Organized, visible, and overtly political challenges to authoritarian regimes have long been staple material for students of democratization. Students of South Korean democratization, for instance, focus on the minjung movement, while students of South African democratization study the political and military resistance of the African National Congress. But what happens when an authoritarian regime resolutely crushes any organized challenges to its rule? Is the only hope for democracy in such a country some combination of internal regime conflicts or international pressures?
Kate Zhou, a native of China who teaches politics at the University of Hawaii, asks this question with respect to authoritarian China and arrives at a novel conclusion: The everyday actions of more than a billion citizens whose energies have been unleashed by a post-Stalinist transformation of the economy and society there may be just as powerful a source of regime change. In their manifold attempts to carve out greater personal and group freedoms, Zhou argues, China’s citizens have decisively shaped the policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime, limited its power, and ultimately changed its basic nature. Since there is no turning back, China is likely on its way to a more liberal and possibly even democratic outcome through this process of “grassroots modernization.” “This social revolution is moving China towards a more liberal society, even while the government continues its illiberal and grasping mode of control” (xxii). In this account, it is Chinese society which acts, and China’s rulers who react. [End Page 173]
Zhou’s overarching thesis is an extension of her earlier work on rural China, which showed how individual peasants’ resistance to collective agriculture ushered in rural reforms. Here she considers entrepreneurs, migrants, journalists, homosexuals, and many other groups of freedom-seekers. The changes that she documents are profound and not widely appreciated. Somewhere between 150 million and 250 million internal migrants have broken down barriers to free movement and, precisely by remaining beyond official control, have revived many of China’s great traditions of street culture and self-help organizations. Private entrepreneurs, most of them incubated within the state-owned sector, have turned finance and commercial regulation upside down, and in the process have created China’s industrial boom. The CCP has found itself forced to perform ideological acrobatics to justify this sweeping privatization of the economy. Journalists, meanwhile, have deftly exploited the contradictions of information-control policies and the rising commercialization of the press in order to expand the limits of expression. China’s bloggers and hackers are actively working to tear down the walls of censorship and redefine the public agenda. China’s young and media savvy are more than just Václav Havel’s community of people who refuse to believe regime lies; today, they actively refute them.
These millions of actions, as described by Zhou, are a “movement” only in a metaphorical sense. For as she defines them, they are “spontaneous, unorganized, leaderless, non-ideological, and apolitical.” These actions, however, should not necessarily be viewed as “everyday forms of resistance,” and do not represent strategic alternatives to organized opposition to the regime. Rather the consequences that they impose upon the CCP regime are largely unintentional. While the grain-stealing paddy farmers of Malaya or the punk rockers of the late Soviet Union were making symbolic protests against their regimes, China’s grassroots modernizers are too busy carving out personal freedoms to even care about the regime. They could not give a fig if it stands or falls—a common attitude captured in China by oft-heard phrases such as “I don’t care about politics” or “politics doesn’t matter anymore.”
As Zhou shows, the CCP is today managing to stay in power only by staying afloat on an ever-shifting sea of individual freedoms. In the past, the sea did not shift, or it was simply drained. This is worth knowing. We need to understand the social context in which the CCP has been able to remain in power by changing its policies, institutions, and ideology.
Zhou is not the...