The Reach of the State: Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic

The Reach of the State: Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic

The Reach of the State: Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic

The Reach of the State: Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic


These four conceptual and critical essays on state and society in contemporary China argue vigorously against the grain of prevailing scholarly interpretation. In substantive content, they explore two major themes from different historical and theoretical points of departure.

First, the author argues that the party/state under Mao fell far short of the full control over China's peasant society that outside observers often assumed it had achieved. She shows, instead, how the Maoist state frequently pursued policies that in fact had the ironic effect of strengthening the resistance of rural communities against the central political apparatus. Second, she contends that once the true limitations on the Maoist state's power in rural areas are rightly understood, it becomes clear that one effect of the post-Mao economic and political reforms may be to enhance rather than to diminish the state's authority in the countryside - despite all the reformists' rhetoric to the contrary.

These essays on "how to think about the Chinese state" are designed to stimulate debate about assumptions and methods in the field of Chinese political analysis. The controversies they raise, however, make them highly relevant to scholars outside Chinese studies who are interested in theories of the state, in the interrelations of state and society, and in the fate of the peasantry under socialism.


These are experimental essays. Their concerns are more critical and conceptual than empirical. They are the imperfect artifacts of several years of somewhat fitful searching for an approach to the study of contemporary Chinese political life that would be both sufficiently disciplined to be practiced with care and sufficiently flexible to encompass all the evidence of flux and change that we have lately witnessed.

In essence, these are essays about how to think about the Chinese state: about its complex structures, roles, and capacities; about its interrelations with Chinese society as a whole and with rural social organization in particular; and most especially about the process of its evolution, the patterns of change we can discern not only in its forms and functions but also in its most fundamental ethos. the effort to develop simultaneously more refined and more dynamic ways of thinking about these problems, however uncertainly it is executed in these essays, stemmed initially from nagging dissatisfaction with the available models and approaches to studying the Chinese polity that have filled the literature. If the Maoist language of "class struggle and capitalist restoration" seemed hollow by the 1980s, so too did the intra-elite power struggle models still widely clung to in the West. and though East European revisionist theorists had much of interest to teach us about socialist states and societies, their dilemmas of govern-

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