The Government Next Door: Neighborhood Politics in Urban China (2015) addresses the translation of hegemonic discourses

A blurb at the Toronto Public Library website for The Government Next Door: Neighborhood Politics in Urban China (2015) by Luigi Tomba notes that, “At times of conflict and in daily interactions, the penetration of the state discourse about social stability becomes clear.”

China’s political and social change

In The Government Next Door (2015) Luigi Tomba, addresses how stories are shaped conversations are directed.

A political scientist with an interest in China’s political and social change, Tomba highlights how stories are shaped in newly constructed urban settings in China.

Mainstream portrait of Chinese middle class

In his acknowledgement to the book, Tomba notes that he first went to China twenty-six years ago. In his introduction he describes his first interview for The Government Next Door (2015), which took place in Beijing in 2002 with a young couple in a “relatively fancy new neighbourhood.” After conversations with local residents, the author arrives at two observations.

First, he notes that most of the young people he encountered in the new “gated” communities of Beijing, did not fit the image of wealthy entrepreneurs that characterize portraits of the Chinese middle class often presented by international media.

“Rather,” he observes (p. 2), “they seemed to be, in large part, professionals and public employees whose housing careers often owed much to their position ‘within the system’ (tizhi nei) of public employment. This, in turn, drove me to ask the question of what role housing privatization and subsidization policies have played in determining upward social mobility and, as a consequence, to investigate the active role of the state in the production of wealth and status.”

Unexpected narratives

Tomba’s second initial observation concerns “unexpected narratives” which are used to frame both grievances and newfound status:

“Morality, nation building, patriotism, human quality (suzhi), and contribution to modernization seemed more significant ‘frames’ for their grievances than the search for societal autonomy generally associated with the emergence of a civil society. This focus and the language used to express it were also strikingly consistent with the government’s rhetoric of build­ing ‘harmonious neighborhoods’ (hexie shequ), an expression used profusely in public media and narratives to describe a dreamlike world of neighborly efficiency. This moral view of the neighborhood dominated my neighbors’ stories in spite of an endless stream of not-in-my-backyard conflicts that characterized almost all communities in the first decade of this century.”

Not a metaphor of state-society relations

Tomba adds (pp. 3-4):

“In this book, I am interested in everyday practices of power in the neigh­borhood. I find Chinese neighborhoods in the early twenty-first century to be a significant arena for the simultaneous analysis of a multiplicity of social and political relations. I do not intend to fall in the trap of elevating neighborhoods to a metaphor of state-society relations or to portray them as a miniature version of China’s political reality. While they are not a mi­crocosm of Chinese society, the social and spatial landscapes of residential areas contain and reproduce specific power relations, define discrete spatial patterns crucial to the classification of society, determine and recast iden­tities, produce networks, define the limits of new economic interests, and foster or contain conflicts. As such, they are an incubator of political pro­cesses that have significant implications for our understanding of Chinese politics, both local and national.”

Commonalities between global neoliberalism and the high socialist period and earlier

It can be argued that neoliberalism – sometimes also spelled as neo-liberalism – penetrates local discourse worldwide. The role of the market in determining perceptions and decisions at the local level is a topic of interest to many people.

I was intrigued, given my interest in the history of neoliberalism, to encounter the following observation in Chapter 2 (p. 64), which is entitled “Micro-Governing the Urban Crisis”:

“This chapter narrates a discursive and practical continuity in the forms of government experienced by weaker social groups in society. Despite the emergence of a dominant logic of the market and open attempts to cre­ate subjectivities that fit the bill of modern, flexible, self-responsible, and consuming citizens, the socialist state has not completely abandoned the forms of pastoral rule that characterized it in the years after 1949. The attention devoted in recent years to the similarities between the Chinese strategy for governing its market transition and the neoliberal ideals of self-responsibilization, self-discipline, and calculability has often blinded us to the fact that such strategies also existed in the high socialist period and earlier. They now stem from an ideology that, while compatible with the demands of the market, also allows for a reproduction of the state and of its interests.”

Contention and accommodation

The Conclusion, which is subtitled “Arenas of Contention and Accommodation,” ends with the following observation (pp. 181-182):

“I also found enough to convince me that it is not only the monopoly of the political ideology that makes China’s elite resilient. The appeal of such ideology is in its promotion of social ideals of population improvement, national pride, cultural distinction, self-cultivation, and exemplarity, together with the promotion of a role for the government as the main agent of social re­form and the main protector of social order. My findings suggest that there are ways in which by associating themselves with such principles and the practices they produce, the state and its agents gain in legitimacy. In such a situation, the practices and framing arguments of my neighbors, those of striking workers, or those of villagers protecting their land, or those of anyone else involved in social conflicts can reveal the penetration of social ideologies and their capacity to increase or weaken the grip of the Chinese regime.”

Additional overviews

Additional recent texts addressing related themes are available through the Toronto Public Library including by way of example:

A Sociology of Modern China: Revised and Updated English Edition (2015)

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (2014)

Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (2013)

Eating bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China’s Great Urban Migration (2012)

A Jan. 22, 2015 Guardian article is entitled: “I want you to understand the sense of fear that Chinese people feel every day.”‘

A Feb. 3, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Activist who vanished in Thailand is being held in China, says wife: Journalist Li Xin’s disappearance is latest case in which critics of China’s Communist leaders have gone missing in Thailand.”

A Feb. 19, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: ” ‘The Most Wanted Man in China’ and ‘The Cowshed.’ ”

The following post adds background to the discussion:

Voter anger explained – in one chart – March 15, 2016 Brookings Institution article


An April 28, 2016 Walrus article is entitled: “Neighbourhood Watch: How social networks lead to racial profiling. Welcome to Canada’s new virtual gated communities.”

Also of interest: One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment (2016).

A June 2016 Atlantic article is entitled: The Destructive Legacy of Housing Segregation: Less visible than the rise of income inequality in America is its impact in shaping the country’s urban neighborhoods. Two books – by Matthew Desmond and Mitchell Duneier – could help change that.”

A June 2016 Atlantic article is entitled: “China’s Twilight Years: The country’s population is aging and shrinking. That means big consequences for its economy – and America’s global standing.”

A June 15, 2016 Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy article is entitled: “China issues demolition order on world’s largest religious town in Tibet.”

A June 24, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Beijing has fallen: China’s capital sinking by 11cm a year, satellite study warns.”

A Nov. 7, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Hong Kong pro-democracy politicians banned by China as crisis grows: Beijing makes landmark ruling on future of former British colony, barring two pro-democracy parliamentarians from office.”

A Nov. 12, 2016 Globe and Mail article by Doug Saunders, entitled “Whitewashed,” features an American interview subject  who lives in a gated community: “Although her neighbourhood, which is gated and predominantly white, does not see much crime, her family had armed up, accumulating more firearms to protect itself.”

A Dec. 25, 2016 Globe and Mail article is entitled: “TIBET: Behind the looking glass.”

A May 26, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “‘Most Orwellian winner yet’: The Invention of Russia takes Orwell prize: Arkady Ostrovsky’s The Invention of Russia, an account of media manipulation and of language in modern Russia, wins UK’s top award for political writing.”

Two studies that provide backstories related to the topics at hand include:

The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time2nd Beacon Paperback Ed. (2001; originally published 1944)

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (1999)

A Best of 2016 Longreads article, which refers to the concept of “gated communities” in the context of warfare, is entitled: “Theorizing the Drone: What does the rise of the drone mean for justice, for the ethics of heroism, for psychology? Most important of all, who is dying and why?”

A July 21, 2017 Jamestown Foundation article is entitled: “Beijing Harnesses Big Data & AI to Perfect the Police State.”


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