Liberal Despotism: Population Planning, Subjectivity, and Government in Contemporary China

By Sigley, Gary | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

Liberal Despotism: Population Planning, Subjectivity, and Government in Contemporary China


Sigley, Gary, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


My title, Liberal Despotism, is a trope for oriental despotism. The image of oriental despotism is a familiar one. As Hegel writes of oriental forms of government, the nations of the East knew only that one is free--that is, the sovereign. All others are subjects of sovereign power who must be governed through force and coercion. The hallmark of despotism in this instance is that one is governed by others and not by oneself. The subject is at the mercy of caprice and not self-will. Whether for reasons of geography, culture, race, or a combination thereof, these subjects are considered to be either lacking the qualities for the practice of freedom or subject to oppression that inhibits the realization of that freedom. Indeed, it is possible that both situations may coexist; that is, due to oppression a subject may have no possible recourse to develop the capacity for freedom, but given appropriate opportunity, education, and training is nonetheless capable of becoming "free" (that is, an autonomous and rational individual) at some later point in time.

Yet the notion of "liberal despotism" appears oxymoronic. How can a doctrine that claims to uphold individual liberty and freedom possibly be construed as despotic? Recent studies that take as their point of departure Michel Foucault's notion of "governmentality" have argued that this duality (that is, the bifurcation of the population into subjects who govern themselves and those who are governed by others) within liberal reasoning is neither contradictory nor hypocritical. (1) Rather, they argue that the process of compartmentalizing populations into those that are expected to govern themselves and those that require some form of tutelage or coercion is constitutive of liberal reasoning itself.

This article examines how governmentality studies and recent analyses of authoritarian modes of government both within liberal and nonliberal societies might relate to the study of the arts of government in contemporary China. The article takes as its primary focus of analysis recent developments in China's population-planning program. This program is an exemplary instance of the complexities of government and subjectivity in China insofar as it highlights how important aspects of the relationship between the state and the population have been conceived within Chinese governmental reasoning during the Maoist and Dengist eras and how, in the new circumstances of the market economy, that relationship is undergoing a process of conceptual and institutional reconfiguration.

Since the early 1980s, the Chinese state itself has accorded the population-planning program the status of a fundamental state policy (jiben guoce) and regards the tasks of the program as crucial to the overall realization of development strategy for China. Given also that it touches upon the reproductive and familial lives of almost every subject in China, the population-planning program is well worthy of consideration as an instance of how Chinese subjects are both governed and resist being governed in the contemporary period. Furthermore, as the policy emphasis is explicitly placed upon rural China, the population-planning campaign also offers an opportunity to examine the crucial question of party/people relations (dangqun guanxi), (2) which goes to the heart of government concerns with maintaining social stability.

The population-planning program has been the subject of much controversy primarily because it is seen as an imposition of state will upon target subjects without their consent. In so doing, critics of the population policy would seem to concur with Hegel's assessment that the central problem in this instance is the absence of self-determination upon the part of the target subject. The use of the term subject in this article carries two connotations. The first is the subject in the sense of one who is under the dominion or rule of a sovereign. (3) The second refers to the self-determining subject. …

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