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Politics at the Boundary: Mixed Signals and the Chinese State

Modern China, Vol, 38, No. 2, March 2012, pp. 174-98

26 Pages Posted: 12 Jun 2011 Last revised: 2 Oct 2013

Rachel E. Stern

University of California, Berkeley - Department of Jurisprudence & Social Policy

Kevin J. O'Brien

University of California, Berkeley - Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science

Date Written: August 13, 2011

Abstract

In this conceptual essay, we argue that one way to understand the Chinese state is to view it from below, from the perspective of people advocating change. Our "state reflected in society" approach is illustrated with accounts of Chinese lawyers, journalists and NGO leaders who operate at the boundary of the acceptable and are attentive to signals about what the authorities will tolerate. Their experiences suggest that mixed signals about the limits of the permissible is a key feature of the Chinese state. Beyond a number of well-patrolled "forbidden zones," the Chinese state speaks with many voices and its bottom line is often unclear. At the border of the uncontroversial and the unacceptable, the Chinese state is both a high-capacity juggernaut capable of demarcating no-go zones and a hodgepodge of disparate actors ambivalent about what types of activism it can live with. Whether mixed signals are deliberate or accidental is hard to determine, but they do offer the authorities certain advantages by providing a low cost way to contain dissent, gather information and keep options open.

Keywords: state, state-society relations, signals, uncertainty, ambivalence, lawyers, journalists, NGOs

JEL Classification: H11, N45, O53, P20, P30

Suggested Citation

Stern, Rachel E. and O'Brien, Kevin J., Politics at the Boundary: Mixed Signals and the Chinese State (August 13, 2011). Modern China, Vol, 38, No. 2, March 2012, pp. 174-98. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1862945

Rachel Stern

University of California, Berkeley - Department of Jurisprudence & Social Policy ( email )

School of Law
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-2150
United States

Kevin O'Brien (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science ( email )

210 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

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