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  • Evolving State-Society Relations in China:Introduction*
  • Fengshi Wu (bio)

This special volume attempts to enhance the understanding of a seemingly paradoxical pair of patterns in contemporary Chinese politics, namely, the resilience of the Communist regime and the robustness of social autonomy. The papers, while contributing to the central theme from different sectors/subfields, converge on the aspect where the agencies of the Chinese state and the society interact and exert influence on each other. Instead of simply giving away summaries and revealing intricate findings, this introduction focuses on the overall scope and shared analytical perspective of all the papers included, and the interlinkages across them in order to facilitate the reading of the whole volume.

Over 25 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the heralding of "the end of history,"1 China has nevertheless emerged as a regional [End Page 1] and global power without fundamentally conceding Communism as the state ideology. Meanwhile, self-organized associations, protests (both onand off-line), policy advocacy, citizen journalism, grassroots elections, and other forms of active practice of modern citizenship have flourished to varying degrees in all parts of China. Again and again, survey data, case studies, and critical event analysis have shown that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) state enjoys legitimacy and popular support at home, in spite of warnings from abroad.2 This is indeed a major paradoxical case for the field of transitology; however, China experts have produced a body of literature that reveals some of the mechanisms via which the Chinese state has endured the revival of social autonomy and the rise of collective resistance, activism, and policy advocacy in the post-reform era.3

On the one hand, the party-state has been effective in learning and adapting to new situations, and succeeded in adjusting the existing system to cope with changes and satisfy new demands from diverse segments of the society such as laid-off workers, ethnic minorities, farmers, and urban middle-class.4 When these segments cannot be placated, the state seeks to compensate the victims and suppress the rebels. On the other hand, most social organizations, intermediaries, independent advocacy groups, activists, and public intellectuals have refrained from open and broad contestation against the regime, while gaining the autonomy to reach goals and push for changes from bottom-up.5

Approaching the same outcome from opposite angles, the above two lines of explanation on state-society relations in China, nevertheless, converge on one important analytical perspective: in order to search for the causes of macro-level political stability in China, one needs to dig into the micro-level, sector-specific and contextualized state-society interactions, both mutual influences and sometimes contestations. This perspective is shared by all the authors of the volume. The six papers in this volume show the pervasive, though sometimes implicit, illusive, and unintended, mutual embeddedness between state agencies and various social forces during the late years of Hu Jintao's era and the first few years of Xi Jinping's leadership. Each paper, from different angles, explains various forms of coexistence and mutual embeddedness of state efforts at co-optation and penetration of society, and resistance and exercise of agency by social actors.

Under the broad rubric of state-society relations, this volume covers [End Page 2] issue areas ranging from public health and social welfare to party affairs and national Five-Year Plans. It engages with important debates in the China field related to authoritarian resilience, civil society development, strategic group, and social identity formation. Most of the empirical materials were gathered from local levels—the "trenches"6 of public governance—to illustrate in detail the state's steering strategies, society's coping methods, and the changing patterns of state-society interactions. While the first three papers look more into the Chinese state (Korolev, Yan and Huang, and McCarthy), the other three papers examine more from the societal side (Schubert and Heberer, Wu, and Cliff). Korolev's paper opens the volume with a study of the new "mass line" as a strategy of state-led social mobilization to diversify and obtain policy input, particularly from the least empowered. In contrast, Cliff's paper closes the volume with an...


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