Unlikely revolutionaries

China's New Business Elite

January 23, 1998

While there is nothing theoretically or empirically startling about Margaret Pearson's conclusions regarding the likely political role of China's new business elite, this well-researched and well-organised study of the attitudes and aspirations of the group does shed useful light on changing state-society relations in China. Pearson identifies managers in foreign-invested firms and private entrepreneurs as those with the greatest degree of economic autonomy from the state, and examines whether they show any signs of attempting to convert their economic status into political advantage. This new business elite, she argues, can be taken as a "critical case", since if they cannot or will not use their relative autonomy to challenge the state's political monopoly, it is very unlikely that any less well-endowed group would be able to do so.

In her first chapter, Pearson introduces the relevant literature on civil society, clientelism and state corporatism, which comprise the main possible paths for the development of state-society relations in 1990s China. This is a brief but thorough survey which weighs the strengths and weaknesses of various theories as applied to China with fairness and good sense. She could perhaps make more use, though, of the literature on political transitions in Eastern Europe, which in some respects is more relevant to China than the Latin American examples to which she frequently refers. In particular, Janina Frentzel-Zagorska's work on the Polish and Hungarian transitions, with its idea of the "grand coalition" between ruling party and economic and political elites, is highly relevant to Pearson's discussion of likely future developments in Chinese state-society relations and political reform. This work has already been applied to the Chinese case by Anita Chan, and it is a pity that her paper on China's changing ruling elite and political opposition was published too late to be considered by Pearson.

Based on her interview data, Pearson has constructed a detailed and convincing case for a hybrid pattern of state-society relations, comprised of strong elements of informal clientelism (the ubiquitous connections, or guanxi, with officials, without which it is virtually impossible for private or foreign-owned business to function in China), and a socialist variant of state corporatism. This is an arrangement which is working well for both the state and the business elites at present, and the author considers it likely to continue in the foreseeable future. While many of the managers she has interviewed privately reveal a liberal political outlook in favour of both further market reforms in the economy and significant political reform, they also display a uniform unwillingness to act politically as a group, and indeed have not developed the strong group cohesiveness which would enable them to do this effectively. Moreover, their concern about possible social unrest involving urban or migrant labour in China means that they are unlikely to welcome or support the type of challenge to the Communists most likely to emerge.

Jackie Sheehan is lecturer in politics, University of Keele.

China's New Business Elite: The Political Consequences of Economic Reform

Author - Margaret M. Pearson
ISBN - 0 520 20718 1
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £29.95
Pages - 207

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