Liquid Power in China

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Politics and Executive Director of the China Studies Centre, University of Sydney. He leads the Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN), funded by the European Commission, and is an Associate Fellow on the Asia Programme at Chatham House. His is the author of eight books on China, the latest of which is a study of the Fifth Generation Chinese leadership which will be published in early 2014. The following essay is based on remarks made during a keynote address to the Chinese Studies Association of Australia on 10 July 2013 in Hobart, Tasmania.—The Editors


Zygmunt Bauman's Liquid Modernity.

Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity.

The noted sociologist Zygmunt Bauman described the dynamic nature of modernity and its complex social outcomes through the notion of being like ‘liquid’. Liquids have the fundamental property of fluidity. This serves to distinguish them from solids because they undergo ‘a continuous change in shape when subjected to such a stress’. Bauman related this to a social context by talking of ‘a radical melting of the fetters and manacles … limiting the individual freedom to choose and act’ which has occurred in post-modern societies. ‘Deregulation, liberalization, flexiblization’ are all manifestations of this increased fluidity, their practical outcome being `unbridling the financial, real estate and labour markets, easing the tax burden.’[1] These have liberated humans from social and economic positions which were once tightly prescribed. They have ushered in an era not only of physical but also intellectual mobility – the age of the ‘flat earth’ supplied by the Internet and the World Wide Web, where instantaneous interactions between people can occur across spatial and cultural boundaries which once took great effort to cross. This has had an impact on the modern notion of the self. In a society of such liquidity, identity is negotiable and constantly changing. Everything is in accelerating flux. Our state allegiance, cultural values, and ideas about our very selves are opened up to marketisation and processes of exchange.

Liquid modernity was a concept Bauman used to understand the radical social, cultural and economic transformations in developed societies, particularly Europe and the United States. But it has perhaps reached its most intense manifestation in the People’s Republic of China in the post-1970s reform-era. One could argue that Chinese society was ripe for the sorts of liberation of social bonds that Bauman’s concept helps us to understand. A society which the great anthropologist Fei Xiaotong described in 1947 as intrinsically agrarian and rooted in the world of rural, tight-knit communities that dominated the country then, it had undertaken in a shorter period and on a vaster scale than any other society a process of urbanization and industrial restructuring that has shattered this former model. Perhaps more than anywhere else, the covalent bonds of society in China have been reshaped and remoulded, shifted radically form their former stability into something infected by a new but little understood energy. The archetypal inhabitants of this China in an era of fluidity and liquidity are the migrant labourers, the vast army of up to a quarter of a billion people who move from their home communities to live largely disenfranchised, and often rootless existences in the new cities that proliferate China now.

This is the Chinese society that the arrival of social media has mapped so vividly. Before the turn of the millennium, China had less than five million people on the Internet. Now there may be as many as a billion. With the tools of the modern networked and connected post-modern world, Chinese can create new links and social pathways around themselves, become almost like the sort of ‘nomads’ that Bauman talked of in his work, their social worlds portable and fluid. Weibo and Weixin give the means to the new citizens of liquid China to live in a zone which they can create according to their own appetites and interests. They are able to largely ignore the fiat of some solid, regulating governing state, disappearing into a privately constructed universe of networks given them by social media. This is the final outcome for what Fei Xiaotong called a society where the links between people were ‘highly elastic’. Individuals sit in the midst of their own domain, exercising a kind of person-based sovereignty, creating a society of almost infinitely complex and dense interconnectivity centred on themselves.

The leadership elite, particularly in the Politburos or in the Party’s Central Committees, superficially appear like a still centre in this vortex of activity. They are the emperors of control, whose language, customs, and habits are reassuringly static despite the almost constant change around them. The discourse of the political elite often exists as something above and outside all of this, imperiously directing and commanding, as if from another world. It is a language which is highly controlled and ordered, predictable while all else is in change, a bureaucratic ‘socio-dialect’ which is deliberately remote from the degraded, changing, unpredictable street language used by the rest of society.[2]

For all the stagnant highly prescriptive nature of this elite ‘power language’ however, and the rituals through which they enact their power, the members of this group, for all their remoteness from society, are representative of the liquid society in which they operate. The personal narratives of these individuals contain clues of dense networking in diverse zones in order to build political capital. Party Secretary Xi Jinping is the epitome of this. Described in one biography issued in Hong Kong in 2010 as ‘a peasant emperor’, a man who was born as part of Party revolutionary aristocracy through his father Xi Zhongxun, he also belonged to the victims of the Cultural Revolution, sent down to Shaanxi province in the mid-1960s and only emerging after 1976. This experience has given him rustic credibility, and a sense that he has seen both sides of the modern Chinese experience – the urban and the rural. Xi has been able to operate between a number of different zones – friends of business while governor in Fujian, champion of the Party’s need to have a renewed moral mandate since his elevation in 2012, his links into the Party run from the military in which he served in the early 1980s, to the provincial power houses of Fujian, Guangzhou and Shanghai where he served in leadership positions, to the Party School of which he was president from 2007.

Xi Jinping, then Party chief of Zhengding county (1983).

Xi Jinping, then party chief of Zhengding county, Hebei province, 1983.

He is surrounded by figures who under a veneer of uniformity (same gender, same ethnicity, same approximate age) all have biographies that show the intricate ways in which elite politicians construct routes to power and the accrual of political capital in contemporary China. Factional models have proved too crude in trying to pin down the sites where this power might be located. Instead, there are diverse, shifting, different sources of influence, and different ways for individuals to recruit and gain that power. In that sense, power is akin to a currency as it has to be accumulated, invested and acquired. It too has been marketised along with everything else in post-1978 China.

Xi’s colleagues exemplify liquid power at work in China today. Zhang Gaoli’s  power derives from the successful transposition of his business links from his native Fujian where he served in the oil sector for seventeen years to Shandong and Tianjin, enabling him to produce huge rises in GDP. Mobilizing a business network like this translates into political success. Yu Zhengsheng has made effective use of his extensive links to the core historic party elite, and particularly to clan allegiances around families like those of Deng Xiaoping. He now serves informally as their representative on the Board of Management which the Standing Committee of the Politburo has now become. Zheng Dejiang has deployed harsh language against the non-state sector learned as a student in North Korea in the late 1970s to woe conservatives in the Party, even though he has presided as Party boss over Guangdong and Zhejiang and allowed the private sectors that are so powerful there to thrive. Wang Qishan has acquired political capital in this system through marriage into a powerful family, but also through support from intellectual economic and academic links.

A young man wheels Deng Pufang, son of the late Deng Xiaoping, past then Chongqing Committee Secretary Bo Xilai.

A young man wheels Deng Pufang, son of the late Deng Xiaoping, past then Chongqing Committee Party Secretary Bo Xilai.

None of these people presents a straightforward narrative of how they gained power and how they achieved promotion in 2012. For those that argue the road to Beijing is through successful provincial leadership, they have to contend with Liu Yunshan, a man who has never served in any capacity except as a servant of the propaganda bureaucracy of the Party. Li Keqiang is perhaps the most ‘liquid’ of all – an academic lawyer, linked loosely to the academics involved in the Democracy Wall movement of 1978-1979, he was able to transfer his political patronage from Hu Jintao to Wen Jiabao, to use his time in the China Youth League in the 1980s, and as Party leader in Liaoning and Henan in the late 1990s and early 2000s to present himself as the most powerful economist China now has. He has links through his wife to a former senior leader of the provincial Youth League, and yet also presents himself as a grassroots member from Anhui who won a place at Peking University on his own merits. His networks are hard to specify, and his accumulation of credibility impossible to pin down on a purely factional basis.

The seven men now sitting on the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee have complex, separate identities. The difficulties they pose to anyone trying to construct a uniform narrative to link them all together are indicative of the transformed and transforming society in which they occupy such a privileged position. Bauman understood liquidity as the dissolution of bonds and the disappearance of once cogent boundaries. The new elite in China exemplify the dissolution of such boundaries in the diverse and dynamic nature of their rise to power. In that sense, they are as representative of the profound transformation of the nature of relationships in society as any other body in contemporary China, despite their highly privileged status. Perhaps the most striking feature for anyone who looks hard into their separate stories is the number of questions that their words and deeds raise – questions about the contested nature of the society they are nominally in charge of, and of the fractures and fissures within it as the new regime tries, against this fragmentation, to reforge a sense of national common identity: where the only safe option is to talk of ‘a dream’.



[1] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, London: Polity Press, 2000, p.1.

[2] See Geremie R. Barmé on ‘New China Newspeak’.