A central development goal for China’s current leadership is to provide
xiaokang (literally “small comfort”) for the citizenry. Xiaokang, which translates roughly as “being well off,” is a historical concept with roots in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). The concept has been revived as a modern development goal by leading members of the Chinese Communist
Party, including former president Jiang Zemin. Many urban residents in China’s highly developed eastern regions have already achieved such a standard. But the distribution of social and economic benefits from development has been highly uneven. China’s vast interior, with less developed markets and comparatively little access to foreign capital, is falling further behind (Wang and Hu 1999). Inequality between individuals, communities, and regions is on the rise and constitutes one of the most persistent social problems in reform-era China (Riskin and Khan 2005).
What is the role of the socialist Chinese state in this analysis? The past three decades have witnessed the “retreat” of the state from many of its duties of the socialist period, including setting commodity prices, directing industrial production, controlling the flow of labor migration, and distributing the proceeds of development. These and other key tasks are now firmly in the purview of the market rather than the state (Oi 1999). But the Chinese Communist Party still holds exclusive political control and is still responsible for formulating basic development strategies for the nation. To this extent, the Chinese government has staked its legitimacy on realizing effective economic development. It is in the paradoxical position of promoting liberal economic reforms, which most Chinese felicitously call “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and simultaneously working to retain its singular grip on political power. Reform and Opening has also ushered in a new era of integration into global economics and politics, both in terms of direct investment and in terms of bilateral and multilateral involvement in development projects in China.
Representation of Different Types of Development Projects
Our coverage of different types of development projects in contemporary China includes analysis of two cases of international interventions conducted by multilateral development agencies and two examples of domestic projects of various scales. One of the international case studies involves The World
Bank initiative to introduce the practice of social assessment to China, while the other involves the United Nations Development Program and an evaluation of a demonstration energy project. Social assessment is done before project implementation, whereas evaluation is done during project implementation and after project completion. Both tasks increasingly involve anthropologists, whose cultural knowledge and ethnographic training is well suited to development work. In fact, Western-trained anthropologists have long been a part of the development enterprise in China; the imminent Fei Xiaotong, who studied under Malinowski, conducted fieldwork and made policy recommendations on rural development beginning in the 1930s (Wang and Young 2006).
The two domestic projects involve large-scale infusion of capital into an economically marginal area, peasant adaptations to the loss of rural industry, and self-directed efforts of a rural community to link to the larger market economy. The topical scope of these four studies represents the major development strategies and initiatives in contemporary China, including transportation infrastructure, renewable energy, pollution control, and cash cropping agriculture. Emergent Themes in the Context of Development in China.
All authors in this special issue show in various ways how the role of the researcher is restricted in China by cultural and political factors. The obstacles and barriers they faced range from an inability to define their scope of work, to constant and close supervision by officials, restrictions on research sampling, and pre-approval of research protocols and interview questions by government officials. Researchers are forced to navigate multiple levels of government bureaucracy and to give face to public officials along the way as a precondition to receiving research permission. Foreign researchers working on foreign-funded projects face particular challenges, both because their motivations are suspect and because their research protocols are culturally embedded and often do not represent neutral best practice in a cross-cultural setting. Certain types of development projects and protocols may be seen as an imposition from the West, leading to a clash of cultural values.
The authors in this special issue also observed a significant social and political gap between peasants in the countryside and the urban bureaucracy. This gap is manifest both as a lack of understanding of peasant concerns and an exclusion of peasants from discussions and decisions that affect their lives.
Holyoak’s treatment of community development in a Manchu village, for example, suggests that development from below is often motivated by village traditions and kinship relations, while development from above is motivated by accumulation of financial capital. This disjuncture between the values of the center and the periphery is a recurring theme in much of Chinese political history and one that takes on new significance in the context of contemporary development. Various forms of resistance inevitably arise as peasants try to prevent losing control over their lives and as the objectives of regional governments occasionally clash with the neo-liberal development agenda espoused by China’s central government and many multilateral development agencies.