Our Chinese Colleague Dr.Peng Lu (吕鹏)
by Dr Peng Lu
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)
Dr. Peng Lu, is currently an Assistant Research Fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Currently, he is working with Ivan Szelenyi at the New York University Abu Dhabi as a Research Associate for the academic year 2011-2012. He is the author of a book on theories of social stratification (co-authored with Professor Chunling Li), several book chapters, and a number of articles in peer-reviewed journals in both Chinese and English.
China’s great transformation is an invitation to social scientists around the world to observe and document a history-making drama. As a Chinese researcher, my major interest is to describing and explaining the impact of China’s transition to a market economy on its internal power structures. I bring together two classical sociological myths: the features and fate of modernity that are Western civilization (e.g. capitalism or communism) and Oriental tradition (e.g. Confucianism). To do this, I am engaged in several cross-national projects on Central-Eastern Europe, new emerging economies, and Confucian societies.
Transformation of Government-Business Relationships in the Chinese “Middle East”
The “Middle East” in China jokingly refers to the provincial region of Northern Shaanxi: a desert region where oil is produced. My dissertation took as a case study the process of “re-nationalizing private oil assets” in this region to examine the fluctuating relationships between private oil firms, giant state petroleum companies, local government, central government and other major actors, through various stages of implementation.
My puzzle started from a simple question: when and how does a “local growth coalition” break down? This is a less frequently asked question because for decades it has been widely believed that a political-economic coalition between local state and private business elites for growth constitutes one of the most important bases for economic prosperity and political stability in China. My case study on “re-nationalizing private oil assets” in Shaanxi Province, however, showed that private entrepreneurs do, and can, rebel. The question was, under what conditions and through what strategies. My dissertation investigated the effects and boundaries of these strategies. Applying an institutionalist critique, I studied the structural reasons that the once flourishing growth coalition in the Shaanxi oil-producing region collapsed. It became clear the conflict between provincial government and giant central state owned enterprises (SOEs) was the vital factor: the provincial government in Shaanxi had made a pre-emptive move to “reprocess” oil assets controlled by private investors and “restructured” those assets into a provincial state-controlled oil company in order to avoid them being merged into PetroChina. Private entrepreneurs subsequently became the victims of centralization and provincialization. What followed was their strategic retaliation.
The retaliation from private entrepreneurs (the “oil bosses”) saw them employing mechanisms that generated interest in the unfolding events from a local provincial, to national and even international arena. What eventuated was a new coalition between private entrepreneurs (especially former local cadres, local “gentries”, and educated investors) and liberal intellectuals in Beijing. This coalition played a formidable role in collective actions against the local provincial government by mobilizing their political, economic, and cultural capital informally and formally at different stages. These rebellious strategies forced the provincial government to make painstaking efforts to rebuild a new clientelist-corporatist relationship with local business elites. And it became clear that private entrepreneurs don’t always need local government support to succeed – especially not when they are able to mobilize support from the centre.
Given the high political sensitivity, I employed multiple approaches to accessing the data, including small surveys, in-depth ethnographic interviews, and contextual analysis of secondary materials. For a variety of reasons, only a limited number of materials were utilized in my dissertation. I am now hosting a project, funded by the Chinese National Foundation of Social Sciences, to further my research on this case employing these never publicized first-hand materials. I anticipate publishing articles on this topic in 2012 and eventually a book in 2013.
Current Research Projects
The Role of Technocratic Bureaucrats and Intellectuals in Policy-making on Economic Affairs in China
In cooperation with Duan Weihong, Tsinghua University, two crucial reform cases have been selected for investigation: the “reduction of state-owned shares” (RSS, 国有股减持) in 1999 and “Non-tradable Share Reform” (NSR, 股权分置改革) in 2003. Both reforms attempted to convert non-tradable stock shares, which were mainly held by state owned enterprises (SOEs), into tradable shares in one way or another. The RSS was suspended and finally abolished, while the NSR overcame fierce disputes and eventually succeeded. By comparing the processes of policy-making in these two reforms, we are seeking to explain the differing reform outcomes. Our overriding hypothesis is that the technocratic bureaucrats of the “Leading Department” (牵头部门) had to strike a balance between political correctness (“red” ideological orthodoxy) and economical rationality (“expert” scientific precision) in tailoring and campaigning their policy. On one hand they had to adhere to ideological ideals of the paramount leaders and win the “turf war” against other Non-leading Departments, (competing offices of equivalent authority to the Leading Department) who had significant power on the Joint Council of the reforms but didn’t agree with the policies; on the other hand, they had to manage and even manipulate the market reaction from non-tradable shares and brokers who could “veto” the policy during the bargaining with tradable share holders.
The “both red and expert” situation is not unique in Chinese politics. In fact, technocrats have been a perennial topic for sociologists and political scientists seeking to understand the dynamics of elite politics in China. What makes the case studies in our project unique however is first, the power of the market in relation to shares is much stronger than in many other cases. This empowered technocrats, economists and public intellectuals to play more substantial roles on the issue; secondly, the bureaucrats had their own political or personal interests so that the system of two kinds of shares was not only about mathematical, but about political calculation as well. The strategies and tactics that all major players utilized in the two case studies will be highlighted through our in-depth interviews with key policy makers, and scrutiny of public documents.
This research aims to break the classic approach of studying bureaucrats and technocrats as categorical actors; instead, we will argue that there are multiple intertwined spectrums or scales, i.e., “technocratic autonomy”, “political autonomy”, and “economic autonomy”, to determine the changing position of a major individual in different stages of the policy-making process.
Comparison of the Wealthiest in Hungary, Russia, and China
My first priority at NYU Abu Dhabi is to assist Professor Ivan Szelenyi with his upcoming book: How to become a billionaire. It is an empirically exciting and intellectually challenging comparative project mapping the trajectories of the rise of the wealthiest businesspeople in Hungary, Russia, and China: three post-communist capitalisms. Based on data of these countries’ richest from public sources, this project has the potential to be expanded as a substantial analysis of the contemporary bourgeoisie under post-communism.
The Changing Attitudes and Actions of Economic Elite in the Time of Global Economic Turbulence
This effort is compromised of several projects, including a large review of the“Chinese Private Entrepreneur Survey” (the only nationwide sociological dataset on Chinese private entrepreneurs since 1995) and the Transformation Research Initiative (an on-going project primarily on issues relating to democratization globally, hosted by Stellenbosch University in South Africa). I have published on and will continue to research this topic.
Political Attitudes of Chinese Youth in Comparison with their Cohorts in Russia, Brazil, and India
As an assistant research fellow in the Department of Youth Studies in the Institute of Sociology at CASS, I am also participating in a large on-line survey on the general situation of Chinese college students and graduates. This survey is a part of a comparative research agenda by a group of international scholars on changes of social structure in the “BRICS” countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The Chinese samples at this stage come from seven Chinese universities, with 7680 students and 5766 graduates. My collaborator and I have published a report on the impact of less valued credential college credentials amongst the Chinese youth. Further publications are expected to come out in the next two years.