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Chinese Society & Politics

Socialist China, Capitalist China: Social Tension and Political Adaptation under Economic Globalization

Review of Socialist China, Capitalist China: Social tension and political adaptation under economic globalization, edited by Guoguang Wu and Helen Lansdowne. New York: Routledge, 2009.

bout twenty years ago, I attended a public lecture on China’s political, economic, and social future at the University of Virginia by a prominent official in the Department of State. I was struck by his conclusion, namely that China’s biggest problem was that its government, being an autocratic one, was “fundamentally unstable.” Sustainable economic progress and social stability were not possible under these conditions, he affirmed.

This volume explores some of the social challenges facing China, including “rural-urban migration, unemployment, the healthcare crisis, the rise of religion, the desire for increased individualism, and new mass movements.” It also analyzes the government response to these developments in an era of globalization. The question boils down to “how far a traditionally ‘socialist’ nation can be integrated into global capitalism.”

The importance of this investigation lies in the fact that “China is currently encountering increasing social problems, together with the rise of mass discontent and public protest, despite having achieved enormous economic growth after nearly 30 years of market socialism and embracing globalization. The future of China thus depends not only on the economic progress the nation has achieved – and will achieve – but also on how the government addresses growing social tensions.”

Growing out of a conference held in 2006 at the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives, University of Victoria, the book contains an introduction, nine very dense, technical, but mostly accessible chapters, and a conclusion.

The Introduction by the editors states that an inherent contradiction exists between globalization, a capitalist phenomenon, and socialism in China. Globalization has brought benefits both to some segments of the general population and also to the central Party-state. “The problem of this inter woven process of globalizing China with the dictatorship’s strength dependent on the globalization is manifested in widespread political conflict,” while the state is severely limited in adapting itself to social forces producing such friction. The result is that globalization and its resultant economic growth have mostly aided the persons and institutions that are most closely connected with the state, with stark disparities of opportunities and benefits between the elite and the masses.

The body of the volume explores in depth examples of these tensions: “growing social unrest in China: rising social discontents and popular protests”; household registration, social exclusion, and rural migrants in cities”; training the unemployed to become active job-seekers”; “China’s failed healthcare reform”; “China, Christianity and the global market of belief systems”; “ media, hegemony, and domination in the new China”; “the granting or refusing the right to petition: the dilemma of China’s xinfang system”; “the diffusion of legal institutions in China”; and the often-asked question, “Would democratization help remedy China’s corruption problem? Comparative insights on China and India.” Each chapter is written by an academic expert and is thoroughly documented, well-constructed, clear, and persuasive.

The results will not encourage those who think that globalization will inevitably create both broad-based material prosperity and greater and greater degrees of freedom and democracy. It seems that the state employs globalization to access international resources mostly for the advantage of the power-holding elite; that it introduces “neo-liberal” reforms in arenas such as the judiciary and the process of appealing for redress of grievances at the local level without building in substantial institutional changes that would bring much actual relief for the populace at large. Marketization allows the government to “back off” from some of its former responsibilities, such as job provision, while state control remains in place enough to prevent jobs from actually being fairly available. Very real steps have been taken to reform the health care system, and much progress has been made;[1] but institutional barriers remain which prevent people from getting the care they need.

Despite moves to reform the hukou system or mitigate some of its worst effects on migrant laborers, the old regulations are still mostly in place, for there is too much at stake for urban elites to abolish the system entirely. Marketization has opened wide doors for the media to create fresh programming that promotes new ideas, but heavy censorship slams these doors shut whenever the state decides to intervene. De facto liberalization of religion has resulted from the free flows of ideas sparked by globalization and relatively little intervention by the government, but the old apparatus of control retains the monopoly of government-run organizations and makes the state the arbiter of religious “orthodoxy.” Citizens may appeal to the central government to protest actions taken at the local level, but they rarely succeed, and may even be penalized for their effort.

On the other hand, change is in the air, and some sorts of change, especially those brought about by the massive flow of information and people across national boundaries spurred by globalization, actually do bring more power to the people. So, citizens know more about their legal rights; they want to try out new religions, such as non-official Protestant Christianity, which is growing like wildfire among urban elites; they use social media to organize “mass incidents” to protest perceived injustice; they demand new forms of entertainment and even news that press the limits of government tolerance; they increasingly want more say in the way decisions are made. And they are really mad about corruption. The recent Bo Xilai family case has done nothing to reduce that anger, which is now increasingly directed towards even the top leadership.

Would full democracy bring about a reduction in official corruption, as political liberals fondly hope? A comparison with India brings up little evidence that it would. The social, cultural, and institutional ingredients necessary for effective democracy simply do not exist in either country. So, as several Chinese academics have said, if somehow the Communist Party were voted out of power (or otherwise removed), it would be replaced by an equally corrupt group of elites.

Nevertheless, the editors confidently conclude, “Provided other factors, such as abrupt economic downturn or cross-Taiwan Strait crisis, do not occur, the state will continue as it currently proceeds.” (207) But what if the current economic slowdown, fueled by imploding economies in Europe, the United States, and Japan, becomes “abrupt” or steep enough to cause a significant loss of momentum in China, where constant growth in living standards for enough people has helped to undergird the Party’s rule?

In an article by Willy Lam, “Ideology, vested interests: Why China's reforms have hit a brick wall” (Special to CNN, November 15, 2012), two things struck this reviewer: First, “Critics of the government do not seem to be exaggerating when they say that 100 or so of the biggest clans that represent the country's ‘red aristocracy’ control the largest chunk of the economy. The official China Daily has reported that the top 1% of Chinese families owns 41.4% of the nation's wealth, while a survey by the People's Daily indicated that 91% of respondents thought the ‘nouveau riche’ in China had benefited from their political ties to the CCP leadership.”

The second item in Lam’s article came next: “Reform has become nigh impossible because any change of the political or economic status quo will threaten the vested interests -- and finances and earnings -- of these near-omnipotent CCP clans.” One cannot help but think, How many more Bo Xilai-type revelations can the regime sustain? How many more children of “princelings” driving foreign-made luxury cars can run over pedestrians without sparking massive outrage and even action?

At this point, the less-than-sanguine analysis of the editors of Socialist China, Capitalist China seems even more pertinent than when it was penned in 2009: “This scenario means a China in dispersed, protracted, and, in terms of ignitable issues and political impacts, spasmodic social unrest for years to come, and a party-state in a concentrated but nervous and insecure mood of making constant yet institutionally insubstantial efforts to deal with social discontent.” (207)

For some thoughts on how Christians can contribute to “harmonious society” in such a volatile environment, see “Blessed Are the Pacemakers: The Role of Christians in a Discordant Society”, at

G. Wright Doyle