In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Economy of China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Beyond Foucauldian Governmentality
  • Nuanced Governmentality in China
  • Mass Media in China’s Context
  • Identifying the Young Generation of Middle Class
  • Consumer Culture among the Younger Generation
  • Gated Communities
  • Gift Giving in a Chinese Context
  • Gift Giving as a Case Study

Political Science Political Economy of China
by
Eileen Yuk-ha Tsang
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0325

Introduction

This article explores why the younger generation of China’s emergent middle class embraces conspicuous consumption but is not interested in politics. Collectively, this behavior is motivated by the quest for social recognition and status, but there are also signs the behavior is sanctioned—if not subtly guided—by the ruling Communist party’s logic of governing. Using the Foucauldian concept of “governmentality,” this article posits that the authoritarian Chinese regime tacitly utilizes noncoercive means to direct the middle class away from activism toward conspicuous consumption. Specifically, through tactics like real name registration (RNR) and value-laden mass media ads and programs, an environment is created that encourages conspicuous consumption as a form of calculated “pastoral” control. This allows government to guide without confrontation. Consequently, the emergent middle class is confronted with the pressure to navigate their own consumption patterns to align with the government’s quasi-veiled preferences that the citizenry should engage with materialist consumption rather than politics. China uses governmentality to orient the new middle-class citizen to consume and to steer away from political engagement that poses a possible threat to the communist regime. Despite insightful arguments about both consumption and governmentality and a growing scholarly interest in the rise of the middle class in China few studies examine the relationship between the conspicuous consumption habits of the Chinese middle class and the governmentality of the ruling party, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Mass media and consumer culture reinforce each other to create a stable climate based upon market rationality and consumerism. The CCP has two roles in indoctrinating the new middle class through noncoercive ways. The mobilization of mass media in terms of real name registration and traditional media outlets such as newspapers reflect a way of life that allows middle class citizens to maintain their good life and status to pursue their dreams under Xi’s regime. This status persists through consumption for the self and others (as a practice of gift giving) alongside apolitical involvement. The CCP focuses on entrepreneurs’ success stories as the epitome of good citizenship. Participation in political activities is discouraged by removing it from even being mentioned, discussed, or even shown in any of these accounts. This indirectly positions apolitical involvement as a lifestyle that allows citizens to be cosmopolitan individuals and quality (suzhi素質) citizens in post-Reform China.

General Overviews

There are major books about the Chinese new middle class, and about governmentality in Western and nonwestern countries. In respect to the latter, Foucault 1982 focuses on how power is progressively elaborate, rationalized, and centralized in the form of, and under the auspices of, state institutions. As such, the neutral meaning of governmentality is about the processes or devices that the state uses to regulate or shape, from a distance, how people (should) behave within its territory to act in the interests of the state. Goodman 2008 argues the new rich emerged from political, economic, and social conditions in post-Reform China. Goodman mentions a rising Chinese wealthy class and its consumption within the property market and global real estate market all over the world—including Africa, North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia—thus forming a new middle-class culture in post-Reform China. Ren 2012 does not offer a precise definition of the Chinese new middle class in Chinese context either by statistical categories or qualitative criteria; rather this book argues the Chinese new middle class is part of a strategy of the Chinese state to establish a harmonious middle-class society in order to manage, educate, and control the rest of the Chinese population. This is soft control rather than hard manipulation and indoctrination. Tsang 2014 adopts a sociocultural perspective to highlight the emergence of the Chinese new middle class in post-Reform China. Her work, as shown throughout this article, is based on interviews with entrepreneurs, professionals, and regional party cadres from a range of age groups, and she argues that Western class categories do not directly apply to China and that the Chinese new middle class is distinguished more by sociocultural than by economic factors. Zhang 2010 argues the emergence of the Chinese new middle class and examines how the rise of private homeownership is reconfiguring urban space in today’s China. The author capitalizes on ethnographic data to examine how the middle class in China, such as professionals and entrepreneurs, dominates and influences the consumer culture in China. Pierson 2011 examines the state from the birth of modernity to the current postmodern and highly globalized politics of the 21st century, also mentioning how the state suffered from other crises after the global financial crisis. Joseph 2012 offers an original approach to international relations by analyzing the concept of governmentality in Western countries. Dean 2010 argues governmentality is concerned with the ways the state exercises power over the people by shaping the choices, desires, and lifestyles of individuals and groups instead of imposing prohibitions or controls, known as disciplinary power refers to imposing prohibitions. Jeffreys 2009 outlines the social transformation in the realms of social, cultural, economic, and political life in China; the concept of governmentality in nonwestern and nonliberal settings is introduce, by showing how neoliberal discourses on governance, education, religion, and sexual health have been raised in Chinese contexts. Rose 1999 points out that Foucault was not always consistent in his use of this concept, while also arguing there are still merits in building upon and extending the use of Foucault’s original conceptualization of governmentality. Chen and Goodman 2013 examines the Chinese middle class from a political science perspective, and its different cultural identities and consumption patterns, lifestyles, and political behavior in today’s China.

  • Chen, Minglu, and D. S. G. Goodman, eds. Middle Class China: Identity and Behaviour. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2013.

    E-mail Citation »

    This edited book mentions the Chinese middle class from a political science perspective, and it mentions different cultural identities and consumption patterns, lifestyles, and political behavior in today’s China.

  • Dean, Mitchell. Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. London: SAGE, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book argues governmentality is concerned with the ways the state exercises power over the people by shaping the choices, desires, and lifestyles of individuals and groups instead of imposing prohibitions or controls, known as disciplinary power.

  • Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power.” In Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Edited by H. L. Dreyfus and P. Rainbow, 208–226. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1982.

    E-mail Citation »

    This chapter argues that power is progressively elaborate, rationalized, and centralized in the form of, and under the auspices of, state institutions. As such, the neutral meaning of governmentality is about the processes or devices that the state uses to regulate or shape, from a distance, how people (should) behave within its territory to act in the interests of the state.

  • Goodman, D. S. G. The New Rich in China: Future Rulers, Present Lives. London & New York: Routledge, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book argues the new rich emerged from political, economic, and social conditions in post-reform China. This book mentions a rising Chinese wealthy class and its consumption in property markets and global real estate markets all over the world—including Africa, North America, Europe and Southeast Asia—to form a new middle-class culture in post-Reform China. The book focuses more from a political perspective about how the Chinese new middle cass are not active in political participation, but active in economic development.

  • Jeffreys, Elaine. China’s Governmentalities: Governing Change, Changing Government. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book outlines the social transformation in the realms of social, cultural, economic and political life in China. The concept of governmentality in nonwestern and nonliberal settings is introduced by showing how neoliberal discourses on governance, education, religion, and sexual health have been raised in Chinese contexts.

  • Joseph, Johnathan. The Social in the Global: Social Theory, Governmentality and Global Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    Joseph offers an original approach to international relations by analyzing the concept of governmentality in Western countries, and how the international relations should be aligned with the new form of governmentality in Western countries.

  • Pierson, Christopher. The Modern State. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book examines the state from the birth of modernity to the current postmodern and highly globalized politics in the 21st century. It also mentions the state suffered from a grave crisis after the global financial crisis.

  • Ren, Hai. The Middle Class in Neoliberal China: Governing Risk, Life-Building, and Themed Spaces. London: Routledge, 2012

    E-mail Citation »

    This book does not offer a precise definition of the Chinese new middle class in Chinese context by an economic term. Rather, this book argues the Chinese new middle class as being a strategy of the Chinese state to establish a harmonious middle-class society, in order to manage, educate, and control the rest of the Chinese. Chinese government prefers to use a soft and subtle control rather than hard manipulation and indoctrination.

  • Rose, Nikolas. Powers of Freedom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book points out that Foucault was not always consistent in his use of his concept of governmentality. It also argues there are still merits in building upon and extending the use of Foucault’s original conceptualization.

  • Tsang, Eileen Yuk-ha. The New Middle Class in China, Consumption, Politics and The Market Economy. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book adopts a sociocultural perspective to mention the emergence of the Chinese new middle class in post-Reform China. Her work based on interviews with entrepreneurs, professionals and regional party cadres from a range of age groups, and she argues that Western class categories do not directly apply to China and that the Chinese new middle class is distinguished more by sociocultural than by economic factors.

  • Zhang, Li. In Search of Paradise: Middle-Class Living in a Chinese Metropolis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Zhang argues the emergence of the Chinese new middle class and examines how the rise of private homeownership is reconfiguring urban space in today’s China. She capitalizes on ethnographic data to examine how the middle-class in China, such as professionals and entrepreneurs, dominate and influence the consumer culture in China.

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