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Sunday, April 15, 2001

Cracks in the great wall of China

CHINESE SOCIETY: Change, Conflict and Resistance, edited by Elizabeth J. Perry and Mark Selden. London, Routledge, 2000, 249 pp., $27.99.

A single image dominates Western perceptions of the regime in China since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989: that of a government willing to crack down mercilessly on any protest or resistance. This image has been reinforced by the recent confrontation between the government and the practitioners of Falun Gong. According to this picture, Chinese citizens are trapped by an ever-watchful and inflexible dictatorship.

These are gross oversimplifications of modern Chinese society. In fact, the government has been forced to respond and sharply redirect its policies in the face of the popular will. But as long as such images have currency, and as long as Chinese leaders respond to questions about these social problems with their time-honored refusal to explain -- "that is an internal affair of our own country" ("zhe shi womenguode neizheng") -- balanced and reliable accounts of modern China will remain hard to come by.

This collection of essays on Chinese society, edited by Elizabeth Perry and Mark Selden, part of the Routledge series Asia's Transformations, offers a corrective to the standard understanding. The essays usually include data only up to 1998, but they offer useful and balanced elucidations of some of China's most pressing social dilemmas, the complexity of which is often underestimated outside the mainland.

The theme of the collection is social and political resistance: the kinds of resistance that have been brought to bear on modern China's various dilemmas, how the government has responded, and how successful resistance movements have been.

Minxin Pei looks at overt resistance practiced by various dissident movements, and speculates that dissident resistance, so often expressed through active protests in the past 40 years during times of economic hardship and much more stringent political oppression, has increased as information technology and legal reforms have created the possibility of filing suit against the government.

Hein Maller offers a very helpful essay on the system of "hukou" or "household registration," which was instituted in 1960 to control migration from the rural areas to cities after the failure of the Great Leap Forward. This system confers lifelong benefits such as health insurance and housing on urban workers while offering rural workers, who constitute over 70 percent of the Chinese population, no such benefits. It has caused countless covert migrations by "peasants" to Chinese cities in search of "nonagricultural" registration and work. The national and local governments, as well as city industries that need cheap labor, have tried in various ways to either curtail or, in some cases, allow such migration. Maller argues that the huge number of migrants over the last few decades is evidence of trenchant and sometimes successful resistance to government policy.

Wang Zheng's essay on women's employment issues highlights the dynamic inequalities created in the Chinese workplace after the Revolution. Women were granted equal pay and benefit packages, but they were given more service and secretarial work than production and management positions. This structure has led to much more frequent layoffs of women workers in the industrial sectors during Deng Xiaoping's reform period.

She shows how the National Women's Federation, individual women entrepreneurs and young women in the entertainment and advertising sectors, in a so-called rice bowl of youth ("qingchunfan") have formed different strategies of resistance.

In the case of the National Women's Federation, even Maoist slogans such as "women hold up half of heaven" have been resurrected to legitimize reform and redress the imbalances in layoffs between genders.

Jun Jing's paper on environmental protests in China tells the story of the Gansu Province village of Dachuan, which successfully marshaled protests against a fertilizer factory that for years had been dumping its waste into local water. Some of the rhetoric employed in these village protests was drawn from the natural symbolism of local religious funeral and fertility rites; the most prominent local Kong family traced its lineage back to Kongzi (Confucius), which added force to the calls for safe drinking water.

Most problems in contemporary China can be linked to the population explosion: The number of mainland Chinese has increased by 700 million plus since 1950, partly as a result of constantly improving economic conditions.

Tyrene White concludes that resistance to the One-Child Policy of 1980 has been impossible for the government to control in rural areas, where the desirability of many children, particularly sons, overrides government wishes. So-called floating populations, which move in and out of the village during pregnancy periods, combine with village cadres who would rather falsify birthrate reports than either suffer retribution or face the wrath of angry villagers for enforcing the policy, to make enforcement unworkable. The government, White concludes, will have to modernize its Draconian policy and through education create incentives for individuals to control their family sizes rather than mandating forced abortions and sterilizations.

There are other papers on labor insurgency by Ching Kwan-lee and the resistance of ethnic minorities by Uradyn Bulag.

The introduction by Perry and Selden argues that the many factors prompting social and political resistance in China, the many forms resistance takes, and the many cases in which it has actually been successful in initiating change make the stones under the feet of the regime "ever more slippery."

Perry and Selden, along with most of the articles in the book, are balanced in their treatment of the Chinese government, crediting it for great economic change and positive responses to resistance, while also citing some of its obvious failures and reactionary crackdowns. Still, the theme of resistance at times oversimplifies the difficulties created by China's problems.

Maller, for instance, does not mention the economic burden that would be created by trying to resolve the disparities between rural and urban workers by redistributing benefits to rural workers, nor the fact that privatization is robbing urban workers of their benefits and undermining the sought rewards of an urban hukou. Nor does White allude to the concrete everyday difficulties created by China's population, analyzing only the history of attempts to control growth and the resistance to them.

The radical political change that many of the contributors appear to entertain as at least a faint hope does not seem to be the answer to these problems. Still, this treatment of China's pressing social problems and the change triggered by resistance makes this a must-read for those attempting to better understand and appreciate the People's Republic at the beginning of the new millennium.

Douglas L. Berger is lecturer in Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.

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