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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

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SEPT 2021 Issue
Field Notes In Conversation

The State of the Plague

Chuang with Aminda Smith and Fabio Lanza

Chuang is an international communist collective that publishes an eponymous journal and a blog.1 Their content includes interviews, translations, and original articles about China’s ascent through the piled wreckage of history and the struggles of those dragged beneath it. Through years of on-the-ground research, the collective has developed an incisive communist analysis emphasizing the global dimensions of the Chinese experience, unclouded by the debates of the 20th century and bolstered by continuous attention to the changing conditions of proletarian struggle in China and beyond. In their attentive theoretical interventions and in the windows into everyday life visible on their blog, the collective has always emphasized practical lessons for the many battles waged by proletarians around the world today and in the near future.

For this issue of the Brooklyn Rail, Aminda Smith and Fabio Lanza interviewed Chuang about their first book, Social Contagion and Other Material on Microbiological Class War in China, forthcoming in October as one in a series of new titles from the historic Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company.2 Smith is an historian of modern China, co-director of the PRC History Group, and an associate professor at Michigan State University. Lanza is a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Arizona.

The book includes an updated version of their influential article “Social Contagion” (originally published in February 2020), a translation of a Chinese report on workers’ conditions and labor struggles during and after the peak of the domestic COVID-19 pandemic, an interview with two activists about their experiences in Wuhan throughout the first few months of the outbreak, and a long article about how the ruling class has attempted to use this catastrophe as an opportunity to restructure and expand the state for the interests of long-term capitalist accumulation. Overall, the book provides a surprising new perspective on the relationship between capitalism, the pandemic, the state-building project in China, and the agency of ordinary people.

Aminda Smith and Fabio Lanza (Rail): The general view on China’s response to the pandemic, promoted by both Western media and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is that it was successful because of the enormous capacity of the state, its authoritarian or even totalitarian nature, its deep penetration into every aspect of social life, all characteristics that made that model of response inapplicable and/or unpalatable in the US or in Europe. In the book, you argue, quite convincingly, that the pandemic revealed instead the weakness of the state, and that the state was ultimately capable of dealing with the crisis by recognizing this weakness and delegating authority to local governments and ad hoc volunteer groups. This is a fascinating thesis, so can you explain how the state’s response to the pandemic was structured, what failed, and what ultimately worked?

Chuang: This is definitely a pervasive view, both in China and overseas. Part of the reason it was so effective at obscuring what really happened during the pandemic is that this image of the all-knowing state was already widespread beforehand. Maybe we can nickname it something like the “myth of totalitarian omnipotence.” But it’s important to remember that this myth is not just cultivated by the official organs of the party state in China to protect its interests. In fact, it’s even more avidly propagandized in Western media, for example, through the sort of dark Sinofuturist clickbait pieces constantly reporting on how everyone in China has a “social credit score” that determines their life choices, how facial recognition technology in every major city automatically tickets you for minor infractions, or how the government is planning to settle hundreds of thousands of its own citizens in far-off countries in Africa. None of those things are true, but an environment of constant bombardment with this sort of content naturally cultivates a mythic image of the all-powerful state.

This myth disguises two things. First, it obscures the state’s persistent weakness and the reality that, despite its glittering skylines, China is in many ways still a relatively poor country, especially in per capita terms. If you compare really basic measures—like total tax revenue that goes to the central government in China versus total tax revenue that goes to the federal government in the US—this quickly becomes clear. And in per capita terms the difference is of course magnified enormously. In another relevant example, China’s public per capita spending on healthcare is low even compared to other countries at a similar level of economic development, though it has been rising. This also means that state administration has been fundamentally shaped by the necessity of “ruling from a distance,” defined by high degrees of local autonomy, balkanization in command and surveillance structures, and a substantial latitude for corruption. This has historically given lower-level governments far more latitude and independence in China than they have elsewhere, and all of these features have actually been important to the development of a domestic capitalist class. Corruption, for example, is not necessarily “inefficient”—it’s a very normal part of capitalist development because it’s how capitalists are born when the market first opens and the rules of engagement are not well defined. It’s only after accumulation reaches a certain threshold that all these features become a hindrance.

Second, it also makes it difficult to properly understand that the ruling class in China has been engaged in a fairly extensive state-building project, which has been decades in the making but really began to accelerate under Xi Jinping. These two things are connected, obviously, since the necessity of state-building presupposes some sort of weakness. Accumulation had proceeded far enough that corruption, poor command chains, and the lack of reliable channels of information all began to become more of a hindrance than a benefit. The rapid build-up in local government debt, linked to stimulus infrastructure projects in the 2010s, was a clear sign of this problem. The anti-corruption campaign was aimed at addressing the issue at the higher levels, clearing out provincial tycoons who potentially posed a threat to the central government, and tidying up chains of command and channels of information from the top down. Alongside this were much more mundane things, like reforms in the methodology used by the National Bureau of Statistics and attempts to better integrate all sorts of public records. Similarly, various campaigns of repression against feminists, worker centers, and Maoist student groups also showed that there were similar attempts at integration within the larger policing infrastructure. People often don’t realize that China was a place where, for decades, it was fairly easy to avoid prosecution for many crimes by just moving to another city—at least until you garnered the attention of the central state—and where there was a frightening amount of leeway for local authorities to determine punishments, which also meant that it was easy to get out of trouble if you had connections in the local precinct. It’s still often true that local police won’t have access to simple, standard national databases, so they can’t always run your driver’s license, process your prints, or use your DNA, even if they might record this information locally. That’s quickly starting to change, but it’s a huge contrast with both what we are used to in many other countries and with the myth of totalitarian omnipotence, which of course assumes that these systems are more integrated and more pervasive in China than anywhere else.

So how does this relate to the pandemic? Well, the obvious example is that this local delegation of authority was disastrous. Despite all the myths of how effective this containment was, it’s kind of laughable when you think about it. After all, an outbreak with a clear and quickly identified geographical origin ultimately became a nationwide epidemic and then a global pandemic. How could this happen, when doctors had identified very early on that some new, deadly respiratory disease was spreading in the city? And when this was then clearly linked to a coronavirus? In large part, it’s because local officials rushed to suppress information on the outbreak as it was emerging from hospitals, including hiding information from the central state, all while making no moves to restrict travel, shut down businesses, or encourage mask use when these things would have been the most helpful. The book includes a long interview with friends in Wuhan, who offer a detailed timeline of events and explain what information was being provided on the ground throughout. They point out the strange fact, for example, that their friends in Shanghai knew more about the outbreak, at an earlier date, than many people living in Wuhan itself. Another thing that’s noticeable in this firsthand narrative is how there was this very sudden shift in policy, effectively overnight, where it seems that some higher authority must have finally stepped in to decisively implement the lockdown. That’s usually a sign that the central government has gotten involved, placing local officials under its direct command.

So, in many ways, we have to understand the outbreak as a huge initial failure—signaled by the fact that it became a pandemic that is still with us today—and which was only reigned in domestically by the coordinated effort of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, often voluntarily working alongside local authorities. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the epidemic would never have been contained if it wasn’t for the effort of these volunteers. At the same time, it was completely serendipitous that the outbreak largely occurred in a single city and, what’s more, on the eve of the Spring Festival, when everyone had already stocked up in the expectation that businesses would be closed. This minimized the immediate impact of the lockdown and allowed the central state to concentrate the vast majority of its resources on Wuhan (and, to a lesser degree, Beijing—where the central government is actually located). At the same time, the central government, through the Chinese CDC, understood the importance of opening up the flow of information, inviting international medical investigators, sharing research about the new virus immediately, and quickly creating easily-delegated standards for prevention that erred on the side of safety. Similarly, they stepped in to ensure that the food and power systems were being maintained. This is the level at which you can identify a certain success. Throughout, the government recognized its own incapacity and very effectively and rapidly delegated immense amounts of de facto administrative authority to the lowest level of governance, which included a whole array of administrative organs buoyed at every point by the efforts of volunteers.

Rail: During the Mao era (you use the term “developmental regime”) the state made an effort to reach into society, down to the neighborhood level, through hybrid organizational forms such as the resident committees. These are still in operation, so what was their role during the pandemic? Had their organizational capabilities been reduced during the reform period?

Chuang: In what we call the socialist developmental regime (from the 1950s until the capitalist transition resumed in the 1970s), there was a stumbling attempt to extend the state all the way down to the most local levels of society and a certain expectation that, in doing so, the state itself would cease to be a distant, alien presence in people’s lives and would instead become a truly universal institution. This was at least how the process was expressed in theory. In reality, what happened was a halting and geographically uneven extension of central authority, followed by a fragmentation of that authority into many autarkic sites of decision-making. The main symbols of that experiment were not actually residents committees, but instead the linkages to the party and the planning apparatus that formed in enterprises and rural collectives. In the rural case, some of these linkages were preserved in reforms beginning in the 1980s and formalized in the legal status of “village autonomy,” centered on the villagers committee as the fundamental unit of rural administration.

Residents’ committees were first created in urban areas during the developmental regime, but they were not the main sites of local administration. Instead, everyday governance was mostly deferred to the city’s various, largely autarkic enterprises. If you were an urban resident in those years, the vast majority of your basic consumption goods—housing, clothing, food, even entertainment—were provided for free through your danwei, or work-unit, linked to a particular enterprise. Residents’ committees were actually created in order to manage the (initially) very small share of the urban population that didn’t have a danwei. Toward the end of the developmental regime, however, many cities (especially in the south) began to see a growth in their population of rural migrant workers. Technically, since these workers didn’t have an urban danwei, they were under the administrative authority of the residents’ committee for whatever district they lived and/or worked in. At first, these were mostly seasonal laborers. But over time they came to be a more and more permanent feature of the city. As the developmental regime began to collapse and the capitalist transition resumed,3 many cities experienced rapid growth even as the old enterprise and work-unit welfare system was being dismantled. The end result was that most people living in cities had no ties to any local enterprise and therefore fell under the authority of the residents’ committee.

So the residents’ committee was an entirely marginal institution that just incidentally survived the dismantling of the developmental regime and rose to fill a completely different function than that originally intended. Initially, though, the state didn’t really have resources to properly build out its local governmental infrastructure. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, in both rural and urban areas, there were a lot of legal changes granting “autonomy” to local administrative organs and designating the “community/neighborhood” (社区) residents committee as the fundamental unit of urban administration, similar to the village committees in the countryside, where these reforms were accompanied by the implementation of local elections. But this was all done in a context of the general rollback of state authority. It’s really only in recent years that attention has turned back to building out the state at the local level. The pandemic has been a huge impetus in this regard, since it very clearly divided the areas where residents’ committees were functional from the areas where they were not. In many places, the committees had effectively sat empty for years. In others, they’d functioned as little more than a site for the most middling forms of local corruption and had never offered any real public services. Now, it’s at least clear that there will be a concerted attempt to build out these organs, bring them under clearer chains of command, link them more closely with local police precincts, etc.

Rail: You describe, in detail, a process of mass mobilization in response to the pandemic, with groups of volunteers providing all kind of services, both in containing the spread and in helping people survive the pandemic, yet you make it clear that this mobilization was not necessarily against the state, nor did it represent a threat to the legitimacy of the CCP, despite the poor handling of the crisis. Also, it seems that in some cases, these mutual aid efforts reinforced pre-existing social divisions instead of providing a chance for trans-societal alliances. Why?

Chuang: Sometimes volunteers were operating in complete independence from the government. But there were very few cases where they understood their activity to be in outright opposition to it and, when the state stepped in months later to ask them to discontinue their activities, they all did. That’s not to say that the process wasn’t messy or even antagonistic at times. In many areas, especially in the countryside, there was a fairly aggressive local mobilization geared toward excluding basically any outsiders. This was visible on Chinese social media, which showed middle-aged village men guarding barricades with archaic polearms (an illustration of such a scene serves as the cover of the book), or volunteers patrolling neighborhoods with drones and yelling at anyone found outside. These images were popular and most often lighthearted, but in its extremes the same attitude was often dangerous, xenophobic, and violent. In one case, a motorcyclist was decapitated because a village had strung a wire across its entryway to prevent outsiders from gaining access. And when the Hubei province (where Wuhan is located) re-opened, there was a widely reported clash at the border with Jiangxi, involving police on both sides fighting one another, because the Jiangxi side thought it was too dangerous to let in people from Hubei.

It’s hard to emphasize just how much the basic public attitude in China differed from that in many Western countries. Nor was this a case where everyone trusted the government and was offering to help because of some faith in authority. In fact, the exact opposite was true: many people felt moved to volunteer precisely because they didn’t trust that the state would be able to effectively contain the virus. They’d seen the incapacity and corruption of local officials firsthand their entire lives and therefore had no trust that these people would be able to get the job done. If there was a key difference, it wasn’t to be found in some imagined obedience to the state. Instead, it seems that the major contrast between public sentiment in China and elsewhere was that there was a widespread lack of faith in the state, an intuition that the problem wouldn’t just be taken care of automatically by the proper authorities and that everyone had to come together to mobilize against the virus. In places like the US, the failure in state capacity had almost the exact opposite character, with no one really prepared to recognize and deal with the reality of declining competency, especially when it came to the withering away of public services. So you had a very different attitude in the US, with some criticizing the response of their particular state in small anti-mask protests, and others supporting state measures or hoping for a greater response but doing so from home.

Rail: What about workers? Did the pandemic open new possibilities for workers’ mobilization against capital or further restricted avenues for organization and action?

Chuang: Despite the (relative) pick-up in the domestic economy during the second half of 2020 and into this year, there have been far fewer worker actions than in previous years. This is shown in the few statistics available from organizations like China Labour Bulletin (CLB), which recorded a little over half the number of incidents in 2020 as it had the previous year, and these numbers seem to accord with what we and our friends have seen on the ground. The manufacturing and mining sectors led the decline here, continuing an already multi-year decline in mass incidents since their peak in the early 2010s. Most other sectors followed. The fall in manufacturing protests may have also been related to the explosion of production through the year’s end, where China, whose factories remained open while so many were shuttered around the world, experienced rising wages and labor shortages as companies struggled to keep up with export demand.4 Labor disputes in manufacturing and services began to pick up in the middle of 2020—as documented in the translated article written by some friends of ours, which serves as chapter two of the book—but it is debatable to what extent the number of disputes reflects the number of labor actions. While statistics are not yet available for the whole of 2020, it does seem that labor disputes, as a general measure of conflict, were at least on par with the year before. For example, in Beijing, labor arbitration courts took on more than 94,000 cases in the 10 months between January and October.5 That essentially matches the 93,000 cases collected in the nine months between January and September of 2019, which was already a 37.4 percent increase from the year before.6

There was, however, a curious rise in the number of construction workers protesting wage arrears in 2020, as recorded by CLB—the highest ever recorded by the organization since the mapping project began in 2011. And perhaps even stranger, in the early months of 2021, there was an absence of the massive surge in construction worker protests that is normally seen before the Chinese New Year, when workers block roads, hold marches, or even threaten suicide in order to earn year-end pay so that they aren’t traveling back home empty handed. This may be due at least in part due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions placed on workers during the New Year holiday. Some estimates showed the number of travelers in 2021 fell by as much as 60 percent compared to 2019, hitting a 20 year low in recorded travel.7 By contrast, worker actions in the logistics sector, particularly among delivery riders, are one area where worker organizing has expanded during the pandemic. Actions in the logistics sector as a whole accounted for 20 percent of all worker actions in 2020, the highest level in several years. This sector will likely produce high levels of unrest in years to come, as e-commerce continues to expand. Essentially all of the high-profile labor actions that took place last year (2020) involved delivery riders. At the time, we translated a viral article8 on the plight of food delivery riders that had already been circulating in China, sparking nationwide public discussion and even triggering a few obligatory statements on the part of the two giants in the industry, and Meituan. These statements were accompanied by fairly tepid changes, however, with the companies only making small adjustments to allow riders more time to make their orders but doing little to address the underlying problems behind workers’ grievances.

Then, in late February of 2021, China’s most prominent grassroots organizer of delivery riders Chen Guojiang—known simply as “Mengzhu” or “group leader” (盟主) by friends and activists—was detained by authorities, likely with the intention of keeping the outspoken social media star quiet during the national party congress in early March. Chen has since been charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (寻衅滋事), the most common charge used to round up all kinds of rabble-rousers across the country for years.9 Some friends spoke with Mengzhu before he was detained, learning about how he organized. Based in Beijing, he had maintained a vast network of thousands of delivery riders, mostly in the north of the country. He had developed the network in part because of his strong social media presence, livestreaming on the lives of delivery riders. He also provided advice to other riders, organized group meals and even rented a small apartment with a bed in Beijing where riders new to the city could stay free of charge for a night or two while looking for their own place. Those who knew him also described how Mengzhu had turned his platform into a kind of small business for himself as well, earning small fees here and there, including by collecting bonuses for recommending riders to the platform, or from the events that he hosted for riders. During his time at the platform, Mengzhu also helped organize several strikes by riders, and was reportedly successful in winning worker demands. He and other strike organizers also got hauled in by police some time in 2019. In his discussions with friends, he noted emphatically that his style of organizing could not be emulated and attributed its widespread appeal to his personal obsession with networking, helping others and streaming to his audience. At the time of this writing, Chen remains in detention, and is still awaiting trial.10 Friends of Mengzhu had attempted to collect money for lawyer fees on WeChat, but the link to the fundraising page has been blocked by censors.

Mengzhu offers an interesting picture of the complex and often contradictory reality of worker organizing in China, which rarely matches the mirage of the “labor movement” promoted by many activists. In this case, social media fame and even a sort of small-business entrepreneurial ethos seem to have been integral to the growth of Mengzhu’s network. These unexpected complexities are, we argue, integral to understanding worker organizing in the long run. In both the first and second issues of our journal, we tried to emphasize a broader view of organization that went beyond the limits of the “labor movement,” which acts as the theoretical backdrop for so much analysis of class conflict in China.11 In the future, it will be even more essential to abandon inherited presumptions about what a “labor movement” or even a more general “social movement” ought to look like, if we hope to understand the real character of class war. For example, alongside the recent uptick in factory actions, we might take note of the potential social force of the expanding fringe of unemployed and underemployed workers, who are growing in numbers across the country. On the lower end, this is hinted at by organizing among delivery riders and by ongoing demolitions targeting the so-called “low-end population” (低端人口).12 But it’s also visible among those occupying marginally higher social positions, as in the discourse on “involution” (内卷) and the “996” work schedule13 among white collar workers, or even in the rising number of homeowner protests.14

It is not yet clear how such trends will affect social tensions. But the ongoing slowdown in economic growth seems to indicate that these trends will all worsen with further stagnation. The extent of unemployment in China over the past year of the pandemic is still little understood, but the situation is not likely to improve significantly. During the party congress in March 2021, Premier Li Keqiang cited job creation as the “top priority” of the central government, seeming to indicate that employment has not yet truly recovered from the decline. This is further confirmed by the reality that it was the renewal of the real estate boom—rather than an industrial revival—that first pulled the national economy out of its trough after the lockdown. Meanwhile, we have to bear in mind how economic troubles have affected more well-to-do white collar, or even petite bourgeois, sections of society, who are undoubtedly feeling the strain of job losses and pay cuts or the decimation of their businesses, all on top of the already heavy debt burdens they carried before the pandemic. While such social tensions may not seem to be as inherently left-leaning as labor struggles, they are nonetheless likely to continue to make waves and, unfortunately, more likely to attract the attention and action of the policy-making elite. As we noted in our last journal issue, social unrest by homeowners seems to have outnumbered labor protests in the late 2010s. Now in the pandemic and post-pandemic world, class politics are likely to take on other unexpected forms based on such underlying social tensions. It is this reality—rather than shoddy historical analogy—that ought to serve as the starting point for anyone attempting to speculate on the future of class conflict in China.

Rail: At the end of the book, you make quite an interesting, and one could say speculative, argument about the future of the Chinese state, the pandemic having made clear the need to rebuild it. You argue that while it will continue in its primary function in the service of capitalism, the state is being restructured into something unlike the Western states or its imperial and socialist precedents, while recycling elements from all these models. For what specific new needs and new challenges is this new state being restructured and on what ideological tenets is it based?

Chuang: Basically, the central idea here is twofold: first, we’re arguing that China is still in the process of constructing a properly capitalist state. There’s nothing really new about this, of course, and the core imperatives of the capitalist state are more or less universal, meaning that many aspects of this process are very similar to the state-building projects that accompanied capitalist development elsewhere. But, secondly, it’s also wrong to assume that this means that the state being built in China today will necessarily resemble any of the preceding capitalist states that arose in places like the US, Europe, or the colonies in its details. Those universal capitalist imperatives are baseline requirements, but the existence of universal functions doesn’t give us much insight into the exact institutional structures that are adapted to serve them. In fact, we’d expect the opposite to be the case: as the conditions of global capital accumulation change, this state-building project becomes more and more integral to the entire developmental process. It’s not coincidental that each wave of “late-developer” industrialization has seen the state playing increasingly central roles in the entire process. People often forget that one of Marx’s own most consistent predictions about how capitalism would develop was that the social scale of production would increase alongside industrial centralization, and that the credit system would play an integral role in the management of accumulation at such a scale. So is it really so unexpected to witness the emergence of a state overseeing massive industrial conglomerates, alongside attempts to discipline and direct their activities through institutional oversight and the provision of credit via the large state banks (not, it is worth noting, primarily via fiscal injections)?

At the more philosophical level, there’s another dimension to this second argument. Because it’s not just about the fact that more expansive states are now required to guarantee the baseline conditions of accumulation. It also addresses the question of how this process is perceived by those involved in it and what sort of ideological form it takes. In part, this piece was written as a rejoinder to the whole fad in occidental philosophy that attempts to theorize “the state” as such purely through reference to the European experience and the civilizational lineage stretching back to Rome—as if Roman jurisprudence opens this secret window into the inner workings of the state today. We’re saying: no, you can’t just take something Foucault or Agamben or even Mbembe wrote about modern Europe, ancient Rome, or the colonial world, and apply it wholesale to China, as if the logic of statecraft were an entirely foreign transplant, introduced in the transition to capitalism. Really, we want to point out that there is a maddening arrogance to philosophers writing critiques of “empire” and “civilization” who know nothing about the history of all the largest, longest-lived empires across Asia (not to mention in Africa or the Americas).

In this case the reality is even more damning, because China has its own vibrant and longstanding philosophical tradition that has always been concerned (in fact, this is arguably its central concern) with questions of governance and statecraft. More importantly, this philosophical tradition is being actively revived today, fused with conservative strains of Western thought and selectively deployed by those in power to ideologically justify, conceptualize, and even guide the material progress of the state-building project on the ground. It’s very important to understand this dimension of the process, even if we also have to keep in mind that the philosophical expression of the state-building project is going to differ from the reality on the ground. It’s not really the case that this philosophy acts as the “playbook” for those in power, or even that it gives an accurate picture of how state power functions in reality. In fact, it often does the opposite, idealizing the state and affirming an almost cosmological mission for the CCP, tasked with leading the spiritual rejuvenation of the supposed Chinese nation. But this is itself an important feature of how this process is being expressed through reflection on itself. For all these reasons, we borrowed some of the overblown language of these philosophers and gave this chapter a tongue-in-cheek title: “Plague Illuminates the Great Unity of All Under Heaven.” Of course, such unity is a joke.

None of this means that the state-building project will simply advance unchallenged. As with any element of capitalism, we can rest assured that class conflict is never snuffed out definitively. But it might not take the form we’d expect. We may in fact see more acts of desperation and despair, as social conflicts blow up in unpredictable ways, especially for the lower strata of Chinese society, like the recent bombing of a government building in Guangzhou over a land dispute, or the recent suicide of a truck driver over a 2,000 yuan (about 300 US dollar) fine.15 The higher-value grievances of the upper strata, like investment fraud or real estate development conflicts, will likely continue to increase in number, and receive more coverage in the domestic and foreign media—these individuals also tend to have greater access to the legal system and a better chance of formal recognition in that respect. This may not reflect the actual “balance of forces” regarding class struggle in China but we can expect that, at least on the surface, there will be an increasing “embourgeoisement” of social struggles, for lack of a better word, even as this process is punctuated by violent outbursts from the country’s poorest. Needless to say, the demands of the rich (like maintaining the wobbly property market) will be a top priority for the state. The same isn’t true of truck drivers or the “low-end population” seeing their homes demolished.

We should also be on the lookout for the ways that forms of cellular, campaign-style mobilization by the state might develop in the future. As we note in the final chapter of the book, while the formal state proved relatively weak, small-scale power structures were whipped into shape with incredible speed. Local resident committees, security guards, and other volunteers—with connections to party and government organizations—became the chief faces of state power when it came to regulating the movement of citizens between neighborhoods, or even in and out of their homes. These developments have not gone unnoticed by capital, either. Last year, the head of the European Chamber of Commerce, Jorge Wuttke, was not complaining about the development of some overarching, centralized, and authoritarian bureaucracy hindering business, but quite the opposite: “The patchwork of conflicting rules that emerged from the fight against COVID-19 has produced hundreds of fiefdoms, making it next to impossible to move goods or people across China.” As a chief representative of foreign capital, Wuttke pleaded for the government to standardise measures “across larger jurisdictions” in order to “get the real economy back on its feet.”16 This patchwork power remains in place today, albeit in a more latent form. Even though the pandemic has passed and these systems have relaxed slightly, the reality is that they have not disappeared. The newly developed networks linking formal organs of state power to informal bodies of volunteers, real estate management companies, security guards, etc. have simply sunk down just below the surface, snapping to attention and reasserting their presence whenever local outbreaks occur. This isn’t just important to the management of the pandemic, though. The more speculative part of the chapter argues that similarly local and what we call “para-formal” networks might emerge in the face of indigenous or exogenous shocks, such as a run on banks, or during the nationalist mobilization that would attend any military conflict.

  1. Both of which can be found on their website:
  2. To order the book or other titles in the series, visit Kerr’s website:
  3. As examined in our article “Red Dust,” this actually began under Mao, not Deng Xiaoping, and it’s one of many reasons we argue that periodizing Chinese history according to the sequence of “great leaders” is deceptive. We purposefully never call the developmental regime the “Mao era” for instance, nor the transition to capitalism the “Deng era,” because history can’t be reduced to the actions, whims, or political theories of statesmen.
  4. Gabriel Crossley and Stella Qiu, “China’s stunning export comeback has factories scrambling for workers,” Reuters, 20 December 2020.
  5. 疫情期间务工者遇到劳动争议该咋办? [“What should workers with a labor grievance do during the pandemic?”] 公民日报 [People’s Daily], 27 November 2020.
  6. 北京发布2019年劳动人事争议仲裁十大典型案例 [“Beijing Announces Top Ten Labor Arbitration cases from 2019”] 新华网 [Xinhua].
  7. SCMP Reporter, “China’s annual Lunar New Year migration, usually the biggest of its kind, looks very different in 2021,” South China Morning Post, 7 February 2021.
  8. Chuang and Friends (Trans), “Delivery Workers, Trapped in the System,” Chuang Blog, 12 November 2020.
  9. On Mengzhu and his arrest, see Emily Feng, “He Tried To Organize Workers In China’s Gig Economy. Now He Faces 5 Years In Jail,” NPR, 13April 2021,; Matt Dagher-Margosian, “Free Mengzhu! An interview with Free Chen Guojiang 关注盟主,” Asia Art Tours, On similar cases in the past, see our article “Picking Quarrels” from the second issue of our journal:
  10. The latest reports from labor rights monitoring China Labour Bulletin in early June state that he is still in detention. See “Food delivery worker burns uniform in symbolic protest,” China Labour Bulletin, 8 June 2021.
  11. See “No Way Forward, No Way Back” and “Gleaning the Welfare Fields” in Issue 1, and “Picking Quarrels” in Issue 2, both available here:
  12. On the discourse of “low-end population” and its popularization after the 2017 demolition of low-end housing in Beijing, see: “Adding Insult to Injury: Beijing’s Evictions and the Discourse of “Low-End Population.”
  13. For a discussion of both, see: “Involution: Wildcat on China’s 2020.”
  14. For an analysis of the long term trends, see our analysis in “Picking Quarrels,” cited above. Examples of homeowners protests can be found daily online, for those who look. Bigger incidents are sometimes covered in detail in China-critical publications like Radio Free Asia, perhaps once a month or so. For example, residents in a neighborhood in Chongqing clashed with more than a hundred riot police in May over a long term conflict with officials who wanted to establish a local government office in their residential community. See: “重庆保利香雪小区爆发大规模抗暴事件 业主赶走数百名黑衣人” The Beijing government’s demolition campaign at the Xiangtang complex in the city’s northern suburbs has been reported by several English-language outlets. For example see: “Residents Protest As China Demolishes Some Of Beijing’s Wealthy Suburbs”
  15. See our recent report on such events: “Bombing the Headquarters: Desperate Measures in a Time of Involution,” Chuang Blog, 23 May 2021.
  16. See “COVID-19 Severely Impacting Business: trade associations call for proportionate measures to get real economy back on track,” a joint press release by the a joint press release by the German Chamber of Commerce in China and the European Union Chamber of Commerce in Chamber, 27 February 2020.


Aminda Smith

Aminda Smith is an historian of modern China, co-director of the PRC History Group, and an associate professor at Michigan State University.

Fabio Lanza

Fabio Lanza is a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Arizona.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

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