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Ka-ho Mok, Social and Political Development in Post-Reform China
The beginner in Chinese studies or the Sinologist lacking specialist knowledge on a given subject will often find acquiring the right books to provide that essential piece of knowledge very difficult. Ka-ho Moks book fills part of this gap in a precise area: the evolution of Chinese society. As the writer himself notes, This book confines itself to the way in which reforms initiated in the post-Mao era have affected peoples way of life, critically examining also the impacts of economic reforms on social development and political modernization in the mainland (pp. 1 and 2).
The first part of the book is devoted to the impact of economic growth on living standards, social development and quality of life. The second part deals with social change and the restratification of society; its analysis concentrates on two social categories, state employees and intellectuals. The third part looks at the question of democracy and political development, taking as a particular example the development of private education. In each part, the writer provides a wide range of information and summarises the state of present knowledge about each of the various fields. He draws his information from academic and journalistic writing, but also from his own field studies. When it comes to the present state of knowledge, each chapter offers a detailed presentation of its main conclusions. These show no originality, but they have the advantage of being clearly explained. Chinese peoples standard of living and quality of life have improved significantly, but at the price of growing disparity between different regions and different social groups (chapters 2 and 3). Employees of publicly owned enterprises have seen a brutal deterioration in their standard of living and their status (Chapter 4). Intellectuals are playing an increasingly important role in the economy and particularly in the private economy (Chapter 5). Society as a whole has won a fair margin of autonomy but, as is shown by the example of private universities, the state still substantially restricts this freedom of manoeuvre (chapters 6 and 7). In conclusion, the writer speaks of an unfinished revolution.
Unfortunately, the book has certain failings in method and analysis that might confuse the young student. A significant proportion of the field studies was carried out in Canton. That fact is not in itself damning, but it conditions the results in a way that should have been allowed for in analysing them. There is a flagrant omission in the section dealing with workers status. Here, we are given the results of an opinion poll among workers in three regions (Peking, Shenyang and Zhejiang), without any attempt to differentiate the replies according to geographic area (p. 86): are these workers really homogeneous in their opinions? Speaking more generally, there is a lack of information as to the methodology underpinning the polls: why these cities or these provinces in particular? Why not others? How were the questionnaires framed and collected? Who else collaborated in the survey? And so on.
Another problem arises from the concepts used. Thus, the notion of intellectuals is not defined (pp. 93-94). Sometimes the use of the term is almost Sartrian. At other moments, intellectuals are categorised alongside people with technical skills, such as engineers or professionals. Elsewhere again, the idea seems to be applied to anyone who has been educated to some extent, including public servants. This vagueness is all the more troubling since each of the writers whom Mok cites in support of his analysis (Mannehim or Habermas for instance) defines an intellectual precisely.
In addition, the definition of civil society (pp. 124-127) poses a whole series of problems. These concern the writer only indirectly: the real problem is the use of the concept. Such a case is not rare. The analysis of Chinese society encounters numerous impasses owing to the use of axioms that are never challenged. Modernisation is likened to the appearance of civil society, a private and a public sphere, individual liberty and, lastly, of unstoppable progress towards democracy linked with the development of the market. However, while using the concept of civil society, Ka-ho Mok shows indirectly that he does not contribute much to the analysis. In reality, in most developed countries, state power and the new social forms, (associations, clubs, NGOs) are mutually dependent and not in radical opposition. The existence of this reciprocal development excludes the possibility of identifying social forces that are autonomous or self-creating. In the Chinese context, where state power and social affirmations, private and public, are intimately linked from the start, the search for a totally autonomous civil society has something in common with the quest for the Holy Grail. To put it another way, autonomy can only spring up through the cracks in the concrete.
Another example of both the rigidity and the imprecision of concepts can be drawn from the notion of the public sphere. This idea is used by Habermas in a very precise context: that of Europe at the end of the ancien régime. What is more, this public sphere, an expression of the enlightened bourgeoisie giving its opinion on state affairs, is limited to a very small number of individuals. Above all, it is essential to point out that for Habermas this public sphere is quickly destroyed by a dialectical combination, the socialisation of the state developing along with state control of society((1) to be replaced by the dictatorship of public opinion, which is the opposite of the public sphere. So public sphere is in no case synonymous with democracy or, and still less, with representative democracy.
In the end, the book leaves us still hungry. The lack of critical care over the concepts employed forces the writer into mixed judgements that contribute little to the argument. Let us take an example: Notwithstanding that Chinese people nowadays are generally conscious of the importance of individual rights and personal freedom, it will take a long time to turn China into a genuine democratic society (p. 170). Similarly, consider the assertion repeated several times that the Chinese state, faced with the choice between prosperity or democracy, chooses prosperity: right at the end, the writer contradicts that idea himself when he declares that the only guarantee of the political and social stability required for further economic development is political change (p. 176).
Summing up, the book is very useful for the information it provides us with, but it offers little at the level of a more global analysis of Chinese society and its evolution.
Translated from French by Philip Liddell.
1. Jürgen Habermas, Lespace public, Paris, Payot, 1962, (French edition, 1992). p. 150.