Uneven Opening of China’s Society, Economy, and Politics: pro-growth authoritarian governance and protests in China

, by  Journal of Contemporary China, LAI Hongyi

The primary argument of Lai’s work is that rapid economic growth has actually lead to an increased level of social protest in China during the reform-era period of the late 1990s and 2000s. He describes the situation in China as “pro-growth authoritarianism” (p. 820) in that the state is effective in opening up the economy, building a market economy and generating economic growth, but slow at protecting social and economic rights and easing popular grievances. A case study of a seemingly spontaneous riot is used to demonstrate the underlying discontent among dissatisfied citizens, and a general overview of the level of social contestation through the indicators of protest and petition is used to corroborate the thesis of the paper.

Lai argues that there are positive characteristics of the Chinese model of governance, primarily the ability to promote massive growth. The details of Chinese economic dominance need not be discussed in detail here, but suffice it to say that in the realm of competitiveness and export markets, China ranks very high globally; a fact that is fairly well known at this point. The other positive aspect of Chinese governance is its capacity to undertake reform and development The authoritarian nature of the state allows for major tasks to be effectuated during periods of reform. Lei attributes that strength in Chinese governance to be a primary reason for not only its growth, but its reduction of poverty by 40% from 1980 to 2001 (p. 825).

What is more interesting is the other side of the coin: the slow opening of political participation and governance. Lai asserts that the rich and the powerful benefitted from the reform era because of deficiencies in institutions. He points out that “until recent years, there has been a prevalent thinking among China’s leaders and officials that high economic growth and a good living standard will be sufficient to earn the Party political legitimacy” (p. 826). Thus, social and political rights were often ignored in the pursuit of the high growth. Judicial independence ranks far lower than other economic indicators like competitiveness, which is in line with the high importance placed on growth and low importance placed on rights. To further compound the situation, the rising standard of living in China holds a darker truth: inequality (Gini coefficient rising from .288 to .496 during the reform period, p. 828). The most important factor though, is that there is virtually no space for grievances to be addressed, both because of those aforementioned factors putting social and economic rights behind growth, and the complementary legitimization of that strategy through the formal state structure. The response from the people to these barriers is popular protest, but even then there still appears to be a belief in the state, just at a higher level. Lai explains :”by escalating the tension protesters would attract the attention of some higher authority to their grievances and that the higher authority will then force the local official to change their behavior” (p.830). If the goal of a protest is to gain certain rights and have greivances addressed, it appears that many movements in China still view the state as the eventual provider of those rights.

The result of the growth-first strategy is high economic growth, but increasing social protest. Lai connects the rapid economic growth of roughly 10% GDP per year since the 1990s to 2005 to two indicators of social contestation: the number of petitions sent to the government, and the number of collective protests. Petitions increased from 297, 000 in 1984 to 603,000 in 2005 (p. 830). Numbers of collective protests (over five people protesting) grew from 10, 000 in 1994 to 90, 000 in 2006 (p. 830). While there does not seem to be a cohesive organization among them, Lai infers that the generic factors explained above are leading to a nationally volatile situation where violent protest can be sparked with very little warning (p. 831). Through his case study of the Weng’ an riot, he demonstrates just how easily a population that has been ostracized from political participation can turn against the government.

The solutions raised by Lai could be summed up as increasing participation and allowing for a respect of social and political rights of the marginalized in the high-growth world of contemporary China. The consequences of not doing so, according to Lei, is continued harassment by protests. Given the volatility shown in Weng’ an, and other provinces, harassment might be too weak of a descriptor of the potential mobilization of a large part of the Chinese population. There is also the issue of just how much agency the Chinese state actually has after releasing the juggernaut of growth and greed among all levels of government. Transitioning to market capitalism is much easier sell than mitigating its structural inequalities, especially with those who have benefitted greatly from its introduction.

View online : http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10670564....

Hongyi Lai (2010): Uneven Opening of China’s Society, Economy, and Politics: pro-growth authoritarian governance and protests in China, Journal of Contemporary China, 19:67, 819-835