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"The Contentious Public Space", a book review

January 28, 2018 6:17 PM
By Dr Yeow Poon, Chair of England China Business Forum and Vice-Chair of CLDs

Book coverGiven the way state institutions, whether in authoritarian or liberal societies, manipulate the public space in recent years, this is a timely book by author, Ya Wen-Lei. It explores the factors encouraging or discouraging open public discourse. Although the primary focus of the book is on the contentious public space in China, there are broader lessons to be drawn as populism with authoritarian tendencies seems to be gaining ground in western democracies.

Economic development and the subsequent relaxation of public discourse in the early 2000s led to the development of a public contentious space in China, where journalists, lawyers and the general public were able to criticise and challenge wrong doings by the authorities and corporate enterprises. Given the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government, the emergence of any kind of public contentious space is remarkable. The author therefore charts the development of the public contentious space in China over the last 20 years to understand the political, social and market dynamics that encouraged as well as constrained the development of a public contentious space in China.

The author posited that the Chinese government attempts at gaining legitimacy through rule by law (rather than rule of law), when paired with fragmentation of control due to marketisation, especially of the media, have led to unintended consequences and created spaces for public contention. The book provides many examples of public discourse, legal cases and public incidents from the Chinese media and the internet to illustrate how the public contentious space evolved and, at the same time, how the Government adapted to regulate and exert control.

At present, the Chinese under President Xi Jin Ping is re-asserting its authority over the public space. The future, however, is less certain and China today stands at a cusp. Will the Chinese State be able to walk the fine balance between responding to public demands for accountability and authoritarian rule? Can a public contentious space thrive under 'responsive authoritarianism'? Or, will the State attempts to impose its ideological notions of democracy, patriotism and civility, as well as the protection of its own power, suppress all other opinions and challenges to its authority?

Through careful research, the author has developed insights into how a public contentious space developed within an authoritarian regime. A critical question is whether an authoritarian State can adapt to, work with or harness the energy of the public contentious space to promote public interests and address abuse of public power? I agree with the author that 'the common measurements that social scientists have been using to determine level of liberty and regime types do not fully capture the dynamics of political and civil life in China.' Certainly, there is a need for better understanding of how democracy, or aspects of democracy, may work under different regimes and society norms. This book is a good start.

The book "The Contentious Public Space - Law Media and Authoritarian Rule" was published in Nov 2017 by Princeton University Press (Social Science)