Contours of an Anthropology of the Chinese State: Political Structure, Agency and Economic Development in Rural China

By Pieke, Frank, N. | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Contours of an Anthropology of the Chinese State: Political Structure, Agency and Economic Development in Rural China


Pieke, Frank, N., Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Following its violent repression of the 1989 student democracy movement, it was widely held that the Chinese socialist state was in terminal decline. To many observers (including myself) the turmoil of the movement and the long-term corrosive impact of market reform made a fundamental shift in China's political structure seem inevitable. It was predicted that either a more democratic form of government would emerge, or the state would fragment or at the very least radically decentralize (Pieke 1996).

None of this has come about. Political change has certainly taken place, but in the context of a deliberate and selective process of streamlining, professionalization, democratization, and centralization of the Chinese state apparatus, in conjunction with an equally deliberate process of further market reform. As Dali Yang puts it, 'while the Chinese state has played an important role in expanding the market, market expansion has, in turn, helped prepare the ground for the rationalization of the state' (2001: 19).

Simultaneously, the Chinese Communist Party has redefined its place in Chinese society. Instead of a 'revolutionary party', it now defines itself as a socialist 'ruling party', a concept which has been officially expressed since 2000 in terms of the Party's 'Three Represents' (sange daibiao, i.e. the party represents the fundamental interests of the broad mass of the population, advanced productive forces, and advanced culture). (1) Equally importantly, the Party has sought to broaden its base in society by allowing private entrepreneurs to become Party members. Although it is far from clear whether these ideological innovations will have any effect in the long term, radical political change now seems unlikely.

The rule of the Chinese Communist Party once again rests on a very solid footing. In my view, anthropologists of contemporary China have been slow to catch on to this, often still viewing the country through the lens of a state-society dichotomy in which the state inevitably has to yield more and more of its power to entrepreneurs, foreign investors, and non-state organizations and communities. This article argues that an overhaul of this image is overdue: viewing the state as a weakening external force to the communities we study simply does not describe the dynamics of contemporary Chinese society.

In order to amend our understanding of Chinese society, I argue that anthropologists should not turn even farther away from the state; on the contrary, we need to focus much more on the Chinese state itself. The problem that then arises is how to avoid reifying the Chinese state as an institution existing above and beyond the social world. In getting beyond the old state-society dichotomy, Chinese anthropologists would do well to draw on and contribute to recent comparative work by anthropologists, political scientists, and sociologists that problematizes the state itself (for overviews, see Alonso 1994; Gledhill 2000). One approach has been to conceptualize the state as a composite of intermittently conflicting individuals and institutions, with analysis focusing on the multifaceted and often deliberately ambiguous interactions that take place across the state-society interface (Migdal 1994; 2001; see also Bayart 1993; Bayart, Ellis & Hibou 1999; Hann & Dunn 1996; Nugent 1994; Nuijten 2003). Taking a more radical line, scholars building on the work of Abrams (1988) and Foucault (1991) maintain that the 'state' has no independent structural existence as a set of social actors operating above and beyond 'society'. The state merely exists as a loose system of bureaucratic institutions and practices, and as an imaginary of legitimate power, an ideological construct that is an historical product of discourses that shape perceptions of domination and coercion (Corrigan & Sayer 1985; Ferguson & Gupta 2002; Gupta 1995; Trouillot 2001).

While I am sympathetic to much of this, in my view the stronger versions tend to get carried away by the force of the argument. …

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