Edward Steinfeld’s article is an important contribution to current debates about political change in China. Where others see only economic growth, Steinfeld argues that genuine political change is underway. And his conception of that change encompasses institutional, behavioral, and attitudinal dimensions: the recomposition of the ruling establishment, societal pluralization, new forms of political discourse and political participation, and new legal, regulatory, and market structures. This is a broad but fitting understanding of political change in contemporary China. In a society under epochal transformation, change in one field necessarily impinges on others.
Steinfeld focuses mainly on the urban industrial sector, the state bureaucracy, the export sector, and the higher education system. I largely agree with his insights there. He argues that all kinds of new actors, including foreign-trained professionals, now populate these core sectors. To absorb these people, new rules and structures, largely market-based, have been introduced, and the hierarchical structures of the socialist command economy have been replaced. Consequently, new types of state-society relations have evolved, and the state no longer controls its citizens as it used to.
These changes had no clear logic, and yet their cumulative effects are revolutionary. As Steinfeld points out, new actors may introduce change through existing institutions. To some observers the employment of Western-trained professionals by state institutions may indicate the co-optation of the new educated elites. But Steinfeld hints that these educated elites are becoming increasingly influential in moving public attitudes and expectations in new directions.
The focus on the urban-economic and bureaucratic sectors, however, leaves out other important institutional developments—in particular the incipient non-governmental sector and the lively, albeit censored, Internet-based citizen media. Both have grown rapidly despite serious political challenges. In December 1997 China had about 670,000 Internet users. By December 2010 this number had shot to 457 million. The numbers for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are less clear because numerous organizations operate in grey zones, without official registration. But even the number of registered NGOs has increased quickly, reaching 447,243 by early 2011.
Emerging in the mid-1990s—the first influential NGO was founded in 1994, the year China was linked to the Internet—NGOs have exerted influence on state regulatory agencies and empowered citizens to a previously unknown degree. A good example of the growing impact of the non-governmental sector on Chinese institutional structures is the fate of the One Foundation, launched in 2007 by the movie star Jet Li. It had to operate under the auspices of the quasi-governmental Red Cross Society of China because Chinese regulations stipulate that NGOs must be overseen by a government agency. In January of this year the One Foundation successfully registered as an independent private foundation in the large coastal city of Shenzhen. Shenzhen has a new system that requires NGOs only to register with the municipal civil affairs department, without a supervisory government agency. This system is at odds with national regulations, suggesting that, as Steinfeld argues, non-governmental actors are inducing institutional evolution.
So disempowering are Chinese markets that a term was invented for ‘powerless social groups.’
This evolutionary process is similarly evident in online engagement. Chinese citizens have successfully used online forums, blogs, and increasingly microblogs, to expose corrupt officials, challenge government policies, and seek political change. The most recent case is the ongoing election campaign launched by independent candidates for seats in local people’s congresses. The last time independent candidates entered an election campaign so publicly was in 1980. The enthusiasm and audacity of those candidates led to a crackdown, and the few who won the elections were barred from assuming their posts. Today’s candidates are relying heavily on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging service, with more than a hundred million registered users. As soon as the campaign started in April, Sina Weibo became a publicity and organizing platform for independent candidates. The most visible such candidate, the popular writer and sports commentator Li Chengpeng, has three million followers on Sina Weibo and is using the service to discuss political participation. Searches on Sina Weibo for “independent candidates” and “people’s congress election campaign” yield tens of thousands of results, indicating lively discussions about campaign issues. Official news media have begun to chastise the independents for their unruliness, and the campaign is arousing citizens’ consciousness of their rights to vote and stand for election.
Despite the changes clearly afoot, Steinfeld may overstate the discontinuity between past and present. He rejects the “old” days too easily. True, those days were materially constrained and politically controlled. But Steinfeld overlooks astounding social inequality in contemporary China when he claims that today you “secure life necessities—everything from education to health care—primarily by shelling out cash.” Certainly—if you can afford them. Many Chinese, especially the older generation, who experienced the socialist era, and the rural poor, are not happy about their economic prospects.
A related weakness is Steinfeld’s emphasis on the empowerment of new actors, such as foreign-trained returnee technocrats in the state bureaucracy; returnee engineers, social scientists, and managers in business and finance; multinational business leaders; social entrepreneurs; and media professionals. He leaves out migrant workers, villagers, laid-off workers, and other disempowered social groups. Indeed, disempowerment is so much a part of the increasingly market-driven process that a new term, ruoshi qunti (“powerless social groups”), has become a key word in contemporary Chinese discourse. Thus the broad trend of social empowerment has been accompanied by a worrisome counter-process.
Finally, Steinfeld seems to view the market as a uniformly positive driver of political change. Many of the beneficial institutional changes he identifies pertain to markets, such as those for labor, housing, and health care. These may well be among the most important new developments, but in view of growing labor unrest, a deeply troubled health-care system, and a predatory real estate market that not only far exceeds the means of ordinary citizens but has dire ecological consequences, we have yet to gauge the depths of the human costs of these market-driven changes and the kinds of political change they may give rise to.