Wednesday, November 22, 2017

China today


There are a lot of opinions about China today in the United States -- authoritarian, farsighted, effective at economic progress, overly committed to Party authority, challenged by the environmental effects of rapid economic growth, burdened by a corrupt and aging party elite. Some believe China is on the path to becoming a dominant super power, while others think that the suppression of individual freedom and thought is a fatal weakness that will eventually spell serious problems for Chinese stability and progress.

Several specific impressions from a recent trip to China leave me with more nuanced versions of several of those thoughts. Here is one: whenever you drive into a parking garage in virtually any major city in China your license plate is immediately scanned and stored. This makes it very convenient for parking -- you don't need a ticket and the parking charge is automatically added to your form of payment when you leave. But it also means the state has the tools necessary to create a vast and up-to-the-moment database of the current locations of millions of citizens. This is part of a surveillance system on a truly massive scale. We know how important this kind of meta-data is in the case of phone and email records -- think how much more of a reduction of privacy it creates when your vehicle is tracked from highway to parking garage to surveillance camera on the street. And why does the parking lot scanning system exist? Surely for the purpose of social monitoring and control. Patterns of movement as well as current locations can be analyzed and inferences can be drawn about one's private life, social connections, or current plans. (Is there a concentration of vehicles around a certain address corresponding to membership in an environmental action organization? Is more intensive investigation needed to head off a possible demonstration or protest?) So this small detail -- ubiquitous license plate scanners -- points to a more basic feature of the vision China's leaders have for the relation between state and individual. It is the panopticon.

Here is a related observation. Take a look at these photos of classrooms at different universities.


Notice the video surveillance system at the rear of the room in each photo. Why is it there? How does it affect the behavior and speech of students and professors? The answer is fairly obvious. The video device has a chilling effect on the content of a professor's lecture and the comments that students make, whether or not it is currently functioning. It permits direct monitoring of the content of classroom discussion. There are a handful of large subjects that cannot be discussed in the classroom. Everyone knows what those topics are, and where the sensitivities of the political officials lie. The seven forbidden subjects include universal values, freedom of speech, civil society, civil rights, historical errors of the CCP, crony capitalism, and judicial independence (link). And a recent program of disciplinary inspections of universities ordered by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) demonstrate the seriousness of the central government's resolve on the points (link). So the mere fact of the presence of the video device is a reminder to students and faculty that their words and thoughts can have large consequences in their future careers. And we can predict that this fact will change the way students and faculty think and express themselves. Once again -- surveillance and control. This environment is bad for students and faculty; but more fundamentally, it is bad for China's longterm ability to foster creativity and independence of mind among its future leaders.


Here is a third observation, in an entirely different key. It is the sudden appearance of the yellow bicycle in many cities in China, almost overnight. This is a bike-sharing system that uses a phone app so the user can find a bike nearby, rent it for a short trip, and leave it wherever he or she wishes. Ofo and its similar competitor Mobike are funded by some of China's biggest and most innovative companies -- Tencent, Foxconn, and Alibaba. This is very convenient for the "last mile" problem of how to get a commuter from the bus or subway stop to the final destination. This innovation too has a major surveillance aspect -- as soon as I pick up a yellow bike I'm on the radar thanks to the connected GPS device on the bike. But mostly it's an interesting example of the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship that is underway in China today. Is it a viable business model? That isn't yet clear. Does it solve a persistent problem in cities with hundreds of thousands of commuters underway everyday? That too is uncertain, given the challenge of scaling such a system in a city the size of Shanghai. Does it have the potential for creating brand new problems of urban behavior? Certainly so, given the unmanageable piles of yellow bikes you now see in many locations in Chinese cities. Does it give a basis for optimism about local initiative in China as a solution to its problems? Yes, for sure. The very speed of this onslaught of the yellow bicycle gives amazing evidence of China ability to quickly try out novel systems and solutions. (The bikes have shown up in a big way in Seattle as well, along with their orange and lime cousins.)

It's hard to miss important signs of social change in ordinary consumer behavior as well. In 24 hours in Shanghai I saw several Porsches, two Maseratis and a Bentley -- more super-luxury cars than I've ever seen in Michigan. In a city of 40-50 million maybe that's not exceptional, but that's part of the point: the scale of China's population and economy means that there is a class of super-rich, affluent, and middle class people that may be larger than many European countries. This implies a rapid upward shift in the income distribution. It also demonstrates the increasing purchasing power that China brings to the world economy.

A final observation is familiar but important -- China's success in rapidly creating an extensive network of bullet trains. It is now possible to travel by train from Shanghai to Beijing in 4.5 hours -- compared to twelve hours just ten years ago. This is roughly the distance between New York and Chicago. This too has been an impressively rapid development, and it has the potential for changing the social and urban networks of China. This contrasts painfully with the inability of the United States to effectively address its infrastructure problems, let alone creating new transportation options. The Chinese state's consistency and perseverence on an infrastructure plan have paid off with major benefits to the economy and society.

These snippets seem to point to some very important facts about China today. One is the confidence and stability created by several decades of sustained, real economic growth and infrastructure improvement. The lives of vast numbers of Chinese people are substantially better off, in almost all sectors. Second, the weight of surveillance and control has visibly and disturbingly increased in the past ten years. The central government and party are very serious about maintaining ideological control, and they have increasingly effective tools for doing so. Moreover, this level of control seems to be largely accepted by young people and university leaders alike. And third, China is demonstrating its ability to compete at a global level in the areas of business innovation and scientific and technological research. University research centers are increasingly able to deliver on the promise of offering world-class research progress on a wide range of scientific and technological problems.

So in some ways the assumptions made in the United States about China's current realities seem to be a bit off. The speed and quality of China's economic growth is greater than most American commentators believe, and this record of success seems to have created a deeper reservoir of legitimacy and acceptance by the Chinese citizenry than is often believed. Second, the power and security of the central state seems greater than often imagined, and the determination of China's leaders to maintain power and ideological control seems more likely to succeed than many American commentators believe. President Xi and his political apparatus show every indication of an ability to carry out their agenda of continuing economic growth and strict ideological control.

So the current really looks something like this: an authoritarian state apparatus that succeeds in managing economic strategies and individual behavior surprisingly effectively. An authoritarian party state with continuing economic progress seems to be in the cards for China's future for at least the next few decades.

There is a better and more inspiring vision of the future for China. It is a future in which citizens and leaders alike have confidence in the capability of everyone to contribute to China's progress. It is a future in which discussion, criticism, and alternative ideas are expressed freely. It is a future where no one has the power to unilaterally decide China's future, no matter how well intentioned. It is a world in which the Chinese people decide their own priorities and plans, and one in which progress and harmony continue.

This is a pluralist and democratic vision of China's future. And most fundamentally, it is a vision that is hard for the CCP to embrace, because it seems inconsistent with single party rule. So it is hard to see how this future can emerge from the current configuration of power, authority, and ideology.

(Andrew Nathan's recent piece in the New York Review of Books provides useful insights into these topics; link. Nathan sheds more doubt on the "soothing scenario" -- the idea that China will soon evolve towards a more open-minded form of democratic society because of its involvement in the liberal framework of global trading relations. China is not "evolving" towards a more democratic form of socialism; and it is not showing signs of collapse under its own economic inadequacies either.)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Europe after World War II


Europe faces major challenges today, from the rise of the extreme right to Brexit to the ongoing threat of ISIS terror. But these challenges pale against those faced across the map of Europe in 1945 and for the next twenty years or so. Tony Judt makes the depth and power of those challenges and changes very clear in his 2005 book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Here is a good statement of his vision of the period from early in the book. 
An era was over and a new Europe was being born. This much was obvious. But with the passing of the old order many longstanding assumptions would be called into question. What had once seemed permanent and somehow inevitable would take on a more transient air. The Cold-War confrontation; the schism separating East from West; the contest between ‘Communism’ and ‘capitalism’; the separate and non-communicating stories of prosperous western Europe and the Soviet bloc satellites to its east: all these could no longer be understood as the products of ideological necessity or the iron logic of politics. They were the accidental outcomes of history—and history was thrusting them aside. (kl 250)
Since 1989—with the overcoming of long-established inhibitions—it has proven possible to acknowledge (sometimes in the teeth of virulent opposition and denial) the moral price that was paid for Europe’s rebirth. Poles, French, Swiss, Italians, Romanians and others are now better placed to know—if they wish to know—what really happened in their country just a few short decades ago. Even Germans, too, are revisiting the received history of their country—with paradoxical consequences. Now—for the first time in many decades—it is German suffering and German victimhood, whether at the hands of British bombers, Russian soldiers or Czech expellers—that are receiving attention. The Jews, it is once again being tentatively suggested in certain respectable quarters, were not the only victims . . . (kl 439)
And in this 900-page masterpiece Judt lays it all out.

The book has a fantastic level of texture, allowing the reader to gain a powerful sense of experiencing the deprivations, crimes, and successes of the period. Judt makes significant use of economic statistics to give a scaled impression of the devastation of the immediate post-war years and the rapid growth that occurred in many countries. From the number of cars on Italy's roads in 1960 to the plummeting numbers of cinema tickets purchased in Britain in the same year, Judt manages to use the economic statistics to give a powerful impression of the ways in which life was changing across the continent. But equally Judt is at home with the culture, cinema, and literary currents of these countries and times. He is particularly adept in using film to illustrate the themes and patterns of experience that characterized change in these countries and decades.

A more somber thread of the narrative is Judt's telling of the horrendous experience of the Stalinist and post-Stalin states in Eastern Europe. Show trials every bit as horrifying as those in the USSR itself, murderous crackdowns by the Soviet military in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, the resurgence of official anti-semitism in Poland, and the establishment of a regime of repression and violence throughout Eastern Europe -- Judt provides fine detail for stories that often get just a sentence or two in recollections of the Cold War. The separate histories of Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and Yugoslavia during these years all warrant close attention.

Perhaps more than in most histories, Judt's narrative makes it clear that there are large moral realities interwoven with the facts and events he conveys. Individuals commit actions that are deplorable or admirable. But more profoundly, whole nations were confronted with choices and actions in these decades that were formative for generations to come. This is nowhere more apparent than in the ways different European countries dealt with their own responsibility for the extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust. Judt deals with this issue in the epilogue to the book, and it is an important piece of historical writing all by itself. (A version was published in the New York Review of Books (link).) He demonstrates that almost none of the involved nations -- especially the Netherlands, Poland, Italy, France -- lived up to the duty of confronting honestly the behavior of its citizens and officials during the Shoah. France's mendacity in particular on the subject of its willing deportation of 65,000 Jews created a permanent stain on French culture -- and it laid the basis for the continuation of denial of French responsibility by the FN up to the present day.

Judt's grasp of the details of the separate threads of history that he weaves together is truly impressive. Individuals, ideas, events, and interconnections across countries flood off the pages in a depth and precision that is hard to fathom. I find myself wondering what his work process was -- vast numbers of note cards? Stacks of annotated reference books? A prodigious memory? Every work of historical writing involves a large volume of factual material. But this book stands out for the fact that it provides expert and detailed discussion of several dozen countries in their political histories, economic transformations, and cultural and literary scenes. And there isn't one story line but several -- the intricacies of the Cold War, the shifting facets of youth culture, the fate of anti-semitism, the struggles in many countries to create effective social democracies. 

This is a book that everyone should read who wants to make humane sense of the past seventy years, and it helps greatly in underlining how important the project of creating a durable set of European political, social, and cultural institutions is.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

A localist approach to Chinese politics


How do the domestic politics of China work, from 1949 to the present?

This question covers many issues: Why does the Chinese state act as it does? Why does it choose the policies it has pursued over time? How does the Chinese Communist Party work? What are the mechanisms of policy formulation and adoption in China? How do ordinary people and groups express their needs and wishes? What kinds of issues lead to mobilization and protest? How does the state respond?

One thing apparent in these questions is the polarity they presuppose: state and civil society, central government and the people. But in fact, of course, this polarity obscures a crucial stratification of levels of political power and authority. There is an extensive central government, of course, with substantial power. But there are also units of government at lower levels -- province, county, city, town, and village. Officials at each of these levels have powers, authority, and responsibility; and there are powerful stakeholders at each level who have the ability to pressure and influence their actions. Moreover, central government often wants to control and lead the actions of lower-level units of government. But this is a loosely connected system, and actors at various levels have significant freedom of action with respect to the mandates of higher levels. So there are deep principal-agent problems that are manifest throughout the Chinese political system.

This limited ability of the central state to enforce its will throughout the system of political action is what Vivienne Shue refers to as the "limited reach of the state" in The Reach of the State: Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic. Philip Kuhn documented similar weakness during the late Imperial period in Rebellion and its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864. He demonstrates the importance of local militias led by local elites in the response to the Taiping rebellion. And Elizabeth Perry describes the local politics of mobilization, unrest, and repression in the late Imperial period in Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945. So it is apparent that political power exercised at lower levels of Chinese society has been important for several centuries. (I discuss most of these authors in Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science.)

Given this segmentation of political power in China, both historically and in the current time, it is important to understand the dynamics of government at lower levels as well if we are to understand the overall behavior of the system.

This is the task that Juan Wang sets for herself in her excellent recent book, The Sinews of State Power: The Rise and Demise of the Cohesive Local State in Rural China. She has chosen the title deliberately; she wants to demonstrate that China's overall political behavior is the result of a complex interplay among multiple levels of political organization. In particular, she finds that the particulars of the relationships that exist between three levels of local government have important consequences for the actions of the central government.

There are numerous strengths of Wang's treatment. One is her emphasis on disaggregation: don't consider political power as an undifferentiated whole, but instead as an interlocking system including both central authority and local political institutions and actors. Second, Wang's approach is admirably actor-centered. She attempts to understand the political situation of local officials and cadres from their own points of view, identifying the risks they are eager to avoid, the motivations they are pursuing, and sometimes the individual rewards that lie behind their decisions and actions. As she points out, their behaviors often look quite different from the idealized expectations of officials and cadres in specific roles.
This book focuses on intergovernmental relations among the county, township, and village levels of administration for the following reasons. First, in terms of central-local relations, these three levels, which constitute the CCP's local and grassroots reach, are the most remote from the national power center. Their actions reflect the capacity of the regime for agency control. Second, in terms of state-society relations, governments at the county level and below have the most immediate interaction with rural residents. Everyday interactions between farmers and government officials can reach the county level but rarely farther up. Third, historically the CCP's unprecedented success in bringing the party-state to the countryside was realized by building the county-township-village state apparatus and a cadre corps to staff them. This study is an account of how that came to be and, more recently, how it then unraveled. (5)
Wang believes that one of the greatest concerns of the central state is the frequency of occurrences of popular unrest -- demonstrations, appeals against corrupt officials, protests against land seizures and environmental problems. Local officials have an interest in containing these kinds of protests. But significantly, Wang finds that sometimes local cadres align themselves with protesters rather than officials, and even serve as instigators and leaders of local protests.

One of her central theoretical tools is the idea of "elite coherence"; her core thesis is that the coherence of interests and identity among officials and cadres at the local level is showing signs of breaking down. And this, she believes, has important consequences for social stability.
The formation and maintenance of intrastate alliances therefore require certain conditions to be present. Inspired by the literature on collective action and contentious politics ..., I focus on the following causes that facilitate the formation of collective action: common interests, selective interests (such as distributive benefits), networks (i.e., interpersonal interactions), and emotions among state agents across the three types of actors. (9)
The switching of allegiance of the village cadres is a factor that Wang believes to be of great importance for China's future stability.
Based on my fieldwork, an increasing percentage of collective action in the countryside after 2000 was mobilized, supported, or joined by village cadres.... The decline in administrative functions for brigade and commune cadres led to an excess of government personnel. Later, administrative reforms aimed at streamlining the communes and village brigades took place. Losing their power, grassroots cadres increased their loyalty toward the local community. Together with the revival of kinship groups, grassroots cadres spearheaded numerous illegal actions and riots. (31)
Key to changes in the alignment of the governmental system from central state to township or village is the issue of revenue extraction. If a given level of government lacks the ability to extract revenues from its area of jurisdiction, it will be unable to carry out policies and projects whether locally conceived or centrally mandated. Wang finds that there were crucial changes in revenue policies that fundamentally altered the political relations among levels of local government.
Important structural changes in the tripartite relationship occurred after 2000, which ultimately disrupted local state alliances. On the one hand, the central policy changes in the early 2000s recentralized fiscal and political autonomy and authority to the county level. The creation of a county leviathan reduced previous mutual reliance between counties and townships. On the other hand, sources of government revenue and personal benefits at township and village levels began to subside. The competitiveness of collectively owned TVEs against state-owned enterprises (SOEs) helped facilitate central policy toward further liberalization. The privatization of small and medium SOEs and TVEs finally bypassed collectively owned TVEs in market competition. (91)
One important topic that Wang does not consider in depth is the means through which the central state attempts to solve its problems of limited control over local officials. Contrary to Tip O'Neill, it is not the case that "all politics is local." What Wang describes in the book is a series of principal-agent problems that impede the effective control of the central government over local officials; but the central state has exercised itself to gain more complete compliance by its local agents through a variety of means (accommodation, threat and intimidation, anti-corruption campaigns, ...). The central state is by no means powerless in the face of contrarian local officials and cadres. The example of the village of Wukan is instructive (link). At the time of its organized resistance to corruption and bad officials, it appeared that villagers had won important victories. Now, six years later, it is apparent that the central state was able to prevail, and the protest movement was crushed. More generally, the central state has prevailed in the implementation of numerous large policies over the opposition of local people, including the dislocations created by the Three Gorges Dam project.

Wang's study is a good example of the dynamics of social power arrangements theorized by Fligstein and McAdam in their theory of strategic action fields (link). The interplay among different levels of officials and cadres that Wang describes appears to be precisely the kind of fluid, network- and relationship-based set of alliances through which power and influence are wielded within organizations, according to Fligstein and McAdam.

The Sinews of State Power is an excellent contribution to our understanding of how political decisions and compromises are reached in China in the current period. It will be very interesting to see whether the current efforts by Xi Jinping will succeed in resetting the balance of power between the center and provincial and local authorities, as appears to be his goal.

(Readers may also be interested in Guobin Yang's analysis of Internet activism in China in The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. Yang's book is an excellent exploration of several important causes of popular dissent in contemporary China -- exactly the kinds of issues that lead to protest and petition in Wang's account as well; link. Also of interest is a recent collection edited by Kevin O'Brien and Rachel Stern, Popular Protest in China; link.)

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Ten years of Understanding Society


This month marks the tenth anniversary of Understanding Society. The blog now includes 1,176 posts on topics in the philosophy of social science, the heterogeneity of the social world, current thinking about social problems, and occasional contributions on how we can envision a better future. Thanks to all of the readers who have visited during the past twelve months!

The blog continues to serve as a simulating outlet for intellectual work for me. Each post is roughly a thousand words, and my aim is to develop one idea or address one problem in the post. I've never tried for consistency or thematic coherence over time; the blog is more of a research notebook for me, allowing me to capture ideas and topics as they come up. Since the beginning I've looked at it as a kind of "open source philosophy," allowing for the development of ideas and arguments in a piecemeal way. At the same time, it serves as a kind of seismograph for me, letting me recall the kind of topics that have come to the fore over time.

And, as I had hoped, the blog has created a platform for moving ideas from conception to academic publication for new ideas. My book New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science appeared about a year ago, and it was wholly developed through the blog.


In the past year there have been a number of posts on familiar topics -- critical realism, social mechanisms, and social inequality, for example. These are enduring topics in my research and writing. But a few new topics have arisen as well. One is the question of the dynamics and extent of hate-driven political movements, such as the populist-nationalist extremism of the Trump campaign and presidency (link). Another is completely unrelated -- the fascinating history of fundamental physics during the early decades is the twentieth century, culminating in the development of the atomic bomb (link). And a third is an emerging area of interest for me -- the nature and causes of organizational dysfunction in contemporary institutions (link). I've even had occasion to reflect on cephalopod intelligence (link).

The blog continues to enjoy increasing numbers of visitors. Google recorded over 140,000 page views on the blog in the past month, resulting in over 1.5 million page views over the past year. Part of that traffic comes from followers on Twitter (2,106), Facebook (7,786), Google+ (1,621), and Flipboard, and a great number of the visits are directed by Google searches on relevant topics.

So thank you, readers and visitors, and I hope you will keep reading and commenting!