Speaker: Vivienne Shue, Professor Emeritus of Contemporary China Studies, Associate of the University of Oxford China Centre, and Emeritus Fellow of the College., St. Antony's College, University of Oxford
What if, taking a rejuvenating sabbatical leave from the standard obsessions of social science with structures (institutions), functions (roles), individuals (actors), and dichotomized regime types (democratic/authoritarian, transitioning/resilient), we were to try rooting our analyses of political change in China in what we conceived of as multi-dimensional assemblages of power processes intersecting over time; i.e. interlacing flows of influence and authority trickling or streaming or bubbling their ways through criss-crossing conduits of social interaction, all borne along on currents of recognizable, yet ever-morphing practices of power? Too liquid a schematic to serve as a conceptual frame? Too fluid a notion to anchor rigorous investigation? This presentation aims to illustrate and explore some of the empirical and theoretical possibilities.
We begin with a consideration of mapping – certainly a familiar practice of power -- looking in particular at the meticulous and ambitiously futurist land-use mapping of the entirety of the Chinese nation-space now carried out and incorporated as a central component of the party-state’s routines of comprehensive national development planning. Readily to be found among the very most ancient of political leadership practices are the arts and crafts of ‘envisioning’ – envisioning the future, then self assuredly pointing the way toward it, often with the visual aids of rather enigmatically derived but nonetheless brave spatial mapping projects. The intent in this part of the discussion is less to dwell on its antique lineage, however, than to situate the present-day particularities of national mapping as a practice of leadership power within its most salient contemporary Chinese contexts: ecology-and- systematics based, climate change and conservation-inflected discourses on sustainability; and 21 st century capitalism’s ideals of high-tech-generated, digitally empowered ‘best practice’ managerialism in business, public safety, and governance.
Envisioning the future in detail and then proceeding painstakingly to map it is just one among a diverse sample of contrasting practices of power to be highlighted in a collection of essays on how governing actually gets done in China today (co-edited with Patricia Thornton, forthcoming, Cambridge University Press). Other practices examined by our authors in the collection include the maintenance of comprehensive economic steering and balancing from the political center; the resort to coercive bargaining and deal-making down at street levels; the not infrequent turning of a bureaucratic ‘blind eye’ to infractions of rule at mid-levels; as well as the carefully information-media and market choreographed idealizing of some favoured classes and categories of citizens and the patronizing surveillance of others, all in the tutelary quest to train up new legions of suitably ‘modern’, properly-motivated, self-disciplining Chinese subjects.
The lecture concludes with some broader theoretical reflections on how we might go about modelling, for further study, the dynamics that would be at work, shaping and propelling patterns of political change in China over time, if indeed these dynamics were conceived as embedded within such complex and flowing assemblages of interlaced practices and processes. Taking inspiration not (as students of politics often do) from scientific models of explanation grounded in (Newtonian) physics and mechanics, but from the (Darwinian) evolutionary sciences instead – and especially from some provocatively revisionist theorizing being done right now, thanks to advances in the DNA-based modelling of macro-evolutionary processes in paleo-anthropology – the suggestion is that we consider embracing a general archetype of political change over time which is decidedly watery, positively riverine in fact; unequivocally multi-stranded, and unapologetically meandering.