The Fate of Locality in Modern China: Changes and Continuity

Title: 1222 | The Fate of Locality in Modern China: Changes and Continuity
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Yongtao Du, Oklahoma State University, United States (organizer, presenter)
Lifeng Li, Nanjing University, China (presenter)
Xiaopo Zhang, Anhui University, China (presenter)
Woyu Liu, Nanjing University, China (presenter)
Huaiyin Li, University of Texas at Austin, United States (chair, discussant)


Unlike the conventional picture in studies of nationalism in which the dawn of nation-states ushered in the dusk of things local, the emergence of the nation-state in China was not accompanied by a decline of the local. This local-national symbiosis is understandable if we view locality in the Chinese republic as inheritance from the late empire: not self-standing places to be annexed by the newly emerging territorial state, but age-old field administrative entities embedded in an imperial polity, carrying with them enduring localist orientations of the ruling class. This same type of locality also weathered the Nationalist Revolution and GMT rule with success, despite attacks by the “national unity” discourse and suppressions in the state’s centralization efforts. Yet the millennium-long locality-polity relationship, together with the various forms of localist orientations, suffered severe damage after 1949, when the CCP made great progresses in both disempowering locality and cleansing people of local sentiment.
This panel explores the fate of locality in modern China against the background of enduring localism and the distinctive position locality held in traditional China’s spatial order. Li studies the dilemmas rural elites faced between the state and locality from the Qing to the PRC; Zhang analyzes the early republican transformation of local politics in the Lianghuai region; Du explains what made it hard, if not impossible, for a communist cadre to be a local man and inherit the localist orientation of the late imperial gentry; finally Liu analyzes how the “Four Cleanup Movement” reshaped local politics in Mao’s China.

Panel Abstracts:
A Communist is Not a Local Man: Class Consciousness, Democratic Centralism, and the Suppression of Locality in Modern China
Late Imperial China’s locality-polity relationship demonstrated an aggregate model, as articulated by Wang Yangming: “the grandeur of the All-under-Heaven is a collection of counties and prefectures.” Localities held irreducible distinction and dignity in this model for “the ordering of the All-under-Heaven depends on the ordering of each and every county and prefecture.” In Communist China, the aggregate model was replaced by a sandstone model in which, as Joseph Levenson put it, “the blooms of provincial selves” were killed and pressed “into a national album.” Corresponding to this structural change was the withering of the once flourishing local sentiments and local identity at the individual level. This paper explores what made it hard, if not impossible, for the communist cadre to inherit the localist orientation of the late imperial gentry. It argues that against the background of a radicalizing intellectual culture in general, important clues can be found in the doctrine of “Proletariat Class Consciousness” and the Bolshevik organizational principle of “democratic centralism”: the former replaces kinship and geography with class as the central mechanism of identity formation, and made it possible for the communists to identify with “the people (renmin)” of any place , and address them as “fellow countrymen and fellow kinsmen” (xiangqin); the latter trained the communist mindset to absolutely subordinate the part to the whole, and the local party branches to the center.

Between State and Locality: The Transition of Rural Elites from Late Qing to Communist China
The last one and a half century witnessed the great transformation of social-political structure and the continuous change of rural elites in China. In late imperial China, the gentry class controlled the rural society with their family wealth, academic rank, and social prestige. During the period of late Qing and Republic, however, the traditional elites had been differentiated along with the modernization process and the extension of state power, and some of them became so-called “local tyrants and evil gentry” (tuhao lieshen) due to the lack of moral constraints. Owing to the rise and development of Chinese communist revolution, the power structure of rural society was reshaped drastically and the subaltern peasants became the new political elites under the authorization of the CPC. During the CPC-mobilized mass movements, the grass-roots political elites did not turn out as loyal deputies of the state, but played a game with state power as social beings and rational beings to maintain either the interests of communes or their self-interests. On the other hand, the intervention of country masses changed the power balance and game pattern between the state and the grass-roots elites so that they both internalize and externalize the system of state power, in an obvious separation of power and duty, intensifying their centrifugal tendency. The state-building of modern China was in a sense characterized by the extension of state power and the reduction of locality, nevertheless, the transition of rural elites indicated more or less the resilience of locality.

Change and Continuity in Early Republican Local Politics: Zhang Jian (張謇) and His Business in Lianghuai (兩淮)
Among the hundreds of counties and prefectures of Qing China, those in the Lianghuai region demonstrated some special features: the salt-administration system, a special type of authority paralleled and sometimes overlapped with regular field administrative infrastructures; side by side with the literati gentry, sojourning salt merchants functioned as a new type of local elites; in addition, there were the specially registered salt-households and salt-labors. In the early republican era, with the decline of salt production, the age-old salt-administration system was abolished. In its place, there emerged joint-stock companies engaging in both salt-making and agricultural development. By paying the government and buying into these businesses, these companies entered local politics as a new type of social force, and inevitably added a new layer of complexity to local politics: for they had to deal with all the existing local elites, and handle resistance and even sabotage of the salt-labors. This paper takes Zhang Jian, the famous civil-examination-primus(zhuanyuan)-turned-entrepreneur as an example, and analyzes how his Dagang Company in Yancheng county participated in and also helped reshape local politics in a new era and against a new institutional background. The goal is to identify both changes and continuities of the way local politics was conducted from the Qing to the republic.

Hunting "Big Rats" in Mao's Communes: The Local Politics of Anti-Corruption Campaigns in Baoying County, 1963-1966
When the Great Leap Forward Famine was alleviated in the early 1960s, the top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began to increasingly stress the importance of class struggle. In an attempt to hold “class enemies” and corrupt cadres accountable for the great famine, they soon launched a series of political campaigns to find out and punish corrupt grassroots cadres. These campaigns gradually overwhelmed the economic adjustments and developed into a major movement called “Four Cleanups (四清)” (clean politics, clean economy, clean organization and clean thought) in 1963. Based on unpublished archives, this study focuses on the Four Cleanups Movement in Baoying County of Jiangsu Province in East China. It explores how the movement was carried out in communes and reshaped local politics by exacerbating the tensions between grassroots cadres and farmers: the cadres who had enthusiastically implemented the policies of central government during the Great Leap Forward Movement were now targeted as class enemies; meanwhile, the farmers who had survived the great famine lost faith in government and were reluctant to attack the corrupt cadres for fear of reprisals in the future. Consequently, in spite of revealing the stunning corruption of local cadres in large details, the Four Cleanups Movement failed to address the institutional problems of local politics, and even created more conflicts among the top leadership of the CCP, which eventually led to the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution

This panel is on Wednesday - Session 03 - Room 7

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