Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

Globalizing the Chinese Social Assistance Program: The Authoritarianism That Listens?

Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

Globalizing the Chinese Social Assistance Program: The Authoritarianism That Listens?

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

1. Introduction

Authoritarian regimes are not known for listening to their subjects, particularly to those politically marginalized social groups. When the situation gets sour and they have to pay attention, authoritarian rulers commonly resort to two instruments in their toolbox of political control. repression and bribe. Whenever force becomes too costly, cash benefits would buy off the dissatisfied population at rough times.

It is against this common perception that China's recent development of welfare protection for the poorest seems puzzling to the conventional understanding of authoritarian regimes. The figure below shows the changing trend of the social assistance program targeting the very poor in urban and rural areas and the traditional pension program for retired government employees at both the central and local levels. Whereas the spending level for the latter group have fluctuated over time, it remains largely constant compared to that for the poorest, who see their benefits increase drastically from the late 1990s.

This is indeed surprising, particularly given that the political structure in China has remained largely unchanged. Why, therefore, would an authoritarian state compensate the politically powerless in the absence of institutionalized channel of representation? Political stability is an easy answer and it is indeed a critical factor to compel most authoritarian rulers to be careful in mistreating its subjects. Yet, the steady increase of the spending level on the poorest since the late 1990s in contrast to the unimpressive change in pension spending is at odds with the fact that these retired government employees are politically powerful in defending their interests. We cannot assume that this group of individuals would be indifferent seeing their government transfer the money to their politically inferior counterparts while ignoring their own well-being against market fluctuation and inflation.

Furthermore, as will be discussed in detail later, is that the program is evolving along with a remarkable process of institutionalization - in spite of various problems and shortcomings associated with the program, the institutional foundation has been well established to cover almost the entire population and overcome the urban-rural divide. This poses another question: Why would an authoritarian regime, instead of using cash benefits, make long-term commitment to compensating the poor through institutionalized measures that would apparently tie their own hands?

In revealing the mechanism of institutional origin and change of China's social assistance program, I attempt to offer a theoretical model that emphasizes the interaction of global and local dynamics, through which the government is induced to utilize institutional instruments to protect the poorest social sectors for its own political survival. Specifically, I argue that economic integration produces an equalization effect on the wage differentials and risk perceptions among different sectors and social groups. As wage and risk gaps get narrowed, the demands for welfare protection across different sectors as well as their ability to exert political pressures on the ruler become increasingly similar, which induce the ruler to listen to the demand of every social sector. I suggest that this is a structural condition introduced by globalization that has produced a world-wide welfare transformation that, as Economist (2012) aptly claims, even turns the East Asian tigers into marsupial.

Precisely because of the authoritarian nature of the regime that tends to offer lip service to the sectors outside of its core constituency, the political elites are particularly motivated to tie their own hands through institutionalizing welfare protection in order to ensure that an effective welfare system can supplement their efforts of building a competitive economy. On the other hand, the enabling effect of economic integration cannot be realized without the suitable local conditions that make political leaders particularly vulnerable and therefore more motivated to expand their political base through institutionalized protection. …

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