Dr Tom Cliff

Dr Tom Cliff

Researcher focus: Dr Tom Cliff

18th January 2018

Tom Cliff has won the E Gene Smith Prize for his recent book 'Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang'. He also won a Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) for his project 'Welfare Entrepreneurs and Paradoxes of Social Control in Rural China', announced late 2017. Here he explains his most recent research project.

I am researching how non-state welfare funds set up by factory-owning village elites in rural China change or impact power relationship at the local level. My research deals with the cultural economy and the economic culture of China.

I first observed these hybrid informal organisations in 2014, and it was clear that they played important social and economic roles in rural life. These funds serve the village or village-centred lineage of about 1000 people. The wealthy private entrepreneurs contribute substantial amounts, which are supplemented by donations from most of the villagers, and in some cases a one-off input from the village governing committee. This is a whole-of-community activity.

The funds lend out the principal, at a decent but not extortionate rate of interest, to local businesses that need operating capital. They collect the interest and use only the interest to pay welfare benefits to needy people within the community. The principal is retained, and the fund grows. (For more on this, see my recent article, “Face Funds,” in China Review, June 2017.)

These funds are very much a product of the here-and-now. Their existence is premised upon the convergence of certain recently-arisen legal and regulatory institutions with China’s broader economic, demographic, and political situation in the present. But there are very strong resonances with much earlier forms of Chinese corporate organisation—mostly, like these funds, centred ostensibly on kinship, religion, or native place. Part of my current research involves tracing the genealogical linkages between present and past forms. I aim to will build on this essential cultural and historical understanding, and extend it into the present.

This project aims to describe and explain how collaborative/competitive interactions between local governments and local economic elites in contemporary rural China produce innovative welfare models—and, as a direct correlate, new political arrangements. Scholars of welfare systems across the globe and through history have noted that welfare provision reorders social relationships, potentially shifting the balance of social power and affecting systems of social control.

So, what happens when a group of local factory owners set up a welfare fund? Does the Party-state lose authority in the eyes of local villagers? What happens to the local elite–state relationship? These are my questions.

Questions in the background are: Why would the local elites do such a thing? Are state actors pressuring them into providing welfare? And, or, is this a function of the elites seeing an opportunity to gain leverage with local villagers—or with local state actors themselves?

One can speculate that the elites might do this because—let’s just say—they have built their factories without proper authorisation. If the local state decides to implement land-use regulations rather than just ignore them, they could just knock those factories down. But it’s a complex problem for the government at the local level, because those factories help drive local economic development, and thus provide taxes, employment, and even extra-budgetary funding for the new roads that get built in that area. The place would not be a well-developed—in Chinese terms, “flourishing”—place were it not for the illegal factories.

But it is also important to take seriously the entrepreneurs’ assertions that they are doing this out of the good of their hearts. Individual factory owners have been giving out benefits to locals since well before the funds arose as an organisational form. And, again, there are historical precedents from before the Communist revolution. Self-interest is a factor, but these entrepreneurs’ motivations cannot be reduced to self-interest alone.

My research will lead to better knowledge of how local government and local business in China interact—what the changing balance of power between those entities is. When we have better knowledge of the details of that interaction—and here I am talking about the humanistic details as well as the financial details—people who are engaging with China will be able to better understand their Chinese counterparts’ interests. Australians and others dealing with China will be able to better understand what drives their counterparts and customers at the local level in China. Whether in competition or collaboration, if you understand your counterpart, then the outcomes are always better.

Tom is currently a researcher in Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s Australian Research Council Laureate Project Informal Life Politics.

The concluding conference of the project, Living Politics: Self Help and Autonomous Action in East Asia and Beyond, will be hosted at the ANU on the 14-17 March 2018. The conference is free and open to the public. Register here.

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