These three books provide insights into Chinese social and political life at the grassroots, far from the high politics of Beijing. Scoggins’s enterprising fieldwork finds the fabled Chinese police state to be surprisingly ineffective at the level of the street. The regime is so obsessed with “stability maintenance”—surveilling dissidents, detaining petitioners, and snuffing out protests—that the mundane work of protecting citizens and solving crimes “limps along as overworked, underpaid, and poorly trained officers struggle to get through another week.” As a result, she argues, the police often ignore crimes, resolve cases by bribing victims to withdraw their complaints, or close them by torturing suspects to get them to confess. Low pay and lax supervision open the way for corruption. Reform mandates sent out from Beijing serve only to increase paperwork and reduce efficiency. Ironically, popular dissatisfaction with the police stimulates the very protests and petitioning that the stability maintenance program is designed to suppress.
Zhang, a Peking University professor with an insider’s knowledge of Chinese local government, explores how the country’s fiscal and tax systems foster cooperation between private entrepreneurs and officials. County governments are mostly on their own when it comes to raising the money they need to meet Beijing’s mandates, and this encourages them to attract private investors. Authorities set corporate tax rates high, but officials exercise wide discretion in overlooking tax evasion, punishing it, or negotiating partial payments. This drives entrepreneurs to cultivate relations with officials through financial and social ties and by seeking membership in local people’s congresses. The system was not designed for these purposes, but for now, it helps keep corruption at tolerable levels, promotes economic growth, and deters businesspeople from challenging the regime. Zhang’s close analysis helps explain why the rising middle class has so far not demanded democratic reforms, contrary to the expectation of classical modernization theory that societies would grow more democratic as they grew wealthier.
Santos spent 20 years repeatedly visiting a village in northern Guangdong Province, where he traced the impact of rapid modernization and growing government intrusiveness on the intimate decisions of family life. Many younger people leave the village to engage in factory work or to farm vegetables closer to urban markets, but they stay rooted in the community, sending money back to build houses they plan to return to one day. When making reproductive decisions, young couples face pressure from relatives on one side, who often expect at least two and preferably more male children per family, and the state on the other, which has tried to limit rural couples to two children total, regardless of their sex, and which has enforced the limit with widely resented policies such as compulsory gynecological exams, mandatory insertions of intrauterine devices, sterilizations and abortions, fines, and the destruction of property. Working mothers from the village often ignore the disapproval of urban childcare experts and state media and leave their children in the village to be raised by grandparents. Not surprisingly, grandparents often struggle with this burden. Even as the central government propagates “socialist spiritual civilization,” local temple fairs continue to celebrate the immemorial values of making money and having children.