China after Socialism: In the Footsteps of Eastern Europe or East Asia?

By Howell, Jude | Capital & Class, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

China after Socialism: In the Footsteps of Eastern Europe or East Asia?


Howell, Jude, Capital & Class


China After Socialism: In the Footsteps of Eastern Europe or East Asia?

M.E. Sharpe (The European Group), London,1996, pp.224.

ISBN 1-56324-666-X (hbk) 51.95

ISBN 1-56324-667-8 (pbk) 19.95

Reviewed by Jude Howell

By the mid-90s China was the eleventh largest trader in the world, becoming a significant trading partner for the USA, Japan and Europe. It had enjoyed an impressive average growth rate of nine per cent over a period of eighteen years. Unlike the Soviet Union China had followed a gradual path of reform, centred primarily upon economic reform, with bare minimal adjustments to the political structure. The events of 1989 demonstrated that the Communist Party would continue to be intolerant of fundamental dissent. Against the background of the neo-authoritarianism debate within China and the considerable interest amongst Chinese leaders and academics in the growth models of Singapore and other NICS many outside observers speculated that China would favour a growth strategy predicated upon an authoritarian, developmental state.

In this edited collection of conference papers McCormick and Unger explore the question of China's future. Will China follow in the footsteps of Eastern Europe and suffer regime collapse, economic breakdown and social turmoil? Or will it tread a path similar to East Asia based upon export-led growth, continuing Party supremacy and corporatist state-society relations embedded in neo-Confucian values. These questions are pursued through a range of issues such as agrarian change (Selden), the political dynamics of reform (Gill, Miller), financial reform (White and Bowles) and enterprise reform (Chan, Wong).

Drawing upon the frameworks of power developed by Habermas, Foucault and Scott, McCormick provides an illuminating account of electoral processes and parliaments in China, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He explores the critical dilemma of Leninist states which on the one hand seek to legitimate themselves through their historical, vanguard role, but on the other hand claim their legitimacy from apparently democratic elections. Leninist states generate a public discourse which portrays them as emanating from society, whilst the hidden transcripts of private experience point to a profound disbelief in such claims to representativeness and in ritualistic practices such as elections. McCormick argues that whilst public discourses in Leninist states reflect and generate power relations, they also trigger forms of resistance. He predicts that without fundamental political reform, which would permit a challenge to Leninist state power, the Chinese Communist Party is likely to meet a similar fate as other East European states. However it might also be argued that in contrast to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union the new sources of power and legitimacy generated by economic success may serve to mitigate the sharpness of the contradiction between public discourse and experience of reality and keep the Leninist state in power considerably longer than McCormick predicts.

In their chapter on corporatism Unger and Chan seek to explain the changing relations amongst the Party-state, economy and society. Taking the East Asian states of Taiwan and Japan as a comparison they suggest that post-Mao China too may be evolving in the direction of societal corporatism. New intermediary organisations such as the Self-Employed Labourers' Association and the China Enterprise Directors' Association, which represent the interests of newly emerging socio-economic groups, have sprouted in the reform period, whilst old mass organisations have begun to articulate more boldly the interests of their constituencies.

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