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
Date Written: August 13, 2011
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
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