Book Review: Mao’s Invisible Hand

Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth Perry, eds., Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011. xiii, 336 pp. $24.95 (paper).

By Chen Xi

On the book cover of Mao’s Invisible Hand, edited by Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth Perry, there is a photo of Mao’s colossal statue, which was seen everywhere in urban China before the reform era. Most such statues have been demolished since the 1980s. Was Mao’s style of politics swept into the historical dustbin with them? The book shows that such legacies are surprisingly resilient. Even some past practices consciously rejected by the reform-era leadership, such as mass campaigns, continue to shape policy making and implementation today.

For the Chinese who have struggled for modernization for more than a century, history was often regarded as a burden. This book, however, indicates that, for reform China at least, historical legacies are not a liability but an asset. In their introduction, Heilmann and Perry contend that without revolutionary legacies, China’s stunning economic growth and impressive political stability over the past three decades would not have been possible. The reforms have particularly benefited from so-called guerrilla-style policy making. Developed during guerrilla wars and revolutionary mobilization, this policy style features ceaseless change and ad hoc adjustment and proved especially useful for coping with uncertainties and surprises in the reforms.

Heilmann’s study of experimentation provides an illuminating example. Since the times of Communist regional bases, the CCP has developed a tactic of “proceeding from point to surface,” which gives room for local officials to develop models on their own while retaining final say for the center. This work style contributed to a variety of innovative policies in the reform era. The CCP’s adaptiveness and learning capacity are confirmed by Shaoguang Wang’s study of rural medical financing. According to Wang, the CCP learned not just from experiments, which he believes were quite limited in pre-reform eras, but also extensively from local practices.

Of course, while revolutionary legacies have contributed to the success of the reforms, they have also created problems. Joseph Fewsmith focuses on the flip side of the legacies. As he argues, the CCP inherited from the revolutionary era not just policy flexibility and adaptability but also personalized power structures, especially at the local levels, which lead to the widespread abuse of power and constitute a formidable barrier to effective governance.

While the revolutionary legacies continue to shape today’s politics, they have been substantially adapted. After all, the CCP has experienced generational changes, with revolutionary leaders replaced by technocrats. In addition, the CCP is faced with quite different tasks today from those in the revolutionary era—namely, the challenges posed by governing a market economy and maintaining political stability in a diverse and mobile society. Several studies in this volume explore how the methods and mind-sets of the revolutionary era have been adapted to a dramatically new setting. Perry’s chapter on the New Socialist Countryside campaign suggests that although the campaign tradition, which is the hallmark of Maoist politics, continues to be useful in many policy areas in the reform era, it has in fact been converted into “managed campaigns.” Unlike mass campaigns, managed campaigns combine the Leninist tradition with technocratic technique and usually target grassroots bureaucrats instead of the masses. Similarly, Nara Dillon argues that the CCP’s approaches toward the voluntary sectors (such as NGOs) maintain important aspects of Mao’s campaign tradition but also have increasingly relied on legalistic methods.

Adaptations are not limited to the campaign tradition. As Patricia Thornton argues, the CCP also changed its method of social investigation from an examination of “typical cases” to random survey methods. This change reflects a new relationship between the Party and the population: the mobilized masses as potential activists have been replaced with a depoliticized, passive audience. Similarly, Yuezhi Zhao’s study of the Party’s control of the media, while highlighting continuity with the old methods, shows how those controls have also been “selectively abandoned by the CCP and subverted by liberal ideological forces in the market-driven media system” (p. 229).

How do the Maoist ad hoc approaches reconcile with a market economy that values predictability? Despite the CCP’s efforts at adaptation, we might expect severe conflicts and profound tensions. In fact, the tensions between Maoist political style and market reform are among the most interesting issues addressed in this book. While many chapters touch upon this topic, it is most explicitly explored by Benjamin Liebman’s study of legal reforms. Since the late 1970s the Party has enthusiastically pursued modern forms of legality, but from revolutionary history it also inherited the embrace of populism by legal institutions. Consequently, the Chinese legal system is characterized by tensions between trends toward professionalism and toward populism (p. 170). He notes a worrisome tendency of the past decade: legal institutions have been more frequently instructed to yield to popular pressure from the media and the xinfang system.

Such an apparently short-term setback of legal reforms actually reflects the long-term difficulty in modernizing Chinese society. Heilmann and Perry rightly point out that, to a certain degree, Maoist policy style actually has its roots in the long line of traditional thought in China, “which stressed fluid, dialectical, and tactical approaches to managing ubiquitous tensions and contradictions” (p. 15). Other studies in this book, such as Fewsmith’s examination of personalized power structures and Jae Ho Chung’s study of central-local relations, confirm that many aspects of Maoist methods and mind-sets reach back far beyond the revolutionary era and into the imperial eras.

Under the shadow of such a long tradition, the Western model of modernization, which features bureaucratic and legalistic approaches, has seldom been wholeheartedly embraced in China. When today’s leaders, like Mao several decades ago, become unhappy with the constraints imposed by legal reforms and other institutional developments, they are tempted to scrap them in the name of rejecting “blind copying of the West” and, instead, pay tribute to historical tradition.

While Chinese intellectuals in the twentieth century often deplored the stubbornness of Chinese tradition and the difficulty in modernizing Chinese society, the fluidity and flexibility of that tradition have served the country surprisingly well in the reform era. Mao’s Invisible Hand was produced at a time when more than three decades of prosperity and stability do not appear in danger of ending, and its overall tone is optimistic and approving about Maoist approaches, even though some authors have expressed some doubt about the long-term impact of these approaches. No matter what people, including Chinese leaders, think of the historical legacies, they will continue to shape the special path that China will take.

This is one of the most insightful and thought-provoking books published in recent years on the critical questions about China’s developmental path and the role of history. It provides few definite answers to those questions, and the contributors evidently disagree with each other in some important aspects. However, this volume, skillfully edited by Heilmann and Perry, presents lively debates in which we are all invited to join.

Chen Xi is Assistant Professor in Department of Political Science at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently working on Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press).

© 2011 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

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