Allies of the State: China's Private Entrepreneurs and Democratic Change

By Hawes, Colin | The China Journal, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Allies of the State: China's Private Entrepreneurs and Democratic Change


Hawes, Colin, The China Journal


Allies of the State: China's Private Entrepreneurs and Democratic Change, by Jie Chen and Bruce J. Dickson. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. xii + 220 pp. US$45.00/£33.95/euro40.50 (hardcover).

Jie Chen and Bruce J. Dickson have produced a thought-provoking and wellwritten book that examines the potential democratic tendencies of the controlling managers of China's large private enterprises. Based on thorough surveys of hundreds of entrepreneurs in five different provinces, they come to a sobering conclusion: "China's capitalists are unlikely to be agents of [democratic] change because their support for the current regime is stronger than their support for an alternative democratic political system" (p. 158). Yet they also note that, if the Chinese Party-state fails to address serious issues that affect private entrepreneurs' lives, such as official corruption and policies that discriminate against private businesses, this support for the current regime could evaporate (pp. 159-60).

After an admirably concise and illuminating history of the private sector in China since 1978 (Chapter 2), Chen and Dickson approach their conclusions from several different angles. Chapter 3 looks at the "embeddedness" of Chinese private entrepreneurs within various government institutions, such as the CCP, national/local people's congresses and political consultative committees, and state-sponsored NGOs like business associations. They find a very high level of membership in all these organizations - some arresting statistics are that 37.8 per cent of surveyed entrepreneurs were CCP members in 2007 (p. 41). Likewise, 18.2 per cent and 20.7 per cent respectively of surveyed entrepreneurs were members of people's congresses or political consultative committees (p. 54). These high figures should be less surprising when we find that significant numbers of Chinese private entrepreneurs were actually former government officials (19 per cent), and a majority of them previously managed or worked for state enterprises (51 per cent) (p. 35). Indeed, these kinds of statistics suggest that the use of the term "private entrepreneurs" to describe many of these people may be misleading.

Chapter 4 analyzes the sensitive topic of support for democracy among China's "capitalists" (which may be a more accurate term). Chen and Dickson use two different kinds of questions designed to distinguish between support for further democratic reforms within the current one-Party system, which is widespread among the surveyed entrepreneurs (p. 73), and support for a multiparty democracy with its greater tolerance for dissent and contention, which is much weaker among entrepreneurs (p. 76). While such conclusions might be expected here, given the political embeddedness of many of the respondents, one could challenge these results on two fronts. Firstly, the questions in the second category are clearly loaded: for example, "if a country has multiple parties (hao ji ge zhengdang), it can lead to political chaos" (pp. 74, 167). Why not instead ask whether a country should have two main parties (as in the US), rather than "multiple parties" with their built-in connotations of Italian-style political disorder? Other questions in this part of the survey are similarly weighted towards the contentious and negative aspects of democratic change, for example, "public demonstrations can easily tum into social disturbances and impact social stability and should be forbidden" (p. 76). Second, apart from the question design, the interpretation of the survey results given here could also be challenged. For the above question on multiple parties, 28 per cent of respondents disagreed that this would lead to political chaos (p. 74). In other words, over a quarter of surveyed capitalists appear to believe that "multiple" political parties are not harmful. …

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