Until 2013, flexible governance was fundamental to the bargaining authoritarian regime established in China after the Maoist era. But that flexibility has started to diminish. This article documents how the central government now institutionalizes acceptable activities while ferociously repressing unacceptable ones, for both local governments and social actors, in order to directly regulate them. Based on ethnographic observation and interviews, the author illustrates this change with a case study of xinfang, or the municipal efforts to maintain stability by receiving citizen complaints and coordinating for their solutions. Specifically, the author shows how both local officials and petitioners are institutionalized and repressed in different scenarios. This case demonstrates a move towards “rule by law”, i.e., the law as a routine institutional structure and formal tool for the regime. Theoretically, it draws together central-local relations and state-society relations in an authoritarian regime and addresses the institutional and non-contentious elements of stability maintenance, which are largely neglected in previous works on authoritarian resilience.



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