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Three Moral Codes and Microcivil Spheres in China



Two dimensions of Civil Sphere Theory tend to be overlooked in the literature on civil society in China: moral codes and spheres of solidarity. Although there is no institutionally autonomous civil sphere in China, there are “virtual” and “micro” civil spheres in which moral codes shape spheres of solidarity. However, the picture is complicated by the coexistence of three distinct moral codes derived from Chinese traditional values, Western liberal values, and China’s revolutionary tradition. While the three codes appear to be contradictory, there are overlaps and circulations between them, through which popular discourses hold state and social actors to account. This forms the basis of a virtual civil sphere that comes into being when state and popular actors engage with each other, creatively deploying the ambiguities and overlaps between the three codes. But these spaces are unstable and subject to imminent collapse, when the state and popular groups each assert the purity of a single moral code, polluting and stigmatizing the other. The chapter draws on cases from Chinese popular religion to illustrate the formation and breakdown of micro-civil spheres.
Three Moral Codes and Microcivil Spheres in China
David A. Palmer
The University of Hong Kong
in Jeffrey Alexander, David A. Palmer, Agnes Ku and Sunwoong Park eds.,
The Civil Sphere in East Asia. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Two dimensions of Civil Sphere Theory tend to be overlooked in the literature on civil society in China:
moral codes and spheres of solidarity. Although there is no institutionally autonomous civil sphere in China,
there are “virtual” and “micro” civil spheres in which moral codes shape spheres of solidarity. However,
the picture is complicated by the coexistence of three distinct moral codes derived from Chinese traditional
values, Western liberal values, and China’s revolutionary tradition. While the three codes appear to be
contradictory, there are overlaps and circulations between them, through which popular discourses hold
state and social actors to account. This forms the basis of a virtual civil sphere that comes into being when
state and popular actors engage with each other, creatively deploying the ambiguities and overlaps between
the three codes. But these spaces are unstable and subject to imminent collapse, when the state and popular
groups each assert the purity of a single moral code, polluting and stigmatizing the other. The chapter draws
on cases from Chinese popular religion to illustrate the formation and breakdown of micro-civil spheres.
Civil sphere, civil society, China, moral codes, spheres of solidarity, popular religion
Civil society is defined by Jeffrey Alexander as a “solidary sphere, in which a certain kind of
universalizing community comes to be culturally defined and to some degree institutionally
enforced” (Alexander 2006:31). It is an independent social sphere, located in space and time,
structured through symbolic moral codes that define the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. It
is through a historically dynamic process that these boundaries are challenged through social
movements in which the symbolic codes are performed and previously excluded groups – such as,
in the United States, women, blacks, and Jews -- are incorporated into the civil sphere. The
autonomy of the civil sphere is protected and mediated by independent institutions, especially the
media and the legal systems, which guarantee the public performance of the moral codes and their
incorporation into the law and jurisprudence. The moral codes of the civil sphere are invoked to
This chapter draws on research funded by the Hong Kong Research Grants Council (Project: “Volunteering in
Contemporary China: Moral Discourse and Social Spaces”). I am grateful to Jeffrey Alexander, Philip Gorski, Deborah
Davis, Isabelle Thireau, and Yves Chevrier for the opportunity to present earlier versions of this paper at Yale
University (November 2013 and November 2017) and at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (June
contest, negotiate, and transform “noncivil” practices in spheres such as the state, the market, or
The aim of this chapter is to consider to what extent Civil Sphere Theory (CST) can give
us insights on contemporary Chinese society, and to what extent the Chinese case can help to
enrich CST. Such a discussion also needs to consider whether CST can offer new insights that are
missing from conventional theories of civil society. Indeed, civil society in China has become a
significant field of academic research and discourse (Brook & Frolic 1997; Deng 2011; He 1997;
Howell 2011; Yang 2002). This literature tends to focus on associations, NGOs, and autonomous
social spaces; but given that there is no institutionally and legally protected autonomy independent
of the state in China, studies tend to describe the complex relationships, negotiations and
interpenetrations between the state and the organizations of this purported civil society (Ma 2006;
Spires 2011). However, given the lack of true autonomy, the question always arises as to whether
civil society, a concept derived from Western liberal democracies, is appropriate to the empirical
reality of China (Huang 1993; Madsen 1998; Weller 1999). Similarly, we need to recognize, from
the onset, that, strictly speaking, there is no civil sphere, as defined by Alexander, in mainland
China: in the People’s Republic, no social sphere, let alone a “civil sphere,” possesses an
institutionally enforced independence. Civil Sphere Theory, with its combination of civic values,
social movements, independent media, and the rule of law, seems to be uniquely applicable to
liberal democracies. What, then, can be retrieved from CST without falling into a reiteration of the
predictable discourse on China’s lack of a true civil society? In this chapter, I will primarily focus
on two dimensions of CST that tend to be overlooked in conventional discussions of civil society
in China: moral discourses or codes, and spheres of solidarity.
In China, state control of the media and restrictions on social organizations make it
impossible for an autonomous civil sphere, linking and transcending various social groups and
movements, to exist at a national level; however, to some extent, a “virtual” civil sphere can be
said to exist, of moral and civil discourses, in which cultural binary codes are deployed to pass
judgement on, to sanctify, or to pollute the actions of both state and social actors, and in which
civil ideals can be invoked. This virtual sphere is not institutionalized, nor does it possess its own,
autonomous social spaces. It exists as discourses and symbols that circulate through all types of
media, ranging from classical literature, pop culture, official propaganda, the Internet, social media,
and so on – none of which can be defined as a civil sphere, but which can be a medium for the
dissemination of civil (as well as noncivil and anticivil) codes, values, and ideals. This “virtual” civil
sphere may, however, be actualized in certain social spaces, “microcivil spheres” within specific
and interstitial locations.
China is home to an incredible diversity of localized forms of solidarity – a lively world of
uninstitutionalized, horizontal ties and associations between people that is called the minjian
, “among the people,” in which the people are “among themselves” and not in a hierarchical
relationship with the state (Yang 1994). This world, by compulsion and often deliberately, usually
avoids going “public” at anything more than a local scale; its trans-local links are poorly structured
as easily fissured networks. The autonomy of these networks is maintained through their minjian
informality and low visibility. In the virtual civil sphere, moral codes are evoked and performed in
localized social spaces to enhance civility and solidarity in both the state and the minjian. But the
virtual civil sphere is fragile, under perpetual negotiation, and subject to breakdown.
The Three Moral Codes in China’s Virtual Civil Sphere
I take, as the starting point of my discussion, Alexander’s insight that the civil sphere begins with
the performance of moral codes of inclusion and exclusion – norms that both define the
boundaries of the sphere of solidarity, and that are invoked to restrict or transform noncivil
practices in other social spheres. In China, the picture is complicated by the coexistence of three
distinct moral codes – which I call the “yellow code,” derived from Chinese traditional values, the
“blue code,” derived from Western values, and the “red code,” derived from China’s revolutionary
tradition – each of which may both contribute to or detract from civil values.
At the onset of this discussion, we should remember, however, that this framework of
three codes is an analytical device that simplifies highly complex strands of moral discourse. I use
colors to signify the genealogical origins of different strands, and to avoid essentializing their
content – the “yellow code,” for example, cannot be reduced to a “Confucian” code (see Madsen
2002), as it includes strands from non-Confucian sources; and it cannot be called “traditional”
since it can be deployed in very non-traditional ways.
And while the blue code has its roots in
Western intellectual traditions, it has become an integral component of modern Chinese thought,
and has its own history of evolution in China, so that it cannot be simply labeled as “Western.”
In postreform China, the virtual civil sphere is underpinned by the intertwining of the
three different moral codes. The yellow code is rooted in the values of Chinese history and
tradition. It draws on narratives of Chinese historical figures, literature, idioms, philosophy,
religious practices, and folk wisdom to evoke ideals of solidarity underpinned by social order,
harmony, and moral righteousness. Some of its core terms include cultural refinement , moral
virtue , harmony , loyalty , filial reverence , righteousness , reciprocity , martial
virtue , and the great unity 太平/大同/天下.
The opposite, negative pole of this code stigmatizes those who are wild, uncultured, have
no sense of proper conventions, lack in moral virtue, have no sense of loyalty nor of filial duty, no
sense of righteousness or bravery, and no high ideals of civilization; they are petty, selfish, ignorant,
and uncouth. We should note that this is not a monolithic code, and that there can be a certain
tension within different terms and strands of this code. While these values were appropriated by
the ideology of the Chinese imperial state, they were also upheld by local communities guarding
their autonomy, as well as by sworn brotherhoods and millenarian movements, who invoked the
same values against the ruling regime, idealizing alternative outlaw spaces of solidarity or rebel
mobilizations (Ownby 1996). I will discuss this differentiation further below, in the section on
“the yellow code and three spheres of solidarity in late imperial China.”
The blue code traces its roots in China to the early modernizing intellectuals of the New
Culture movement, and has been continually nourished and updated through intellectual
exchanges with the West since the reform period. Its binary codes are similar to those of the
American civil sphere described by Alexander. Key terms within this discourse are freedom 自由,
equality 平等, rationality 理性, autonomy 自主, science 科学, democracy 民主, citizen 公民 and
public 公共.
The choice of colors is an artifact of convenience, although “yellow” evokes, in the Chinese context, the color of
the Yellow Emperor, the mythical ancestor of the Chinese people and founder of Chinese civilization, as well as to
Yellow as the color of the Center, associated with Earth in the Chinese correlative cosmology of the Five Elements
and Four Cardinal Directions. Red is the dominant color in Chinese communist iconography, and is also associated
with Fire. Yellow and Red are the most auspicious colors in Chinese traditional symbolism.
The negative pole of the blue moral code stigmatizes those who lack the autonomy and
rationality of free and enlightened subjects. The “feudal mentality” 封建思 of traditional
hierarchies and political authoritarianism, the “superstition” 迷信 of those who lack modern
education; the petty utilitarianism of those who have no sense of civil consciousness, are among
the polluting qualities that draw the boundaries between the civil and the noncivil in the blue moral
code (Chen & Jin 1997). The blue code is instantiated and transmitted through modern institutions
such as the legal and educational systems, the literary and cultural productions of avant-garde
movements beginning with the New Culture movement, and some NGOs and activist groups.
But many of these institutional and cultural media also convey the red code, even to a greater
extent than the blue code.
The red code, in the postreform era, refers to a set of moral values that take their source
in the narratives associated with China’s revolutionary history. It has its origin in European
Marxism and China’s New Culture movement; it can be said to have grown out of the blue code
in the early 20th century. Thus, it shares some values with the liberal tradition; but it is strongly
inflected by the moral discourses, memories, and nostalgia for China’s nationalist struggle and
Maoist collectivism. Key terms are liberation 解放, service to the people 人民服, sacrifice
, selflessness 无私, egalitarianism 平等, patriotism , and unity 团结.
The negative, stigmatizing pole of the red code targets those associated with oppression,
self-interest, corruption, and generally the “enemies of the People.” The core institutional context
for the elaboration and upholding of the red code is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); it is
diffused through the Party’s propaganda apparatus, through films, TV series, and stories in school
textbooks and study materials. However, the Party does not have complete control over the
interpretation of these values, which also circulate through local and family memories, and are
often invoked in criticism of current social conditions and the corruption of Party leaders (Lee
These three cultural codes are distinct in their origins and genealogies, and can be
associated with different intellectual currents that have jostled for dominance throughout the
modern history of China. At an abstract, conceptual level, one may read them as deeply
contradictory and even incommensurable. But at the level of everyday moral norms and discourses,
and even in many official and intellectual contexts in China, they may be alternatively or
simultaneously invoked. There are points of conflict between them, but also overlaps. For example,
we can draw the following table of civil values, identifying their expression in each moral code:
This table only lists an illustrative set of civil values, and one might also identify other forms of
expression in each moral code. This table illustrates the stark differences and incompatibilities
between the three moral codes, between which strong tensions exist. But it also shows the overlaps
at the level of deep values and ideals, so that it is not unusual to find people mixing the codes, or
unreflexively switching from one to the other at the level of popular discourse. At the performative
level, a single type of act, such as volunteering or petitioning to the authorities, can be
simultaneously framed within all three codes. And at the level of conscious intellectual productions,
one may find tactical correlations between the codes, and even attempts at appropriation and
synthesis. All three codes thus feed into the virtual civil sphere, an amorphous set of ideals of
solidarity, civility, and justice. In official discourse, the Communist Party enshrined a syncretistic
formulation of the three codes, under the sign of the red code, in its “Core Socialist Values” 社会
主义核心价值观 at the 18th Party Congress in 2012: the “national values” of prosperity and
strength 富强, democracy 民主, civility 文明, and harmony 和谐; the “social values” of freedom
自由, equality 平等, justice 公正, and the rule of law 法治; and the “individual values” of
patriotism 爱国, work ethic 敬业, integrity 诚信 and friendliness 友善.
In a three-way dynamic, one may find, in various contexts, the conjunction of two codes
against the third one. For example, for much of the 20th century, the blue and red codes were
aligned against the traditionalism, the feudalism, and the superstition of the yellow code. But at
present, the yellow and red codes increasingly find alignment in a nationalist resistance to the West.
At the same time, however, the blue and yellow codes are aligned in their horror for the destructive
violence and incivility of the Maoist legacy, from which the red code draws many of its symbolic
resources, and in their appreciation for a more gentle, tolerant vision of civility than the absolute
sacrifice and extreme heroism glorified in red narratives.
Thus, none of the three codes is dominant to the exclusion of the others, while they exist
in different states of tension, combination, and permutation. The yellow code has, perhaps,
compared to the other two, the deepest grounding in the Chinese minjian. While the Party is
appropriating and legitimating it, it can never fully control a moral code that is so deeply rooted
among the people, in the same way that it can restrict the diffusion of blue discourses and repress
liberal NGOs and publications. And while the red code does have some degree of resonance
outside of Party organizations, there are few minjian spaces, networks, or organizations to sustain
it outside of official propaganda.
Even if the state controls a significant amount of the cultural production through which
the three codes are disseminated, it cannot control their popular interpretations and appropriations.
The plurality of codes means that no social or political institution can fully control the moral
discourse. The very instability of this plurality entails both the resilience and the fragility of the
virtual civil sphere: each code acts potentially as a corrective to the other two, restricting the uncivil
tendencies of each – the personalism of the yellow code, the individualism of the blue code, and
the collectivism of the red code. All three thus circulate within Chinese society, and provide norms
of civility through which popular discourses can hold state and social actors to account, forming
the basis of a virtual civil sphere.
Genealogies of the Moral Codes
A civil sphere is not an ahistorical social structure, an abstract configuration of social spaces and
institutions – rather, it is the fruit of particular, concrete historical processes. Alexander’s account
of the American civil sphere shows how the sphere of solidarity expanded through a succession
of social movements, successively incorporating people of color, women, Jews, and so on. In any
society, then, civil spheres whether actual or imaginary, macro or micro are the products of
specific trajectories, and their dynamics can only be understood through an account of the
historical unfolding of the relationships among their components. Mapping the contours of an
incipient Chinese civil sphere, then, requires us to unpack and trace the genealogies of the moral
codes that shape the virtual civil sphere, and second, to analyze the micro-social spaces within
which the moral codes are elaborated and transmitted.
The Yellow Code and Three Spheres of Solidarity in Late Imperial China
One might say that there were three types of spheres of social solidarity in late imperial China
(Ming and Qing dynasties, 1363-1911). The first was the cultural sphere of Empire, radiating
outward from the emperor as Son of Heaven, surrounded by the central sphere of civility, of
refined culture and civilization, expanding outwards, towards regions and peoples with decreasing
levels of civility, and increasing levels of wildness or barbarity. A clear binary code existed to
classify peoples according to their relative levels of civility (wen ), understood as cultural
refinement and mastery of Confucian rites and etiquette but the code was not applied with fixed
and changeless boundaries. A person’s or a group’s level of civility was not understood as
congenital or eternal, but susceptible to being increased through an educational process of cultural
transformation (Ping 2002). This imperial sphere of solidarity was expressed through the
Confucian idiom of kinship, extended to the political realm: the core values of filial piety and
family solidarity (xiao ), were emphasized while extended to transcend particularistic loyalties
through loyalty (zhong ) to the emperor. The two values of xiao and zhong were formulated as
analogous and equivalent, just as the relationship between a minister and his subjects was
formulated as being analogous to that between a father and his children (junjun chenchen fufu zizi
君臣臣父父子子) (Guo 2002). By the late imperial era, the institutional hegemony of neo-
Confucian ideology had expanded, penetrating deep into the villages of rural society, where it
provided the basis for the organization of kinship groups into lineages and clans. The imperial,
Confucian sphere of solidarity was hierarchical, and made possible the vertical articulation of local
kin groups into the ritual order of the state (Faure 2007). If there was a transcending of
particularistic solidarity, it was only towards higher-order kinship affiliations and higher levels of
political loyalty, and in a diffuse cultural way: the Confucian idioms suffused the entire society and
became widely shared values.
The second type of sphere of solidarity was a local one, revolving around deity temples.
Deity temples were the arenas in which the diverse components of a locality – different lineages,
streets, villages, or neighborhoods formed alliances that transcended their particularistic
interests, through common worship in rituals and festivals. Temples were built and run by what
could be called representative councils, which included members designated by the different
kinship or corporate groups in the community. In the framework of the collaborations required
for temple construction, upkeep, and management, the temple councils were also the spaces
wherein collective issues were discussed, projects launched, or resources allocated, such as the
allocation of water for irrigation. A temple, thus, was a space in which a solidarity transcending
particularistic interests was negotiated and established at the local level, under the protection of
deities who usually incarnated universal virtues such as compassion, courage, or loyalty (Duara
1988). This type of solidarity, however, was very different from the religious solidarity of a Church:
membership was not defined by a binary code of believers vs. heathens, but by local members vs.
outsiders, the latter being both rivals and partners, with temples in neighboring villages and
communities engaging in competitive temple building, ritual performance, and feuds, but also in
mutual visits, ritual sponsorship, and even higher-level, trans-local ritual alliances (Dean & Zheng
2010). This type of solidarity was both more and less particularistic than Christian religious
solidarity: more so, because it did not entail the construction of a universal religious identity
transcending the locality but less so, because it did not define radical boundaries of exclusion,
accorded little importance to sectarian identity, and was, in its internal and external relationships,
composed of alliances between different interest groups. By calling this sphere “local,I do not
mean that it was bounded by locality; it involved networks of alliances between localities. In these
networks, however, localities are autonomous nodes that constitute the networks.
A third type of solidarity sphere was a horizontal one, made up of translocal networks
organized through the cult of patron saints and deities. These included trade guilds and native-
place associations, which played a crucial role in organizing Chinese communities in Southeast
Asia; pietistic, devotional and pilgrimage associations; salvationist movements and apocalyptic
sects; and sworn brotherhoods. These groups formed complex and entangled networks, linking
localities and regions. They were often banned or suppressed, but also the carriers of utopian
visions of universal solidarity whether the Robin Hood-style ethic of the sworn brotherhoods
and secret societies (“all are brothers between the four seassihaizhinei jie xiongdi 四海之内皆兄
), or the visions of the supreme peace(taiping 太平) of many sects and salvationist movements
(Ownby 1996).
The imperial, local, and horizontal spheres of solidarity were the spaces within which
multiple moral codes were enacted, ranging from the imperial ideology of civilization to the
common peoples’ ideals of righteousness, and forming the basis of what I call the “yellow code
in the contemporary period. They did not postulate a distinction between the religious and the
secular, nor did they erect strong boundaries between communities. As spheres of solidarity, they
were rooted in particularistic ties, but they also structurally incorporated outward ties and/or
translocal or universalistic tendencies. A modern civil sphere would not emerge out of such a
flexible system of interconnected and interpenetrating solidarities. The idea of a civil sphere or its
equivalents would, instead, accompany Western models of modern state-building. It would appear
in the new public sphere of intellectuals educated in modern, Western-style schools and
universities – and who, ultimately, when they became the administrative and political class of the
new state, would use the ideals of the civil sphere to impose the modern state on the people, and
to destroy the traditional axes of solidarity.
A Solidarity Imposed by the State: The Emergence of the Blue and Red Codes
At the twilight of the Qing Empire, at the end of the 19th century, China faced an existential threat
from the Western powers; to some Chinese leaders and reformers, it became evident that the
power of the West came not only from its superior military, but from a higher degree of national
unity. Christian missionaries had already introduced new forms of solidarity built around a
common faith -- an expanding solidarity that reached out to the poor and to orphans, that fought
against footbinding and for the rights of women, that promoted modern education and medicine
but that also drew strict lines against the traditional forms of solidarity networks and cults,
causing rifts and divisions in local communities (Cohen 1963; Kwok 1992).
Many Chinese reformers claimed that, in contrast to the Westerners who had such high
levels of faith and patriotism through the strength of a common identity, the Chinese were, in the
words of Sun Yat-sen, “shifting grains of sand,” subjugated to a barbarian Manchu tribe, unable
to resist Western and Japanese encroachment, with little sense of overarching and transcendental
loyalty (Bergère 1994: 28-30). The result would be a concerted effort by Chinese reformers and
intellectuals, from the late 19th century onwards, to forge a completely different type of solidarity
among the Chinese people. The earliest great reformer, Kang Youwei, launched a project to
transform the first, imperial axis of solidarity into a Confucian Church as the state religion,
replacing an empire of interlocking, hierarchical relations enacted through ritual, into a mass of
Confucian citizens who would listen to sermons on the Classics every Sunday. As Prime Minister
in the One Hundred Days reform of 1898, Kang also strove to destroy the second, local axis of
solidarity by seizing the temples of local cults and transforming them into modern schools, thereby
educating a generation of citizens, whose solidarity would be based on their identification with the
Nation. While the dream of a Confucian Church failed, the old imperial axis of solidarity did
collapse with the Qing empire in 1911, and with fits and starts, the project of creating a new
national body of citizens through a modern education system was ultimately realized by a
succession of republican and socialist regimes (Goossaert 2006). The third, horizontal networks
of solidarity were used by modern activists such as Sun Yat-sen to mobilize support for the
revolution (Schriffin 1970). But, while these groups did play important roles in the civil wars and
charity efforts of the ensuing decades, they were the first organizations to be ruthlessly
exterminated by the new communist regime, in its campaign against reactionary sects and secret
societies” (Goossaert and Palmer 2011).
The modernizing reformers wanted to create a civil sphere a national collectivity of
citizens bound together by universalistic principles and contributing on an equal basis to the
international community of nations. But this civil sphere existed only as a subjective ideal, in the
lively and influential public sphere of modernizing intellectuals. A liberal, moral code of solidarity,
based on universal principles of democracy, science, rationality, citizenship, and public deliberation
the beginning of the “blue code” -- began to take shape in a growing transnational network of
Chinese intellectuals, located in schools, universities, associations, journals, and political parties
(Rowe 1990). But it had little sociological reality outside of these networks. Most of the
associational life of Chinese people of all walks of life, throughout the first half of the 20th century,
still took place in the traditional solidarity spheres, as described above (Poon 2011).
While in Europe and America, it might be possible to claim that citizens created the
modern state or, to be more precise, that inputs from an emerging, relatively autonomous civil
sphere deeply shaped the constitution of the state in China, it would be more accurate to say
that the modern state created its citizens. Modern intellectuals used state-building, through
education, hygiene, and campaigns such as the New Life movement to “civilize” the masses,
eliminate superstition, and impose modern notions of citizenship on the population (Nedostup
2009). The forging of citizenship took place in an often violent struggle against the “yellow code”
and the three types of traditional axes of solidarity. But the destruction of these solidarity networks
hardly led to the construction of a different, secular, and modern space of civil solidarity.
Instead, citizenship came to be defined as the expression of a nationalist struggle. The May
Fourth movement of 1919 that has come to define China's modern identity, was a student
movement opposing China's humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. The solidarity that was
demanded, and that drew on modern, universalistic values, was a solidarity against foreign
aggression -- an aggression that was not an abstract idea, but an increasingly brutal exploitation or
occupation under Western capitalism and Japanese imperialism. Nationalism, fascism, and
Marxism, which went further than liberalism in their advocacy of a strong program of scientization,
rationalization, modernization, and anti-superstition, grew in influence. Increasingly, militarized
Leninist political parties -- Nationalist and Communist -- and not a civil sphere, became the most
effective incarnations of the solidarity of resistance against invasion and occupation. By the 1930s
and 1940s, war with Japan, and civil war between the competing parties, made it impossible for an
autonomous civil sphere to develop. And, with the CCP’s victory, under the mantle of revolution,
the Party, by elaborating the “red code,” claimed a monopoly over the universal values of solidarity.
These were defined in terms of an existential struggle against both the traditional axes of solidarity,
as well as liberal models of civil solidarity, tainted by “capitalist imperialism” (Zhao 2004).
And yet, even a socialist, revolutionary state rests for its legitimacy on certain ideals of civic
solidarity. It cannot reject norms of “democracy” and popular participation”; it appropriates them
into its ideology, propaganda, discourses, and political practices. And so, while civil values may not
have much social reality, they can exist subjectively, and potentially exert a certain power on the
imaginations and actions of social actors.
With the end of the Maoist era and the beginning of reforms and opening up” in 1979, a
diversity of more or less autonomous social spaces started to emerge. Ideological controls were
loosened, and various cultural and intellectual movements came to form, through journals, salons,
and publishing houses, a nascent public sphere. The three moral codes, derived from the historical
trajectories narrated above, jostled in uneasy tension. Western works of philosophy, literature, and
social theory were translated and widely read by intellectuals; a “culture fever” saw an explosion
of individualistic modes of expression (Wang 1996). The “blue code” flourished within this milieu.
Over the course of critical reflections on the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, the “red code”
was openly rejected, made the subject of irony, or simply ignored. In some liberal discourses,
exemplified by the six-part documentary River Elegy that aired on China Central Television in 1988,
the failings of the revolution and of the Party were attributed to the yellow code to the closed-
mindedness, conservatism, and feudal mentality of Confucianism and China’s traditional culture
(Chen and Jin 1997). Meanwhile, however, the yellow code was gaining increasing traction and
legitimacy through multi-faceted revivals of traditional culture, ranging from the restoration of
traditional customs and rituals in rural areas, to the various “fevers” for traditional practices such
as classical studies (guoxue 国学), the Book of Changes (yijing ), Chinese medicine, the martial
arts, qigong, and so on, as well as the mass popularity of kungfu novels and films from Hong Kong,
and historical soap operas on television (Goossaert and Palmer 2011; Palmer 2007). Advocates of
traditional Chinese civilization lamented the destruction of civility and national identity wrought
by the revolution and by excessive admiration for the West. Party propaganda, framed in the red
code, increasingly appeared as an empty rhetorical and ritual shell, drawing little sincere adhesion.
The Tiananmen student movement of 1989 combined the blue code with a turning of the
red code against Party leaders, leading the Party to fear not only “bourgeois liberalization” but also
a repeat of the chaotic political struggles of the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, the red code
nourished a current of nostalgia for an imagined culture of solidarity, simplicity, and honesty
during the Mao era, in contrast to the selfishness, money-worship, and corruption that were
becoming pervasive under the market reforms. The Party risked losing control over its own
collective memory (Barmé 1996).
After the Tiananmen crackdown, throughout the 1990s, the Party renewed and
modernized the red code, under the framework of “constructing socialist spiritual civilization.”
The revolutionary memory was reframed, eliminating references to class struggle, highlighting
instead the “revolutionary spirit” of exemplary heroes of the anti-Japanese wars and revolutionary
eras, promoting their selfless spirit of service to the nation. The recast red code was combined
with promotion of “excellent elements of traditional culture,” as well as with neoliberal notions of
professionalism, rationalism, and civility to create a synthesis of the three moral codes in service
to the Party in its promotion of a modern, harmonious managerial culture (Winiger & Palmer
forthcoming). At the same time, this syncretism legitimized the pluralistic use and circulation of
discourses associated with yellow, blue, and red values, often far from the dogmas of ideological
orthodoxy. Fierce intellectual battles continued between (red) leftists, (blue) liberals and (yellow)
Confucians. The Party tried to maintain a balance between the different currents, blocking the
expression of what it considered to be too radical expressions of any of them, while it was itself
the arena of competing internal currents aiming to shift the ideological balance toward one of the
three codes. Under the rule of President Xi Jinping (from 2012), the space for blue discourses
clearly shrank, with a corresponding expansion of the spaces for the red and yellow discourses.
Microcivil Spheres and the
So far, I have provided a general outline of the three moral codes and their geneaologies at a macro
level, which exists only in a virtual state in the absence of societywide autonomous institutions.
But there are concrete, localized social spaces -- microcivil spheres-- in which civil norms can
provide input into noncivil spheres, including the state, the economy, educational and health
systems, the family, religion, and traditional networks, and so on. These noncivil spheres are all
more or less institutionalized in China, and all enjoy varying degrees of legally protected autonomy.
While they are all under state control, they are also differentiated social spheres governed by their
own norms and rationalities, possessing their specific discourses, within which social actors
exercise a certain degree of autonomy, and have negotiated particular arrangements of
collaboration, freedom, and co-optation with the state.
Furthermore, the explosion of the market economy has opened up a huge space for the
exploration and expression of individual and collective values through consumption, for
developing practices of collaboration in the guise of business, for strengthening and making use
of the legal system, and for public debates on consumer rights that, to some extent, could lead to
civil inputs into the economic and legal spheres (Hooper 2000). All kinds of popular groups and
NGOs appeared (Ma 2006; Spires 2011). And religious communities, networks, and organizations
began to expand and flourish. Most of these groups are small in scale, though often linked in
networks. Since they cannot register with the state, most are relatively informal and exist in the
minjian. Some of them continue traditional forms of organization and transmission, while others
exist primarily in social media and cyberspace. Since most of these groups cannot institutionalize
within a legal framework, this has actually created an invisible and relatively unregulated sphere in
which groups can adopt or develop all kinds of new forms outside a legal framework and
institutional norms.
There are thus numerous spaces of negotiation between actors, within which moral codes
of civility may be deployed and shape norms of interaction. Thus, civil values, structured through
the moral codes, are operative within these micro-social spaces, and they can contribute to civil
repair in other, noncivil spheres. Conversely, the noncivil spheres can shape the discourse and
application of the moral codes – this may in some cases contribute to civil values, while it can also
damage already weak and poorly institutionalized microcivil spheres.
A sociological investigation of microcivil spheres in China would pay attention to the social
spaces, negotiations, and processes through which civil values and norms intrude onto or influence
noncivil spheres in specific, local contexts. In other words, what are the processes, influences,
negotiations, or struggles by which civil values challenge and transform norms and practices in
noncivil realms? And, conversely, how do inputs from noncivil spheres either contribute to, or
damage civil values of solidarity? What are the binary codes that come into play in specific
instances, how are they redefined, and how do they lead to changes at the local level?
To be sure, in China, the state will always loom large, no matter how local the case. But
the state, in such an investigation, needs to be deconstructed as an assemblage of different actors,
programs, techniques, and discourses, often operating at cross-purposes. Sometimes, the state
itself will be the vehicle through which civil values are promoted and implemented. The key is to
identify to what extent civil values are elaborated and negotiated in a social space that may include
parts of the state, but is not co-extensive with it.
In this section, I will take some cases from Chinese popular religion to explore some
aspects of the dynamics of Chinese microcivil spheres that I have discussed above. There are
myriads of religious groups, movements, and networks in China and they are growing and
multiplying. By many accounts, in rural China, but in some suburban spaces as well, it can be
argued that the majority of nonstate social organizations have a folk religious dimension, clan
associations responsible for the worship of ancestors at lineage halls, and temple associations
formed to manage local deity temples (Dean 2001; Tsai 2007). In Chinese villages, temples and
ancestral halls are often the most common forms of nongovernmental association. Formed
ostensibly to manage collective ancestor or deity worship, these associations often initiate or
participate in other activities such as public works, business ventures, and political mobilization.
In the cities, there is also a bewildering array of groups and networks of traditional body cultivation
practices (Farquhar and Zhang 2012; Palmer 2007), Confucian classics groups and private
academies (Billioud & Thoraval 2015), and Buddhist pietistic associations and study groups (Fisher
2014; Yü 2012). They are thus a very big part of the landscape of nongovernmental social
organizations in China. It is in these groups and networks, rather than in intellectual discourses,
that the “yellow code,” with its deep history and roots in popular culture, is disseminated and
That said, folk religious groups only represent one subset of an incredibly diverse array of
social groups, organizations, and networks in China. But popular religion is rarely considered in
studies of civil society (in China or elsewhere). Its organizational dynamics are poorly understood
by sociologists, and it does not fit easily into theories of civil society (Dean 1997; Weller 1999).
Working with cases from popular religion can help to avoid falling into the conventional thinking
about civil society that is easily triggered by discussions of NGOs, social movements, and even
Christian communities.
A Microcivil Sphere around a Temple
In northern Guangdong, where I conducted field research during several trips between 2004 and
2008, religious life remains lively. Though there are many temples in the area, each temple
represents a distinct alliance of villages. The membership base of a temple is fixed, since it is
ascriptive all residents of the alliance villages are automatically members, and non-residents
cannot join. The main activities of each temple are communal jiao rituals, with the largest rituals
-- lasting four days and three nights -- occurring at five-year intervals. Each temple’s rituals are
organized by a committee of senior male representatives of each village that is a member of the
ritual alliance. The ritual alliance consists of around two dozen villages within walking distance of
the temple, sharing a plain connected by river to the market town. Besides the government-
managed primary school and village government office, the temple is the only other public building
in the area and the only self-governed, non-kinship-based local association. In order to cover the
costs of the ritual, the temple committee collects an obligatory cash contribution from each
household in the villages of the ritual alliance, as well as voluntary donations from villagers who
wish to offer more than the obligatory fee. The names of all contributors are meticulously recorded
on rolls that are, during the rites, communicated to the gods by chanting and burning. Voluntary
donors also carry home a framed certificate, bearing verses expressing traditional moral values,
that they proudly display in their homes (Santos 2013). The temple committee is the trustee of
these funds, and posts detailed accounts on the temple walls. The temple is communal property,
built and financed collectively by the resident households of the alliance, and managed by the
senior men of moral stature whom they designate as their representatives, and who carry out their
roles in a volunteer capacity.
The ascriptive members of the alliance are the “citizens” of the god’s domain; the roster
of names, sent to the gods by burning in the ritual, is the act that consecrates their citizenship in
the community (Schipper 2008; Naquin 2000). Their temple committee is the only organization in
which the village representatives gather together, cement their relationships, and, alongside the
organization of rituals, discuss and settle other matters of mutual concern. The temple and its
festivals are a space within which these subgroups jointly manage their affairs through celebrating
and performing the “yellow” moral code (Palmer 2011).
The other dimension of this microcivil sphere is its relationship with the local state, more
specifically, the township government and the county bureau of cultural affairs. The government’s
action is symbolically governed by the red code, although, as mentioned above, ideological
frameworks such as “socialist spiritual civilization” and “the core values of socialism” synthesize
elements from all three moral codes. Folk religious temples, under both the red and blue codes,
fell under the polluting and uncivil label of “feudal superstition” for much of the 20th century,
excluded from the civilizing sphere of both codes. However, by the early 21st century, intellectual,
academic, and official discourses increasingly linked temples with heritage, tradition, culture, and
patriotism, which are positively associated with civility in all three moral codes, and could fit under
socialist spiritual civilization.
In such a context, the temple and the local state could engage in a subtle negotiation to
overlap their respective codes, in order to expand the sphere of civility. The temple and its rituals,
within the local state’s “red” and “blue” discourses, crossed the boundary from uncivil superstition
to civil culture; and it was inscribed as a county-level intangible cultural heritage under UNESCO
norms in 2005. At the same time, individual members of the local government, such as the mayor,
being embedded in local society through kinship and cultural ties, were still under the sway of the
local yellow code. By assisting the temple and its gods, the local state and its leaders could also
enter the “yellow” sphere of civility, defined by virtue, reciprocity, and harmony. A microcivil
sphere thus came into being through the establishment of relationships of civility between the
state and minjian actors, made possible by the overlapping of their respective moral codes.
The State Brings Civility to a Temple
A contrasting case is a study by the sociologist Chen Bin of Hunan Normal University, who studied
Chinese temples in one area of Hunan province, and asked if they can be seen as incipient forms
of civil society in China. Chen Bin came to the startling conclusion that it was the state that turned
these temples into civil society organizations (Chen 2013a; Chen 2013b).
Chen Bin’s study was conducted in the only part of China where the government allows
Chinese popular temples (unaffiliated to either Buddhism or Daoism) to be registered as such with
the government. This area has developed a policy for registering “folk religion places of religious
worship信仰宗教活动场. Here, these temples can be registered with the government,
but on the condition that they “civilize” their management system according to government
regulations. And Chen Bin concludes that these temples did become more “civil” as a result of
this new management system. It was thanks to government interference that they became civil
society organizations.
According to Chen’s survey of temples in the area, prior to state registration, most temples
were managed by one of four types of groups: clan associations, so-called “old people's
associations,” “village bullies,” or private businesses. None of these types of groups are “civil,”
because they manage the temple for their own private interests, rather than for the benefit of a
broader community. One temple he studied, for example, was jointly managed by eight clans: at
first glance, such a structure resembles the traditional civil sphere described by some historians
and anthropologists, in which the eight clans have their particular kinship loyalties and interests,
but through jointly organizing a temple and holding its festivals, they can discuss their common
affairs and manage common issues, as discussed above – forming the “cultural nexus of power”
described by Prasenjit Duara (1988) in his study of rural North China in the 1930s. But in this
particular case studied by Chen, the temple is now seen primarily as a source of income, and the
heads of the eight clans split the profits of the temple among themselves, for their private use. The
clan heads constantly fight among each other to get a bigger piece of the pie. So, according to
Chen, there was no civility, only fighting over money. Temples are profitable through income from
donations and the sale of incense. “Village bullies” thus take control of some of these temples in
order to keep the income stream. As for the “old age associations,” they are also cliques that
control temples for their own benefit.
When these temples were registered with the local religious affairs bureau, the government
changed the structure and tried to remove them from the control of these “private” groups, instead
establishing a “democratic management committee,” elected in a manner similar to the governing
boards of officially registered Buddhist and Daoist temples, i.e. through an election in which the
slate of candidates has been pre-selected among the local religious community by the local Bureau
of Religious Affairs. The temple, then, is required to spend its surplus on charitable and social
service activities, and to publicize its accounts in a transparent fashion. As a result of these changes,
the temples began to conduct more public works for the broader community, and to become more
transparent in their governance. And so, Chen came to the conclusion that state management
caused these temples to become more “civil” in their relationship with society, and helped them
to become “incipient” civil society organizations. It was intrusion by the state that led to the
adoption of civil norms by the temples. This case illustrates how the minjian is not a civil sphere
by default: minjian networks can be highly particularistic and go against the direction of an
expanding sphere of solidarity. In this case, the local state had decided that temples were no longer
under the polluting category of feudal superstition and could potentially express civil values, but that
it needed to intervene in a coercive fashion to turn the temples into more expansive spheres
of solidarity.
Breakdown of the Civil Sphere
Chinese civil spheres are virtual spaces built in the zones of ambiguity between overlapping moral
codes. As such, they are inherently unstable and prone to breakdown. In these situations, rather
than strategically deploying and performing their moral codes to establish overlaps and work
creatively with ambiguities, the state and the minjian each assert the purity of a single moral code,
polluting and stigmatizing the other.
A paradigmatic example is the case of Falun Gong. This movement emerged out of the
nebula of thousands of qigong exercise groups that flourished in the post-Mao period (Palmer
2007). The qigong movement can be seen as one of the largest civil spheres to emerge in China in
the 1980s and 90s, according to the conception proposed in this article. On the one hand, the
movement found its expression in hundreds of thousands of volunteer-organized local spaces at
the grassroots, where people congregated to practice qigong exercises in parks. These spaces were
linked through networks and organizations devoted to the dissemination of specific exercises.
Based on traditional Chinese cosmology, qigong was an important vector for the dissemination of
the “yellow” code in post-Mao China; but qigong discourses were highly syncretistic, incorporating
elements of the blue and red codes, allowing for many overlaps with the Party’s “spiritual
civilization” framework (Winiger & Palmer forthcoming). Instead of being stigmatized as ignorant
feudal superstition, qigong was branded as contributing to civility through better health, scientific
development, and the rejuvenation of national tradition. By negotiating the ambiguities and
overlaps of their different codes, the state and the minjian qigong groups were able to open an
expanding civil sphere. Lively debates in the press, within the qigong milieu, and within state
agencies, grappled with how the more “uncivil” aspects of qigong could be transformed, evoking
all three of the moral codes. According to the blue code, how could scientific standards, rationality,
and transparency replace cultic relationships between masters and followers? In the yellow code,
how could qigong bring about a renewal of Chinese tradition, while ensuring that masters and
practices adhere to higher standards of virtue rather than instrumental gains? Following the red
code, how could qigong build on the achievements of the revolution by bringing free health and
vitality to the masses, or even help to advance China on its march to socialism?
Falun Gong, however, as one of the myriad of qigong groups, broke out of this civil sphere
within a few years of its founding in 1992. The speeches and publications of its master, Li Hongzhi,
became increasingly Manichean, structuring his teachings within an apocalyptic binary structure
that divided the “good” Great Dharma of Falun Gong and the “evil” world of moral corruption,
allowing no spaces of ambiguity between the two. When polemicists in the press deployed the blue
code to stigmatize the “superstition” and “irrationality” of Falun Gong, practitioners staged over
twenty sit-ins at newspaper offices and TV stations in 1998 and 1999, demanding apologies and
retractions. The space for civil debate collapsed. As the number of practitioners grew rapidly to
reach the tens of millions, Falun Gong organized mass performances and human displays of its
reverse swastika and of the Chinese characters for its three core values, derived from the yellow
code, of “truthfulness, goodness, and forbearance” 真善忍, challenging the Party’s ritual and
symbolic hegemony over public space. After 10,000 practitioners staged a collective meditative
demonstration at Zhongnanhai, the nerve center of the Communist Party leadership, on April 25,
1999, the state ordered a brutal repression of Falun Gong as an “anti-social,” “anti-human” “evil
cult” (Ownby 2008; Tong 2009).
From then on, and until today, both the state and Falun Gong have enacted an existential
moral conflict, mobilizing the symbolism of their moral codes against each other. Falun Gong, in
its Chinese communications, reaches deep into the millenarian and demonological strands of the
yellow code, castigating the CCP as the “evil Party” 邪党, fated to be “exterminated by Heavenly
decree” 中共, and warning Chinese people to “quit the Party to protect your life” 退党保命,
implying heavenly retribution for those who don’t. At the same time, overseas, Falun Gong
mobilized the blue code of human rights and dignity against China, polluting its image in world
opinion as committing genocide.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Party-state mobilizes the full force of all three codes against Falun
Gong. In the red code, it has used the Party’s framework of the “two types of contradictions”
(Mao 1957) to designate Falun Gong as an “enemy of the people” and as part of the “hostile
foreign forces” that must be mercilessly exterminated. From the yellow code, against its
charismatic master, esoteric teachings, and apocalyptic doctrines, it evokes the specter of sectarian
rebellions and triad-like secret societies that have dotted Chinese history, which have left in their
wake social chaos and bloodshed. This also feeds into the blue code’s fear of a reversal into the
backwardness and obscurantism of the dark sides of Chinese history.
In the Falun Gong case, we see a shift from a civil sphere in the qigong movement formed
through the overlapping, syncretistic, and ambiguous usage of the three moral codes by both state
and minjian actors, to the crystallization of the symmetrical deployment of binary dichotomies by
the Party and Falun Gong against each other, with each playing the role of the evil Other and
existential enemy in their respective binary schemes.
While I have used examples from folk religion to describe the dynamics of Chinese civil spheres,
I would argue that the same patterns can be found with other types of groups, whether NGOs,
literary and cultural movements, trade unions, and so on. What they show is that moral codes can
shape “virtual civil spheres” that come into being when state and minjian actors engage with each
other, creatively deploying the ambiguities and overlaps between the codes to establish expanding
spaces of civility and solidarity, and bringing civil norms to bear in the internal dynamics of minjian
groups and state institutions. But these spaces, which come into being primarily in local,
“microcivil spheres, are evanescent, and subject to imminent collapse. They have little
institutional protection. They are dependent on the direct and personalized negotiations and moral
discourses and performances of the actors – so that even a large, nationwide movement (such as
the qigong movement, protestant Christianity, or the environmental movement), should be seen as
a network of interconnected microcivil spheres, some of which exist at the level of state leaders
and national organizations, others at the grassroots level, and others in between. Each microcivil
sphere has its own localized dynamics; each risks collapsing at any moment given the particularities
of its specific actors, or to shifting political winds.
Due to limitations of space, and the fact that I draw on research that was not originally
based on the CST framework, this chapter can only propose a basic outline of some of the issues
at stake in bringing China into dialogue with Civil Sphere Theory. I have drawn attention to the
importance of considering the genealogy of the seemingly incommensurable strands of moral
discourse and social solidarity that constitute Chinese society today. How are expanding spheres
of solidarity formed in today’s People’s Republic, in which liberal democratic norms of civility are
only one strand of one of three moral codes that shape social life? How are the three moral codes,
derived from Chinese tradition, Western modernity, and revolutionary heritage, creatively
deployed and performed by popular and state actors to establish spheres of expanding civility?
What factors contribute to the strengthening or to the collapse of such civil spheres? Only further
empirical research on the moral codes, actors, negotiations, and symbolic performances in specific
local contexts will provide clearer answers to these questions.
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... 14 There is great emphasis and even a fever, in schools, communities, and tourist sites, for learning national traditions (guoxue), including classical Chinese literature, medicine, martial arts, qigong, and other ancient ways. 15 For instance, I repeatedly observed Chinese tourists patiently watching long videos on pottery making or basket weaving, and water calligraphy has become a popular art among older people in public parks. 16 This other side of the narrative boasts China's four great inventions (paper, printing, gunpowder, and compass) and claims various achievements such as the domestication of dogs and the invention of football and golf. ...
Chapter 4 explores the multifaceted narratives regarding China and the West. On the one hand, participants evoked the century of humiliations and continued fears of being attacked. On the other hand, they expressed pride in China’s achievements and hopes in a promised trajectory to restore the country. They longed for the recognition of China as a modern civilised country and viewed economic development and public safety as constituting moral progress.
... Thus, while individualistic utilitarianism and familism may be at odds in other spheres of life, in this case they both question volunteering from a utilitarian standpoint, whether the goal of utility is the individual or the family. For broader discussions on three moral codes in China, seeOxfeld 2010 andPalmer 2019. ...
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This article explores the angst of deeply committed volunteers in China, engaging with anthropological debates on ethics under conditions of ‘moral breakdown.’ Under market socialism, sacrificial volunteering is both ideologically glorified and socially deviant, placing volunteers at the point of dissonance between conflicting moral discourses. Interrogating the monolithic governmentality perspective that informs most anthropological studies of volunteering, we highlight the ‘fractured governmentality’ that prevails in contemporary China, where contradictory modes of ethical subjectivation structurally generate moral breakdown. Volunteers are caught between the moral imperatives of altruistic sacrifice derived from China’s socialist revolutionary tradition, and ‘neo-liberal’ utilitarianism derived from market rationality. Unable to articulate their commitment in reference to either moral code, they are at a loss of words, and produce an ethics of emotional authenticity that resists incorporation into any discursive ethical system. Instead of public engagement, volunteering becomes a private, misunderstood and unspoken personal choice, an emotional act or a concealed ‘faith’ that warrants no ethical justification. Undermining the dichotomy between the inertia of moral habitus and the reflexive ethics of creative agency that structures much of the anthropological theorization of moralities, the Chinese volunteers point to what we call an embodied ethics of the heart.
... Thus, while individualistic utilitarianism and familism may be at odds in other spheres of life, in this case they both question volunteering from a utilitarian standpoint, whether the goal of utility is the individual or the family. For broader discussions on three moral codes in China, seeOxfeld 2010 andPalmer 2019. ...
Full-text available
Digital surveillance is a daily and all-encompassing reality of life in China. This book explores how Chinese citizens make sense of digital surveillance and live with it. It investigates their imaginaries about surveillance and privacy from within the Chinese socio-political system. Based on in-depth qualitative research interviews, detailed diary notes, and extensive documentation, Ariane Ollier-Malaterre attempts to ‘de-Westernise’ the internet and surveillance literature. She shows how the research participants weave a cohesive system of anguishing narratives on China’s moral shortcomings and redeeming narratives on the government and technology as civilising forces. Although many participants cast digital surveillance as indispensable in China, their misgivings, objections, and the mental tactics they employ to dissociate themselves from surveillance convey the mental and emotional weight associated with such surveillance exposure. The book is intended for academics and students in internet, surveillance, and Chinese studies, and those working on China in disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, social psychology, psychology, communication, computer sciences, contemporary history, and political sciences. The lay public interested in the implications of technology in daily life or in contemporary China will find it accessible as it synthesises the work of sinologists and offers many interview excerpts.
Scholarship on Chinese civil society suffers from a weak theorization of the concept, in which civil society is generally defined as NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that exists in the third sector. This article examines the dimension between state and society known as ‘civil sphere’, a concept that is broader and more mysterious than the conventional notion of ‘civil society’. Civil sphere can be understood as a discursive structure that defines what is civil and what is uncivil in a society. Taking the Chinese intellectual debate between the New Lefts and the Liberals as an example, this article shows that in a society that is rapidly changing, the existence of such a public sphere represents a vital source of individual freedom. Even though the civil sphere in China has been contracting lately, there are still intellectual debates on fundamental ideological issues that merit academic attention.
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It has been argued that social thought is Western-centric or Euro-centric. This essay argues that there are alternatives that have been put forward from the Global South, though they have been overlooked. Examples can be found in the different schools of thought about development that have emerged in India and China. Non-Western social thought in these two countries borrows from – but also departs from – that in the West, and includes versions of socialism, liberalism, and conservatism. These schools of thought also blur, as do Western ones, academic theories, political ideologies, and models of societal development. This essay will briefly present these schools, but the aim is not to detail them but rather to spell out their implications. These implications include that they do not map easily onto the Western left-right divide. Further, these schools illuminate how forms of inclusion and exclusion have been shaped by the state’s responses to distinctive pressures “from below.” In the conclusion, the essay discusses how these schools offer models for other parts of the Global South and hold a mirror up to the West.
In twentieth-century Mexico, violence remained under control for more than seventy years thanks to solid, symbolic patrimonial and institutional camps built into an authoritarian structure that guaranteed the fulfillment of social demands through a paternalistic state that organized the society into a corporate and clientelist system suppressing civil liberties. Nevertheless, toward the end of the twentieth century, violence escalated in the country, instantiated in an indigenous revolt and the assassination of two prominent politicians. This chapter presents the analytical framework that allows us to understand the structure of the civil and patrimonial camps, their modulation of the utilitarian or normative nature of violence, and how the camps impute the causes, motives, relations, and institutions of violence.KeywordsCivil spherePatrimonial sphereBoundary relationsSemantic of violence
Digital technologies have changed the public arena, but there is little scholarly consensus about how they have done so. This Element lays out a new framework for the digitally mediated public arena by identifying structural changes and continuities with the pre-digital era. It examines three country cases – the United States, Germany, and China. In these countries and elsewhere, the emergence of new infrastructures such as search engines and social media platforms increasingly mediate and govern the visibility and reach of information, and thus reconfigure the transmission belt between citizens and political elites. This shift requires a rethinking of the workings and dysfunctions of the contemporary public arena and ways to improve it.
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The essay reviews the trajectories of cultural sociology in three East Asian societies, namely Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea, which show interesting parallels and distinctive developments within their respective social and historical contexts. Sociologists in these societies in general, and cultural sociologists in particular, have endeavored to reflect on the cultural ramifications of the social and political changes wrought by the processes of modernization, (de-)colonization and democratization. By building on the efforts of their predecessors and taking inspiration from new theoretical ideas from the West, cultural sociologists in these Asian societies have blazed a long trail beyond the conventional approach of the sociology of culture. By seriously considering the analytic autonomy of culture, their works have sought to wrestle with the issues of meaning, identity, morality, trust, everyday life, collective consciousness, community and resistance under the increasing influences of state power, markets and global hegemony.
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The year 2008, marked by mass volunteer mobilization after the Sichuan Earthquake and during the Beijing Olympics, is hailed in official discourse as "Year One" of volunteering in China, when volunteering became integrated into mainstream Chinese culture and society and began to enjoy high-level official support and recognition. Since then, the Communist Party Youth League, the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the Office of Spiritual Civilization and other state agencies have rolled out several programmes at the local, regional and national levels to recruit and mobilize volunteers for a wide range of forms of social service. In fact, the irruption of volunteering into the public sphere in 2008 was not as sudden as it appeared. A Party-state organizational and propaganda infrastructure of popular mobilization, inherited from the Mao era, had continued to function, albeit in low gear, throughout the three decades following the Cultural Revolution, transforming its discourses and practices to adopt models of volunteerism introduced from Hong Kong and the West, featuring depoliticized, individualized and market service approaches. After 2008, the Party-State's volunteering infrastructure was ramped up, and it was re-politicised at two levels: at a symbolic level, the filiation with the Party's revolutionary heritage became increasingly explicit in volunteering propaganda, and at an organizational level, the purpose of volunteer mobilization became explicitly oriented to counter the rise of independent NGOs and civil society organizations, creating an infrastructure to enable the Party to channel and control popular energies to serve society within its own parameters. This article traces the evolution of state-sponsored volunteer practices, discourses and organizational forms from the Mao era until today, paying attention to the shifting representations of the revolutionary hero and model volunteer, Lei Feng. We conclude that state-led volunteering in contemporary China paradoxically redeploys discursive and organizational legacies of revolutionary mobilization to attain the opposite goal of demobilization or de-politicization, channeling popular altruism and energies into forms of social service that reinforce market-driven governance and Party-led nation-building.