China III

mao in chengdu.jpg

One thing particularly disturbs the sleep of the power elite in China: that the urban, and especially, the rural, poor might march against them.

In a multimedia series called The Great Divide, Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley of the New York Times examine the gap between the rural poor and urban rich in contemporary China. This is a effective voice-over slide show, and worth the price of an on-line subscription to the NYT all on its own.

But Kahn and Yardley open a big question even as they try to answer a number of smaller ones. The question: how is it that so many people can find themselves excluded from the new prosperity and not take part in larger, more constant, more vivid acts of protest?

This is of course the question that vexes political scientists and we have learned from them that the mysteries of consent (and quiescence) have to do with the threat of force and other acts of intimidation, the calculation of interest and advantage, variously and sometimes falsely imagined, AND the operation of hegemony and that notion that the inequities are somehow intelligible if not legitimate.

Kahn and Yardley leave us with the impression that unrest is ubiquitous, growing and inevitable. Chinese authorities are engaged in a series of little firefights in the hope that they can stave off a larger conflagration. But one can’t help feeling that if a conflagration were going to happen, it would have happened by now. There is nothing inevitable about a conflagration. Unrest can, and probably will, simmer for years.

Kahn and Yardley could have presented this as a recruitment model. Wealth is pouring into rural communities like a torrent. You go to the “edge of town” on one visit and see the dividing line between urban wealth and rural poverty. You come back on the next visit and you see how far the line has moved, and how many people have been relatively speaking enfranchised. The issue of unrest will be decided as a race. Will the marketplace enfranchise faster than disaffection does.

But some of this will be decided by another contest, and the distribution of resources that are as precious, as they are, often, extra-economic. Recently, a confrontation took place in Wanzhou between two men of middle age, Yu Jikui and Hu Quanzong. I refer you to the story by Kahn for the full details and these are deliciously intricate, but the confrontation would appear to come down to that age old collision between “Don’t you know who I am?” and “Who do you think you are?”

The two parties brushed while passing in the street. Hu Quanzong pulled rank, striking Yu Jikui and threatening him with death. He was in effect claiming special treatment, if not actually deference, in this public place on the grounds that he was a party official. Thus did Hu offer the age old claim of privilege: “Don’t you know who I am?” (The Party has since denied Hu’s claim to party membership, insisting on a recantation which he supplied for television cameras.) Yu Jikui, for his part, insisted on a flatter view of the world, withheld his deference, demanded more dignified treatment and said in effect, “Who do you think you are?”

Doesn’t seem like a lot. By the end of the day, this episode had filled the central square with tens of thousands of people angry enough to tip over government vehicles, pummel policemen and set city hall ablaze.

“Dignity,” “respect,” “face,” “honor,” call it what we will, this is a most precious resource caught up in its own little economy that is only sometimes adjudicated by the marketplace. How it is manufactured, to whom it is given, in what amounts it is due, these are specified by social rules.

These are always under a certain amount of contestation, but in contemporary China they are of course especially hard to pin down. There are a number of schemes, imperial, Western, revolutionary, and capitalist, by which this can be decided. This is being worked out now. As 1.4 billion people decide what “China” is, what a pole man like Yu Jikui deserves, what the party should give and get as a part of the new experiment.

It’s a little like trying to work out, design and install the aerodynamic properties of your bobsled even as you use it to hurtle to the bottom of the hill. Everyone in our neck of the woods, if I may presume to say so, is interested in dynamism. China should be our next watch. Have we ever seen so many people, change so much, with such speed?


Kahn, Joseph. 2004. China’s ‘Haves’ Stir the ‘Have Nots’ to Violence. New York Times, December 31, 2004. here

1 thought on “China III

  1. steve

    China is a good example of what it means to be dealing with really complex systems. Even if you had a technology that could scan the minds of every Chinese person simultaneously and describe their intentions, values, and beliefs, you would be unable to predict how things are going to turn out because you have no way to understand how all those minds will interact. We have some heuristics about envy, rising expectations, material progress, ambition, nationalism, etc., but no way to combine them into anything very satisfying.

    Personally, i worry that the Chinese government at some future time will fear its loss of legitimacy and play the nationalism/Taiwan card to rally the public. There is a certain fraction of the Chinese military that sees the conquest of Taiwan as a lifetime calling. The irony here is that actually conquering Taiwan would be a mistake–once it is accomplished, there is no other plausible unifying nationalist grievance to take its place.

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