Local China Stories: the Many in the One

In sixteenth-century Italy and France a new form of popular narrative developed; it marked the beginning of modern European theatre. This was commedia dell’arte (‘comedy of the craft’), a type of performance by peripatetic comedians that had no written script that offered entertainment improvised on the basis of what was called ‘canvass’: a structure of recurring elements, motifs, characters, misunderstandings, jokes and moral epilogues. The troupes travelled from city to city, performing on streets and in squares, adapting their stories to the changing local contexts, at times offering a critique to the powerful, or by inserting not-so-mild commentaries on public affairs. It was all spiced up with incidents of betrayal, trickery and intricate love affairs.

Travelling around China today, the feeling is that the overall ‘China Story’, that is the story that official China tells the world and its citizens as part of the effort to legitimise and reproduce the authority of the party-state, also has a canvass-like character. The script, or ‘meta-narrative’ is there without doubt. It features straightforward formulations of what is good and what is bad about the different political and social issues in the country and these are reproduced with remarkable consistency in the full range of contemporary media.

Nonetheless, the basic elements of this central story about China are constantly being adapted by any number of interpreters and performers far from Beijing. The elements inscribed on the centrally determined ‘canvass’ are known to all, performers and audiences alike: social order needs to be maintained, the supremacy of the Party needs to be unswervingly upheld, the understanding of China’s peculiar ‘national circumstances’ (guoqing 国情) must inform all decisions, the processes of modernisation and civilisation construction are central to the success of the economic reforms, the nation needs to be strong and prosperous.

Local Narratives

Yet, how much space for innovation and adaptation do local performers have when it comes to pleasing their audiences, or impressing their local masters? The answer seems to be: as far as the borders of a rather broad canvass are duly recognized, a great deal of local variation is possible.

Every ‘locality’, be it a province, a municipality, a county or a village produces its own particular variation of The China Story. Adapting the central story about the state of the nation or ‘China’s exceptionalism’ to ‘local realities’ can lead to localities adopting completely opposite narratives from those sanctioned by the central authorities. For example, the emphasis placed by north-eastern municipalities on ‘saving the working class’ is a consequence of the rapid de-industrialisation of the rustbelt with massive unemployment as a consequence. The history narrated here both by former state workers and their government is that of a moral economy of assistance and subsidisation to the traditional socialist working class, whose culture has all but disappeared. Machinery from the dismantled factories is instead turned by the local government into soulless works of public art along the rapidly gentrifying streets of the cities.

It is also the story of the legacy of Japanese occupation and resistance, something still reflected in performances both in theatres and on the streets. These dramas contain unabashed references to the ‘Japanese dogs’, despite the central role that Japanese investment has in the area today.

Similarly, and yet completely opposite in import, cities in China’s ‘sunbelt’, that is in the rapidly industrialising south, emphasise fast urbanisation and labour flexibility, the agility of the economy, the breakneck pace of economic and physical construction, the adaptation of economic practices and the fundamental role of entrepreneurial villages and rural industrialisation. Even beyond the adoption of different symbols or slogans (see for example those listed in Chapter 2 of China Story Yearbook 2012), localities strive not simply to reproduce central discourses or scripts but also to adapt the official canon to local conditions and interests. These ‘Local China Stories’ are not about stretching the canvass, although they sometimes contest and push its boundaries. They are about finding a place for the local within the schema of the national by maintaining the ability of localities to compete for resources with others through their symbolic positioning and re-positioning.

Local narratives are not a specific feature of China.What is different here, though, is the overarching rationality of the central China Story that informs the ways in which localities can and do represent themselves. The implementation of central policies and regulations, for example, are the result of progressive adaptation from the generally scant indications of the centre to the progressively more specific bargaining of local governments. This body of practices is sometimes summed up in the humours couplet: ‘They have their policies, we have our responses’ (shang you zhengce, xia you duice 上有政策,下有对策). The parameters of a ‘civilised’ China expressed in principle in Beijing become concretised through locally adapted ‘etiquette’ textbooks sold in bookshops, campaigns to improve queuing skills, or the naming of ‘civilised crossroads’. The exemplar role of a conservative (and high consuming) middle class promoted by the centre to improve a consumer economy, turns locally into the planning of whole areas of the cities earmarked by the planner for ‘middle class living’ thereby boosting the price of the land and the rent-seeking opportunities of the local authorities.

Localities are also part of the bigger China Story, as local leaders compete to attract the attention of the higher-ups. Traditionally, the process of policy selection by the central government has relied heavily on experiments engineered at the local level. Local policies have repeatedly been elevated to central ones or selected as models for other localities, as long as they were successful and did not deviate substantially from the approved ‘canvass’. The success of such experiments traditionally makes or breaks the careers of local leaders, who promote them and ride the wave of their success.

Conflicting Stories?

We have also learned in recent years that conflicts at the local level are numerous, frequent and often lead to collective violence (see, for instance, Chapter 3 in China Story Yearbook 2012). What kind of challenge do they bring to the legitimacy that the centrally ordained China Story wants to preserve? Logic requires that the growth of conflicts is a sign of a destabilising polity. But even conflicts seem to produce narratives that fit the canvass. The scholar Chen Xi has recently characterised the political handling of social conflicts as a form of ‘contentious authoritarianism’, where the state has a ‘proactive role in facilitating popular contention’, one that affects ‘the costs and benefits of mobilization’ (see Chen Xi, Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Conflicts, in other words, can fit in the canvass too, and in fact they may be more successful if they do.

To narrate the larger, or holistic ‘China Story’ we need to take into account the increasing complexity of social issues, economic interests and individual and group narratives and identities. The central canvass provides an institutional and a ‘framing’ discourse, one that even makes certain space for contention. Middle-class activists, for instance, will employ the language of the ‘nation’ to assert their rights as consumers when they contest the dubious actions of greedy developers. Laid-off workers will appeal to the institutions and morality of the state to petition for support. Villagers will claim their socialist collective rights to land when trying to forestall expropriation and when they denounce corrupt officials. Students will uphold the banner that reads ‘Long Live the Communist Party!’ to demonstrate against the misdeeds of local autocrats and their economic partners.

In these diverse forms of performative politics, the central state or its local agents remain the ultimate arbiters and adjudicators, the embodiment of an overarching moral and political authority, akin to the moral speech of the lead actor after the curtains drop on the drama of China’s social contention.

To tell The China Story, therefore, we need also to find and tell local stories as well.

In The China Story Blog we intend to tell some of these stories. We will invite contributors to help account for the ways in which The China Story morphs in the localities they know and study. Even with all the pieces in hand we will not be presenting a unified picture or a simple narrative. Just as in the commedia dell’arte, there are always new variations that can be added to an actor’s repertoire.


Luigi Tomba is Adjunct Director at the Australian Centre on China in the World. He is a political scientist whose work focuses on social change, class formation and grassroots governance in urban China. His current research is on neighbourhood politics, urban citizenship and the politics of land conversion in Guangdong. He is the co-editor of The China Journal, the leading international academic journal on contemporary Chinese affairs, now published with the University of Chicago Press, and the support of the Australian Centre on China in the World.