China today: Individual autonomy with hard limits
Journalist Evan Osnos. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

China today: Individual autonomy with hard limits

Economic reforms and prosperity have opened up a "space of contradiction" between the individual and the state in China, says journalist Evan Osnos.

“People in their daily lives feel this extraordinary sense of possibility about private decisions, about economic decisions, but not about political decisions,” said Osnos.

by Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, October 9, 2014 —
China’s enormous economic growth over the past three decades has fueled an “age of ambition,” said journalist Evan Osnos on October 6. This ambition is both national and personal in nature: a collective national aspiration to establish a glorious place for China in the world, on one hand, and the individual aspirations of 1.4 billion Chinese people, on the other. 

A staff writer for The New Yorker, Osnos spoke about his new book, “China: Age of Ambition” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014), at a discussion cosponsored by UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations, Center for Chinese Studies, Asia Institute and School of Law. The discussion was moderated by Burkle Center Director Kal Raustiala and included commentary by historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom, anthropologist Yunxiang Yan and law professor Alex Wang.

Economic reform and social change have sparked a process of individualization in a society that has long defined the individual in terms of the collective, said Osnos. But although people in China have gained great autonomy to make personal decisions about their lives, this autonomy does not extend to political participation.

In this sense, argued the speaker, the recent demonstrations in Hong Kong (against election rules for the former colony’s elections in 2017) — provide a window into the underlying political, social and economic dynamics of what is occurring in the Chinese mainland.

Prosperity and its impact

When China initiated market-oriented reforms in the late 1970s, said Osnos, the country was poorer than North Korea. Today, the country’s sudden prosperity is visible in multiple spheres, with reforms having enabled people to take their first steps out of poverty. 

China now has the world’s second-largest economy, per capita income has grown from roughly US$200 in 1978 to roughly US$6,000 today, the average Chinese person now eats six times as much meat as he or she did in 1976, and the Chinese government currently lends more money to the developing world than does the World Bank.

At the same time, Osnos noted the enormous gap between the wealthy and the poor in China. The country also remains the world’s largest authoritarian state, with the distinction of being the only state to have a Nobel Peace Prize winner in jail. 

In the socialist era, individuals were encouraged to be “the rustless screw in the machine of socialist development.” Osnos argued, however, that economic reform fundamentally changed what it felt like to be an individual in China. People reported, for example, feeling “unfettered” by policy changes that dissolved traditional institutional ties and encouraged them to rely on themselves. 

Suddenly, people had two jobs and “ambition” became a less pejorative term. Choices in love and marriage also became personal, as the state consciously freed people from the restrictions of arranged marriages and changed the role of women in Chinese society. Matchmakers disappeared, ceding their role to personal advertisements. “Autonomy,” said the speaker “began to creep into people’s lives.” 

Osnos contended that China today is driven by the search for fortune, truth and faith. In this argument, once people acquire a modicum of material well-being in the country, they quickly recognize that their property is not secure. As a result, they can no longer afford not to pay attention to who is making and who is breaking the rules. Their consequent demand for information (i.e., the search for truth) — via traditional media, the Internet and social media — prompts people to ask deeper questions about morality, values and the ultimate ends of both society and the country. Those questions in turn have led to a revival of religious expression.

Long lines at an Apple Store in Beijing. (Photo: Cory M. Grenier, 2011;  cropped).
CC BY-SA 2.0

The individual and the state: A space of contradiction

Momentous economic and social change has created great tensions in the relationship between the individual and the state in China. “People in their daily lives feel this extraordinary sense of possibility about private decisions, about economic decisions, but not about political decisions,” observed Osnos. “And that, for me, is the great unreconciled puzzle in China.” 

The speaker agreed with Yunxiang Yan, who argued that the Chinese state had consciously pushed the process of “individualization” (Yan’s term) — already slowly occurring in its people — by reforming state enterprises, introducing market mechanisms and creating new social spaces for the individual. 

Yan, professor of anthropology and director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, noted that the remaking of the individual in China was an ongoing process. “But the Chinese state has drawn a boundary about how far this can go,” he said, noting that the government sought to encourage only a consumerist, and not a political, version of individualism.

Alex Wang, assistant professor of law at UCLA, added, “The state is attempting to use legal tools to unleash the power of individuals within society in support of state goals. The conflict is [that] individuals see this opening. . . and attempt to use it for their own ends.” In particular, people are taking advantage of this space to press for such things as environmental protection, food safety and product safety. 

Osnos pointed out that Chinese people do not see the individual and the state in conflict, echoing Yan’s observation that the Chinese people perceive the state as the “deliverer of development.” However, said Osnos, “People are hugely conflicted about what ambition means. They feel it themselves, they feel it in the world around them, but they feel clearly that this is not a western import. . . . Chinese people’s definition of what constitutes a good life is changing and we must keep up with it,” he concluded.

Asked to tease out the difference between the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Chinese state, all the discussants agreed that it was virtually impossible to distinguish the two. The Party’s conflation of the two entities is a “game of smoke and mirrors,” commented Jeffrey Wasserstrom, chancellor’s professor of history at the University of California Irvine. For the past two decades, he argued, the CPC has made a concerted effort at the symbolic level to encourage people to stop thinking about the Party and to think more about a normal state. 

Leaders of the Party now dress in western business suits, they use the word ‘president’ instead of ‘General Secretary, continued Wasserstrom. “It’s not just playing down the Communist Party,” he remarked, but also playing down the idea of a one-party state. Alex Wang agreed, saying the willful mixing of the two entities was “an attempt to obscure what the Party is doing.”

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Yunxiang Yan, Evan Osnos, Kal Raustiala and Alex Wang. (Photo: Peggy McInterny/ UCLA.)

Hong Kong: The Canary in the Coal Mine?

Although the demonstrations in Hong Kong highlight tensions that are also present in mainland China, Osnos characterized the situation there as a conflict between the nationalist ethic of the mainland and the global ethic of Hong Kong, whose residents see it as the global city of Asia.

Wassertrom offered the metaphor of the canary in a mine shaft, noting that the same metaphor was used before Hong Kong became part of mainland China in 1997. He observed that the island has preserved a high degree of freedom of speech, including a critical press and the availability of books not sold in the mainland, by pushing back when China has tried to rein it in. “It is important to see these current protests as following on years of protests, some of which have been successful.” That kind of experience, he said, “is in part what emboldens people.”

Yet Wasserstrom cautioned against looking at the demonstrations as another Tiananmen Square or a color revolution, urging people “to make space in [their] minds for a lot of different results.” Wang agreed, predicting that the demonstrations would produce bare-knuckled negotiations between the Chinese government and the protestors, with any results very narrowly construed.