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