In This Review

The Private Sector in Public Office: Selective Property Rights in China
The Private Sector in Public Office: Selective Property Rights in China
By Yue Hou
204 pp, Cambridge University Press, 2019
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Welfare for Autocrats: How Social Assistance in China Cares for Its Rulers
Welfare for Autocrats: How Social Assistance in China Cares for Its Rulers
By Jennifer Pan
248 pp, Oxford University Press, 2020
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These empirically rich and methodologically sophisticated books explore two among the many kinds of negotiated interactions between citizens and the state that contribute to China’s economic and political vitality. Hou describes how private entrepreneurs protect themselves from having to make involuntary philanthropic donations and avoid paying arbitrary fees, fines, taxes, and outright bribes by seeking office in local people’s congresses. As representatives, they gain social prestige and cultivate relationships with senior officials, which deters lower-level officials from hassling them. The congresses have no real legislative function, but they serve the important political purpose of fostering cooperative relations between government officials and some of the most prominent people in local society.

Pan’s study looks at the neighborhood administrators who are in charge of distributing welfare payments and other benefits to distressed local households. Most of this money goes to households that meet the financial qualifications for assistance, but a portion is allocated to so-called targeted populations: potential troublemakers of various kinds, including former prisoners, members of banned religious cults, and political dissidents. The state aims to “stabilize their mental state” by placing them on the dole. At the same time, welfare payments create a pretext for officials to keep a close eye on their activities. Pan argues that this “repressive assistance” reduces the need for coercive repression, thus enabling local officials to report success in their mandated mission of maintaining social stability. The effort to preemptively control unruly elements has a long history in China; Pan suggests that the flood of information on individuals generated by digital technology is likely to intensify such measures in the future.

Taken together, the books counteract the oversimplified image of Chinese authoritarianism as a repressive apparatus perched atop a passive society. Instead, the system is more interactive, with local officials encouraged to apply the rules flexibly in order to win the cooperation of local populations.