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11 C hapter 1 Uneven Modernity in Postsocialist China A Critical Inquiry The Way of heaven reduces surplus to make up for scarcity; The Way of man reduces scarcity and pays tribute to surplus. —Laozi, Dao De Jing On March 16, 2007, after numerous readings and revisions on large and small scales over fourteen years, the Property Law (Wuquan fa) was finally passed by the People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This law, the first such in the judicial history of the PRC, formally and explicitly legitimized the ownership of private property. Before this law took effect, only public property had been legally protected; such public ownership served as the foundational concept of China’s socialist polity. The claim of the Property Law to offer legal protection to public and private properties alike legitimized private ownership, and almost amounts to the amending of China’s socialist constitution.1 Coincidentally, around the same time, a spectacular story of a so-called nail house (dingzi hu) in Chongqing appeared; news of the incident was quickly spread by Chinese netizens, facilitated by the burgeoning Internet access in China.2 The overwhelming majority of netizens championed the nail house’s owners as heroes fighting against a hegemonic state and profiteering real estate developers; the incident became so prominent that it even caught international attention.3 Although the house was finally pulled down on April 2, 2007, after a long standoff, the incident gained symbolic significance as an example of individuals’ defiance against abuses of private property and personal rights by state power. Its political significance stood out more prominently in light of the passing of the Property Law a few weeks earlier; the incident was interpreted as a token of the Chinese people’s awakening to their inalienable rights as citizens, as promoted by the passing of the law. However, while the liberating effects of the Property Law were fervently discussed , concerns about the danger the law would generate also surged. Besides the 12 Uneven Modernity in Postsocialist China primary concerns about whitewashing of the assets illegally accrued, people also feared that in the newly capitalist world of contemporary China the official legitimization of private property would benefit big capitalists much more than it would the people, and that therefore it would further widen existing social inequality.4 In fact, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has already acknowledged the legal status of capitalists within the party who are playing increasingly important roles in formulation of economic policy. For the sake of development, capitalists’ interests are protected while workers are exploited in many places.5 People’s concerns are not ungrounded. Therefore, when the new Labor Law (Xin laodong fa), offering more protections to the interests of common laborers, was enacted in June 2007, it was applauded as a counterbalance to the Property Law. However, some people still worry that too much emphasis on equality may curtail the efficiency of development.6 Such debates reveal a theoretical ambiguity in narrating contemporary China. Is China not sufficiently capitalist, and therefore in need of further liberation? Or is China too capitalist and therefore in need of further controls? Chinese Liberals and New Leftists contend in this field, and are not even close to consensus. China’s developmental history seems to show that China has oscillated back and forth between the two opposing trends. The question is more than simply choosing between more left or right policies. It involves an innate paradox underlying the uneven developmentalism that defines contemporary China. In the nail house incident, the dilapidated two-story house with a national flag flying atop that perches on a lonely island, surrounded by the deep moat dug by the real-estate developer constitutes a striking image. The contrasts between the past and the future, the backward and the modern, the powerless and those that abuse power are concentrated into this one loaded moment. It is symbolic and symptomatic of the unevenness in many aspects of China’s breakneck modernization. China recently has been listed among the countries with the most unequal distributions of personal wealth. According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report 2009, China’s Gini coefficient has surged to a dangerous point of 0.415 (compared to 0.28 in 1983), meaning it is more unequal than most other countries in the world.7 As Maurice Meisner writes, “The most distressing result of China’s ‘socialist market system’ has been the frighteningly rapid growth of extreme social and economic inequality...


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