sinonerds met with Luigi for a chat about his new book The Government Next Door, published last year by Cornell University Press. Find out how urban communities are organised, why the rising Chinese middle class cannot be expected to trigger radical transformation after all, and how research in the field plays out in China.
sinonerds: Luigi, what is The Government Next Door in a nutshell?
Luigi Tomba: The Government Next Door is the result of ten years of research in urban neighbourhoods in China. It’s the summary of a number of arguments about the logic of how Chinese society is governed and the role the government plays in everybody’s lives.
What does the title mean?
The ‘next door’ part of the title is somewhat revealing. Many have argued that China is becoming yet another society governed with neoliberal governance techniques. My investigation confirms some of that, in the sense that some aspects of China’s governance are governed “from afar,” allowing certain levels of autonomy. This is particularly true for the wealthier middle class communities that enjoy a certain level of autonomy in exchange for the respect of the social and political order. But on the other side, especially after the 1990s and the privatisation of housing in China, the poorer communities have been governed from very “close distance.” Those neighbourhoods tend to be socially more problematic and therefore require more government involvement. So these changes do not imply “less governing,” but rather governing by other means.
Were there any surprises in the process of research?
Well, I went into those middle class communities expecting to see their capacity to change, or even democratise China. And what I found was that while they had a certain level of autonomy or self-organisation and there was limited engagement with the government, they also did not produce a rhetoric that was against the state or the government. Rather, there seemed to be some convergence between the discourses created by the middle class and those promoted by the government. This “consensus” reverberates on the whole of society. In such a scenario the middle class cannot be expected to be a force for radical transformation. It is a force for change; practices are changing and there is a dialectical relationship between the middle class and the state. But the middle class certainly doesn’t pose a systemic challenge, as it has been the case in other Asian countries that democratised during recent decades.
From reading your book I got the impression that wealthy people in China embrace the role of preaching and practicing social stability. Can you elaborate on this phenomenon?
One concept that I’m trying to promote is that the attitudes of the people come from long-lived experiences. People support the practices that are produced by the discourses of social order and stability. These are deeply embedded in individual experiences and they happen day-by-day. The everyday experience makes the discourses legitimate and therefore produces a connection between the people and the state. It is important to recognise that China’s “middle classes” today are very much the sons and daughters of the traditional state employees – the people that used to be the privileged part of society in previous years. So today’s new rich are not simply the result of marketisation, but more the result of policies that were designed to encourage consumption among the most reliable groups of society (especially by subsidising homeownership).
The concept of suzhi (素质) seems to play an important role in the creation of stability. How was the term used in the neighbourhood communities you investigated?
The idea of suzhi – that we could translate as “human quality” – is another idea that comes from above but is used in everyday language. The government likes to argue that the problem of the population is not only one of quantity but also one of quality. The improvement of “quality” can happen in a number of ways; it’s a matter of education, behaviour and one of adapting to standards or attitudes that improve social stability. But the separation of the countryside and cities has almost created a natural hierarchy of population’s “quality.” The people and the governments in cities believe that people from the countryside have lower suzhi. But even recently enriched entrepreneurs are often seen as “low quality” if they don’t meet the behavioural standards of the educated urban citizens.
What would be a good example of the concept suzhi operating in everyday life?
An interesting example is how real estate developers use it to promote their properties. They sell apartments by luring buyers into their lifestyles: “If you live here, you’ll have high suzhi neighbours.” Real estate is not just about selling apartments, it’s also about selling a certain type of lifestyle. And lifestyles are related to opportunities, and the quality of the people, their capacity to self-regulate, their consumption, their desire to operate within the rules, and “civilised” manners.* How high your suzhi is will be determined by how you behave, not only by how much money you have. The so-called baofahu (暴发户) – the parvenu or people who have become rich very rapidly – are generally considered as people without a real suzhi. As a consequence people who have a lot of money but no suzhi make incredible efforts to be accepted as part of the distinguished social group.
What was it like to live in those urban neighbourhood communities?
The middle class neighbourhoods are quite enjoyable. They have good facilities, shops, sometimes a gym – which proved a good place for my research – and so life is pretty good. And that was in the early 2000s, by now the standards have improved. Of course the situation in poorer neighbourhoods is very different. In terms of the governance structure, there would normally be a homeowner committee elected by the local residents. That committee manages the relationship between the owners and the management company, which is contracted to run many of the services. In turn, the management companies sometimes perform functions the government is supposed to perform.
What kind of functions?
For example, security within the compounds is often entirely run by the management companies. You will very rarely see police within these neighbourhoods – which are often very large with 60.000 to 80.000 people living in high-rise buildings. Naturally there are security concerns, so they are normally gated and have security guards, as well as staff operating the elevators to control access. And then there’s the management team keeping an eye on everything. The homeowners find their role in this system and sometimes have conflict with the management companies. The management companies are often run by the developers themselves, so they are like an emanation of the developers: The developer not only builds the compounds and sells the apartments, but also makes money by managing them. So you can probably think of it as a gated community in any other part of the world, but one where the management company also performs some of the functions of the government.
You conducted around 200 interviews for your research. How comfortable were the people talking to you?
It depended on the situation. Sometimes it was harder to interview middle class or wealthier people than it was to interview the unemployed or people with a lower social standing. The wealthy usually need a bit more encouragement than simply requesting an interview. Maybe start by having a meal with them, a more casual conversation before you engage in a more formal interview. There is always a lot that can be observed beside their answers to your questions. You can infer a lot from the way they behave or talk about other people.
How about the more disadvantaged communities?
In the poorer communities the process was very different. You don’t really approach the community itself. There’s always a risk if you do. You will find that when you’re doing research in China, you’re always under observation, especially when you have a nose like mine (laughs). Instead, I was working with a Chinese colleague and together we applied to the district level government to conduct research.
This whole process doesn’t mean that we were constantly supervised by the government – the officials just needed to be sure that you’re not going to wreak havoc in those communities. And our investigation was not dealing with hot issues. But once you completed the formalities and the director of the community knows who you are, you have significant freedom to speak to residents.
In sum, it is harder to talk to individuals in wealthier communities because they would be more sceptical and more careful about their privacy. But you can simply approach them in a public space, like a coffee shop, or maybe a tea shop in that case. Or with a snowball type of sample. On the other side, you have a much greater level of access if the government introduces you, but a little bit more control of your movements.
A completely different question: there is an interesting passage about dogs in your book. What role do they play in society?
It’s funny because for me the story of the dogs was always only a prompt to talk about other things. These days status is no longer about buying a big TV, it’s about things that you can use in your neighbourhood. Having an expensive dog is a way of showing off. It’s also considered a modern thing: There was a period under Mao when dogs were not allowed in cities. And still, today there are lots of regulations concerning even the size of the dog you can breed, and only certain races are allowed in the inner city. Dogs have their own hukou (戶口) registration, with a photo, and there are the funniest ways of “designing” your dog, painted or groomed in various ways. They are definitely becoming an item of consumption and a status symbol, and they’re costly to maintain.
In poor neighbourhoods you’re not allowed to have a dog, especially if you receive state subsidies. Just like you’re not allowed to have a computer if you are receiving support from the state. The restriction on computers is a strange way of managing poverty because you would expect the government to want those people to learn new skills – but there are strict rules in place that say which items you can and can’t consume if you’re under a certain threshold.
To what extent is the environment in urban neighbourhoods a challenge for the government to keep people happy?
It’s huge. In places like Beijing the people are very environmentally aware and pay attention to food safety, air and water pollution, basically all things affecting their health. Sometimes people take matters into their own hands and protest against decisions of the government. Even ten years ago it was clear to people in Beijing that the situation was deteriorating. Today everybody walks around with their smartphone app telling them how high the PM2.5 levels are at any point in time. The government is under pressure and this is probably one of the main areas where they’re trying to improve. What you see is both the desire to become part of the global consumption trends and, on the other hand, the demand to keep pollution in check. In cities it’s right at the top of the priority list.
Looking back at over ten years of research, what has changed in China?
A lot. Urbanisation has become even more important. The amount of land that is being seized is gigantic. In China this phenomenon is very much a reproduction of the power of the state over a large amount of territory. Cities correspond to a modernisation of lifestyles, an increased use of resources, and concentration of population. But it is also a massive process of requisition of land from the collectives to the state. For me this reveals a national project of urbanisation. This project is not only due to growth and modernisation, but is also a new way of affirming the power of the state. The reproduction of state power is probably the most significant thing that’s happening in China. Cities are becoming an ideology, and change is driven by very clear-cut policies that aim to rationalise the territory and keep it under control.
If you could give just one piece of advice to people who do research on China, what would it be?
Talk to as many people as you can. Try to ask questions about everything you see. I’m tired of reading the start of articles on any topic beginning with, “In the last 20 years, China’s GDP growth has been 10%…” and so on. You know, it’s true. But there are so many things happening that if you keep your eyes open, you will find interesting puzzles. It’s about looking for questions and being ready to change those questions. Never start from an answer, because there are a lot of answers out there about China. The problem is that there are too few good questions.
Thanks once again Luigi, that was very informative!