Academic journal article China: An International Journal

Citizens and Democracy: Shi Tianjian's Contribution to China Studies and Political Science

Academic journal article China: An International Journal

Citizens and Democracy: Shi Tianjian's Contribution to China Studies and Political Science

Article excerpt

Shi Tianjian's whole academic career was devoted to the understanding of citizens' values and behaviours in China. With exceptional competence in survey design and analysis, he aimed at explaining how citizens perceive and interact with politics within the Chinese cultural and institutional context. His studies on the Chinese case are at the same time closely integrated with the debates about political culture and institutions. Throughout his career, his work closely engaged concepts and paradigms in comparative political studies as well as general social science. That way, his work provided and continues to provide ample opportunities for scholarly debates and further advancement.

His ultimate concerns were directed to the citizens' perception of their relationship with the authorities. This involved several aspects: 1) what they view as legitimate political arrangements and institutions (legitimacy and political trust); 2) how they view their roles in the political process (political participation); and 3) how they define the division of power between the government and the citizens, and among different types of citizens (democratic values). In these aspects, his views seemed to have evolved since the years he started as a political scientist. Towards the unexpected sudden end of his career, he seemed to have reached a set of conclusions regarding Chinese and East Asian citizens; he found the norms and values of Chinese and East Asian citizens to be drastically different from those in Western societies. Institutional design, therefore, needs to take different forms in these societies, so that they generate genuine support from the citizens, and integrate citizens' participatory energy. His research hence has always led us back to the first question of political science: what is the right political system?


Shi's first book, Political Participation in Beijing, set out to address a major deficiency in the field at the time: the lack of understanding of how citizens in China interact with layers and sections of the Chinese government. (1) For what would remain the case throughout his career, Shi challenged some widely held assumptions in this study. Citizens in authoritarian societies were believed to be passive and ignorant towards politics, and Chinese citizens under the one-party regime were thought to be disengaged from politics.

With a questionnaire survey of 757 Beijing residents collected in 1988 and 1989, Shi found that only slightly over 10 per cent of Beijing residents fit this stereotype. (2) In fact, citizens engage in a diverse range of political acts to pursue their interests. He, however, started with a notion that free elections were not available to Chinese citizens, and citizens were not in a position to shape central government policies. Institutional settings, based on the work unit (danwei) system, determined the political actions available at the grassroots level. As work units were bearers of social, economic and political functions, they occupied a central place in citizens' lives. The danwei monopolised the provision of education and health services, allocation of living space, the maintenance of social order and even the arbitration of family disputes, among others. It was at the work unit level that citizens directly experienced policies as they were implemented. It was also at the work unit level that citizens found incentives for taking political actions.

Political participation is thus conceptualised by Shi as "activities by private citizens aimed at influencing the actual results of governmental policy". (3) He identified 28 ways in which Beijing residents act politically, grouping them in seven distinctive modes of participation: voting, campaign activities, appeals, adversarial activities, cronyism, resistance and boycotts. His data showed that due to the structural constraints of the political system, Beijing residents are most likely to resort to appeals, adversarial activities, resistance and cronyism to articulate their interests. …

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