Not often enough do scholars think of state formation in China and Europe on parallel levels. That's one of the cases Julia Adams and Liping Wang make in the following interview with Stephanie Marudas. They also discuss the obstacles today's Chinese bureaucratic political structure faces in the rise of social media. Adams and Wang have written an article in the July 2011 volume of The Annals, "Patrimonial Power in the Modern World," about the interlocking patrimonialisms and state formation in Qing China and Early Modern Europe. Adams is one of the volume's special editors, along with Mounira Charrad, and is a professor of sociology and international and area studies at Yale University where she is the sociology department chair and the Joseph C. Fox Director of the Fox International Fellowship Program. Liping Wang is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Chicago. A podcast and transcript of their interview are below.
Stephanie Marudas: Your article in The Annals volume about patrimonial politics in the modern world explores how familial power historically shaped state formation in China and Europe and how central kinship ties were to lasting empires. Julia, take us to China first where the Qing Empire lasted from 1644 to 1911. What was the key to this empire’s success?
Julia Adams: Family household power was crucial in the Qing as it was in early modern European states in many ways, but among them, and this is the particular focus of our article, was territorial integrity of political units or of politics itself. So in the Qing Dynasty, the Manchu conquerers faced a number of challenges. But their overarching challenge was that of securing and expanding their rule. They succeeded at that, which they might not otherwise have done, by figuring out ways to use ruling brothers who were related to one another through lateral relations and also imperial bond servants, who were vertically tied to them in households, in order to hold powerful Chinese bureaucrats in check. At the same time, they learned how to use principles of bureaucracy to restrain the warring brothers who squabbled with one another and, in fact, even killed one another and that also helped keep the state together.
So, what you had was a kind of interlock between patrimonial practices on the one hand and bureaucracy on the other, that developed in a style that was a lot like that of old regime Europe and perhaps particularly like France. And that helped hold together and stabilize power for centuries.
And if I might just make a p.s. to that, just to clarify that lengthy term, patrimonialism, which we use because it is well established in scholarly literature and was made famous by the sociologist Max Weber in the early twentieth century, patrimonialism is just another name for rule based on family households and alliances among them. It was very much centered on male lineages, even if women could be interim rulers. Patrimonial rule was, classically speaking, also patriarchal rule, rule by fathers and forefathers. And we see this in Qing China and in early modern Europe, 1500 – 1800 as well. So that is a capsule summary of the article.
SM: Take us to Europe a bit, in terms of what those early modern European states looked like. Julia, you indicated that they were forming at the same time the Qing was in power. What were some of the dynamics that these European states had? Did they share similar dynamics to what we saw with the Qing?
JA: Yes, they do, which I think is initially surprising because we are not used to thinking of comparing across these spaces but rather making generalizations about European studies on the one hand, Chinese studies on the other. But one of the major things they do share is this uneasy mix of patrimonial and bureaucratic forms. And speaking specifically about rule and family household forms of rule, we see advantages and disadvantages for these states in formation in Europe. On the one hand, these forms of rule can be remarkably deeply founded on forms of the family lineage trusts across generations and also among patriarchal rulers, and that can give these states a lot of capacity as they are building. But at the same time that can create forms of power that become rigid, entrenched, internally combative, and that also happened not just in early modern France but in the eighteenth century Netherlands, England, etc. So these forms of rule have their pros and cons and under some circumstances they can support the politico-economic rise of the state, as they did with Holland in the seventeenth century and England in the eighteenth, and at other points they can be more problematic. But there are a lot of commonalities, a lot of common tendencies.
SM: As you indicated there as well that when we think about Europe we do not necessarily think about China; when we think about China we do not necessarily think about Europe. Is this something that perhaps the community should embrace in thinking about these two areas together or relationally?
JA: Yes, absolutely I think so, and I think Liping does as well. Liping, would you like to speak to that?
Liping Wang: I think to some extent it is the European scholarship [that] might be more internationalized but the China study is still on the way [to] being internationalized. So I think especially if we look at the dominating, like the scenes of China studies we still find scholars are more interested in defining the nature of what the Chinese society is. Like they will ask questions about whether China has its own capitalism, whether China is a totalitarian regime or whether the public feels equally existing in Chinese cities and all these kinds of things. But I think recently there is a kind of tendency to switch away from this paradigm. It is more interesting to compare the substantive historical processes leading both China and Europe to their present forms. I think some part of this attempt is to place China and Europe in the same world historical time, and I think that is also what our paper is about. Our paper compares the episode of early modern China with early modern Europe and we can see that those patrimonial strategies actually facilitated mating the state together in both contexts. And so we agree that it is exactly because China was located in the same world historical time with Europe and that is why they are comparable in many aspects.
SM: Your article is perhaps one of the first steps to help bridge that gap between the Chinese and European scholarship that we see today.
JA: This is raising all sorts of challenges for scholars worldwide right now, I think. It is part of a general process of recomposition of knowledge and a move away from generalizing about single-nation states and reading that back into history, usually inappropriately, and thinking about instead relations among parts of the globe, relations of empire and imperialism and colonialism that long pre-dated the stage of formation of states but of course is interlaced with them. And so this is affecting people who used to study, for example, the United States but now find themselves instead historians and social scientists of the Atlantic world. Or those who study global and transnational processes more generally. So this is a challenge, I think, that all scholars are facing now and it is an incredibly positive one.
SM: Let’s talk about China today and perhaps the legacy of patrimonial politics in China that we saw that started with the Qing. How does that play out today in China?
LW: I think the present Chinese regime is definitely not a complete discontinuity with traditional China. For example we see it in traditional China, which our paper has also touched like the factional conflicts within this state and especially those officials that cultivated their followers in this kind of what they call master-disciple relations from different factions together and in most occasions the patrons will provide protection, benefits, and also promise the promotions of their followers and the followers will also give support needed by the patrons. And I think this kind of relationship still exists today and a couple of political scientists on modern China, they have worked on this topic, even though their definition of what constitutes factional politics is different. For example, some of them may divide factions in contemporary Chinese politics according to the more ideological criteria, like they will divide them into pro-reform, liberalist clique, or the more conservative clique, but some of them might also divide into more generalist elites and those that are more like technocrats. And basically they thought that these different factions, the conflicts between them, were not that negative and to some extent they provide some kind of balance and ensured the stability of Chinese policy in many demands. But to some extent, it also caused the problem of inefficiency. So we definitely see that the patrimonialism perspective is still very useful for us to observe contemporary Chinese politics. But definitely this field is still quite ambiguous, and there are still no definite answers to this. We will wait and see.
SM: When the Qing Empire came to an end in 1911, ten years later the Communist Party came to rule and this year the Communist Party, it is marking ninety years in power. To what degree was communism perhaps a natural succession to the Qing?
JA: Liping’s dissertation, which is ongoing and which I hope she will tell you a little bit more about. It shows how the patrimonial strategies of the sort that we are discussing actually first of all enhanced the bureaucratic apparatus that was inherited by the Han Chinese and that the Chinese Communist Party both benefits and contends with that.
LW: Yes, my dissertation is about ethnicizing the frontier, the Chinese imperial crisis and ethnic formation in Inner Mongolia. In the dissertation, even though it is not exclusively about the ethno-policy of the Chinese party, it touches upon the question and we can definitely see that the Chinese Communist Party has developed its minority policy at a crucial moment, that is after the 1930s when, after The Long March, its power center was transferred from central political provinces to the frontier region located in northern Shaanxi. So it is in this frontier zone that the Communist Party for the first time shed off its Han-dominated identity and recognized the importance of obtaining minority support before it had the opportunity to reenter the center of China. So I think it is from this perspective we can see that between what we study here, about the Qing policy of integrating China and what the Communist Party did in the late 1930s, there is not a discontinuity. There is always this kind of move from the frontier to the Chinese center. If we look at the Chinese Communist Party today we can definitely gain some insights. We observe what the traditional regime did and there is a kind of continuity in their policy.
SM: As we look at China today and what its image is to the rest of the world, it is an economic powerhouse, soon to become the number one economy in the world. And perhaps, what are the keys to that success? Is it the style of governments and the premiere playing the role of a unifier of the country and perhaps in a patriarchal style that we saw previously in China’s history?
LW: The Chinese state, to some extent, it is still quite like a paternalistic state because the population or the people rely on the state a lot, the state-provided welfare programs and also the communication, transportation, infrastructure, buildings. In this sense, it is quite like what we see in the traditional paternalistic state of China. Yes, but there are definitely other new forces and new influences and especially if we look at young people and young students. And I think there is something new.
JA: And if I may add to Liping’s very interesting remarks, I think that the potential instabilities of the situation emerge as much from what we are calling tradition here, or patrimonial tradition, as they do from those new influences and here is another potential connection with European history. The European patrimonial states, based on patriarchal rule, eventually all spurred and developed discourses of opposition from below and those really invented notions that were in the first place familial such as fraternity, that were posed against patriarchy. And that is a common logic and a thrust that we see in all patrimonial powers because the rulers and the ruled are calling on family imagery to legitimate their rule to get things done, to get people on board, and it calls forth alternative family imageries, some of them potentially quite revolutionary. We see this now in the Arab Spring and we could certainly potentially see it emerging in China.
SM: So, part of your scholarship in doing this article for The Annals, perhaps we can think about European history and how it gives us insight to what we see happening in China today.
JA: I think this is definitely one way in which it gives you not an answer in any way on what necessarily will transpire, but certainly it allows you to predict that the very forms of discourse that are so important in legitimating and perpetuating certain kinds of rule also contain and evoke key possibilities of opposition. And that is as true in China as it was in early modern Europe. So it does not tell us what the upshot will be, but it does give you a sense of what will emerge in terms of opposition to forms of patrimonial rule.
SM: Bringing this all together, your article provides us with a history of the Qing Empire and it is helping us think about modern China today, but between the Qing and what we see today, we had Chairman Mao. And if you could talk about the style of governance that he brought to China and how that played out.
JA: I think that is a very important point and question, Stephanie, because we do not want to be read as saying that we can delete the era of Mao and the heyday of Chinese Communism. Just as we would not want to say that Sarkozy follows from Louis XIV. So thank you for posing that question and perhaps Liping would like to respond to that.
LW: Chairman Mao definitely was a very charismatic leader and I think this kind of paternalist charismatic leadership was an important characteristic of the Chinese regime, especially after 1949, which lasted a long time. And I think it is very important, especially for China, to kind of construct all those developments because it provides a very strong center. But I think there is a kind of very subtle change in recent several decades in terms of the leadership and we see definitely the second generation or the third generation or the contemporary Chinese leadership is kind of like drifting away from this very strong, charismatic center. If you read Chinese newspapers today you can definitely see there are kind of different voices rising up and kind of tensions, competitions, and also cooperation between different parts of the central leadership. I think that is an important change away from this very powerful paternalistic and charismatic leadership and some Chinese people will think it is a good sign of the diversity of the leadership and some people will think it is a sign of weakness of the center. But it is important and a fresh change and I think most of us will see something new from this change.
SM: There are censorship issues in China today. It is illegal to use Twitter, for example, but as China and the young people are more and more aware of what is happening outside of China and the desire to be connected, this perhaps could pose a challenge to maintaining bureaucratic control in China.
JA: I think it is bound to pose a challenge. Our article discusses oppositions and connections between bureaucracy and patrimonial strategies, but both of those strategies are built, at least in part, on strongly hierarchical relations. So it is not surprising that they can have a kind of elective affinity for one another. But the proliferating networks, including the electronically mediated networks of the present day, which is an astounding phenomenon, I find, I think can readily undermine both those types of hierarchical relations. How those forms of connection are going to be metabolized by all governments, much less the Chinese, is really a fascinating and important question and it is by no means settled. It is also in some ways genuinely new and I think it is important for us to draw that line with respect to our article as well, which is to say that we are pointing to some re-capitulated dynamics where we have clues in European history to interpret things in Chinese history that have implications for the present day, but there are also moments when genuinely new formations emerge and we want to be alert to those as well. Liping, do you want to add something to this?
LW: Yes, I totally agree with you that this is definitely a challenge for not only China but also worldwide, for many countries. There is a kind of learning process involved in all these things because this is the media kind of challenge, something new, which we definitely will not see in a traditional Chinese regime. But I think it is a learning process on both sides. So it is not just about how [the] Chinese state tries to better or more efficiently inspect the media. It is about how to get dialogue or communication with different people using media to express their voices. This is something that should be learned by the Chinese, not only Chinese government but also by Chinese people. There is a kind of new way of learning how to deal with the states and how to deal with the people.