Allies of the State: China’s Private Entrepreneurs and Democratic Change

  • Published

Allies of the State: China’s Private Entrepreneurs and Democratic Change by Jie Chen and Bruce J. Dickson. Harvard University Press, 2010, 171 pp.

Accurate and unbiased surveys are notoriously difficult undertakings in China, particularly for researchers in search of agents of political change and challenges to the Communist Party’s unilateral grip on power. Yet Allies of the State—the product of a two-year survey conducted in five Chinese provinces—captures a compelling snapshot of the political leanings of Chinese entrepreneurs, commonly thought to be China’s most likely source of democratization. Scholars have long speculated that China’s growing economy will create a middle class that will in turn demand democratic reform. Authors Jie Chen and Bruce J. Dickson, however, offer good reason to question such conventional thinking: Chinese entrepreneurs, it turns out, tend to support the status quo. Rather than a force for change, the emerging Chinese middle class might be a force for stability, preserving communist one-party rule. For it is under communism that China’s nouveau riche have flourished.

This is first and foremost an academic work, written in the style of a seminar textbook tailored to an audience trained in sociological research methodology. Political scientists by training, Chen (Old Dominion University) and Dickson (George Washington University) originally published their findings in the academic journal China Quarterly in 2008. Allies of the State follows the traditional scholarly script, beginning with a comprehensive review of related research in the field, followed by carefully defined terminology, and a discussion about the limitations of research methodologies used. Buried within dense formulae and rhetoric, however, are nuggets of insight of great interest to any self-professed China hand.

The background for this book lies in China’s three-decade-long rise from Maoist self-destruction to economic and geopolitical juggernaut. Deng Xiaoping is rightly credited with transitioning China away from the caustic anti-capitalism of the Mao era toward support for enterprise and the private economy. During the 1980s, under Deng’s stewardship, the party permitted special economic zones to “take the lead in getting rich” in a number of southeastern provinces, allowing freer access to international markets and relaxing state controls over pricing, taxation, and production quotas. These southeastern provinces experienced meteoric economic growth over the subsequent decade, prompting Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, to maintain the heading toward increasingly open markets. Private firms in China increased from 90,000 in 1989 to over 1.5 million in 1999, and the state sector shrank from 77 percent of economic production in 1978 to only 33 percent by 1996. Recognizing the business community’s growing clout, in 2001 the party officially amended its rules and began openly recruiting “capitalists” into its ranks. How this will impact China’s future stands as one of the central issues for China analysts.

Allies of the State is an attempt to quantify several aspects of this impact. The Chen-Dickson survey asks and answers four main questions: How “embedded” are Chinese capitalists in the political system, how much do they support democracy, how much do they support the current regime, and in what type of political activities are they involved? The authors draw several conclusions worthy of emphasis. First, while entrepreneurs are entering party ranks in record numbers, survey results suggest that “the party-state carefully screens those who are allowed to participate and uses access to formal institutions as a means of generating political support.” Co-opting the business community enables party elders to quiet any threat to one-party rule. But co-optation might not even be necessary: only 28 percent of respondents favored multiparty competition, and only 13 percent opposed the current one-party dictatorship. Rather than a threat to the Communist Party, respondents expressed a strong inclination to preserve and reform the one-party system. Approximately 80 percent of private entrepreneurs supported democratization of the party itself, favoring one-party, multicandidate elections at both local and elite echelons of government.

Jie and Dickson are not the first to caution that economic growth will not necessarily serve as a path to Chinese democracy. One example from Margaret Pearson, predicted a high level of regime support among Chinese entrepreneurs in her description of China as a “socialist corporatist” system. This work should be viewed as a partial vindication of scholars like Pearson. As Jie and Dickson freely acknowledge, however, the survey was limited to five provinces, all of which can be found in the more affluent southeastern region of China in which economic reform has been most robust in recent decades. Further research in other regions is now needed to complete the picture—51 provinces remain to be tested. One wonders, how would entrepreneurs in Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang respond? And would western provinces like Sichuan, where economic reforms were more slowly implemented, be as satisfied with preserving the one-party system? Such questions illustrate why Jie and Dickson’s work is best understood as a benchmark for future study—the foundation for an upcoming generation of sociological fieldwork in China.

At the time of this writing, it is perhaps fitting that a cover story for The Economist would warn of a coming era of Chinese corporate takeovers. Chinese entrepreneurs have quickly learned to excel in the world of international business by adopting best practices—not by radically altering the way international business is conducted. Perhaps one might expect the same at home: will Chinese entrepreneurs tear down the very domestic political system in which they are beginning to thrive? Or, as Allies of the State suggests, will they hold true to form, join the party, use it for personal gain, and make it stronger than ever? The beginning of an answer lies in this book. Those looking to foretell the future of Chinese politics will find Jie and Dickson’s work essential reading. But beware: like all good analyses, this book answers some questions but raises even more.

Capt Paul A. Stempel, USAF

Joint Base Andrews, MD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."