Reading that shapes my understanding of PRChina

This is a live list of various works that have most fundamentally shaped my understanding of the People’s Republic of China. Last updated 2020/04/18.

Philip Selznick. 1952. The Organizational Weapon: A Study of Bolshevik Strategy and Tactics. 1st ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a marxist-leninist ‘party’. This type of organisation is not the political party of western parliamentary democracy, but a centralised machine with one goal: obtain power everywhere in society, so that the whole of society can be mobilised. It is important to understand its ideal form in order to say something about an incarnation.

James C. Scott. 1998. ‘Chapter 5: The Revolutionary Party: A Plan and a Diagnosis’ in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 147–79.

The twentieth century was the age of what James Scott calls ‘high modernism’, the culmination of centuries of attempts by the state to make its domain ‘legible’ so it could govern more easily. In this chapter, Scott explains how the leninist revolutionary party came to be as the ultimate form of the ‘scientific’ management of society. No more need for politics, as now professional revolutionaries armed with the exact science of marxism will have the objectively correct answer to any question of governance. The legacy of government as the management of the factory worker by the more knowledgeable manager is still present.

Frank N. Pieke. 2009. The Good Communist: Elite Training and State Building in Today’s China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511691737.

Even though the People’s Republic of China has changed dramatically since the era of Opening and Reform began in 1978, the Party elite remains ensconced in a separate world that still runs on much of the same software. Separate housing, schooling, and even food supply for some mean that the private world of the leading cadre looks rather different from the public world of China’s middle class. This ethnography of the party school system shows how separate cadre identity is maintained through regular training and retraining in the latest iteration of the ideology of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

Minxin Pei. 2016. China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

That the reality of the leninist party-state is far from the lean machine some pundits thought to see after the 2008 financial crisis should be obvious to any serious observer of China. But Minxin Pei’s overview of corruption really brings home how the disfunctionality stems from the contradictions of the PRC’s system of hierarchically linked party secretaries that control their entire level of government.

Andrew G. Walder. 2015. China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

The People’s Republic of China was created under Mao. Even though a tremendous amount of change has taken place since his death in 1976, it is still important to understand how the system of Soviet-style command economy and the party-state organisation came to be, because it continues to shape China to this day.

Alexander V. Pantsov. 2012. Mao: The Real Story. Translated by Steven I. Levine. New York: Simon & Schuster.

This biography of Mao Zedong is important because Pantsov highlights how much Mao and his Party were beholden to the Soviet Union and the model it offered until their victory in the civil war. But, besides that, to understand the CCP’s system and its official ideology, one has to understand the background of the people who propagated it, as well as the extent of their depravity.

William A. Callahan 2012. China: The Pessoptimist Nation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199549955.001.0001.

Despite the marxist foundation—which matters less to the majority that is not a Party member—modern-day Chinese nationalism is about highlighting the country’s glorious history, the deserved great power status that derives from that, and the unjust humiliation it got/gets instead. In this book, Callahan explains how the Century of National Humiliation narrative feeds a nationalism of victimhood and revanchism.

Alice L. Miller. 2018. ‘Only Socialism Can Save China; Only Xi Jinping Can Save Socialism’. China Leadership Monitor, no. 56.

Alice Miller explains the infamous Though of Xi Jinping on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era. The content of this ‘socialism’ might be unrecognisable compared to what people commonly understand it to mean, but that does not mean the structures do not still shape the way things work.

Elizabeth J. Perry. 2008. ‘Chinese Conceptions of “Rights”: From Mencius to Mao—and Now’. Perspectives on Politics 6 (1): 37–50. doi:10.1017/S1537592708080055.

Perry explores the historical conception of ‘rights’ in China and finds that the general popular view includes expectations that benevolent governance guarantees people’s livelihood. This contrasts to the American equation of ‘rights’ with liberty instead.

Václav Havel. 2018. The Power of the Powerless. Translated by Paul Wilson. London: Vintage.

The strength of Havel’s work is not only that his ‘post-totalitarianism’ perfectly expresses how the leninist system develops into its own automaton, but also that he highlights relevant points for countries outside the Soviet block. China is by no means a totalitarian state anymore, but it maintains many characteristics of post-totalitarianism, of which the disconnect from truth is the most relevant. The risk of alienation that technology also brings to Western democracies applies to China as well.

Xi Jinping [习近平]. 2019. ‘关于坚持和发展中国特色社会主义的几个问题’ [A few questions regarding maintaining and developing Socialism with Chinese Characteristics]. Qiu­shi 2019 no. 7.

In this recently republished and expanded version of a 2013 speech, Xi Jinping denies that China is anything but ‘socialist’. Under the leadership of the the CCP, the PRC is still on the path to eventually achieving ‘the lofty ideals of communism’. However, just as with any millenarian faith, the coming of the end times has been postponed by a bit. Nevertheless, despite the flexibility of what ‘socialism’ concretely means in contemporary China, the continuing importance of historical materialism for the leadership means that these claims have to be taken seriously.

Zhao Dingxin. 2001. The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

One of the most defining moments of the modern PRC was the 1989 Movement or June 4th Movement, commonly referred to by the Tiananmen Square around which the protests in Beijing centred. It is important to understand where these massive protests—which involved the whole of society—came from. The Party’s response tells us a lot about its nature. Zhao Dingxin uncovers the role of state-society relations and the different modes of legitimation: whereas the Party elite believed in their own ideological right to rule, the people had begun to evaluate the state on its performance and found it wanting. The ‘ecology’ of the movement then decided its course. Because the political system has not been fundamentally reformed, the dichotomy Zhao describes is still lurking under the surface.

J.D. Armstrong. 1977. Revolutionary Diplomacy: Chinese Foreign Policy and the United Front Doctrine. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The Introduction and Chapters 1 and 2 provide still relevant overviews of the Chinese Communist Party’s united front doctrine and its relevance to the PRC’s foreign policy.

Bruce J. Dickson. 2016. The Dictator’s Dilemma: The Chinese Communist Party’s Strategy for Survival. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

To understand China, it is important to understand its success and the complicated attitude of its people to the government that has achieved many successes in their eyes.

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