant relations in China which is determined at three different levels, namely, central, provincial, and grass-roots through the system of writing letters and the system of visits by higher authorities to the lower levels. Mention was made of how some of the non-state actors like some social groups are vocal proponents of the system of ‘letters and visits’. It was pointed out how some local governments were previously not concerned about the system of complaints through letters earlier but with letters of complaints and visits by higher level authorities to lower levels being used for cadre evaluation the local governments are becoming more motivated to deliver good governance in their respective constituencies.

In one of the papers Chinese scholar characterized the current Xi-Li political leadership as one which can be called ‘flexible authoritarianism’. The rise of the middle class and the marginalization of radical leaders are likely to give way to a system which would have the ability to absorb dissidence. Another scholar spoke about the decreasing dominance of the state over the society and how China has witnessed political innovation at two different levels, namely, ideational and institutional. (Huang Weiping of Shenzhen University). He spoke about the ideational innovation by mentioning how various attempts of political legitimization are made ex post factor in Chinese politics today). Speaking about institutional innovation the speaker mentioned about how village committees absorbed non-political members to non-political bodies. He also mentioned about Wang Yang’s idea to introduce free, fair and regular elections to show how state power has effectuated people’s rights.

Fudan University economist Jun Zhang in his talk titled’ Power Pedigrees of SoEs and Prospects for Reforms’ mentioned that with the establishment of the State Assets Management Commission (SAMC) for SoE reforms there has been a growing feeling that the SoE reforms have been a non starter and as a result the SoE managers are increasingly converting themselves to ‘pressure groups’ and seeking to influence decision makers and this can be empirically verified by the declining number of SoE managers in the Central Committee since 2002 NPC. This has coincided with diversification of new pressure and interest groups. In the recent times one has seen weakening of decentralization as a result of ‘recentralization measures’. Economists reckon in China that SoE reforms should necessarily have incentives but it would be very difficult to reach a certain degree of political equilibrium. Assuming that it would happen sometime in near future this would likely lead to redistribution of power leading to more opportunities for private players.

Papers by Non Chinese Scholars

Teresa Wright spoke about how the Chinese state today has successfully ensured a remarkably stable society and at the same time enjoy popular support. It has retained key communist features and at the same time adapted itself to changing demands by being moiré responsive to public. She mentioned three basic functions of a stable regime 1) satisfying key demographic groups 2) maintain economic growth and c) ensuring public provision of goods. Keeping in view the unique case of China, she spoke about the need to view regime types as a continuum of being >democratic and

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