Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China. By Xi Chen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 241 pp., $95.00 hardcover (ISBN-13: 978-1-107-01486-2). Economic Openness and Territorial Politics in China. By Yumin Sheng. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 292 pp., $85.00 hardcover (ISBN-13 978-0-521-19538-6).

How will the new leadership team in China cope with challenges from dissatisfied citizens and restive provinces? The two books under review approach these questions from the perspective of Chinese state institutions and investigate the tools they use to maintain political control and manage social protest. In Economic Openness and Territorial Politics in China, Yumin Sheng focuses on the fiscal and personnel policies the Chinese central government employs to maintain political control over the wealthier Chinese provinces that have benefited most from economic openness. Xi Chen's Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China examines the institutions and strategies that enable the Chinese party state to routinize social protest.

Using an empirical cross-national analysis, Sheng takes issue with theories predicting that economic globalization leads to a decline in state power. Drawing on William Riker's (1964) work on federalism, the author argues instead that in political systems, where political power is centralized, the national government has economic and political incentives to control winner regions to extract revenue from them, redistribute wealth within the country, and prevent pressures for regional autonomy from diminishing central control.

Turning to the Chinese case, Sheng first reviews the history of China's economic opening in the 1980s and 1990s. When the preferential policies that enabled coastal provinces to boom resulted in growing economic disparities, in the mid-1990s Chinese national leaders implemented fiscal reforms to redistribute wealth from the coastal winners to the inland losers. Another important goal of fiscal recentralization was to redress a growing power imbalance between the center and the provinces and restore control over corrupt local leaders whose policies were creating conditions for instability and rural protest (Oi, Singer Babierz, Zhang, Luo, and Rozelle 2012).

How did the leadership in Beijing rein in recalcitrant provincial leaders from the coastal winner regions? According to Sheng, the central authorities maintain their political predominance through single-party rule and the political center's “monopoly of the ruling-party nomenklatura authority over top-echelon provincial cadres” (Sheng, p. 136). Using a statistical analysis of provincial level data, Sheng concludes that the Chinese leadership was more likely to select the more “bureaucratically integrated” cadres (that is, those with concurrent central government or party positions or substantial experience in such positions) to become provincial leaders in winner provinces. Making a parallel argument about the role of the nomenklatura system and the center's power of appointment of leaders of industries with ministerial rank, such as the state-owned oil companies, Kjeld Erik Brødsgaard (2012) argues that China has a system of “fragmented integration,” in which economic interests are incorporated into a system of centralized political control.

The nomenklatura system can work both ways, however. On the one hand, it gives the national authorities in Beijing political leverage over appointees in the provinces and state-owned enterprises. On the other hand, the personnel system provides networking opportunities for provincial leaders seeking to influence central government policies. Bo Kong's detailed case study of the lobbying by Yunnan province, in cooperation with the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) behind the Myanmar-China oil pipeline, portrays Bai Enpei, Secretary of the Yunnan Provincial Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Committee, as using his spot on the CCP Central Committee to make a case for the strategic value of the oil pipeline, when in fact provincial economic concerns were driving his interest (Kong 2010). Because of the rotation of staff in the nomenklatura system, both Bei Enpei and CNPC chairman Jiang Jiemian had served together in Qinghai province, facilitating the Yunnan official's effort to enlist CNPC support for the project. Although the project would provide a marginal increase in energy security considering the cost of construction, it would benefit the Yunnan economy and provide a new market for CNPC. Detailed case studies such as this truly capture the complexity of economic relations between the center and the provinces in China, though Sheng's clear presentation of statistical analysis will be of great interest to political scientists who use quantitative methods.

The nomenklatura system, developed by Stalin in the 1920s, and introduced in communist states globally, was widely believed to be a stabilizing force and bulwark against pressures for change emerging in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Sovietologists were pilloried in the media for their failure to predict the disintegration of the Soviet Union. As Thomas Remington (1992) noted, Sovietologists, like earthquake scientists, may have failed to predict “the big one,” but the more pressing question was whether they understood the underlying tectonics. The nomenklatura system at the center of Sheng's study and the petition (xinfang) process described in Chen's book, another feature of the late Soviet model, are components of the cement holding the edifice of the Chinese state together, but neither work finds evidence of underlying social, political, and economic shifts which could threaten the foundations of the Chinese central state from below. To the contrary, Chen contends that China's political order is unique in maintaining a stable political system despite what he calls “surface noise and anxiety” (Chen, p. 5).

Chen's engaging and informative study of state-society relations in the 1990s portrays the Chinese state as proactively channeling discontent through the petition system, involving letters and visits to officials. With fewer Chinese tied to a work unit, citizens turned instead to local government authorities to redress their grievances. Nonetheless, Chen sees continuity from the Maoist era through the reform period in the central state's responsiveness to the “mass line” and efforts to address complaints from ordinary citizens. What is distinctive about the reform era in Chen's view is the routinization of protest. This leads him to conclude that the willingness of the Chinese state to accommodate social protest over a long period of time makes it a rare example of “contentious authoritarianism” (Chen, p. 6).

In his fieldwork in Hunan province in 2002, he examines the incentives local authorities have to make concessions or buy for time, which encourages petitioners to make further demands through “troublemaking tactics,” that is, engaging in disruptive activities or going over the heads of local officials. Chen's study predates the explosion of Internet usage in China in the past decade, which has vastly increased opportunities for public expressions of discontent and created alternatives to going through the official channels of the petitioning process. Nonetheless, in his conclusion, Chen is forthright about the institutional weaknesses of the Chinese political system, despite its ability to maintain stability in the 1990s. He notes that “contentious bargaining tends to be much costlier than institutionalized forms of interest articulation and conflict resolution,” as the current system encourages “trouble-making,” requiring payoffs to aggrieved citizens and increased spending on law and order (Chen, p. 209).

The books by Sheng and Chen examining state strategies for coping with challenges from below come at a time of ferment in the study of Chinese politics over the balance of power between state and society. For Cheng Li (2012), the CCP's need to spend more money on public security than on national defense is a sign of the party's growing weakness. When added to the growing factional strife within the CCP, recently made apparent with the 2012 ouster of Chongqing's party leader, Bo Xilai, and the rising clout of economic interest groups in China (business elites, the middle class, and the migrant under-class), Li (2012) argues it is time to rethink the resilience of authoritarianism in China. Andrew Nathan (2003), who first outlined the sources of authoritarian resilience in a 2003 article, concurred in a symposium on “China at the Tipping Point?” held by the Journal of Democracy. “The consensus is stronger than any time since 1989 Tiananmen crisis that the resilience of the authoritarian regime in the … PRC is approaching its limits,” Nathan (2013) stated. Li (2013) notes that within China, the Chinese translation of Alexis de Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the Revolution is popular among intellectuals debating scenarios for change. Tocqueville warned, of course, that revolution is mostly likely to occur when the old regime seeks to reform, but finds that expectations exceed the pace of change.

Will the provincial winners continue to support the central party state because of the nomenklatura system and fiscal redistribution methods? Is the xinfang system enough of a safety valve for local discontent today? As the works by Sheng and Chen attest, the Chinese central state has tried to adapt to changing demands by adjusting its strategies, but tactical shifts may prove insufficient to address the increasingly severe problems posed by corruption, income inequality, unprecedented environmental pollution, and public health and safety risks, or to pacify the growing demands to address these issues. Moreover, unlike the petitioners of yesteryear, thanks to new technologies, contention in China today is now forming “an emerging network” (Su Zhenhua and He 2013), which is more challenging for a hierarchical state apparatus to address, however resilient.


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  2. References
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  • Kong, Bo. (2010) The Geopolitics of the Myanmar-China Oil and Gas Pipelines. In Pipeline Politics in Asia: The Intersection of Demand, Energy Markets, and Supply Routes. NBR Special Report, Vol. 23. Seattle, WA: National Bureau of Asian Research.
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