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Joseph Fewsmith

Biography: 

Joseph Fewsmith is Professor of International Relations and Political Science as well as Director of the East Asia Interdisciplinary Studies Program at Boston University. He is the author of four books: China Since Tiananmen: The Politics of Transition (Cambridge University Press, 2001), Elite Politics in Contemporary China (M.E. Sharpe, 2001), The Dilemmas of Reform in China: Political Conflict and Economic Debate (M.E. Sharpe, 1994), and Party, State, and Local Elites in Republican China: Merchant Organizations and Politics in Shanghai, 1980-1930 (University of Hawaii Press, 1985). His articles have appeared in such journals as Asian Survey, Comparative Studies in Society and History, The China Journal, The China Quarterly, Current History, The Journal of Contemporary China, and Modern China. He is also a research associate of the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Studies at Harvard University.

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Political Reform

What Happened in Maliu Township?

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Often the pressures that generate political reforms—and the limits to those reforms—are best viewed at the local level, which is why this column has explored so many instances of local reform. In this issue, we look at Maliu Township, a poor township in Chongqing Municipality that rose to at least local fame by adopting the so-called “Eight-Step Work Method,” which introduced popular participation in decision making and oversight. But as the local political economy changed—specifically as the impact of the abolition of the agricultural taxes has been felt—it has been difficult to sustain this innovation.

Political Reform

A New Upsurge in Political Reform?—Maybe

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The 17th Party Congress called for continuing political reform, particularly at the grass roots. This appeal has been quickly followed by an important new book by the Central Party School that lays out a cautious but important blueprint for political changes over the next 15 years. This article focuses in particular on an important reform in one county in Sichuan Province, both because it may well have informed the thinking that went into the Party School report and because it raises important questions that remain unanswered both in the report and in the materials available on this county’s reforms.

Political Reform

The 17th Party Congress: Informal Politics and Formal Institutions

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was a significant milestone because the post-revolutionary generation had for the first time to sort out issues of succession and power distribution without the looming shadows of luminaries of the past. In general, they did fairly well. There appear to have evolved certain agreed-upon rules—including retirement and the distribution of posts in the Central Committee—that have, so far, confined conflict within certain institutional boundaries. Within these limits, however, there is evidence of a great deal of serious politics taking place. At least two important questions emerge from this. First, how will informal politics mesh with institutional rules? Second, if compromise and the distribution of benefits to different Party interests are the answer (as seems to have been the case at the 17th Party Congress), then will this system be able to respond quickly and effectively to crises?

Political Reform

Democracy Is a Good Thing

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Friday, October 5, 2007

Over the past several months there has been a vigorous discussion about democracy in China. Some of this discussion has been undertaken by well-connected, policy-oriented intellectuals, while other parts of the discussion have been conducted by liberal intellectuals who appear to have little policy impact. The Chinese Communist Party leadership, including Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, has, in general terms, endorsed continuing to implement various forms of “inner-party democracy.” Although such calls should be welcomed, they come at an odd time—just as the change of leading cadres at the local levels has come to a conclusion. The discussion on democracy may promote more experimentation at the local level, but the Party center has been firm on the importance of “democratic centralism” and “scientific socialism”—not democratic socialism.

Political Reform

The Political Implications of China’s Growing Middle Class

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Monday, July 16, 2007

China’s middle class has developed rapidly over the past three decades. If one assumes that there was no one, or at least very few people, who could be considered middle class in 1978, there are now probably around 50 million people who can be considered middle class. Although the emergence of such a group in three decades is impressive, given the size of China’s population, it will be many years until we can speak of China as a middle-class society. In the meantime, despite indications that the middle class is more participatory than their economically less well off neighbors, there is no indication that the middle class—much less the wealthy—desires to challenge the political status quo. The fact that many more people identify themselves as middle class than can be reasonably classified as such by sociological criteria indicates that large swaths of Chinese society identify with middle-class aspirations. Alongside many fissiparous tendencies in China, this is one trend that suggests social cohesion.

Political Reform

Assessing Social Stability on the Eve of the 17th Party Congress

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Recent data on overall public opinion in China make one fairly optimistic about the state of Chinese society. Incomes are up, trust in the central government is high, and many aspects of government are seen as fair. But when one looks more closely at the issues closest to people—health care, social security, and local government—then the potential for social unrest looks significantly greater. This is particularly true when one looks at the effect income has on opinion.

Political Reform

Exercising the Power of the Purse?

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Over the past 10 years, the city of Wenling, in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, has been developing a system of “consultative democracy” that has allowed citizens to ask about and express their opinions on subjects related to their interests, particularly capital construction, road building, and education. Over the past year, this experiment has been extended to include public discussion of the budget process—or at least part of it. In one township, this process merged the practice of consultative democratic meetings with the local people’s congress. These reforms, widely reported on in the Chinese press endorsed at high levels, are still quite limited, but they suggest an effort to make the budgetary process both more transparent and subject to legislative review by expanding the role of local legislative bodies.

Political Reform

Institutional Innovation at the Grassroots: Two Case Studies

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Friday, July 7, 2006

The emergence of new institutions is critical if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is to transform itself from a traditional Leninist party, exercising highly concentrated authority and mobilizing populations, to a more modern, administrative party that follows procedures and adheres to rules. Whether such a transformation is successful in the long run, efforts in this direction are slowly reshaping power at the local level in China. To the extent such efforts are successful, they have the potential to reduce social conflict and make local governance more effective. Success is far from guaranteed. Nevertheless, in the interest of better understanding the transformation of local governance, this article looks at two instances of institutional innovation: the “one mechanism, three transformations” adopted in Handan, Hebei Province, and the “permanent representative system” as adopted in Ya’an, Sichuan Province.

Political Reform

Promotion of Qiu He Raises Questions about Direction of Reform

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Sunday, January 1, 2006

For the last two years, the Chinese media have widely discussed the "Qiu He phenomenon," attempting to understand the significance of a local county party secretary's using autocratic methods to jump-start the economy of Jiangsu's poorest county. The party secretary, Qiu He, has been both praised and criticized. But now he has also been promoted to vice governor of the wealthy province of Jiangsu, and at 50 years of age he could rise farther in China's political system. Promotions to vice governor rarely raise eyebrows, but the significance of Qiu's promotion has been widely discussed. Known as an "official with personality," Qiu stands out among the ranks of China's generally staid bureaucracy, and his rise prompts speculation about what types of officials might be promoted under Hu Jintao and what this means for the building of institutions in China.

Political Reform

Chambers of Commerce in Wenzhou and the Potential Limits of "Civil Society" in China

by Joseph Fewsmithvia China Leadership Monitor
Sunday, October 30, 2005

Wenzhou is famous for its thriving private economy. Less well known is the growth of chambers of commerce and other trade associations there. These organizations are changing the structures by which China is governed and policy is made. Chambers of commerce have done much to promote quality standards within industry and maintain Wenzhou's competitiveness. Though these groups have brought about new forms of state-society accommodation, they have not challenged party rule. On the contrary, they are another manifestation of the emergence of a new political-economic elite which broadly agrees on many issues.

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