Chinese diplomacy – the people as the state

Merriden Varrall in her paper, based on her Ph D thesis successfully completed in 2013, wrestles with a fundamental problem of contemporary China: what is the state? This is not a straightforward question in China, if only because the relationship between the state and the country and Party are interlinked in ways which political elites have never yet felt able to constitutionally spell out. The 1982 country constitution comes closest where it states in its preamble that China is a multi-ethnic country under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, which is the expression of the people’s will. But of course, this statement raises as many questions as it seeks to answer. We are still faced with the challenge of how to conceptualise the state, the party and the country and find the best way of seeing the links between them.

This paper is based on field work that Merriden has undertaken since 2010 while based in Beijing, talking to young Chinese about their views of the state, whether they find it has a coherent role in their lives, a narrative within which they can fit, an identity they can relate to. Unsurprisingly, there are diverse perspectives on this issue. For some the state comes across as a protector, for others an irritant, often deploying language or instructions that they chose to take heed of or simply try to ignore. The state itself through its multiple agents is also busy working on this engagement strategy between the public and itself – this lies behind the comments that current Party Secretary Xi Jinping made when first elevated to the Party Secretary position on the 15th November 2012 about the need to reduce the gap between the governed and those governing.

Dr Varrell is careful to avoid eliding the state with the country, or the Party. Looking at social media, commentary and analysis from within China, one gets the sense that there is a hierarchy of emotional responsiveness. Chinese (that is to say inhabitants of the People’s Republic of China today) feel a strong bond to their sense of country and its cultural and spiritual identity. They feel some bonds with the state largely because it is a functional entity that they have to deal with in their daily lives, for good or bad. But towards the Party, there is a deeper ambiguity. No one is rewarded in China now for saying bad things about the party, and the restraints are strong and ever present. And yet, the Party has perhaps the least powerful link with people. Perhaps we can locate the fundamental structural problem of contemporary China here.

This paper marries detailed field research with the overarching challenge of how we understand Chinese people’s own understanding of their relationship with the state. This lies at the heart of what sort of identity China has of itself, and how it then faces the world around it. To give this sort of complex issue a useable, useful and robust analytic framework as this paper does is already an achievement. We hope in publishing this that it will stimulate more debate on the crucial issue of the state and its role in modern China, and the ways in which it impacts on the lives of Chinese, and, of course, on those outside China.

Professor Kerry Brown
Executive Director, China Studies Centre, and Professor of Chinese Politics
University of Sydney