- Social Space and Governance in Urban China
David Bray’s Social Space and Governance in Urban China, a welcoming addition to the literature on contemporary Chinese society, is an unusual book. First, the book focuses on one of the most critical institutions of Chinese communism: the danwei system, which, in my opinion, most succinctly captures the ideals as well as the problems of the Chinese style of socialism. The book is not a case study of a particular danwei based on fieldwork, but squarely addresses the theoretical question of how this peculiar Chinese communist practice gradually emerged from Chinese traditions and in the process of contemporary experiences of urbanization, industrialization, and revolution. The book is a genealogical portrait of the uniquely Chinese communist system that has been gradually disappearing in the process of the ongoing reforms. The analytical tool used in the book is an innovative multidisciplinary approach that allows the author to draw upon insights from such diverse intellectual disciplines as urban planning, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, and political science. Furthermore, because it is based not on any new empirical data and evidence but on a careful reading of existing literature in diverse intellectual fields, the book is thickly interpretative rather than explanatory. Thus, reading the book is an intellectually enriching experience.
Since its contents are so rich and its arguments are so complex with theoretical themes running in many different directions, it is necessary to look at each chapter one by one.
In the first chapter, Bray lays down his analytical framework and key concepts, largely drawn from Michel Foucault’s works. The entire book is organized along the line of Foucault’s “genealogical method”: it is organized in a chronological fashion, not in a chronology of any particular institution, but a chronology of various events that Bray believes to have contributed to the evolution of the socialist danwei system in China. Each chapter thus adds new layers to the emerging shapes of the danwei system, eventually allowing readers to see the complex structure of danwei in its totality.
The other important concepts explicated in the first chapter and then referred back to in the concluding chapters are Foucault’s concept of governmentality, which defines the purpose, as the well range, of appropriate action for government intervention and disciplining, and the notion of space frequently used as means of [End Page 69] controlling the population and transforming social relations. In this context power refers not only to coercive forces but also to knowledge, both of which are essential elements of any institution that demands citizens’ compliance to its norms.
Two chapters address how the arrangements of physical space are related to the formation of subjectivity. Chapter 2 analyzes the spatial arrangement in a traditional walled capital city and a typical walled family compound that, the author argues, had incorporated a Chinese view of human relations and that in turn not only symbolized the Chinese orientation toward collective subjectivity, but also reinforced such subjectivity. In chapter 4 the author returns to the issue of social space by asking how urban planners have been dealing with governmentality in modern times. The case of urban planning in Paris intended to “regularize urban space as a service to modern capitalism” so as to better facilitate the “natural circulation of goods and men.” However, urban planning became a means of creating “revolutionary space” that would reflect transformed human relations for utopian socialists such as Robert Owen. What concerned the Soviet urban planners was how to create a new communal living environment that combined daily life with collective labor. All these different traditions were reflected in Chinese urban planning and architectural designs after the communist revolution. The underpinning of these two chapters is the assumption that the physical allocation of space is indicative of social space, which in turn reflects collective rather than individual subjectivity.
Two chapters deal with “governmentality” problems. Chapter 3 charts the emergence of the proto-danwei from two different genealogical perspectives. The labor and social organizations that Chinese industrialization...