- State and Society in 21st-century China: Crisis, Contention, and Legitimation
Legitimation in contemporary China is negotiated, relational, and contested. Geared toward "re-conceptualiz[ing] the dynamics of early 21st-century Chinese politics" (p. 4), State and Society in 21st-century China provides empirical evidence that state-society relations in the present-day People's Republic of China (PRC) are multifaceted and often ambiguous. Framed by a coherent introduction and a comparative conclusion, the remaining eleven chapters capture the complex dynamics between various societal sectors and diverse segments of the non-monolithic Chinese state. By building on emerging studies that offer a rethinking of the analytical categories by which scholars understand China,1 this book makes a significant contribution to China studies in particular and to comparative politics more broadly.
In contemporary China, ideals of truth, benevolence, and glory help shape contestations between state and society over legitimation claims. While clearly explained in the introductory chapter, these three ideals are dealt with most comprehensively in chapter 1 by Vivienne Shue. Citing the importance of the "maintenance of the conditions in which the economy [develops]" (p. 29), Shue argues that the foundation of state legitimacy in twenty-first-century China is "stability" rather than the more conventionally touted "economic growth." Drawing from imperial history, Shue unpacks "stability" into three of its key components: truth, benevolence, and glory. While she links Confucian pursuits of truth to harmony, benevolence to society's material welfare, and glory to wealth and power, Shue also demonstrates the shifts made by ruling regimes to these three dimensions of stability in the drive to modernize China during the twentieth century (pp. 32- 34). On the basis of this argument, Shue shows that emergent popular religions, such as Falun Gong, with its counter-hegemonic claims of "Truth, Goodness, and Forbearance," directly challenge the state's own "logic of legitimation" (p. 40). Shue's insight that societal opposition in China is often focused on pushing the state to fulfill its own credibility premises and legal promises serves as an implicit theme that ties together this anthology's other chapters.
State legitimacy claims and societal contestations, however, reveal present-day China to be remarkably complex and diverse. In chapter 3, by Timothy B. Weston, and chapter 4, by Patricia Thornton, protest actions range from strikes by workers in the rust belt of the Northeast to anti-tax resistance among farmers across different regions. Collective action has developed into critiques of the central leadership's representation of ethnic minority interests, of its ability to guarantee [End Page 117] workers' and farmers' livelihoods, and of its "newly stated" commitment to rule of law (pp. 89-90). While some types of collective action indicate a "rejection of the Party of today in favor of the Party of old" (p. 68), others have "forced the Communist Party to take international standards and opinions into account" (p. 81). Locale, generation, and occupation play a role in determining societal contestations, as does the initiative of local cadres in supporting or directing protest actions due to self-interest, frustration, or confusion over conflicting national directives (pp. 97-98).
Conceiving different ways of understanding state-society relations means formulating diverse conceptual frameworks for analyzing legitimation claims and responses to them. While Dorothy Solinger's chapter 2 utilizes the notion of "the crowd" to understand the plight of furloughed workers, Kevin J. O'Brien employs the trope of "boundary-spanning contention" to examine how villagers "use the regimes' own policies and legitimating myths" to fight corruption in elections (p. 108). Supporting the book's goal to demonstrate the negotiated aspects of interactions between political actors in China, chapter 2 diagnoses the downward mobility of urban unemployed and laid-off (xiagang) workers as the cumulative result of state policies rather than market forces. In the same way that this new margin-alized underclass feels betrayed by the loss of its "iron rice bowl" social contract with the state, villagers distrust political officials...