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Deborah S. Davis ed.: The Consumer Revolution in Urban China
This collection of articles edited and compiled by Deborah Davis, deals with the development of the consumer market in China, and fills a large gap in the studies on the social and economic transformations in Chinese towns and cities. Very few foreign publications have attempted to analyse the nature of the development of the market economy in Chinese urban society. Most works on Chinas economy have simply interpreted the advent of the free market in accordance with the neo-classical tradition, which takes the market to be a universal instrument for regulating exchange, whose forms are invariable in every capitalist society. This volume refuses such distorting simplifications, managing to bring its overall analytical framework, which is largely that of Karl Polanyi (1) on the political and economic consequences of the introduction of the free market into a previously planned economy, into line with its detailed sociological studies of consumer patterns in the major urban centres in China.
The six chapters of the opening section deal with what Davis calls the consumer revolution. The different contributors have set themselves the task of showing the growing importance of new modes of behaviour quite distinct from those of the pre-reform period. This difference therefore represents a break from the model based on planning and the work unit, which had previously demonetarised nearly all commercial relations and created a shortage economy. These articles aim at providing an inclusive picture, and deal with changes in the essential aspects of individual daily lives, such as housing, consumer goods for children, food and marriage expenses. The closing sixth chapter is more general, and sets out to evaluate the degree of success (or failure) in achieving the goal set by Deng Xiaoping at the beginning of the reforms, which was a moderate level of material well-being (xiaokang) within an egalitarian society.
The second section is more sociological and anthropological. It analyses the consequences of the development of a more commercial urban society on patterns of sociability, such as the discotheques and the use of hotlines in Shanghai, the bowling alleys in Shenzhen, the Macdonalds outlets in Peking, and the dancing and gymnastics in the public parks in Nanking. According to the authors, these are all focal points for the new modes of communication, which express a radical transformation in the patterns of sociability in Chinese urban society.
Despite the diversity in both analytical approach and the objects being investigated, the editor has asked each contributor to address a more general question, namely whether the consumer revolution has given rise to an expansion of freedoms and, if so, whether or not this has contributed towards the advent of a civil society capable of demanding new political rights.
With regard to the first part of the question, the contributors insist on the speed with which new spaces of freedom, largely independent of the Party and the state, have opened up since the 1980s. In his concluding article, Richard Madsen writes of a second liberation for Chinese individuals and households, using this term to contrast with the first liberation (jiefang) by the Communists in 1949, which rapidly turned into a veritable prison for freedom of thought and action. But several of the contributors stress that, despite some tangible results so far, the consumer transformation is not yet complete. Lu Hanlongs article shows the extent to which the state remains largely in control of the redistribution of individual resources (and hence of purchasing power), particularly in the privatisation of housing, and the way in which certain kinds of consumption (like restaurant banquets, or the purchase of official cars) are in fact directly linked to corruption and the abuse of public funds.
There is far less unanimity on the question of whether the consumer revolution has had any influence on the development of a civil society capable of claiming new political rights. The more positive contributors feel able to stress the fact that a definite step forward has been taken, that new spaces of freedom have been opened up in a process which the state and the Party would now find it very difficult to reverse, and that if by any chance a liberalisation in the political system should come about, these spaces would play a stabilising role in the development towards a full democracy in China. But most of the writers are still cautious, and point above all to the ability of the Party and state to restrict the new freedoms to the private sphere. As soon as there is any sign of movement towards political demands, the apparati brandish the weapons of repression, to show the individuals concerned that there is a limit that cannot be crossed. This point is made quite clearly in Kathleen Erwins article on the development of hotlines in Shanghai, which are tightly controlled by members of the Party and keep well away from broaching political questions. Other contributors, like David Wank, are much more pessimistic. His excellent article, on the use of cigarettes as a medium of exchange in business, rightly insists on the omnipresence of the state in the economic realm, and shows to what extent it sets up new hierarchies of domination within the post-reform relations between individuals. This raises the wider question as to whether the development of consumerism may have allowed the political regime to survive, and even to strengthen its hold in certain respects, enabling it to renew its claim to legitimacy, not on the basis of the old Communist rhetoric of egalitarianism, but rather on its claim to generate a higher standard of living, and provide access to a level of mass consumerism equal to that of capitalist countries. Otherwise, how could the Communist regime have survived into an epoch when East Asian society as a whole is enjoying unprecedented prosperity? This brings to mind a comparison with Germany, and the superb analysis provided by the American historian Kopstein, for whom the East German socialist project was doomed to failure because it could not provide its citizens with a level of consumption equal to the one prevalent in West Germany (2).
The only matter for regret is that, in spite of the analytical abundance and a chapter dealing with Xian (though it is concerned with wedding consumption in the Hui community), the conclusions drawn by this volume are derived almost entirely from examples taken from the coastal regionsmost of the chapters in fact deal with Shanghai. Of course, the development of the consumer market has been much more spectacular there than in the hinterland, but it would have been interesting to approach it via a comparison with two or three chapters focusing on the large urban centres in the interior that are undergoing re-organisation in the state sector, for that could have provided a more complete picture of this peaceful revolution.
Translated from French original by Jonathan Hall
1. Karl Polyani, The Great Transformation, Beacon Press, Boston, 1944.
2. Jeffrey Kopstein, The Politics of Economic Decline in East Germany, 1945-1989, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1997, 246 pp.