Book review: Governing Neighborhoods in Urban China: Changing State–Society Relations

Book review: Governing Neighborhoods in Urban China: Changing State–Society Relations


Reviewed by Chao Xie

First Published:

27 May 2024, 12:40 pm


Governing Neighborhoods in Urban China book cover

Book review: Governing Neighborhoods in Urban China: Changing State–Society Relations

Beibei Tang, Governing Neighborhoods in Urban China: Changing State–Society Relations. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2023; 186 pp. ISBN: 9781501769269, US$49.95 (hbk)

Beibei Tang’s Governing Neighborhoods in Urban China: Changing State-Society Relations delves into the hybrid space of urban neighbourhood governance in contemporary China. The author intricately shows the evolving landscape of state–society interactions within the confines of the party-state, shaped by marketisation and its resultant urban demographic plurality. Tang’s analytical framework reveals how social stratification and new mobility are reshaping issues and priorities in neighbourhood governance.

The author shows emerging governance issues in the first chapter, revealed in disputes regarding property management, conflicts about the use and distribution of collective funds, disagreement with local police and increasing demands for the provision of neighbourhood services. This sets the stage for a comprehensive exploration of institutional responses to new grassroots challenges.

Faced with conflicts arising from urban neighbourhoods, neighbourhood governance evolves into new structures, which have been built through the interactions between state actors and non-state actors. The second chapter shows how these hybrid neighbourhood governance structures served as an intermediary governance space in urban China. Here, Tang emphasises the hybrid space in daily governance, which also created an arena in which ‘bargaining, mediation, and contestation of governance legitimacy are carried out on a daily basis’ (p. 47).

For instance, a grid governance mode has been established at the grassroots. In the grid space, market groups and resident self-organised organisations have emerged in the neighbourhood governance, whilst the role of Residents’ Committees has gradually focused on leading the operation of the grids. The ruling party then enhances its strength by establishing party branches in the grids. This ‘provide[s] the structural arrangements of hybrid authoritarianism’ (p. 65), which exists between the government and the people.

In the third chapter, ‘Neighborhood Conflict Resolution’, Tang highlights the non-authoritarian governance methods adopted to address local disputes. As an ‘innovation’ governance scheme, neighbourhood deliberation became an important governance instrument, reflecting the CCP’s ‘Mass Line’ ideology of ‘concern from the people and making decisions based on them’ (p. 67). The deliberative system supplies a mechanism through a triangle of interrelations ‘among the society, grassroots-level administrative organizations and the local government’ (p. 84), which have established a non-coercive setting for collecting reasoning and forming framing strategies, especially for state–citizen relationships.

In the fourth chapter, ‘Neighborhood Service Provision’, Tang examines the new mechanisms of neighbourhood service provision, highlighting the role of both state and market actors. Especially in the provision of neighbourhood services, ‘state–dominated, partial state involvement, and state-society collaborative practices’ (p. 108) reveal the diversification and flexibility of local governance. The state has adjusted its roles to be an auditor, supervising non-state actors’ neighbourhood service provision. Non-state actors, meanwhile, accept the leadership of the state, ensuring more autonomy and flexibility in the neighbourhoods.

In the final chapter, ‘Participation in Neighborhood Governance’, Tang highlights the significant role of non-state actors, ‘a diverse group including neighborhood organizations, market group, and resident volunteers’ (p. 111).

As one type of neighbourhood organisation, resident social groups keep their connections with Residents’ Committees, to have more chance of acquiring neighbourhood resources for their activities. Correspondingly, the Committees keep their key political function to supervise the social groups by supplying their resources.

Meanwhile, neighbourhood service organisations often have more contact with local government. By investing government funding in the neighbourhood projects, the local government can supervise the bidding and auditing of the social organisations.

Resident volunteer mobilisation has played an important role in urban neighbourhood governance. The source pool of resident volunteers is mainly recruited from retired residents and resident CCP members in the neighbourhoods. They normally ‘use their CCP membership as proof of their objective position and to obtain trust from the residents’ (p. 128).

Tang’s study not only enriches our understanding of China’s governance but also elaborates the concept of hybrid authoritarianism, which enables citizens to interact with the state in the intermediary governance space. The interdependence and interactions of multiple actors in the intermediary political space are tolerated and even encouraged by the party-state to maintain public support.

Governing Neighborhoods in Urban China presents a compelling picture of the governance system in the party-state, showing how, through a collection of governance mechanisms, state, market and societal actors interacted with each other to respond to the growing heterogeneity in Chinese society driven by social transformation. Tang’s insights into the interplay of state, market and social forces in urban governance offer a valuable perspective for scholars and policymakers alike.

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