Building Local States: China During the Republican and Post-Mao Eras, by Elizabeth J. Remick. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004. xxvi + 318 pp. US$49.50 (hardcover).
This is an ambitious book, one that takes on a matrix of comparisons on a topic of real importance for an unusually wide range of audiences: comparativists in state-building theory, historians of Republican China, scholars of contemporary China, and those interested in tax policy. Elizabeth Remick opts for a Weberian notion of state building, defining state building as "the process by which state actors make a state organization grow in size, extend its reach, and increase its functions" (p. 12). She also follows in the Weberian tradition in considering tax organizations to be "perhaps the key internal state function" (p. 19), since "if a local state cannot tax and spend, then it is unlikely to be able to do anything. In this sense, tax and public finance are a good, though not perfect, indicator of state building as a whole" (p. 20). Then, unusually for a China specialist, she focuses on local statebuilding, and even more unusually, on variation and the reasons for variation between different local states.
Remick's method is the qualitative historical and institutional analysis familiar to most in the contemporary China field. Her research design is where her intellectual ambition really comes to the fore. Her case studies include both a quartet of paired comparisons (a rich and poor county in the two provinces of Guangdong and Hebei/Tianjin municipality) and an at least implicit comparison over time. In so doing she chooses regions of China maximally different from each other in terms of culture, social organization and spatial distance from the central government.
Ultimately she develops eight case studies, through coverage of the Nanjing Decade (1927-37) and the post-Mao era in the 1980s and early 1990s. She manages to keep the total number of counties down to five, by using the same counties for both periods with only one substitute, but the book is arranged in such a way that the Republican and post-Mao eras are considered almost entirely separately, so that it reads more like two short books. One compares variations in taxation and local state building in the Republican era, and the other repeats the exercise for the post-Mao period, with some reflections at the end that tie everything together. Even so, this sort of comparative work is inherently very difficult. The spatial dimension of the comparison is both inter- and intraprovincial, and the very different time periods are difficult to generalize across. Not only does each case study require extensive investigation of a particular locality and its sources; the addition of each case increases the likelihood of noncomparability, and/or the risk that one will simply not be able to find sources of a depth and range to sustain the relevant points of comparison. Even without choosing an inherently "difficult" policy area such as taxation (for which technical terms are obscure, numbers often fudged, officials given every incentive to dissemble, and runs of data often frustratingly opaque even when extant), the very research design of this project is a difficult one to pull off. In rushing in where most would fear to tread, and doing such a good job despite these structural difficulties, the author is to be commended.
Remick chooses her regions to maximize variation in tax policy and state building within local tax regimes. She immediately draws the reader in with a personal vignette: when conducting her first round of interviews in Guangdong after having already done a round in Tianjin, she asked how cadres in Guangdong ran their democratic assessment small groups and how they structured their mass meetings against tax evaders (the common practice in Tianjin). …