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Roots of the State: Neighborhood Organization and Social Networks in Beijing and Taipei

Roots of the State: Neighborhood Organization and Social Networks in Beijing and Taipei

by Benjamin Read

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Most social science studies of local organizations tend to focus on "civil society" associations, voluntary associations independent from state control, whereas government-sponsored organizations tend to be theorized in totalitarian terms as "mass organizations" or manifestations of state corporatism. Roots of the State examines neighborhood associations in


Most social science studies of local organizations tend to focus on "civil society" associations, voluntary associations independent from state control, whereas government-sponsored organizations tend to be theorized in totalitarian terms as "mass organizations" or manifestations of state corporatism. Roots of the State examines neighborhood associations in Beijing and Taipei that occupy a unique space that exists between these concepts.

Benjamin L. Read views the work of the neighborhood associations he studies as a form of "administrative grassroots engagement." States sponsor networks of organizations at the most local of levels, and the networks facilitate governance and policing by building personal relationships with members of society. Association leaders serve as the state's designated liaisons within the neighborhood and perform administrative duties covering a wide range of government programs, from welfare to political surveillance. These partly state-controlled entities also provide a range of services to their constituents.

Neighborhood associations, as institutions initially created to control societies, may underpin a repressive regime such as China's, but they also can evolve to empower societies, as in Taiwan. This book engages broad and much-discussed questions about governance and political participation in both authoritarian and democratic regimes.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Benjamin Read's Roots of the State is a fascinating account of grassroots administrative organization in East Asia and Southeast Asia, with a focus on the capital cities of Beijing and Taipei."—Jerry McBeath, Journal of Chinese Political Science (JCPS)

"I find this a well-researched and conscientious piece of research. It is rich in its theoretical contributions, marshaling of evidence and its analysis is first-rate. I gladly recommend this book to social scientists interested in how we may meaningfully shift our attention from a conventional theorizing of paternalistic state-society relations (that is, of the 'autonomous' development state) to one focused on a more complex and nuanced analysis of society-state relations (that is, restoring a routine power to the ruled while still acknowledging the power of the state)."—Vincent Chua, Asian Journal of Social Science

"This impressive new study sheds light on an overlooked trend: the emergence of local neighborhood associations as political actors. Not fully extensions of the state, not fully creations of society, these associations highlight the complexity of local politics, as well as their promise."—Bruce Dickson, George Washington University

"Roots of the State offers an intimate glimpse into the life and work of the neighborhood organizations that are the state's first thread of connection to its citizens. The themes and arguments raised here broaden our understanding of authoritarian regimes and reveal how alternative models of governance operate."—Mary Gallagher, University of Michigan

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Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Contemporary Issues in Asia and Pacific
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Roots of the State

Neighborhood Organization and Social Networks in Beijing and Taipei

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7565-6

Chapter One


Administration at the Grass Roots in East and Southeast Asia

From the main avenue, the route to Chongxing community still runs through the alleys known as hutong—not the elegant kind often found in the old Manchu quarters, but the ramshackle warrens of southern Beijing, some barely wide enough for two pedestrians to pass. In the furious run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, the city built a brick wall and a cosmetic ribbon of lawn and shrubs to hide this maze. Behind that facade, capillary-like lanes wend past doors that lead to small courtyards, around which cluster cramped homes, many of them single rooms. On the way, you pass the old office, where the women of the residents' committee once spent winters gathered around a coal-burning stove—now rented out to boisterous migrant workers. Characters chalked in cursive on a nearby blackboard exhort residents to mind the Eight Honors and the Eight Shames, one of the ideological refrains of the Hu Jintao era. As placards, bulletin boards, and posters of all kinds have done for decades around China's cities, whether trumpeting such national campaigns or conveying more prosaic imperatives, they also signal the presence and authority of the neighborhood organization.

Set in its own courtyard where several alleys join, the new office of this body announces itself with bold sign plates emblazoned with the names of the district, street office, and community, paired with a red-lettered counterpart denoting the Communist Party committee. Inside lie several freshly painted meeting rooms and offices, among them the desk of the party secretary Liao Jian, a middle-aged woman who moved into the nearby hutong in 1986, initially working as a manager in a state-owned store. She leads no fewer than sixteen other staff members, who busy themselves with a slew of responsibilities: from issuing health insurance cards to mediating quarrels, organizing charity drives, and counseling residents on birth control (a rack in the front reception room holds boxes of condoms, free to anyone willing to take them). Signs on the walls display organization charts and tabulate basic facts: 9,100 persons live in the neighborhood; there are five hundred courtyards, each with a designated liaison, and 76 residents' representatives. This is, in short, a kind of nerve center amid the dusty old homes. Through this nexus, dozens of state programs and tasks take root in the jumbled terrain of this corner of urban society.

A thousand miles to the south, in the city of Taipei, the neighborhood of Wenchang similarly flanks a bustling arterial road. There, too, finding the office means plunging into the lanes off this main thoroughfare, through gently curving alleys wide enough for a car but intersecting at odd angles. Next to a steel security door with eight mail slots, a bright blue sign marks the neighborhood office, although the entrance is otherwise no different from those of the other apartment buildings nearby, most two to four stories high, with tile walls and narrow balconies. Pressing a button brings a routine greeting through the intercom from Bai Zhengmin, Wenchang's elected warden. Visitors exchange shoes for plastic slippers before stepping into the living room of the three-bedroom home that Bai and his wife share. Although it holds trappings of family life such as sofas, the Buddhist shrine, and the dinner table, this room is also a nerve center of its own.

Bolted to a wall are the components of a broadcasting system that Bai uses regularly for immediate communication with the neighborhood's 5,700 residents, his voice echoing through the alleys from a microphone on his desk. In a study off the living room, a set of monitors displays real-time pictures from twenty-nine video cameras scattered throughout Wenchang; police officers sometimes stop by to consult the stored images. Here, too, the neighborhood's full-time civil servant signs in for his daily visit and works on many kinds of government business requiring local outreach: support for the poor and disabled, the military draft, health insurance cards, and more. On the walls hang a detailed satellite photograph of Wenchang and a map showing its precise boundaries, contact information for Bai's twenty designated block captains, and a whiteboard calendar of meetings at the district office and the nearby activity center. Half private domicile, half public space, this focal point receives a steady trickle of inquiries and requests in the form of phone calls and personal visits from constituents, government staff, and all manner of others.

Each of these two offices, described above as they existed in 2010, forms one cellular component of immense systems of urban governance. These systems, in the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China, respectively, are profoundly different from each other in some ways. Yet in other ways they are closely related. They also contrast with how neighborhoods are run in many other parts of the world. In a country like the United States, for example, the term "neighborhood organization" generally suggests a form of self-contained, small-scale activity: Saturday potlucks in the local park, efforts to protect and celebrate historical homes, the circulation of directories with children's names and ages. It indicates a loose form of self-governing voluntary association that may be entirely apolitical or may participate in urban politics episodically. With few exceptions, people in such historically liberal settings also take for granted that neighborhood groups are far removed from governance writ large. Military conscription, verification of welfare eligibility, household registration, and other parts of the machinery of the modern state would seem inappropriate for this kind of entity. As Whyte and Parish pointed out in a comparative comment in their landmark study of China's cities, "Americans tend to feel that it is illegitimate for city administrations to try to reach down into neighborhoods and formally organize them as part of the urban administrative system" (1984, 24).

In China and Taiwan, and in several other countries in East and Southeast Asia, neighborhood groups also imply social gatherings, recreational activities, community centers, and the like. But in these societies, such organizations—at least, in their official and universally mandated form—have substantially different structures and political roles. They grow out of a more regimented vision of how society is to be ordered, which in most cases descends from origins far in the past. They constitute a dense network of standardized cells, with state-defined boundaries, covering all or virtually all of the urban geography. They are intended to help govern society, not merely to provide a focal point for conviviality.

The neighborhood institutions discussed in this book are examples of systems that I call administrative grassroots engagement (AGE), in which states create, sponsor, and manage networks of organizations at the most local of levels that facilitate governance and policing by building personal relationships with members of society. Their leaders serve as the state's designated liaisons in the neighborhood and as such work closely with officials and civil servants. The administrative programs to which they lend assistance run the gamut from welfare to conscription, from census taking to public health. To one degree or another, they help police to monitor their neighborhoods, and in some cases they help gather information on constituents for purposes of political surveillance. At the same time, these parastatal entities also provide a range of services to their constituents, listen to and act on their suggestions and complaints, and organize social and volunteer activities for them to take part in if they choose. To be sure, they are not the only roots of the state, which intersects with those it governs in countless ways, of which urban neighborhoods are but one. Yet the root metaphor captures something fundamental about the shape and ambitions of this institutional template. It points as well to a widespread social basis for an active, proximate, and responsive state, a basis that coexists with many forms of disagreement, contention, and resistance. The purpose of this book is to explore the vision of the state-society relationship embodied in these institutions as it plays out in practice.

James Scott memorably characterized modern states as yearning to take the impenetrable complexity of natural and social ecologies and render it "legible"—measurable, taxable, and regularized (1998, 2, 183-184). Indeed, anyone visiting the institutions examined in these pages will marvel at the many examples they provide of "seeing like a state," from the records they keep on women's use of birth control in Beijing to the micro-level neighborhood maps and video surveillance found in Taipei. It is tempting to apply a Foucauldian framework to such practices, as some have fruitfully done. But it is not clear that such perspectives explain how these bodies can be deadening and alienating to certain constituents, yet vital and appealing to others. More generally, as this book shows, to focus merely on the baleful gaze of the state would lead to a partial and biased understanding of these systems. Doing so would leave us ill prepared to understand their extensive associative functions, how they serve as an important (sometimes the most central and vibrant) nexus of neighborhood life.

Varieties of AGE institutions have appeared in many parts of the world. State socialist systems such as that of the former Soviet Union featured official neighborhood-based organizations with wide-ranging responsibilities (Friedgut 1979; Roeder 1989). Cuba has them to this day in the form of Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (Fagen 1969; Kruger 2007), and Nicaraguan revolutionaries once sustained a similar network of Sandinista Defense Committees (LaRamée and Polakoff 1997). They also crop up in systems that are neither Leninist nor Asian. For instance, in the early 1970s, Peruvian authorities worried about political unrest among urban squatters created thousands of block-level neighborhood committees in the shantytowns of Lima and other cities.

Although they are by no means unique to the countries of East and Southeast Asia, some of the most elaborate and persistent examples of this type of organization are found there (Table 1.1). As discussed in Chapter 2, most descend in one way or another from imperial or colonial periods. Early or premodern states in East Asia developed institutions of local control to collect revenue and to deracinate deviants and threats, and Japanese colonizers spread and refined these systems. Today, security and fiscal goals remain two of the powerful imperatives that drive public authorities to reach down into the warp and woof of local life. Yet today's states look to the grassroots level for a great variety of purposes. As it turns out, local organizations provide a highly convenient platform for projects of just about every stripe.

To the extent that they have attracted theoretical attention at all, they have generally been conceptualized along totalitarian lines. Yet—strikingly—such organizations exist in free societies and authoritarian polities alike. In Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Indonesia, they have endured long after the passing of the autocratic regimes that first spawned them. In China and Singapore, as well as in the region's democracies, they have also persisted through a process of economic growth that has transformed the nature and meaning of residential neighborhoods for many urbanites. Why this is so forms a high-level puzzle that this book aims to solve.

Each of the AGE institutions has its own unique characteristics; they cannot be simplistically equated with one another. Important aspects of their organizational structures vary across cases. Residential areas in Taiwan are led by a single individual, a neighborhood warden (NW; lizhang) like Bai, who obtains the position by winning elections held every four years. This person works out of a government-supplied office, which may be set up in his or her home or elsewhere in the area. The network of wardens and their chosen block captains (linzhang) was once intended to mobilize and incorporate the local citizenry under the externally imposed rule of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang, or KMT). Yet in the past two decades it has transformed into a remarkably democratic institution, as Chapter 3 shows in detail. Indeed, in terms of the rigor of their elections, the neighborhood wardens may be the most democratically chosen leaders of their type in the world. Each comes to his or her position through formal processes of campaigning and balloting, in races that are often sharply competitive. Yet they are paid stipends by the state and work closely with a civil servant (liganshi) sent from the district administrative center.

In China, the comparable institution has, since 1954, been called a residents' committee (RC; jumin weiyuanhui), a team of neighborhood auxiliaries under the leadership of a director (zhuren). In recent years, this institution has been encased in an increasingly elaborate organizational architecture and packaged as a "community" (shequ). The RC elections take place every three years, although, as we will see, these carefully choreographed affairs offer little latitude for residents to contravene the arrangements of the street offices, the ward-level agencies that oversee the committees. The communities contain within them cells of the Chinese Communist Party, and their directors often double as party secretaries, although the posts may also be held by different people, as in Chongxing's case. Like their counterparts in Taiwan, the staff of the community receive monthly stipends for their service.


Excerpted from Roots of the State by BENJAMIN L. READ Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Benjamin L. Read is Assistant Professor of Politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. With Robert Pekkanen, he is co-editor of Local Organizations and Urban Governance in East and Southeast Asia: Straddling State and Society (2009).

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