Governmentality and Weiwen in Contemporary China: A Case Study of X County in South China


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date18 Sept 2018


The past two decades in China has witnessed rising petitions and the overwhelming importance accorded to “weiwen” (maintaining social stability) in Chinese political and social life. “Weiwen”, in this study, refers to the ensemble of efforts including behavioral choices, policy-making, and operational strategies made by various levels of the Chinese government to address conflicts between the people and the government or among the people during the rapid social transformation in China. Based on primary data collected via 5-month participant observation and in-depth interviews in X County, South China, this study investigates the mechanism of weiwen in contemporary China. Drawing upon the theoretical framework of governmentality, this study explores Chinese governmentalities in maintaining social order by analyzing the power configuration of the weiwen system, competing discourses, and technologies usage in the process of weiwen.

Through tracing the history of the huge weiwen apparatus and analyzing its structure in contemporary China, this study demonstrates the essential role played by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in leading the work of weiwen. Furthermore, an analysis of the operation of the weiwen apparatus shows (1) weiwen at the county level is highly motivated by both a top-down accountability system and the counter-conduct from society, making the weiwen system at the county level into a pressurized system, and (2) a campaign-style model becomes the most popular approach in weiwen.

Considering the reasonableness and legitimacy of petition and its handling, this study summarizes competing discourses for petitioners and the county government. Specifically, while citizens petition with multiple discourses (e.g. right protection, survival and equity discourses), the county government responds with multiple governing discourses (e.g. rule of law, political leverage and channeling discourses). The findings show that it is the partial transition of the social control culture from the traditional rule of Li to contemporary rule of law that results in people’s misinterpretations of social justice, reasonableness and legitimacy, which further leads to protracted conflicts between citizens and the government.

This study distinguishes material technologies and technologies of power, and applies this distinction to analyze the technologies of lodging petitions and the county government’s handling of petitions. It is shown that both material technologies and technologies of power are used by petitioners and the government respectively, thus weiwen becomes a tug of war between the two parties.

It concludes that weiwen in contemporary China is a social safety-valve which is based on the discourses adoption and technologies manipulation by both parties of dispute. The implications of this study lie in the theoretical exploration of applying the governmentality framework in studying weiwen, and the rethinking of the governmentality studies. Empirically, this study summarizes difficulties for the current weiwen system and provides suggestions to overcome these difficulties. Limitations of this study are discussed, and several suggestions are provided for future research.

    Research areas

  • maintaining social stability (weiwen), governmentality, China, discourse usage, technology adaptation