Spectres at the feast of reform and renewal

China's Provinces in Reform
October 24, 1997

China is very big, and there is no such thing as a typical Chinese province, just as there is no such thing as a typical Chinese city. We hold these truths to be self-evident, but we all too frequently ignore them in our urge to generalise and to discern common patterns in the unprecedentedly rapid changes China has experienced in the past 20 years. It is no longer adequate, if indeed it ever was, to talk about the impact of China's economic reforms in "the provinces". Even the much-employed coastal-interior dichotomy is an oversimplification which is coming to obscure as much as it illuminates. All but one of the seven case studies in this volume are of eastern-seaboard provinces (Hainan, Guangxi, Zhejiang, Shanghai, Shandong, and Liaoning), yet their diverse responses to the opportunities and constraints of the reform and open-door era mark them as quite distinct from each other, and from the stereotypical coastal boom provinces such as Guangdong and Fujian.

This volume's detailed investigation of the situation in specific provinces is therefore welcome. In addition to the six provincial case studies already mentioned, it includes a thoughtful introduction by the editor and a fascinating chapter on Sichuan province; other provinces will feature in future volumes as the project continues. The book is billed as essential reading for anyone interested in China's reforms, and this it undoubtedly is; it will make an excellent companion volume to David Goodman and Gerald Segal's China Deconstructs (1994). The promised focus on the impact of reform on social change, class formation and intra-provincial politics, rather than the more well-worn topics of economic development or centre-province relations, is also welcome, although this theme is much more to the fore in some of the chapters than in others. Non-China specialists in particular may find some of these papers rather anecdotal and/or offering relatively little in the way of analysis along the lines suggested by the book's subtitle. The editor repeatedly emphasises the very limited claims of this first volume in the project, perhaps anticipating some disappointment on the part of readers expecting an authoritative dissection of the impact of reform on politics and society in the seven selected provinces and finding it only touched on in passing in some of these quite short papers.

As far as presentation is concerned, the book provides clear and useful statistics for each province at the beginning of the relevant chapter, although this information might perhaps also have been brought together and tabulated in an appendix to save the reader having to flick from chapter to chapter to make comparisons. The data provided include figures on population, employment, incomes, prices, foreign trade and investment, and education levels, as well as economic output and growth rates. The provincial maps provided are a good idea too, but they are marred by a number of mis-spellings of Chinese place-names and some untidy labelling. The footnotes and references provide a useful guide to recent Chinese-language studies of reform at the provincial level, and the authors also make intelligent use of the Chinese press and of interviews with local informants.

Even though the focus here is firmly on the provincial level and below, the central government still looms very large. One striking conclusion to be drawn from this collection of papers is that central government policy matters, probably more than any other single factor, in determining what reforms are undertaken at local level and how far these are permitted to go. The granting, or not, of "favourable policies" by Beijing is a constant refrain in discussions of reform with Chinese local officials, enterprise managers, and academic analysts, and it is clear that this is not just an easy excuse for lack of success from those less favoured, but represents an accurate appraisal of the importance of the centre's provision of the policy setting for reform. Shanghai's rapid development since the centre's change of attitude towards it in 1992 is a case in point, and a Shanghai vice-mayor quoted in J. Bruce Jacobs's chapter puts it most bluntly with the statement: "Policy is wealth."

Sichuan, in turn, is a good negative example of the power of the centre. Some of the reasons for Sichuan's relative decline, despite being a reform pioneer under former Communist party general secretary Zhao Ziyang in the late 1970s, are obvious from a look at any relief map of China, but others are definitely of human agency. These include the long uncertainty created by the Three Gorges Dam project, under discussion since the 1950s, and Sichuan's key role in the "Third Front Project" of the 1960s under which defence-related industry was concentrated in this remote south-western region where it would be well behind the lines in the event of a Soviet invasion. Lijian Hong's depiction of the resulting plight of state-sector industry in the province, now that economic efficiency and the market matter, provides excellent background to the reports of labour unrest in various Sichuanese cities this spring and summer.

There is more valuable detail, and more intriguing asides, in this collection than can be described in a brief review, but one important theme is the growing inequality within and between provinces and regions. This has been a concern of the party leadership for some time and emerges from these papers as a key problem for lower levels of government as well, particularly in the case of Shandong. The spectre of "internal colonisation" is raised in Jae Ho Chung's study of that province, while the drive for a "Greater Southwest Development Strategy" features prominently in the chapters on Guangxi and Sichuan. Communal conflict in Hainan and the fate of Liaoning's heavy-industrial rust-belt under market reforms are also well covered, and brief mention must also be made of Keith Forster's high-quality contribution on Zhejiang, in which his long experience of and affection for the province shows.

Jackie Sheehan is lecturer in international history, Keele University.

China's Provinces in Reform: Class, Community and Political Culture

Editor - David S. G. Goodman
ISBN - 0 415 16403 6 and 16404 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
Pages - 8

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