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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.1 (2001) 245-252

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Contending the Popular:
Party-State and Culture

David S. G. Goodman

Consideration of the “popular” in the contemporary People's Republic of China (PRC) immediately confronts the methodological problem of universalism, as the essays in this issue demonstrate. The popular has certain connotations in the societies from which our analyses emanate that may or may not be commonly applied in and to contemporary Chinese society. It is, for example, often equated with both democratic and demotic developments, both of which are highly contested discourses in post-Mao China, not least because of their apparent Westernness.1 The concept of popular culture may be similarly challenged, though perhaps differently, not least since in that usage popular is more than simply an adjective, as both Li Hsiao-t'i and Jing Wang make explicit.

Academic inquiry, and particularly its language, must necessarily assume this universalism even as it dissects the popular and associated phenomena in [End Page 245] order to assess whether and to what extent such assumptions might be justified. All societies are suis generis. Nonetheless, the application of generalized concepts and approaches can help characterize a society by identifying the similarities and differences against such implicit yardsticks. The end result might conceivably be a justification of this universalism, but it is perhaps more likely to identify differences that will require the amendation of concepts and theories if their general explanatory power is to be maintained.

The constant need to adjust concepts and approaches as the focus of comparison widens is particularly important at present when considering the interactions of political, economic, social, and cultural change in contemporary China. Post-Mao China has coincided with dramatic political changes internationally, especially during the last decade, that have all but universalized the project of modernization around a single model. It has become increasingly difficult to inquire, as was once extremely fashionable, about the convergent or divergent trends in the various patterns of relationships between state and society.2 Convergence is now more or less assumed as a corollary of internationalization, with debate focusing on different paths and stages of development.3 All the same the homogenizing impact of globalization may yet prove to be an overstatement, with convergence appearing either somewhat premature, or a function of the level at which generalization is attempted.

These prefatory comments are in many ways the necessary background to the question raised by some of the articles in this issue and by discussions at the workshop where they were first presented, as to the relevance of theory developed in a European context of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social and political revolutions to China's still–Communist Party state and largely agrarian version of postsocialism. However, they also highlight some other key questions that attend the discussion of the development of contemporary popular culture, as well as some of the assumptions made in some of the descriptions of those developments. In particular, they draw attention to the changing relationships between politics and culture, and the identification of new agents of cultural change, as well as to the nature of the Chinese state's authoritarianism and the timing of its developmental process.

The post-Mao era, and even more the period since Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched themselves on their reformist [End Page 246] path at the end of 1978, has seen significant changes in the relationship between politics and culture. Necessarily, this relationship has changed in response to the CCP's adjustments to its ideology. However, at the same time writers, artists, and the producers of culture were not slow to exploit the opportunities these changes permitted, and indeed by effectively lobbying ensured increasingly greater scope for their activities.4 Perhaps the most important change was that which altered the system of political censorship from an active vetting before publication to a more passive regulation after the event.5 Particularly during the 1990s, after Deng Xiaoping's Excursion to the South in 1992 and its provision of further direction to the reform...


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