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Zhaohui Hong, The Price of China’s Economic Development: Power, Capital, and the Poverty of Rights,

Lexington, The University of Kentucky Press, 2015, 296 pp.
Benoît Vermander
Translated by Jonathan Hall
p. 70-71

Full text

1The author of this work, an expert in economic history, takes an interdisciplinary approach to study the non-economic consequences of the developmental process followed by China since 1978. So it does not take into account such matters as the environmental aspects of that growth but is concerned mainly with the social and cultural costs of the model that has predominated throughout the period. The author notes that even the notion of a “price” or cost does not imply any value judgment: every growth process comes with a price tag. The question is one of assessing the price in relation to the confirmed benefits, especially if the price in question involves a burden imposed on a considerable number of people.

2The interdisciplinary aspect of this analysis arises from the tripartite nature of the transitions undergone since 1978: from a planned to a market economy; from an agrarian to an industrial society; from a traditional to a civic culture. The author advances two main theses, the first of which is that these three transitions have combined to form a “power-capital institution” (or, in Chinese, quanli ziben zhidu 力资本制度) made up of an economic structure, a culture, and specific players. This institution manages the transfers from political power to capital and vice-versa; within it the players ensure the maximisation of their profit from the use of labour power by capital; and finally, the overall institution takes the form of specific institutions, norms, values, and discourses. It goes without saying that the relationship between political power and capital has radically changed since 1949, and that the study of the modes of their interconnection has become necessary for understanding the current system in China.

3The second thesis that forms the framework of this volume is that this “power-capital institution” has arisen in parallel with a “poverty of rights.” The term applies to civic, economic, social, political, and cultural rights, along with the absence of any space where such rights could be claimed. The nature of the discriminations linked to the poverty of rights has itself developed in tandem with the reform process, and the denial of those rights is the direct cause of both the poverty and the low morale weighing on certain sectors of the population. So the study of the “denials of rights” coming into effect at different stages in the developmental process should have to form an integral part of the history of the process, enabling a comparative approach to it, and influencing in turn its future planning. (Incidentally, it seems to me that one of the most interesting ideas in the work is precisely that the various rights – to property, free expression, social security, etc. – are subjected to denials whose vigour and extent vary according to the stages of any given developmental process).

4This volume sets out these two theses in two parts, The Haves followed by The Have-Nots. The first is focused on the emergence and development of the power-capital institution, studying it in three successive modes: as a political economy, as a coalition of entrepreneurs, and as a social culture. The alliance between political power and capital, whose main stages of development over the period in question are swiftly outlined by the author, took place in such a manner that ruled out the normal political expectations from a numerical increase in the size of the middle class. The author develops his theoretical perspective still further by analysing the “power-capital economy” as a system distinct from both a market economy and a centrally planned one, but functioning in a perpetual oscillation between the two, thus constituting itself as a semi-autonomous economic mode. He therefore argues for the need to see the socio-economic functioning of the Chinese economy as tri-polar. The ambiguity of this system largely explains the ambiguous nature of the strategies of the “entrepreneurs” at the heart of the power-capital institution. Moreover, the nature of the alliances set up by them has prevented the possibility of any progressive maturing of a civic culture worthy of the name. The dominant culture, writes Zhaohui Hong, is that of the “3 Cs” (Confucian, Communist, and Culture of Power and Capital). Here, too, he argues for an analysis based on a systemic analysis of these three dimensions taken as a whole in order to study the cycles of China’s political culture and foresee its implications.

5The second part focuses on the Have-Nots and is based on analyses of the different sectors. Its first chapter deals with China’s urban population. Here the author goes beyond establishing a global link between poverty and restrictions on rights by arguing for affirmative action programmes targeting clearly identified groups, especially among the urban population. This line of analysis is extended to cover the various restrictions on rural property rights as well as on the legal and social status of migrant workers. The last chapter goes into considerable detail in order to throw light on the situation of “house churches,” emphasising once again the restrictions on the exercise of the right to religious freedom. This chapter also contains a fairly strong programmatic side, urging the leaders of the clandestine Protestant churches to show more pragmatism and to make better use of the remaining space for initiatives.

6The rather brief conclusion acknowledges the way in which “the power-capital institution” analysed in the first chapter of the book was perhaps the inevitable outcome of the reorganisation of the social strata and other restructurings at a time of unparalleled socio-economic transition. In this respect, the author does not argue for their demolition but rather for their integration into a legal framework with public supervision, and a progressive programme for increased democracy. China will be unable to reform itself without dissociating political power from capital, and this dissociation must be conducted within a reformed legal framework.

7The main interest in this work lies in the systematic character of its analysis. This overall systemic approach is not without its risks: its nuances often get bogged down by a theoretical formula that dominates the whole without helping to shape all its developments. Moreover, the stress placed on the elites on the one hand and the disadvantaged on the other does not give due importance to developments and strategies specific to the middle class: the latter is said to have struck an implicit bargain with power in order to garner for itself some of the proceeds of growth – but the analysis hardly goes further than that. This observation should be extended through a study of the “social ruses” and cultural trends also operating within that middle class. After all, would this not be the very section of the population that is contributing to the extension of the rights conceded by the political power (albeit indirectly and only partially), reducing thereby the global “price” of the growth process and creating some of the cultural and social resources omitted from this book’s analysis? Because of this omission, the pages on the “civic culture” such as it exists in present-day China are perhaps too pessimistic, although that assessment may be open to question.

8In any event, this book will certainly prove to be a valuable reference work (even if only to provoke queries) for any reader concerned with testing the models that attempt to give an account of the implicit “social contract” currently in force in China today, and to assess its durability as well as its weaknesses.

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Bibliographical reference

Benoît Vermander, « Zhaohui Hong, The Price of China’s Economic Development: Power, Capital, and the Poverty of Rights, », China Perspectives, 2016/1 | 2016, 70-71.

Electronic reference

Benoît Vermander, « Zhaohui Hong, The Price of China’s Economic Development: Power, Capital, and the Poverty of Rights, », China Perspectives [Online], 2016/1 | 2016, Online since 01 March 2016, connection on 26 April 2018. URL :

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