RGS-IBG 2019 Author meets critics session

It was a pleasure to be part of the author meets critics session for Kean Fan Lim’s book On Shifting Foundations: State Rescaling, Policy Experimentation and Economic Restructuring in Post-1949 China at RGS-IBG 2019 conference. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and thought it might be a good idea to share the comments and thoughts that I discussed on the panel.

My comments are mostly reflections, questions, and propositions developed from reading the book and focus on three aspects: (1) the effects and potentials of the socioeconomic reforms in Chongqing; (2) the limits of using spatial reconfiguration – state rescaling – as a spatial strategy/fix to crisis; and (3) the necessity for linking the so-called global China to the political economic situations inside China and for understanding China through deconstructing “China”.

Below are the full comments:

On Shifting Foundations provides a thorough and dialectical analysis of how policy experimentations in post-Mao China are effects of and shaped by the interactions and tensions between state rescaling initiatives and the inherited institutions and regulatory logics, or say, the tendency of path dependency; while at the same time state rescaling is an outcome of the Chinese central government or the Communist Party of China – the CPC’s negotiation between navigating the global neoliberalizing capitalist political economy and mitigating its associated crises on the one hand, and subnational governments’ developmental agendas on the other hand.

It is no news that designating selective geographical areas as locations of policy experimentations, testing grounds of reforms, or pockets of special policies or exceptions is one of the main features of China’s political economic landscape. There are not, however, many studies that have been able to do what Kean did in this book, namely situating the recurring spatial reconfigurations – state rescaling – in relation with the CPC’s need to maintain and reinforce its ruling and legitimacy in China and the multi-layered presences and influences of inherited institutions and institutional changes. It is in this regard that I see the contributions of On Shifting Foundations as not only offering a detailed and grounded examination of state rescaling through the case of “nationally strategic new areas”, but also constructing a much-needed nuanced understanding of China and its party-state apparatus.

From this, I have three sets of reflections, questions, and propositions.

I want to start with Chongqing. Kean’s analysis of Chongqing and especially the Liangjiang New Area shows two strands of policy experimentations and reforms taking place roughly simultaneously. One is of economic or industrial, and the other is of social, while these two are also interconnected. The economic/industrial strand has a strong association with Bo Xilai’s appointment as the Party Secretary of Chongqing, the idea of which seemed to have already been developed by Bo even before his appointment. And this aspect of the reform in and through the Liangjiang New Area is exemplified by the Chongqing government’s investment in infrastructure, especially transportation infrastructure, which, as Kean’s analysis shows, is enabled by the strong state involvement in Chongqing’s economy as a result of past reforms and institutional changes in China, and results in “an almost total territorialisation” – to borrow Kean’s words – of all levels of the production networks of computing notebook manufacturing (p.167).

The social strand of policy experimentations and reforms in and through the Liangjiang New Area focuses on urban-rural integration, which manifests through the provision of public rental housing to lower-income groups, especially migrant workers, and “the flexible conversion of rural migrant workers’ hukou into ‘urban’ status” (p.180). These reforms are justified as serving the economic/industrial strand by releasing investors from the “burden” of social reproduction. Arguably this strand is what Bo inherited from his predecessor, Wang Yang, whose ideas for social reforms were approved by the then Chinese president Hu Jintao. However, it is also this aspect of Bo’s “Chongqing model” received some of the strongest criticism, which as Kean demonstrates, is partly due to its potential in removing the dual urban-rural structure, which much of China’s “economic miracle” is built upon and many vested interest groups benefit from. Despite the criticisms on and the oppositions to this social strand outside Chongqing, both the economic/industrial and social strands continue in Chongqing’s reforms. And from these policy experimentations, the Chongqing government, as Kean writes, “began to argue that it is possible to perpetuate and proliferate industralisation (spearheaded by the Liangjiang New Area) without exacerbating the socio-spatial inequality that already exists at the national scale” (p.192).

This argument from the Chongqing government generates further questions: To what extent is this vision of socially-equitable developmental pathway realizing in Chongqing rather than just being discursive? What are the effects of the policy experimentations on urban-rural integration in Chongqing, especially on rural migrant workers? The “Chongqing model” has attracted much attention, however mostly due to and on the spectacle it created as resembling the Cultural Revolution. Kean’s research offers a much-needed starting point to probe into the policies and politics of the “Chongqing model”, from where more in-depth examinations of its effects and possible alterations are needed. These examinations are particularly necessary given, as Kean points out, the implications that the socioeconomic reforms in Chongqing potentially have for the vision of national spatial egalitarianism, which is supposedly to be central to the CPC’s political economic agenda that continued from Mao and Deng to Xi. There is, however, still the question of to what extent spatial egalitarianism or “coordinated” regional development actually is a vision that the CPC aims at achieving and to what extent it is merely rhetoric for performing the “socialist” part of the “socialist market economy”, especially considering the significant role played by instituted uneven development in China’s economy, which is demonstrated by Kean in this book. And this links to my second sets of reflections and questions.

Kean’s analysis of the cases of Guangdong and Chongqing together show that the three “nationally significant new areas” examined here all function as spatial strategies or fixes in response to certain challenges or crises that the CPC faces. In particular, the Liangjiang New Area in Chongqing functions as a fix to the challenge and pressure that the Chinese central government facing after the 2008 global financial crisis in terms of retaining firms in China while some of them contemplating leaving China’s coastal city-regions. To some extent, this spatial fix was made possible as a result of the instituted uneven development between the coastal seaboard and the western interior of China through past rounds of reforms. Given the necessity for China to continue participating in the global neoliberalizing capitalist economy, uneven development across China is arguably needed for China to be able to maintain its attraction to transnational circulatory capital and mitigate the potential crises, which then links to the earlier question on to what extent the CPC’s vision of spatial egalitarianism can be realized, whether based on the “Chongqing model” or not.

Furthermore, as Kean argues, “the generation of new subnational borders … has become a necessary precondition of China’s engagement with the global economy” (p.203). It is questionable to what extent the CPC’s reliance on spatial strategies, especially state rescaling, as a fix to crises is a sustainable solution. As Kean highlights in the concluding chapter, which I strongly agree, “How – or whether – place-specific policy experimentation could pre-empt or contain crisis tendencies would thus be an important focal point in future research agendas on socioeconomic regulation in China” (p.203). To this point, I’d like to add that, it may also be necessary to consider the limits of this solution to crises, namely to consider what kinds of crises or challenges emerged in the CPC’s simultaneous negotiations with transnational circulatory capital and subnational governments’ developmental agendas can be mitigated through this spatial strategy and what may not be. The Chinese central government has been facing two noticeable political economic challenges recently, with Hong Kong on the one hand and the US on the other hand. Although parts of these challenges might be temporary, they arguably would lead to more long-term influences and implications, which potentially provide chances for examining whether, how, and to what extent spatial reconfigurations are employed by the CPC to respond.

Following from this point on the significant role played by generating new subnational borders in China’s engagement with the global economy, my third and final set of reflections and questions would like to take Kean’s thesis to a different space and scale, namely the presence and actions of the “global China”. While there has been a strong scholarly interest in examining the increasingly global presence of China across the global North and global South, there is still a need for more research that looks into the rationales, causes, and justifications for China’s choice to “go global”. And the answers to these exist as much in China’s global footprint as inside China. In On Shifting Foundations, Kean demonstrates how one type of spatial strategy, namely generating new subnational borders, plays a significant role in China’s participation in the global economy and in the CPC’s attempt to retain political power. It is then worth asking, whether, how, and for what objectives that the “global China” functions as another type of spatial strategy that the CPC uses. This research avenue could also enrich the inquiries on the effects of the “global China”.

In addition, and as I highlighted earlier, one of the main contributions of On Shifting Foundations, is to construct an understanding of “What is China” through deconstructing “China”, meaning through moving away from looking at China as a unitary state that the CPC tries to construct and maintain and instead probing into how not only continuities within changes but also the many inconsistencies, uncertainties, and spontaneities both exist in and constitute “China”. This more nuanced and grounded understanding of “What is China” is still missing in many studies on and about China, and is, in my opinion, both a necessary basis and an important task for future research that concerns China, for which Kean’s research shows a way.