Tai-lok Lui (2005) Middle-class politics in contemporary China

The middle class in China’s major cities — which is often expected to be a social force to bring about democratization and an open society — is likely to be a source of disappointment to the optimists, at least in the near term. My interviews with professionals, managers, and administrators in Shanghai reveal that they are low-profile liberals, if not conservatives. True, they are well aware of rising  social  inequalities,  regional  imbalances,  corruption,  and  other  social problems. They understand that the political environment is far from satisfactory and they would like a more responsive and accountable government. Yet,they will not push for democratization; in fact, it is not even high on their list of priorities of future changes. They prefer gradual reform, meaning a slow process of the loosening of existing authoritarian governance. Their conservatism is, in a way, understandable. Their interests are firmly rooted in the existing economic structure and they are eager to preserve what they have earned in recent years. Although many of those I interviewed were uneasy about the glaring gap between the rich and the poor, and express their concern about the welfare of the needy, on the whole they feel they deserve the level and the kind of material rewards they have attained.

Attempts to quicken the pace of liberalization and democratization in China will almost certainly scare the middle class away from politics. In fact, it is often when confronted by the authoritarian state that the middle class takes a pro-liberalization stance. Thus, middle-class politics (more appropriately, a kind of nascent middle-class politics) is two-faced. On the one side, it is a soft challenge to the Chinese authoritarian state. It will be a social force to promote liberalization and during such a process of liberalization we may see the emergence of civic and pressure groups that will loosen the existing top-down authoritarian control in many aspects of social life in China. On the other side, as noted above, the middle class is more conservative when it comes to concrete state policies and the direction of future economic and political reform. Middle-class politics as such does not guarantee the fostering of the kind of democratization that will truly empower those who are suffering in the course of the capitalization of the Chinese economy, namely, workers and peasants. Nor will middle-class politics necessarily include the interests of the poor in their political platform and re-form agenda. Middle-class politics, unless re-articulated to more radical ideology brought about by dramatic changes in the structural setting at a critical conjuncture, is primarily about the interests of the middle class.

The rise of the middle class and the gradual emergence of middle-class politics in China are no substitute for agitation and resistance from below. Paradoxically, what is absent in contemporary Chinese politics is a true representation of the interests of the oppressed in the existing political structure.

Tai-lok Lui (2005) Bringing class back in, Critical Asian Studies, 37(3): 473-480

Catherine Locke, Nguyễn Thị Ngân Hoa and Nguyễn Thị Thanh Tâm (2012) The plights of low-income migrants: family, marriage, children upbringing

'Low-income migrants acknowledge that spousal separation impinges on marital affection and conjugal intimacy but have to put their anxieties aside in the face of needing to secure their families’ economies. Mai says “We are rural people, what can I say about love? . . . We did not think about love or our emotions.”'

Catherine Locke, Nguyễn Thị Ngân Hoa and Nguyễn Thị Thanh Tâm (2012) Struggling to Sustain Marriages and Build Families Mobile Husbands/Wives and Mothers/Fathers in Hà Nội and Hồ Chí Minh City,  Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 7(4): 63-91

Nguyen Thi Nguyet Minh (2012) Migrant domestic workers in Hanoi

'... the rural-urban differentiation has been increasing and the movement of rural migrants into domestic service and their experiences at work are part of this process. The rural domestic workers migrated as a result of the rural-urban disparity within Vietnam. In the course of migration, they were again confronted with a hierarchical order in the urban labor market, being channelled into its lower-end sectors with demeaning occupations like domestic work. Working in the intimate home sphere of urban families, the domestic workers experienced intensely this rural-urban hierarchy to an even greater degree. It was there that their rural personhood was consumed, scrutinized, supervised, and looked down on at the same time. It was there that they were relegated to their proper place and expected to serve. The social relations within domestic service in Vietnam thus represent a major shift from the ideology of an equal and classless society of the state socialist period, which the country still pursues in theory.

The migratory experiences of the domestic workers showed contradictions. As migrants, they aspired to improve their life or the life chances of their children by migrating to the city. Yet they were confronted with a pronounced hierarchy in the urban workplace, which reinforced their marginalized status. Young migrant domestic workers might wish to escape from the restrictions of village life, yet were even more highly controlled in the city. It was indeed a case of thwarted aspirations. On the other hand, in order to be able to provide for their family, many domestic workers had to leave it; to be able to bring their children up, they were supposed to devote themselves to the care of other people’s children. They were not in a position to “both live with (their) family and support it.” In the words of Mary Romero, they are “restricted to the most basic ‘mothering’ agenda of sending money home to house, feed and clothe their children” while helping urban families give their children better nurturing. This arguably “determines child-rearing and socialization while reproducing class differences,” further accentuating the existing rural-urban gap.'

Nguyen Thi Nguyet Minh (2012) '“Doing Ô Sin” Rural Migrants Negotiating Domestic Work in Hà Nội', Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 7(4): 32-62.

Jacqui Baker & Sarah Milne (2015) Southeast Asian dirty money states

Illicit revenues have not been part of the normative story of state formation. Rather, illegal practices and monies have been framed under the banner of “corruption:” an aberrant, irrelevant and dysfunctional side economy to official narratives of statehood. Yet, as the articles in this thematic issue show, to dismiss corruption and criminal activity as outside of the realms of state activity is to exclude an important dimension of state formation in contemporary Southeast Asia. The sums generated by these illicit economies are considerable, and parts of the state are heavily dependent upon them for everything from everyday state work, to the extension of sovereignty and the shoring up political stability. Little wonder then that these states exert enormous effort in the capture, control, and organization of dirty monies. The empirical evidence therefore challenges conventional narratives about how weak fiscal states are unable to build fiscal power, and instead suggests that Southeast Asian states often degrade their fiscal architecture in pursuit of illicit profits.

The relationship between illegal rentier economies and the state does not necessarily entail chaos or an absence of the rule of law. Rather, illegal economies are systematically established and protected by the state – as seen in the highly organized and visible deployment of the tools and devices of state territorialization. For example, state laws and institutions are used to demarcate areas for illegal logging; public infrastructure and equipment like roads and trucks are used for illicit timber extraction; and specialized drilling machines are deployed openly for the construction of underground mining tunnels that enable so-called informal mining. This level of capitalization and investment indicates how “illegality” can be systematized and normalized at a remarkable scale and how actors involved expect such practices to endure over time. 

Perhaps the most prominent example of this is in To’s article on Vietnam, where the state has recently re-zoned woodland around an upland village as “national forest.” This territorialization has not only changed the legal status of the land, extending state propriety over it, but has ushered in a host of government officials, law enforcers, and park rangers to “protect” the forest and uphold the logging ban. Residents who engage in traditional timber extraction are effectively criminalized and local law enforcers have the authority to confiscate village-logged timber or issue fines. However, the law is rarely enforced as stated on paper. Instead, the law is “taxed” through bribes extracted from villagers, who effectively conduct logging on behalf of local authorities. As timber is subsequently transported through government checkpoints, local middlemen known as lawmakers – who are themselves officials with familial ties to the government-run People’s Committee – skillfully maneuver the illicit timber through and over the formal law. The biggest rents from this illegal logging industry are not kept by the villagers who fell the timber, but are accumulated by state institutions and state officials. In this way, territorialization of upland Vietnam is central to the establishment of an illicit regime of extraction that finances and enriches the state.

Martin Gainsborough (2010) The Vietnamese state

To sum up, what we have, then, is a state which is little more than a disparate group of actors with a weak notion of 'the public good', using uncertainty, not impartial rules, as the basis of order. However, this is only part of the picture since the state also appears as greater than the sum of its parts - an institution which has 'self-preserving and self-aggrandizing impulses', to quote Benedict Anderson (1983), which takes people in and spits them out, and which re-creates itself in a way that cannot be reducible to the wit of any one individual. In Vietnam this comes across most clearly in terms of the way in which when this 'collectivity' of institutions and actors feel its core interests threatened, it is able to mobilize fairly robustly in order to clamp down on people or activities deemed to threaten the 'whole show'.

Martin Gainsborough (2010) Vietnam: Rethinking the state