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Mao's Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance.

Mao's Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China, edited by Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth J. Perry. Harvard Contemporary China Series. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Asia Center, 2011. xv, 320 pp. $24.95 US (paper).

Winston Churchill's famous wartime description of the Soviet Union as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" aptly captures the mood in the West towards contemporary China. Beijing's communist system evokes mixed feelings of admiration towards the Chinese economy's continued defiance of the global recession that began in 2008 and dismay that the Arab Spring of 2011 failed to spread there and usher in a new era of democracy and political freedoms. Mao's Invisible Hand seeks to explain the resilience of China's communist regime as we approach the quarter century mark of the demise of the Soviet system that inspired it.

Mao's Invisible Hand is broken into ten essay chapters written by a collection of scholars from Britain, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Korea, and the United States. Under the umbrella theme of adaptive governance, these authors explore issues such as agricultural development, health care, social regulation, legal reform, media control, public opinion surveillance, sub-county governance, and central-local relations, by tracing contemporary policy back to its Maoist roots. The authors do not gloss over the numerous faults of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) --most notably its failure to ensure civil liberties, protect the environment, enforce consumer good standards, and check rampant corruption--but they rightly acknowledge that it has proven remarkably adept at dealing with a wide range of challenges, exhibiting much creativity, and permitting a greater degree of local autonomy than many would assume.

A book such as this is badly needed. Heilmann characterizes China "as a 'Black Swan' challenge to the social sciences." The logic is that
 [t]he political resilience of the Communist party-state, in
 combination with a rapidly expanding, internationally competitive,
 and integrated economy, represents a significant deviant and
 unpredicted case with a huge potential impact not only on the
 global distribution of political and economic power but also on the
 global debate about models of development. (p.4)


With major cracks in the Western system of capitalist democracy appearing most explosively in countries such as Greece, it would be prudent for Westerners to shelve notions of superiority and begin a substantive exploration of the methods that have rapidly transformed China into a superpower.

How and why has the CCP proven so much more successful than its Russian and European counterparts? Whereas the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was wrapped up comparatively neatly in four short years, it took the CCP well over two decades to wrest control of the country from the Japanese and the American-sponsored Nationalist government. This formative difference in large part explains why China has been ruled so differently from other communist states. Whereas the Soviets quickly shifted their focus from winning a revolution to regime consolidation and bureaucratization, the CCP fought a protracted struggle, during which they were chased throughout the country by numerous foes. To emerge victorious from the chaotic conditions in China from the 1920s to 1940s, the CCP was forced to constantly experiment with populist measures that would win the support of "the people" in their rural strongholds. When the CCP found something that worked in one area under its control, the policy would be exported more broadly. In power, Mao continued to promote a policy of "permanent revolution" that was at times highly destructive (most notably during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution) and at others quite progressive (such as literacy promotion, and the provision of near universal health care).

While Deng Xiaoping ushered in a series of reforms in 1970s that supposedly marked China's transition to a post-revolutionary state and the end of Maoist-era excesses, the authors find evidence that decision-makers today continue to use a "guerrilla policy style" (p. 12) that evidences the enduring influence of Maoism over three and a half decades after the Great Helmsmen's death. Today's CCP decision-makers--including those in its liberal-leaning wing--have been thoroughly inculcated with a Maoist style of governance that permitted a high degree of bottom up influence, local experimentation, and is characterized by abrupt about-faces in policy to satisfy popular demands. The Soviet system was, by contrast, far more rigid and hostile to sweeping reform.

There are plenty of elements of the guerrilla policy style that would draw admiration in western MBA classrooms, such as its emphasis on ensuring maximum flexibility, testing opportunities at every chance, encouraging local initiatives on tactics that will meet strategic aims, and open-mindedness towards borrowing foreign ideas. Nevertheless, this is a system in which laws are grey and accountability is deliberately left lacking in order to preserve political manoeuvrability for the central government. This system promotes competition, which in turn promotes creativity amongst local authorities, but results in less dynamic regions suffering from neglect by Beijing. As a result, paradoxically, Communist China now features greater wealth disparity than the capitalist United States.

The greatest shortcoming of the guerrilla policy style is clearly the manner in which autonomy fosters gross abuse of power by local cadres. This is explored in chapters from Joseph Fewsmith, chapter 9: "The Elusive Search for Effective SubCounty Governance" and Jae Ho Chung, chapter 10: "Central-Local Dynamics: Historical Continuities and Institutional Resiliance." In the most interesting divergence of opinions presented in the book, Fewsmith argues that local officials in China have a long tradition of misgovernance going back to the imperial era and the dearth of rules and norms under the communist system is unlikely to foster accountability, whereas Chung contends that by granting much local autonomy Maoism has promoted national unity and curbed China's traditional centrifugal tendencies.

Were Mao's Invisible Hand a single-written work, it would have allowed for more exploration of the historically significant question of whether Maoist adaptive government was indeed an innovation or had some imperial precedents. Nevertheless, this thought-provoking collection comes highly recommended for both scholars and students of twentieth-century Chinese politics and government. In addition, the theoretical framework outlined here will provide an interesting basis for deeper study of other reform-minded Asian communist regimes, such as Vietnam and Laos, which also survived the end of the Cold War.

Jie Gao

Carroll University
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Author:Gao, Jie
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2012
Words:1036
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