Navigation – Plan du site
Temporalités chinoises

Individualization in China under Compressed and Contradictory Modernity

A selection mechanism of state-individual relations in urban movements
L’individualisation en Chine dans le contexte d’une modernité compressée et contradictoire. Un mécanisme de sélection des relations entre État et individu dans les soulèvements urbains
La individualización en China bajo una modernidad comprimida y contradictoria. Mecanismos de selección relativos a las relaciones estado-individuos en movimientos urbanos
Shi Yunqing

Résumés

En raison de sa rapidité et de son échelle inédites, l’urbanisation dans la Chine des années 1990 est l’un des champs les plus représentatifs pour explorer la modernité compressée, en prenant en considération ce qui s’est produit dans l’Est de l’Asie. Cet article se concentre sur un cas de contestation collective rassemblant 10 357 personnes poursuivant en justice leur gouvernement local pour avoir empiété sur leurs droits de propriété et sur leur citoyenneté durant cette période d’urbanisation. Pour rendre possible un mouvement d’une telle échelle sous un régime autoritaire, un nouveau type de relation d’État à individu fut inventé, et un mécanisme de sélection fut appliqué à la relation traditionnelle de subordination de l’individu à l’État, avec la construction par les activistes d’une relation moderne et égalitaire. Le développement populaire d’un usage stratégique du droit est la clé pour comprendre comment ce mécanisme de sélection fut inventé. Les activistes distinguaient les multiples facettes du « droit » – le droit littéral, le droit symbolique et le droit pratique – pour conceptualiser la nouvelle relation égalitaire à travers l’autonomisation, afin de poser les conditions préalables nécessaires à la protestation, en segmentant l’État traditionnel, et pour mobiliser un réseau de participants en s’appuyant sur la mémoire socialiste du « mouvement de popularisation de la connaissance du droit ». Le mécanisme de sélection décrit dans cet article pourrait être considéré comme la réponse des individus à l’État pendant une période de transformations et montre l’importance de la temporalité dans la tension qui existe entre les droits individuels et le contrôle gouvernemental généralisé en lien avec l’ancien et le nouveau système. Des tensions existent dans ce mécanisme de sélection, il est paradoxal que la lutte pour une relation égalitaire soit basée sur la condition préalable que la subordination soit intériorisée. En analysant ce mécanisme complexe, l’article attire l’attention sur le processus historico-social chinois qui conduit vers la modernité d’une manière continue et progressive dans un laps de temps remarquablement court et compressé, tandis qu’il s’intéresse également à la question théorique de l’individualisation d’un point de vue est-asiatique.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

I would like to acknowledge the comments and suggestions on the earlier presentation of this article by Professor Laurence Roulleau-Berger and Doctor Loïs Bastide, on the Chinese draft of this article by Professor Shen Yuan, Professor Yang Yiyin, and Doctor Wen Xiang. Thanks are also due to Doctor Elie Axel Rosenberg for his proofreading.

1It is different from the experience of Western societies that China’s modernization has been radically imposed by government and has accelerated economic growth (Han & Shim, 2010), which makes it a compressed modernity achieved within a short period instead of going through a long historical process. China’s compressed modernity is characterized by the coexistence of new social and economic institutions, alongside old systems that have not completely receded or faded, making its temporality extend beyond the linear progress of past, present and future, and revealing its complexity and mixture. The temporality indicated in the collective litigation described in this article is hidden behind the push and pull between individual rights and governmental, authoritarian control connected to these new and old systems. The tension between the two systems also shows up the contradictory modernity of the Chinese experience.

2Taking temporality as a perspective, this article explores China’s compressed and contradictory modernity by analyzing a typical social movement that has evolved since 1990s, at the very beginning of the gigantic process of urbanization. Temporality mainly appeared in three forms: as compressibility, as coexistence and as subjectivity. First, in its unprecedented speed and scale, Chinese urbanization compressed tradition and modernity. Secondly, in its cooperation between global capital and an authoritarian state, especially in the early stages from 1990 to 2000, Chinese urbanization prompted the coexistence of socialism and capitalism, not only in its mechanism but also in political and public discourse, as well as in the dynamics shaping different relationships between state and individuals. Thirdly, as a counter-movement to this impressive urbanization, considerable social conflicts took place during this stage, showing up the subjectivity of society, which reacted to the infringement of large-scale urbanization on people’s daily life. Among these protests, frameworks were created using various resources from different time periods: Confucianism from history, socialism from the past and capitalism today. All these ideological fragments mixed together, along with the exquisite strategies of timing, served as a tool kit for the activists to construct their protest as opportune and legitimate, which demonstrated their inspiring understanding of temporality in the historical and social context of China.

3Taking city B as an example of this tremendous urbanization, according to the “Yearbook of Real Estate”, the total amount of the relocated population from 1991 to 2000 was 281,200 households, or 878,600 persons; 647,800 houses that occupied 9,155,300 square meters were demolished. The main pattern of this initial stage of urbanization was “combining dilapidated housing renewal with real estate development” (Kaifa Dai Weigai开发带危改). It started in the inner city and replaced residential land, considered of low value, by commercial land considered high value, under the guidance of urban rational strategy, by means of massive demolition and relocation. This process demonstrated the impact of global capital on the Chinese urbanization process and illustrates the birth of a real-estate market under the domination of the State.

4During this stage, the government implemented selective policies between economy and ideology combining the new and old systems, illustrating temporality in an advantageous top-down manner. On the one hand, it created a brand-new housing market by reforming the old welfare-oriented housing distribution system, and opened it up to foreign capital, capitalizing the limited space of the inner city by introducing the official public discourse of “development” and “efficiency”. On the other hand, the traditional culture system and the authority of the state were maintained when it comes to the local residents who used to live in the inner city faced with demolition. Players from these two sides of urbanization differed extremely in their powers and abilities. Contrary to the privileged executors wielding the powers of capital and authority, the relocated are atomized individuals without effective social associations, such as the danwei (work unit, 单位) system that broke down during the reform. Psychologically shaped by millennia of patriarchal cultural tradition and by the political regime under the CPC, these people were still unconditionally obedient to authority. Therefore, personal rights were seriously impinged upon not only by the state-supported capital, but also because of the obedience to authority inherited from the traditional, state-individual relationship. Eventually, the profound transformations of the reform triggered a series of large-scale public protests, among which the Grand Litigation is a landmark event. It shows how people in China fight for their property, political and social rights, developing an individualization characterized by the new, modern elements of Western-style citizenship. However, this process was heavily constrained by the old, traditional, political and social psychological system resting on the authoritarian pedestal of state and history, starkly revealed by a bottom-up temporality.

5This unique, evolving process of individualization is what will be discussed in this article. The discussion will take the perspective of “sociology of action” (Touraine, 1988), to show the subjectivation of the activists in the course of protesting. By using the word “subjectivation”, this article emphasizes the power of bottom-up to create cracks inside the overall control and censorship of the state, an implication that goes far beyond general individualization. It is the subjectivation thanks to “civil courage” (Swedberg, 1999) that produced individuals with citizenship, promoting the individualization process. Individualization under this compressed modernity is incomplete, remaining in a state of imbalance between individual responsibility, civil rights, and government entitlements. Thus, civil rights, which can be secured within a well-developed, institutional framework in Western societies, for Chinese people are still objects of struggle over what should be controlled, whose outcome remains uncertain. Contradictory forces of push and pull always exist between individuals and the state during a protest, which could be regarded as a form of negotiation. Therefore, the “selection mechanism” as the main, explanatory concept, aims to show the coexistence of push and pull between individual rights and governmental, authoritarian control in this context.

Individualization in China Under Compressed and Contradictory Modernity

6Since China has nearly no tradition of civil society and very limited opportunities for “legal” protest under the authoritarian regime (Shen, 2007), the Grand Litigation, being the first collective action claiming property rights and civil rights by suing an administrative bureau of local government since 1990, when the Administrative Procedure Law of the P.R.C was issued, constitutes an empirical puzzle. How could this confrontational movement be possible, given such a constraining background? This puzzle could be divided into two parts. On one hand, how could a protest be safely conducted? How could it obtain resources to become legitimate under the authoritarian state? On the other hand, how could the protest be effective? How could it obtain a window of opportunity to protest, under the authoritarian state? The solution to this dilemma might explain the Chinese pattern of individualization as the country experiences time-compressed modernity.

7This case also sheds light on the theory that deals with compressed modernity from the perspective of individualization. In previous research, it has been recognized that a comparative perspective both within and outside Western Europe is needed to explore different patterns of individualization, which means that East Asian experiences can be especially illuminating. As Beck (2011a, p. 6-7) points out, Chinese modernization has unique features: State-guided capitalism; post-authoritarianism; partial institutional individualism and a multi-religious society. Additionally, there is China’s lack of a culturally-embedded democracy and welfare state, and furthermore, Chinese individualization doesn’t institutionally hinge on a basic rights system (labor laws and family laws) as it does in the European experience. All these factors shape Chinese individualization in a unique pattern. However, previous research on Chinese individualization has mainly focused on family, employment and consumption, and rarely discussed collective action or social movements. Compared with everyday life, protests are by definition radical and conflict-ridden: their observation makes the changing of the state-individual relationship, and the interaction of activists with institutions, appear more clearly. Therefore, this case will show the uniqueness of individualization and subjectivization in the Chinese context by taking into account the following three factors.

8The first factor is the Chinese path to individualization. Compared to Europe, China’s individualization process is embedded and evolves in a social context of transitional modernization that is “unfolding in a characteristically different, indeed a reverse, temporal sequence” (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2011b, p. 17). Individualization in China is motivated by the market economy but without the process of political system change, while the individualization and individualism in Europe have been codified in national constitutions. Therefore, individual rights “are being accorded as privileges, not as a birthright” (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2011b, p. 21). As T. H. Marshall (1950) pointed out, citizenship is composed of civil rights, political rights and social rights; those three factors developed one by one as a social-historical process in European history. Those three factors have not gone through a continuous development in China. People were first entitled to social rights under the planned economy, while civil and political rights were absent. After the reform in the late 1970s, social rights were abolished as the planned economy receded, while civil rights were emerging along with the advent of the market economy. As for political rights, to a large extent, they remain an abstract affair. Different social-historical backgrounds prompted very different ways of interpreting “rights” and their role during the individualization processes of various societies. Chinese people’s philosophy of rights is essentially different from the natural rights credited to God in the Western world. Chinese people generally understand rights as measures approved by the government that promote national unity and prosperity, whereas Westerners regard rights as a protective mechanism against state interventions (Perry 2008; Yan 2011; Zhuang 2011). Citizenship, considered as the basis of the second individualization in Western Europe, is still an ongoing project to be achieved through protest in China. Therefore, regarding the rise of individualization in China, the key question is: how could individuals emerge against such an authoritarian background as subjects entitled to rights? Does the fight for citizenship conducted by individuals or society threaten or enhance the authority of the state? The answer in the following case shows that both threat and enhancement are achieved at the same time thanks to the selection mechanism created in the state-individual relationship, which carries the logic of “past” and “present”, responding to the reverse and temporal sequence of the Chinese transitional modernization process implied by temporality.

9The second factor particular to China is the complexity of individualization. Compared with the European experience, the individualization process in China entertains a more complicated and contradictory relationship with the State. Individualization in China after 1980 is also called “state-sanctioned individualization” (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2011b). In other words, Chinese society for the individuals is subject to the control and censorship of the government, and the process of liberation remains, but within clear limits. If we look back into Chinese history, a modern individual was virtually non-existent before the reform and therefore, the rise of individuals in China is accompanied by the general retreat of the state in private life, parallel to the drive of the market. Thus, a key for understanding the Chinese pattern of individualization is to understand the corresponding mechanism between the state and the individual/society during the great transformation, how this state-dominated transformation impacts individuals and how individuals respond to it. This corresponding mechanism could be understood from two temporal perspectives: the first is a diachronic perspective, considering the different historical periods of the modernization process. Individuals in China experienced a general dis-embeddedness from the traditional family-and-relatives network, replacing it with loyalty to the State during the socialist movements around the 1950s; and then experienced a certain degree of dis-embeddedness from the State during the transition from planned economy to market economy along with the rise of global consumerism. A form of “un-civil” individual arises as the result of this partial individualization as Yan (2012) points out. The second is the synchronic perspective, considering the different fields over a period of time. Individualization differs in different fields according to the degree of state control. In non-confrontational fields such as consumption and employment, the individual arises as a response to institutional change led by the state but not as a bottom-up quest for rights. As a result, when individuals make use of new laws generally benefitting young men and women, they have already internalized the constraints imposed by the state on the individuals in this “state-sanctioned individualization” (Yan, 2012, p. 20). Furthermore, even in those confrontational cases where collective rights protests take place in certain sensitive fields where there is stricter state control, activists must internalize the ideological control of the state as a precondition for protesting. In this article, the commodification of the usage of land in practice and the nationalization of the ownership of land in ideology were state-dominated phenomena combined with massive urbanization. This resulted in a segmentation strategy and selection mechanism created by the citizens as a response in order to protect their property during this process. By those strategies, they created “legitimacy” and “effectiveness” simultaneously in order to deal with the double facets of the government as “parent” and “developer”, showing flexibility when responding to the structures and institutions of the authoritarian state.

10The third factor is the Chinese “mix and continuity” considering the historical process of individualization. Different from the clear breaks between pre-modernity, modernity and post-modernity in the modernization process of Western Europe, what China is going through now is a mix of pre-modernity, modernity and post-modernity, giving people a very special experience of temporality. The fragmental mixing of Confucianism as cultural tradition, socialism as ideological framework and market as economic mechanism, along with the characteristics brought by the different phases of modernity, largely enriches the tool kit for both the State and the individuals. The selective use of this tool kit, as a basic strategy for both State and individuals, shows the complex and elastic interactions between them. Therefore, this case will show the individualization process as it is influenced by historical continuity and mixing, different from the breaks and discontinuity indicated in previous research of “compressed modernity”.

11To sum up, the key question to look at in this case is how such an influential social movement is possible in the Chinese context. The key finding below shows a selection mechanism created by activists to produce both the “legitimacy” of and the “opportunity” for protest at the same time, which made it possible for them to connect to both the old and new systems. By modifying the push and pull between individual rights and governmental authoritarian control, this process shows that “temporality” as “individualization” grows through “compressed modernity”. This mechanism also clearly indicates the subjectivity of activists as flexible and reflexive individuals who struggled to adapt to ongoing social change or so-called compressed modernity by skillful self-empowerment and a reshaping of the state-individual relationship.

Review Of Case And Research Methods

  • 1 The traditional yard houses in the inner City B are classified into two types as private and public (...)

12On February 22, 2000, seven citizen representatives led by Mr. Luo submitted to the Second Intermediate People’s Court of City B an administrative proceeding with 10,357 plaintiffs, suing the Municipal Housing and Land Administration Bureau of City B’s government. This was the once-sensational event called the “Grand Litigation of Ten Thousand Plaintiffs” (hereafter “Grand Litigation”). This Grand Litigation, which began in 1995 and continues to this day, can be roughly divided into three stages – the preparation stage (1995-1999), the implementation stage (1999-2001), and the follow-up stage (2001-present) (see the case details in Shi Yunqing 2007). It is a landmark among all the protests arising during the 1990s. The main force behind this litigation were the residents relocated between 1990 and 1998. A questionnaire survey (N = 454) of those residents conducted in 2006 showed that the average age of the respondents was 56 years; 46.3 percent of the sample were male. Retired residents made up the largest portion (47.1 percent), followed by workers (24.7 percent) and laid-off workers (15 percent). Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members accounted for 7.3 percent. Those who were working in or retired from state-owned enterprises composed 50.4 percent. Those who reported that their demolished houses were private accounted for 28.9 percent with an average size of houses and courtyard areas of 110.91 square meters; 69.2% reported that they resided in public housing1 with an average housing area of 21.93 square meters (few public housing residences had courtyards). In the follow-up stage since 2001 to 2011, they submitted letters and petitions to the Central Committee of CPC nearly 30 times, as the litigation was not filed by the tribunal. Participants in this stage also included peasants who lost their land and urban residents newly relocated after 1998; the number of participants varied from 5,216 to 22,304.

13With regard to research methods, the author has followed up this case for nearly 10 years since 2005, mainly by way of interviews of individuals and focus groups, as well as supplementary, semi-open public forums and questionnaire surveys. A variety of civil and official text materials was collected, including individual and collective pleas, background statement of cases, letters of accusation, submissions, and official documents dealing with land and demolition. The changes within the litigation group, such as membership turnover and changes of the cultural framework, were also analyzed. Moreover, close attention was paid to the seizing of political opportunities and the use of resources for mobilization, particularly the actions of litigation groups before and after sensitive time points such as the plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress.

14Among all the collective actions triggered by inner-city demolition, this was the first case asserting the activists’ entitlement to property rights and citizenship instead of the more common negotiations for cash or housing compensations for their demolished homes. Its enormous scale, exceptional duration, and participants’ rigorous behavior make it a typical, rational case. By examining this case, a very special socio-historical process in urbanization is revealed as China goes through compressed modernization, for 3 reasons. Firstly, considering space. Compared with city expansion or the urbanization of rural areas, inner city renewal in this case includes added historical complexity, such as the nature of the property rights considering urban land in China. Secondly, considering time. The causes and climax of this case happened in the 1990s, which is the first period of urbanization with the most tremendous landscape transformation of the past 30 decades, making the “compressed” aspect even more visible. Thirdly, considering the activists. The largest group in our case is the 1950s generation. The experience of growing up in the People’s Republic of China gave them a deep understanding of both the socialist ideology and the market economy with Chinese characteristics during the social transition. Therefore, these 3 features account for “past/present/future” in this great urban transformation and the collective litigations appearing as a result, highlighting the significance of “compressed modernity”, and illustrating the unique perspective of this article for understanding individualization in the Chinese context, within an authoritarian state.

A Selection Mechanism of The State-Individual Relationship: a Response to “Compressed Modernity” in an Authoritarian State

Two Ideal-Types of the State-Individual Relationship in the Chinese Context

  • 2 The state-individual relationship in this article includes three elements: the state, the individua (...)

15From a historical standpoint, the modern notion of individual did not appear in China until the reform era. Taking Fei Xiaotong’s classical “differential mode of associations” (Chaxu Geju, 差序格局) and “the group mode of associations” (Tuanti Geju团体格局) concepts as a theoretical basis to differentiate Chinese and Western basic social organizations, and adding to these two different patterns of self-construal and their corresponding individualisms from indigenous psychology, it is possible to identify two kinds of state–individual relationships, and delineate two ideal-types: traditional and modern conceptions considered in the Chinese context2 (as shown in Table 1).

Table 1 Two ideal-types of the state-individual relationship in the Chinese context

  • 3 The main difference between the “ensemble individualism” and the “self-contained individualism” (Sa (...)

Patterns

Feature of state

Features of Individualism and self-boundary3

State-individual relationship

“the differential mode of associations” in Chinese tradition

Authoritarian state

Ensemble individualism;

Boundary-permeated self

Subordinate relationship

“the group mode of associations” in Western tradition

Democratic state

Self-contained individualism;

Boundary-fixed self

Egalitarian relationship

16Social transformations brought about changes in the state-individual relationship, leading to the surfacing of a previously inexistent individualism under the leadership and control of the state. Yan Yunxiang views this transformation as “the individualization of Chinese society” (Yan, 2012), and outlines two periods. During the first thirty years prior to the reform era, the government removed persons from their family, relatives, or local networks, and in order to turn them into socialist subjects, inserted them into the state-controlled system of job and house allocations, achieving a “partial individualization” (Yan 2012, p. 353-358). In other words, the socialist ideology in place used the State to replace the family’s role in people’s life and deconstructed the social fabric in which they were embedded, to construct a direct relationship between individuals and the State. However, this had virtually no influence on conceptions of self; the self was still characterized by elastic, permeated boundaries, and a lack of independence from the State. The State, through the control of the danwei (work units) still carried out the role of protector, and individuals in turn retained the mentality of subjects submitting to the State. In the years since the beginning of the reform era in the late 1970s, with the market leading economic reform, “collectivist style individualization” was overturned (Yan 2012, p. 376), leading to a more substantial change in state-individual relationships and in self construal, albeit laden with conflicts and paradoxes. After the start of the “reform and open” movement, the government conducted liberalization of specific fields relating to economy, while at the same time retaining a strict control over the political fields. The former has meant the stimulation of awareness of individual rights, the solidification of self-boundaries, and the emergence of social ties, whereas the latter kept individuals under unconditional submission to the State, maintained permeated self-boundaries, and furthered the atomization of individuals, with the consequence of creating deep layers of contradiction, also constituting a unique context for China.

17In essence, both periods saw the State controlling the individualisation process. Individuals were seen as tools for achieving modernization, having to work harder for the greatness of the Nation. This coincided with the traditional definition of the individual, since the individual was meant to submit to a greater community, be it the family, the clan, or the nation (Yan 2012, p. 376). Hence, from a different perspective, the “building cities movement” of the early 1990s was allowed to resolutely march forward. Bulldozers levelling the ground in every place were supported by a deeper level of cultural psychology: this definition of the individual harking back to the traditional state-individual relationship, based on the submission of the individual, levelled the obstacles raised by the emerging new society and market. Therefore, and on a positive note, the significant social conflicts that appeared later were precisely motivated by attempts by individuals to readjust the traditional state-individual relationship, by trying to apply concepts of the market economy such as the independent individual as a foundation to build a relationship between State and individuals based on equality, and resist the corruption of power and capital.

18As a consequence, both kinds of state-individual relationships coexist in contemporary China, but the development of each has reached different points: with hundreds of years of culture and the socialist ideological framework, the subordinate state-individual relationship still occupies a dominant position, whereas the independent self and egalitarian sort of state-individual relationship stimulated by the forces of the market liberalization reform are still emergent, and civil rights remain objectives to fight for. In this, we see a sharp differentiation from Western presuppositions when discussing individualization. In practice, when struggling for civil rights, activists created a kind of “selection mechanism”, and according to circumstances will conceive of the state-individual relationship differently, to adjust to the State’s strategy of selective reform, leading to the appearance of a reflexive subjectivity in the midst of the “second individualization”. That is to say that in the context of China’s authoritarian state, subjectivity needs to be understood in relation to the State’s power, the emergence of subjectivity stems from the transformation of the State and individual’s interaction system—from the internalized subordination to the State (“self-permeated” type) to the independent relation to the State (egalitarian). The case in this article describes the creation of this selection mechanism, revealing the background for the transformation proper to this historical process.

The Construction of a Selection Mechanism in State-Individual Relationships

19“Protesting through legal means” (yifa weiquan, 以法维权) is the most important principle and feature of the Grand Litigation. The strategic way to make the best use of legal means laid the foundation for creating a selection mechanism. By distinguishing literal law and symbolic law, activists intentionally segmented the traditionally integrated State into two levels: local government (the concrete state, executor of urban renewal, facilitator of the market economy) and central government (the abstract state, guardian of traditional and socialist ideologies). Then they created a new type of state-individual relationship as egalitarian and developed a selection mechanism based on defining two types of state-individual relationships, in three steps.

20Self-empowerment based on literal law. The traditional, subordinate state-individual relationship culturally matched the paternalist state for a long time, in which the individual should be subordinate to the state at all levels. The individual- local government-central government relationship can be likened to a series of concentric circles with permeable borders. It is a dynamic unity, in which the inner and smaller circle should always be subordinate to the outer and bigger circle, as the son should be subordinate to the parents, and the parents to the grandparents. Thus, in this tradition, people have no power to question any decisions made at any levels of government. Therefore, self-empowerment is the first necessary step for protest. Focusing on the “rights” framed by the literal meaning of the law, activists empowered themselves by redefining the nature of “demolition” as well as their own roles and status in urban renewal.

  • 4 Because of the complex history of building socialist public ownership dealing with urban and rural (...)

21In the official discourse of “demolition”, city development is considered a common good, which has high moral value and is ideologically legitimate, demanding individuals’ obedience from 3 points of view. Firstly, citizens are regarded as “people being evicted” instead of subjects contributing to city development, which means they have to be the passive recipients of resettlement and compensation under fixed conditions determined by the government. Secondly, the nature of the land beneath private courtyard houses is defined as state-allocated4 in official land-lease regulations of this period, which abolishes the property rights based on land-use rights privately bestowed on citizens. Thirdly, urban renewal is considered a common good and for public benefit, representing high value in both the discourse of “development” in the 1990s and in the traditional moral system, demanding people place the general good above their personal interest. Therefore, anyone who does not agree with the resettlement and compensation plan will be considered “tricky/sly/unruly” (Diao Min刁民; Dingzi Hu钉子户). Those who filed claims for their personal rights were even considered as “standing up to the government” and impeding the process of city development.

  • 5 According to citizens’ explanation, standard land prices are made of 3 parts: “land allocation fee” (...)

22In activists’ definition of “demolition”, it is seen as the adjustment of property relations between independent subjects. Mr Luo is one of the 7 representatives of the Grand Litigation. He started teaching himself about the legal system since 1995 when evicted from his private courtyard house. After digging into the Constitution (1982), the “Regulations of Urban House Demolition Management” issued by the State Council (1991), and “Some Regulations Considering Confirming Land Ownership and Land Use Rights” issued by the Ministry of Land and Resources of the P.R.C (1989, 1995), he came to understand the origin and development of land-use rights in urban China, then proceeded to redefine “demolition”: it is an adjustment of property relations between independent and equal subjects (usually residents and developers/local government) acting of their own free will. Under this definition, the residents were not “people being evicted” but “bearers of rights to real estate property”, and those who defend their rights are not “unruly people” but “citizens”. The property rights to which citizens were entitled contained two parts. For private house owners, these property rights were included in the land-use rights of the land beneath their house bought by their ancestors before the socialist movement of the 1950s. For the people leasing public housing, property rights were recognized in the compensation stipulation called “demolition fee in towns and cities” (Chengzhen Chaiqian Fei 城镇拆迁费5) on top of compensation for resettlement. Therefore, residents did not necessarily have to sign the resettlement and compensation agreement, unilaterally designed by the developer or the government, since it bypassed the process of adjustment of property relations. The prevailing pattern of demolition in the 1990s infringed citizens’ rights to property, their freedom to choose their own residential address and their rights to taking steps if the Grand Litigation wasn’t satisfied. By this redefinition, activists achieved a form of self-empowerment and turned individuals into subjects/actors on an equal footing with the State. By talking the language of law and rightssubjectivity featuring Western elements was emerging.

23Segmenting the state based on symbolic law. Initiating the self-empowerment process described above also created a grassroots movement that menaced the power of the authoritarian state, which could potentially react by putting an early end to the movement. By constructing the very special symbolic meaning of the law in the Chinese context, activists segmented the state into two levels, thus fracturing the traditionally integrated state by evicting the local state from it. By framing the implementation of the renewal process as if it were a betrayal by the local government of the central government, activists turned the local state into the “bad guy”, thus creating the precondition for their self-empowerment and rights protests.

24This symbolic interpretation of the law is built on the hierarchy of the administrative institutions that issue the law. By matching the levels of the law and the hierarchy behind them, activists basically divided urban renewal laws into two levels: central/national and local. For example, the laws at central level include: the Constitution of the P.R.C; The Law of Land Administration of the P.R.C; Regulations of Urban House Demolition Management issued by the State Council (1991), and so on. They are usually issued by the National People’s Congress State Council or a specific Ministry. Meanwhile, the laws at local level include: The Implementation of “Regulations of Urban House Demolition Management” issued by the State Council in B city (1991), issued by the Municipal government; the Instruction Requesting Compensation for Land-use Rights of Urban Private Housing in Demolishing, an internal document of Municipal Housing and Land Administration Bureau of City B; the Suggestion of Several Problems Considering Hearing and Executing Administrative Cases Related to Demolition, issued by the Higher People’s Court of City B; and so on.

25By relating the law to the structure of the hierarchy, the layers of the State are delineated, identifying the central government and local governments as the two most obvious strata. As summarized by Cao (2011), the former is characterized by the power to rule officials, whereas the latter is characterized by the power to rule the masses; in Cao’s opinion, this separated system of governance reduces the risks in governing and contributes to the long-term stability of the Chinese political system. Therefore, it is common for local governments to issue localized, detailed rules for the regulations issued at central level when considering their implementation. It is even common sense to a certain degree that there should be flexibility when regulations or policies trickle down the different administrative levels. However, in this case, activists turned flexibility, previously considered legitimate, into an issue.

26The state is essentially a set of systems, a network of activists and social practices (Pieke, 2004). Individuals can find different ways to interact with the various levels of state activists and agencies. In this case, differences at the various levels of the law were consciously found and framed by activists as being a betrayal by the local government of the central government. More specifically, these differences mainly lie in the process of “allocating land-use rights” in the prevailing pattern called “combining dilapidated housing renewal with real-estate development” in the early 1990s, especially in the gaps between the literal meanings of the law and the practices in implementing it, the skipping/substitution/reversion of the procedure, for example. In activists’ opinion, those discrepancies between policy texts and their implementation had serious consequences for both individuals and State: the infringement on individuals’ property rights and hurt feelings on one hand; the damage to State image and loss of State property on the other hand. By highlighting those differences, activists merged benefits to the State with benefits to individuals, meanwhile denying that the local government was a natural part of the State and had a legitimate authority, and evicting it from the State. Thus, a new type of egalitarian, state-individual relationship was created. Meanwhile a selection mechanism between these two types of relationships as subordinate vs. egalitarian was based on the segmentation of the state. Three pairs of relationships were formed among activists, i.e. the compliance of individuals with the central government, independence between individuals and local government, and the betrayal by local government of the central government.

27Building a selection mechanism combining both literal and symbolic law. With the authoritarian state in the background, there are practically only two normative ways for ordinary people to express their grievances and demands in China, one is a lawsuit, the other is appealing to the higher authorities for help (Shang Fang上访). By sticking to administrative litigation and changing normal appeals into letters and petitions addressed directly to the CCP, two types of state-individual relationships were defined, depending on which could be adapted in their discourse, i.e. a selection mechanism.

28An egalitarian (local), state-individual relationship is created through administrative litigation based on the literal meaning of the law. Compared to other actions of rights defense in the same period, the Grand Litigation was distinguished by its insistence on administrative proceedings. According to figures given by respondents, from 1995 to 2000 a total of thirty-three groups submitted their administrative litigations, involving 20,758 plaintiffs whose houses had been demolished. Defendants involved the Land and Housing Bureaus at the municipal and district levels as well as the Municipal Government; in the subsequent appeal process, defendants also involved courts of preliminary trials and secondary trials.

29However, existing literature shows that Chinese people prefer to use petitions rather than administrative litigation in resolving their disputes. Both the numbers of petitions and administrative proceedings in national surveys or small-scale surveys support this conclusion (see Zhang 2009). As it is always perceived as “(lower) people suing (higher) officials”, administrative proceedings could not really fit the traditionally subordinate, state-individual relationship. Therefore, this case is rare and special because it firmly relies on litigation over a relatively long period. By self-empowerment based on the literal meaning of the law, weakly positioned activists reshaped the traditional, state-individual relationship and exhibited independent identities close to a Western definition, opposing the local government when circumstances allowed.

30Meanwhile, a subordinate (central) state-individual relationship is maintained through letters and petitions sent directly to the CCP based on the symbolic meaning of the law. The addressees ranged from State leaders to the organs of central government such as the National People’s Congress, the Legislative Affairs Office of China’s State Council, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and so on. In their letters and petitions to the CCP, activists now position themselves as allies of the State, by constructing a vision in which their rights are aligned with the national, political and economic interests. Activists believe that the local government illegally allocated the land regardless of the State’s and of individuals’ land-use rights, thus causing a huge loss for the State while violating individuals’ property rights. According to the figures presented by this litigation group, changing the usage of the administratively allocated land from the reconstruction of old and dilapidated houses to developing high-grade housing, apartments, and office buildings, led to a loss of 43.45 billion RMB (about 7.1 billion USD), since properties were systematically undervalued in the transfer fee of state-owned land from 1991 to 1998. Activists were thus not only protecting private property rights, but also recovering the property losses for the State. Activists further framed the separation of local state from central State by highlighting practices they denounced as corruption. They believed that it was corruption of the local government (or certain officials in local governments) that caused this situation, which not only impinged upon the rights and hurt the feelings of the people, but also undermined the legitimacy of governance and the dignity of the law, and damaged the image of the State. Furthermore, they contrasted the corruption caused by illegal practices with their own actions of “protesting through legal means”. By referring to a variety of ideological discourses prevailing in the early days of PRC, they emphasized their self-identification as citizens aware of the national situation and guarding the interests of the State by not using radical actions such as demonstrations, sit-ins at sensitive spots, or talking to overseas media, to show their concern for “social stability” (Shehui Wending, 社会稳定) as representing a superior interest. The following quote shows that the subordinate relationship to the central and abstract State remains key in their discourse.

  • 6 An open letter to the Municipal People’s Congress of City B,” by 10357 relocated citizens, 2000.

“Despite the many grievances (physical and mental) we relocated have suffered, we keep studying the laws, being aware of laws, using laws, and abiding by laws. We believe in the CCP Central Committee’s commitment to anti-corruption and are always consistent with the pace of Central Committee of CCP; all our deeds have been in accordance with laws and legal procedures. Had we demonstrated in the streets or acted like corrupt officials in the (local) government and courts who disregard laws, City B could not have achieved such good social stability!”6

31Legitimacy is always the first priority when considering social movements in China. By creating a selection mechanism, activists in this case created legitimacy on two levels. First, by limiting the potential threat they might represent to the local state or even to individual officials due to their segmentation of the State, activists placed the movement in a safe position that would not threaten socialist ideology as a whole. Secondly, by opposing the damage caused by corruption to the idealism of activists who put the general good above all else, activists presented themselves as allies of the central state, enhancing the socialist and traditional ideologies. Thus, fighting the local government was cast as a fight against corruption and a fight to improve the legal environment under the guidance of the central state. Therefore, regarding these two state-individual relationships, the egalitarian one (with the local state) emerges under the premise that the subordinate one (with the central state) remains dominant.

Multiple Facets of the “Law”

32Activists distinguished multiple facets of the “law”—the literal law, the symbolic law and the practical law—to create the new egalitarian relationship through self-empowerment, to set preconditions for protest by segmenting the traditional state, and to mobilize the network of participation by recalling the socialist memory of the “movement to popularize legal knowledge”.

33Literal law. By considering the law, as in the Western tradition, as the text that establishes the rules, activists defined the duties of government, the regulations of the market as well as the rights of citizens, and thus achieved a degree of self-empowerment and laid the foundations to create an egalitarian relationship with the local state.

34Symbolic law. At the same time, by distinguishing the administrative hierarchy among the institutions issuing laws, the symbolic meaning of the law was stressed to segment the traditional state, and then to set the preconditions for protesting. The national laws at central level were regarded as the carrier of the principle and spirit of CCP by those activists who probably will never get a direct reply from the state. By signifying their loyalty to the nation, the activists laid the basis for maintaining a subordinate relationship and constructed a legitimacy for their protest.

35Practical law. Activists fully explored the historical heritage in socialist tradition to make the most sensitive and difficult part of a social movement legitimate: mobilization. “Law learning groups” (Pu Fa Xiaozu法小组), the basic mobilization mechanism in this case, was inspired by the official movement called “movement to popularize legal knowledge” (Pu Fa Yundong, 普法运动) in the early years of the PRC. They functioned by small groups “learning laws together”, which meant that representatives of the Grand Litigation went to different districts to explain and vulgarize legal texts related to land-use rights. Thousands of people gathered and formed a loose network during this process, including participants from the different levels, from the general representative to the district representative, the activist and down to ordinary members, making up the Grand Litigation. Moreover, this mobilization mechanism remained relatively stable in the following decades and grew into a mutual-aid network for the activists when they faced various problems following demolition and resettlement, and their discussions also went beyond legal debates.

36These multiple facets of the law indicate the strategic and appropriate implementation of legal means from below and make this case very special among urban movements in contemporary China. The “law-learning groups” combine both literal and symbolic ways of putting legal means into practice and integrated the two types of relationships: individual-state as subordinate vs. egalitarian into one form of practice. It exactly resolves the dilemma for the movement to be simultaneously safe and effective in the Chinese context, illuminating the very special Chinese pattern of individualization as China heads toward compressed modernity.

Conclusion. Temporality in Contradictory Modernity, The Legacy of Social Movements And Future Endeavors

37China has gone though more than 30 years since starting the process of modernization and transformation. From the perspective of temporality, the Chinese experience shows at least two main facts compared to experiences elsewhere. First, considering transformational patterns, the Chinese path, named “Incremental Reform” is very different from the East European path named “Shock Therapy”. This does not mean stopping and then starting again all of a sudden, but a continuous, gradual transformation over a relatively long time and still ongoing. However, secondly, when considering the modernization achievement, the Chinese experience shows its astonishing efficiency. It is not a modernization evolved over hundreds of years but a modernization achieved within three decades. Thus, these two main facts concerning temporality highlight the issue of compressed but also contradictory modernity and the sophisticated way it was achieved in the Chinese experience, explained in this article as an individualization fostered by the Grand Litigation.

38During this compressed and contradictory modernity, specific strategies were driven from the top, among which selectivity is very obvious depending on different functional areas as well as different phases, illustrating the coexistence of the old and new systems. For instance, China introduces the market into certain fields selectively and gradually, while yet preserving the socialist and authoritarian state as the dominant ideological and political system, as well as the subordinate state-individual relationship as the fundamental, social-psychological mechanism. This non-synchronous development strategy shapes an uneven growth of individualization in Chinese society, which may first appear in fields related to the economy but still largely remains absent in fields related to politics.

39The “selection mechanism” described in this article could be considered as the counter-response from individuals and society to governments and the state, which is also shaped by the mixture of the old and the new systems and contradictory modernity. It is important to note that this mechanism implies a paradox concerning state-individual relationships in the Chinese context. To create their “opportunity”, activists must detach themselves from the state to which they are supposed to be subordinate; meanwhile, to create “legitimacy”, they must internalize the fact that they are part of the state as it used to be. Therefore, tensions exist between these two kinds of state-individual relationships. The paradox lies in the fact that the struggle for the egalitarian relationship should be based on the precondition of internalizing that subordinate relationship. Thus, this selection mechanism could be understood as both challenging and strengthening the authority of the state, and this paradox is key to understanding how this confrontational movement is at all possible under such an authoritarian regime. It illustrates the difficulty for China to maintain continuity as it steps forward into modernity, in such a short time and with such heavy historical and political burdens, which makes the temporality not only a strategy to be analyzed in those individual or collective protests, but also a factor affecting the essential logic that shapes the action of both the state and society during this fundamental social transformation.

40It has been nearly 20 years since the people of the Grand Litigation first suffered their loss. As a case in itself, the Grand Litigation has not been filed and has obtained no direct answer from any official department. However, in urban movements, the legacy of this case and other contemporary protests becomes gradually visible. As the response to the selectivity of state level strategies, creating a new egalitarian state-individual relationship by applying a “selection mechanism” at society level, may reshape the power relationships and interaction patterns among state, market and society. Presently, China has entered into a new phase of urbanization, conflicts have now decreased and “social participation” has been officially advocated as one of the main principles guiding urban renewal and urban social governance. However, this social participation has borrowed a whole new form from the self-organized, social participation observed in Western experiences. It is dominated by the state in various ways. Therefore, it still remains to be seen whether this new era of “state-dominated social participation” will facilitate the fulfilment of individualization or whether it will subvert it. And it still remains a challenging question for China to know how she might simultaneously balance the participation from below and the effective control from the top, by adjusting the fragmented and sophisticated elements contributed by the old and new systems.

Haut de page

Bibliographie

Beck Ulrich, Beck-Gernsheim Elisabeth, 2011a. Individualization (in Chinese). Translated by Li Rongshan, Fan Xuan, Zhang Huiqiang. Beijing, Peiking University Press.

Beck U., and E. Beck-Gernsheim, 2011b. Foreword: “Varieties of Individualization.” In iChina: The Rise of the Individual in Modern Chinese Society, edited by M.H. Hansen and R. Svarverud, translated by Xu Yefang. Shanghai, Shanghai Translation Publishing House.

Cao Zhenghan, 2011. “China’s Up-down Partition System of Governance and its Stability Mechanism” (in Chinese) Sociological Studies 1, p. 1-40.

Han S. J., & Shim Y. H. 2010. Redefining Second Modernity for East Asia: A Critical Assessment. British Journal of Sociology, 61(3), 465–488.

Marshall T.H., 1950. Citizenship and Social Class. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Perry Elizabeth, 2008. “Chinese-style Concept of Rights and Social Stability” (in Chinese). Translated by Xiaojun Yan. From the website of China Institute of Strategy and Management, sources: http://www.cssm.org.cn/view.php?id=20510

Pieke Frank, 2004. “Contours of an anthropology of the Chinese state: political structure, agency and economic development in rural China.” Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 10, Issue 3: 517-538.

Sampson E., 1988. “The Debate on Individualism: Indigenous Psychologies of the Individual and Their Role in Personal and Societal Functioning.” American Psychologist, vol. 43, no. 1: 15-22 .

Shen Yuan, 2007. Market, Class and Society—Key Issues in the Sociology of Transformation (in Chinese). Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press.

Shi Yunqing, 2007. “The Construction of Opportunity Space” (in Chinese). The Journal of Chinese Sociology, Vol. 2

Swedberg Richard, 1999. “Civil Courage (Zivilcourage), The Case of Knut Wicksell.”Theory and Society 28(4).

Touraine Alain, 1988. Return of the Actor: Social Theory in Postindustrial Society. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Yan Yunxiang, 2011. “Introduction: Paradoxically Individual Image and Endless Disputes in the Process of Individualization” (in Chinese). In The Self China: The Rise of Individuals in the Modern Chinese Society, edited by Meide He and Na Lu. Shanghai, Shanghai Translation Publishing House.

Yan Yunxiang, 2012. “The Individualization of the Chinese Society" (in Chinese). Translated by Lu Yang et al. Shanghai, Shanghai Translation Publishing House.

Yang Yiyin, and Shuguang Zhang (eds.), 2008. Social psychology (in Chinese). Beijing, Capital University of Economics and Business Press.

Yang Yiyin, Chen Manqi, Chen Wuqing, et al. 2010, “Effects of boundary-permeated self and patriotism on social participation in Beijing Olympic Games.” Asian Journal of Social Psychology 13: 109-17.

Zhuang WenJia, 2011. “Transcending the Rights Ascribed by the State? A Case Study of Homeowners’ Protests in Guangzhou” (in Chinese). The Chinese Journal of Sociology 3, p. 88-113.

Haut de page

Notes

1 The traditional yard houses in the inner City B are classified into two types as private and public housing. Public housing is a special historical situation left over from the welfare housing system during the planned economy. Public housing is owned and managed by the state, and was leased to employees of the state-owned enterprises/institutions or local residence at a very low rent since it was considered as a subsidy of their low-salary during that period. However, this low rent didn’t change during the reform. Since there is no agreement to end this lease and no exit mechanism from already occupied public housing, public housing has been used for generations and considered as personal property in practice.

2 The state-individual relationship in this article includes three elements: the state, the individual and the corresponding social and social-psychological mechanism between the state and the individual. As in the traditional pattern, the subordinate relationship is characterized by authoritarian/totalitarian state and boundary-permeated self (Yang.et al,2010). The corresponding mechanism functioned based on this permeated self-boundary, as the state infringed upon the private area with its superior power while the individual internalized the state to form a “nation self” by expanding the elastic self-boundary. Thus the protection for the individuals from the state and the obedience of the individuals to the state are integrated. In other words, the state at different levels acts like the parents (local state) or grand-parents (central state) to the individuals. People neither have the legitimacy nor the power to fight against the state under this paternalism. For their grievances, the traditional way is appealing to the higher or highest level of government to solve the problem. As to the modern pattern, an egalitarian relationship is characterized by a democratic state and independent self with fixed self-boundaries. The State is just one of those groups containing individuals and its power over the individual is limited. Therefore, the state and individuals are equal subjects in an independent relationship. The usual way to solve a grievance is a lawsuit.

3 The main difference between the “ensemble individualism” and the “self-contained individualism” (Sampson,1988) lies in the status of their boundaries—fluid and ambiguous, or firm and clear. The “ensemble individualism” is mostly illustrated by dashed lines, emphasizing the permeability and flexibility of the self-boundary. As an agent, an individual can contain others, such as his/her family, friends, neighbors, and, ultimately, the state and even the world by expanding his/her self-boundary to the corresponding level in different situations. Indeed, Confucius’s teaching in Chinese culture points out that the more expansive the self is, the more superior the individual is by moral standards. In short, the boundary-permeated self-construal addresses the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, and the hierarchical structure indicates the moral level (see more on the boundary-permeated self in Yang et al. 2010). Regarding state-individual relations based on self-construal, when individuals show their obedience to the state, they do so by expanding their self-boundary to contain the state as a part of their appraisal of “me” (the national self) and they will also be morally praised in this process. This moral implication subsequently helps to form a subordinate relationship between individuals and the state. On the contrary, “self-contained individualism” is illustrated by solid lines, emphasizing that the self-boundary is firm and closed. Accordingly, the state is only regarded as one of many associations that comprise individuals. Thus individuals are independent from the state and build an egalitarian relationship with it.

4 Because of the complex history of building socialist public ownership dealing with urban and rural land, the legal right to the land under private courtyard houses was the key point of argument during the renewal. In the official document of City B, the land beneath private courtyard houses was considered as acquired through state allocation based on the 1982 Constitution, which means it could be taken back by the state without any compensation to the citizens during the renewal (freely allocated, freely taken back). However, citizens didn’t agree with this explanation. They insisted on their rights to the land under their private courtyard houses which was bought as a whole with the house by their ancestors before the socialist movements of the 1950’s. After digging into related laws, they proved that the legal rights of their land bought in the early years should be confirmed as acquired through accession but not state allocation after the 1982 Constitution, thus they should be treated as subjects endowed with property rights and could make decisions about moving or not of their own free will during the renewal.

5 According to citizens’ explanation, standard land prices are made of 3 parts: “land allocation fee”, “infrastructure construction fee” and “demolition fee in towns and cities”. The demolition fee should have already be included in the cost of development based on the standard land price and it should be the part paid to the citizens living on the land when the demolishing took place.

6 An open letter to the Municipal People’s Congress of City B,” by 10357 relocated citizens, 2000.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Shi Yunqing, « Individualization in China under Compressed and Contradictory Modernity », Temporalités [En ligne], 26 | 2017, mis en ligne le 14 février 2018, consulté le 21 mai 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/temporalites/3853 ; DOI : 10.4000/temporalites.3853

Haut de page

Auteur

Shi Yunqing

Associate Professor, Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
shiyq@cass.org.cn

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de Temporalités sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page