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CHINA IN TRANSITION / Vol. 73, No. 1 (Spring 2006)

Jean-Phillippe Béja, Guest Editor
Arien Mack, Editor

This issue of Social Research is another in our recurring series reflecting on important political and economic transitions in the world. The series began in 1988 with issues on the transition in East and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union that led up to and followed the collapse of Communism, which was marked by the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The current issue is a look at the remarkable transition now taking place in the People’s Republic of China. It is a transition to a market-economy, but it is not -nor is meant to be- a transition to democracy

In the past couple of years, not a day has passed without a newspaper headline calling attention to the “awakening of the dragon,” the rise of the 21st century superpower and the extreme pressure that a developing China is putting on world resources.


The first question we will try to answer is how did a Communist Party that rejected all forms of a market economy during its first 30 years in power succeed in establishing capitalism in China when so many attempts had failed after the mid-nineteenth century. Instead of relying on the traditional economic explanation based on labor, capital, and productivity that is favored by economists and that has been well discussed in the economic literature, we will focus more on the political and social factors that explain this acceleration of history. The second question is related to the different problems that the Chinese economy faces today. China has registered one of the fastest economic growth rates in the history of capitalism, but this take-off still appears fragile in many analyses, potentially reversible. Again, if we consider what has been achieved during 25 years of reform, the question we can ask is whether the problems that create the concern with fragility represent a real threat to the economic modernization launched in 1978, and to the definitive establishment of a capitalism system in China. Finally, a third question that has been repeated like a mantra in foreign government circles and by reformers in China: Will the economic transformations that have taken place in the People’s Republic soon lead to the emergence of a democratic regime that will enable China to complete its cycle of modernization?


In traditional Chinese political philosophy, there has been a lack of explicit discussion on the power-responsibility (right-obligation) relationship or the contract state (of course, something like it may be found in Confucianism). Western learning does not lack such content. As Western countries have already resolved the question of power-responsibility correspondence by means of constitutional democracy, it has become a linguistic usage of theirs that is not all too logical but quite harmless in practice to discuss "big and small" questions without taking power and responsibility into account. Yet, were our countrymen, our compatriots, who are first of all muddleheaded about the relationship between power and responsibility, to take over and accept such language as theirs and discuss their problems, there would be great harm. If it is a mere academic error to say "State power does not go down to the county level," which in history is actually "The state is not responsible for anybody and anything below the county level," then the following will bring real harm.

The article analyzes the changing aspects of civil society in China. The study of state-society relations is a significant component of political science. The concept of civil society became popular among China specialists and pro-democracy scholars in exile only after the repression of the 1989 pro-democracy movement. The development of a civil society does not mean that the evolution of China will follow a pattern similar to that of Eastern Europe nor does it mean that the regime is democratizing.

The author presents a discussion about three dominating voices in present day China: That the status quo cannot possibly go on for long; that China should and certainly will be further "Westernized"; and "Confucianization" which declares "that China's future should emerge from its tradition and should be constructed in accordance with the spirit of Confucianism.

The material life of the vast majority of Chinese peasants is at a much higher level than during the totalitarian period of Mao’s rule. Despite corruption and social polarization, there is no chance that a large-scale famine will take place. Why is it that during the Maoist period, when tens of millions of peasants starved to death, we did not see any large-scale resistance movements, whereas today, during this relatively prosperous time, large-scale spontaneous resistance movements rise nearly ceaselessly? The main factor behind the emergence of resistance from the grassroots is the people’s growing awareness of their rights and economic interests, and in the diversification of ideas and values. Behind economic interests lies the people’s hunger for rights. Thus, the question of how to provide a political space to the mobilization of the grassroots, how to guide the new civil rights movement towards a nonviolent and legal form of expression; how to limit the negative developments caused by the reform through political reform, protect society’s rights and constrain officials’ rights in order to establish a political system that respects human rights--these are the challenges confronting the Chinese Communist regime if it wants to appease the wrath of the people.


There are two basic ways to understand the methods of the contemporary Chinese resistance movement to protect the right’s of peasants: the logic of action and the structure of action. The logic of social action deals with the emergence and the development of social action; it is very much part of the study of motivations. The structure of social action is essentially concerned with its internal forms.

In the "enterprise restructuring" process begun in the late 1990s, China’s medium and small-scale state-owned enterprises (SOEs) rapidly converted themselves, through massive sell-offs, mergers and the forming of share-holding cooperatives, into private enterprises, while the larger-scale SOEs strove to reinvent themselves as "modern enterprise systems" through the issuance of shares, by company mergers and sell-offs, or via declarations of bankruptcy. During this process, SOE workers who had retained their jobs and also those who had been "laid off" (xiagang) in the restructuring staged frequent and repeated collective protest actions. Using primary data, this paper seeks to portray the profound social marginalization of workers that has occurred during the SOE restructuring process, and it identifies this factor as being the primary cause of the increase in workers’ collective protests in China in recent years. In the author’s view, the rights to which Chinese workers are entitled under the country’s labor laws have been steadily eroded and diminished by the impact of enterprise restructuring. In a clear case of "closing the stable door after the horse has bolted," the central government began issuing instructions to safeguard workers’ rights only when the restructuring process had been underway for several years. The wholesale loss of their rights has triggered intense indignation on the part of the workers, and the groundswell of collective protest actions around the country nowadays represents a heart-felt cry for help by an increasingly socially marginalized constituency of many millions.

In China, there are two kinds of workers, one called urban resident-workers and migrant workers. The latter can not share the same social, economical and political status with the former, although they become more and more important than the former in their roles and size. There are many different characteristics between them. So here call the latter as a new, rising worker class. Certainly they show their class propensities through their practices and social identity. They will play more and more important role in social, economical and political change of China.

This paper examines the reasons why peasant migrants in Chinese cities, a long exploited but silent working class, recently started to voice out claims for better protection of their legal rights. As legal consciousness develops among migrant workers, who slowly learn how to mobilize the law in an effort to resist an oppressive system, so does the awareness of the regime's failings and of the need for alternative forms of representation. However, the migrants' attempts to achieve more autonomy have so far been hijacked by the Party-state and hardly give rise to society empowerment. Mobilization of the grassroots, how to guide the new civil rights movement towards a nonviolent and legal form of expression; how to limit the negative developments caused by the reform through political reform, protect society’s rights and constrain officials’ rights in order to establish a political system that respects human rights--these are the challenges confronting the Chinese Communist regime if it wants to appease the wrath of the people.

This article aims at analyzing the means of political influence that private entrepreneurs have accumulated along the years. For the Party-State that wishes to maintain (or even strengthen) its monopoly on political activities, the challenge is clearly to adjust to the rapidly changing shape of the Chinese society. The question being addressed is therefore how, in a still authoritarian regime, the emergence of a new social group or stratum, economically and socially influential, affects the political realm. In the first section, this article reviews the conditions of the re-emergence of private entrepreneurship in communist China, which should be credited both to initiatives coming from the society and the setting up of a new legal framework, and how this development lead to the Three Represents theory. Secondly, it looks at the various ways entrepreneurs take part in the political arena. Finally, a third section tries to assess the consequences of this participation.

"The 'lost generation,' or the generation of the cultural revolution, is unique in world history: it is the result of the demiurgical will of one man, Mao Zedong, to create a whole generation 'revolutionary successors' entirely devoted to the cause of socialism and to the realization of Maoist ideals. Even though Mao’s endeavor ended in complete failure, the mark it left on the young people who experienced it was deep enough to form a very specific and particularly self-conscious generation. Awareness of being part of a certain generation is not limited this particular group and is more widespread in China than in most countries. Articles and books on generational phenomena are also particularly numerous in China, and the subject is frequently dealt with among observers and scholars outside the People’s Republic. But the criteria used to define different generations are not always clear and well founded. Moreover, the definition of the concept of generation itself is disputed and many social scientists, especially in the United States, reject its use outside the realm of kinship. We feel, therefore, obliged to clarify first what we mean by this concept and why it can be useful. This should help us answer our main questions: How do we define the 'generation of the Cultural Revolution'? What is its role in today’s Chinese politics and what could it be in the near future?"


"China has seen rapid economic development as well as severe environmental degradation over the past two decades. Although the Chinese government has made a great effort to provide environmental protection, it has been stymied by China’s economic development pattern, which follows the traditional industrialization mode of low efficiency in resource use and considerable pollutant discharge. In other words, China achieved its rapid economic growth at the cost of depleting natural resources and environmental quality. Should comprehensive and effective actions not be undertaken in the next 15 years, the pollution pressures will exceed China’s environmental carrying capacity and lead to an irreversible environmental crisis. Should this occur, environmental issues would become not only the greatest obstacle to China’s achievement of a xiao kang society and undermine China’s international image, but would also have a severe effect on the global environment."

Nine years into the tumultuous life of Hong Kong as a special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China, it has become clearer what role Hong Kong plays in China’s modernization. This paper argues that Hong Kong’s role is that of a transforming catalyst. In dealing with the affairs of this city, Beijing from time to time has to put aside its normal instincts. This creates opportunities with potentially far-reaching consequences for the nation as a whole even though questions have often been raised as to whether "two systems" will survive as Hong Kong becomes more integrated into "one China." Hong Kong’s plight is difficult and there are constant risks of being overwhelmed by the much larger mainland system. Nevertheless, just looking at what may be seen as Hong Kong’s losses in the process of integration will prevent a deeper examination of how the mainland has been affected at the same time. Hong Kong presents Beijing with many challenging issues as well that go to the core of party ideology and practices. This is not to say that Beijing intends Hong Kong to be a pacesetter for political reform on the mainland, but at least in one corner of the country where debates are in the open and where the people’s behavior is different, the result is that Hong Kong has a gradual transforming effect on China’s modernization by forcing deliberation, debate, and possibly even behavioral change on some of the most sensitive issues to the Chinese leadership.

The article discusses the rapid growth of China's economic, military and diplomatic power. Discussion moved to focus on the profound impact China's ascendance to a global power has had in a wide range of policy arenas. A more challenging question is about the credibility of the country's promises of international peace and good intentions. It is reasonable that a rising power often opts to woo status quo powers while it actually prepares to challenge them. It is smart politically and strategically, but that does not mean it is serious.


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