- Accepting Authoritarianism: State-Society Relations in China’s Reform Era by Teresa Wright
A number of the most insightful and important books in the social sciences have been based entirely, or almost entirely, on secondary sources. The authors, rather than become engrossed by the myriad raw materials or on-site observations of primary research, instead sift through the published results of numerous studies and generalize and/or conceptualize on the basis of their findings. This is what Karl Marx and Max Weber normally did and, closer to our own time, what Barrington Moore did in Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966). Less grandly, it is also what the authors of textbooks normally do.
Teresa Wright follows suit in this new study of the situation and political attitudes of China’s various socioeconomic groups. Her previous scholarship included a study of Chinese and Taiwanese student movements based partly on interviews, so she is no stranger to primary research. However, in this book she entirely eschews such research and instead pores through secondary literature to build a broad picture of how each of China’s major occupational constituencies fares and how it perceives the government. [End Page 413]
She finds that for a diverse variety of reasons, every one of the constituencies looks favorably upon the central government. There is one reason that they all share in common: “The crucial factor is that in China, most citizens appear to believe that the authoritarian national government has facilitated the country’s—and, therefore, individual citizens’—economic rise” (p. 2).
Not surprisingly, the groups who support the government the most are those who have benefited the most from China’s economic surge—the businesspeople and professionals. The private business owners not only benefit from many of the government’s economic policies. More than this, many of them have close ties to local governments and are dependent on the state for their material prosperity. Furthermore, as a group, they are politically favored: Wright cites statistics showing that a higher percentage of businesspeople are Party members than among any other socioeconomic sector of the populace. The businesspeople prefer an autocratic Communist Party regime rather than democratization. As Wrights notes, “For private enterprise owners who have profited by paying low wages and by working their employees relentlessly, the political enfranchisement of the lower ‘class’ has been particularly undesirable” (p. 3).
Similarly, China’s educated professionals have benefited greatly from government efforts to privilege them with “a comfortable lifestyle and a higher socio-economic status” (p. 83). Since “professionals are part of the minority that sits at the upper level of China’s highly polarized socioeconomic structure, they have had little cause to support the political empowerment of the masses” (pp. 83–84).
This scenario goes against much of the social science literature about the political attributes the bourgeoisie has held historically. As Barrington Moore’s book famously concluded, “No bourgeois, no democracy.” In contrast, Wright’s summary of the findings about China lends support to the late development school of analysis, which posits that in late developing countries like China, where the state plays a direct role in fostering development, the capitalist and professional classes operate in tandem with the state. Ergo, this particular strain of bourgeoisie finds its interests served by opposing challenges to the statist status quo.
Several groups have reasons for complaint, but Wright concludes that they, too, are supportive of the current leadership. Notwithstanding the fact that state-enterprise workers have lost the guaranteed career-long employment and social status that they used to enjoy, they today receive benefits that are a legacy of socialism and thus regard themselves as occupying a better situation than other blue-collar sectors of the workforce. They realize “their livelihood has rested on the continued economic strength of the ruling CCP, … leading to a general warming of their political attitudes to the ruling...