Prospect of social space in reform China : a case of community-level analysis in Shanghai

探尋中國改革中社會空間的前景 : 以分析上海的社區層面為例

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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  • Lijun DENG


Awarding Institution
Award date15 Feb 2012


The market-oriented reform launched in 1978 was to transform every aspect of China's economy and society, eventually. The non-state sector has emerged. The state-society relation in China, therefore, has changed. In these circumstances, scholars introduce and attempt to apply the Western concept of civil society to explain the changing pattern of state-society relationships in reform China. On the one hand, some scholars try to look for the change in China's landscape and study the prospect of a civil society in China. They reflect some optimism over the possibility of emergence of the Western-style societal autonomy. On the other hand, some scholars try their own way to alter the concept to fit the Chinese landscape. Accordingly, the notion of "civil society with Chinese characteristics" is introduced. However, there are many limitations in the current application of the concept of civil society in understanding the changing pattern of state-society relationships in China, because of its obsession of societal autonomy, or freedom from the state, and its inherent emphasis of the state-society confrontation. This research considers the original meaning of civil society does go beyond this obsession. It is too early to discuss societal autonomy and the emergence of a civil society in reform China before understanding the possibility of expansion of social space there. Therefore, rather than looking for a civil society in China, this research devotes itself to find out whether the Chinese society enjoys more space to promote their own agenda, defend their interest or make their claim on the state under the current regime whose grip on society has been on the decline but remains effective in social control. To this end, this research focuses on the strategy of Chinese administrative decentralization, regarding the community level in Shanghai, i.e. the pragmatic institutional pluralism. This strategy is found contributing to a platform that is unintentionally provided by the state for social actors to articulate their views and pursue their interests. Relevantly, the Chinese distinctive way to expand social space is identified: social space expands with the development of institutional pluralism; along a dual-track trajectory, it moves beyond the shape that the state desires. This dual-track trajectory is comprised of top-down and bottom-up approaches, and connotes both the "state-led" rationale and the "citizen-led" rationale. These two rationales together explain the prospect of social space in reform China, and give us a better understanding of the changing patterns of the Chinese state-society relationship.

    Research areas

  • Social conditions, Civil society, Shanghai, Shanghai (China), China