Shaken Authority: An Interview with Christian Sorace

In the early afternoon of May 12, 2008, a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake ruptured the countryside of China’s southwestern Sichuan Province. More than 85,000 people died, including at least 5,000 children killed when their schools collapsed—victims of corruption on the part of local officials and building contractors, who had skimmed from the top of building funds and erected shoddy “tofu-dregs schoolhouses” that stood no chance against the earthquake’s might. In the first weeks following the quake, parents staged protests and called on the government to punish those deemed responsible for their children’s deaths.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) quickly moved to silence the outcries and control the narrative about the earthquake. Government propaganda and news stories steered attention away from the manmade disaster (renhuo) caused by corruption and focused instead on the natural disaster (tianzai) of the earthquake and the CCP’s leadership in rescue and reconstruction efforts.

The government’s insistence on telling this version of the earthquake story and its effect on the Party’s post-earthquake policies and interactions with citizens lie at the heart of Christian Sorace’s new Cornell University Press book, Shaken Authority: China’s Communist Party and the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. Sorace, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre on China in the World and will be starting as an assistant professor at Colorado College in the fall, examines the ideology and discourse that underpin CCP actions as the Party works to maintain its legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese public. Through three case studies, he analyzes different approaches to reconstruction and how the government has used the earthquake as an opportunity to remake Sichuan’s small towns according to its vision for a modern, urbanized future China—rarely, however, taking into account the needs or desires of the people who live in these locales.

Shaken Authority is based on Sorace’s 18 months of fieldwork in Sichuan, during which he conducted ethnographic observations, interviews, and documentary research. Through careful examination of government leaders’ words and actions, Sorace reveals how officials work to maintain the CCP hold on power by controlling discourse—an endeavor that perhaps reached its greatest intensity after the 2008 earthquake, but which is carried out on a smaller scale wherever scandal or disaster undermine the Party’s claim to legitimacy.

Interested in learning more about Shaken Authority, I recently interviewed Sorace by email.

Cunningham: To begin with, how did you decide to research the topic of post-earthquake propaganda and reconstruction? What events or observations convinced you there was a story to tell?

Sorace: The 2008 Sichuan earthquake occurred only a few months before I started my PhD program in the Department of Government at the University of Texas, Austin. When the earthquake occurred, I immediately knew that it was the topic I wanted to research. Along with many others, I saw it as a potential “critical juncture” for the future of China’s political system. Initially, many scholars and journalists hailed the unprecedented flood of voluntarism and proliferation of grassroots NGOs as the long-awaited “emergence of civil society” in China. At that time, the state also promised to consult earthquake survivors throughout the reconstruction process. There was a kind of cautious optimism in the air. I went to the field hoping to find evidence of changes in the relationship between Party state and society.

But soon after arriving in Sichuan, I realized that I was chasing after a projection and false hope. The “seeds” of civil society that sprouted up during the emergency rescue phase had been basically extirpated during the reconstruction phase. The Communist Party was in control over the planning, implementation, and discursive representation of the reconstruction process.

There is a wonderful story that was told to me by several villagers on different occasions. Before Prime Minister Wen Jiabao arrived to inspect the local hospital, local cadres evacuated the sick patients and hooked themselves up to IV drips in order to greet the Prime Minister and praise the relief effort. One villager was upset that because of the spectacle, she was unable to get her sick child medical treatment. Whether or not this event actually happened matters less than what it reveals about the aesthetic dimensions of China’s political system. Appearances matter, and enormous energies and resources will be mobilized to support them.

Cunningham: Given how sensitive the subject of the earthquake can be—especially when the collapsed schools are mentioned—did you anticipate running into obstacles during your fieldwork, and did you ever find yourself unable to pursue a line of inquiry once you got into the field? How did the different people you met and interviewed tend to react when you told them what your research was about?

Sorace: In addition to the sensitivity of my research topic, the timing of my fieldwork was far from auspicious. I arrived in Chengdu right after Wang Lijun fled to the U.S. consulate there. That was also a few months before the 18th Party Congress. For these reasons, my initial application for visiting scholar status with the Sichuan Academy of Social Science was denied with vague instructions to “come back later.” For several weeks, I traveled around the earthquake zone as a tourist and participated on the advisory boards of several NGOs aiding in post-quake relief and reconstruction. A few weeks after the 18th Party Congress adjourned, my official status as a researcher was approved. Lines of inquiry were never straight but circuitous, and required a certain amount of flexibility and patience to follow (which depends a lot on the material and institutional conditions supporting fieldwork; I was very lucky in this regard having support both from the University of Texas-Austin and from the Fulbright Hayes Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship).

Overall, people were very welcoming. Some government officials avoided me, others mechanically reproduced the Party line (which I think is still important to analyze), and others spoke candidly. For the most part, local earthquake survivors wanted to talk about their living conditions and views of the Party. Of course, some were reluctant, and I was even occasionally asked if I was a “spy” for the United States government. After a few tongue-in-cheek Mao quotations, especially referring to the U.S. government as a “paper tiger,” I could usually assuage their suspicions.

Cunningham: One of the most striking details in this story is that Chinese government leaders dictated that reconstruction should be completed within three—or even two—years of the earthquake. Why did they insist that it be carried out so quickly, and what effect did this short timeframe have on the reconstruction work?

Sorace: The Party viewed the reconstruction as a historic opportunity to display the legitimacy of its political system. The reconstruction had to be completed quickly in order to demonstrate China’s state capacity, economic power, and benevolence. The sheer statistical fact that it could guarantee housing for five million people left homeless because of the earthquake (that is approximately one million more people than the entire population of Los Angeles) in under two years was a remarkable political feat. In fact, the Communist Party referred to it as a “miracle” (qiji). In official discourse, this “miracle” is frequently contrasted with the disastrous response of the U.S. government to Hurricane Katrina. It is often noted with schadenfreude that several years after the hurricane, there were still people living in temporary trailers or homeless. In this account, China’s one-party system was validated as being superior to the institutionally paralyzed and heartless democratic political system of the United States.

This was also the groundwork of policy in pursuit of “great leap development” (kuayueshi fazhan) that could be achieved by mobilizing China’s political system at all levels. Throughout the book, I attempt to demonstrate how the reconstruction plan was rooted in the institutional, discursive, and epistemological legacies of the Mao-era.

Due to the accelerated work schedule, other important goals fell by the wayside, such as consultation and construction quality. For local residents living in these buildings and spaces, uneven pavement of roads, crumbling drywall, and leaking pipes were evidence of the Party’s concern with its own image and lack of care for their actual lives.

In the second chapter, I discuss the effects of this work schedule on local cadres who were also earthquake victims. Cadres were called upon to act in accordance with “Party spirit” (dangxing) and work “24/7,” regardless of personal cost. Expected to overcome their grief and throw themselves into work, many started to suffer from psychological disorders and somatic symptoms. A few cadres even committed suicide.

Cunningham: I found your arguments about CCP propaganda very interesting—namely, that even though people may speak of it with cynicism, propaganda continues to play a role in their lives, and in the relationship between the Party and the public. Why does propaganda remain important in today’s China?

Sorace: For the Party, propaganda is necessary to continuously perform and maintain the basic script of its legitimacy. Propaganda (xuanchuan) in Chinese does not, or did not, originally have pejorative connotations but entailed a form of moral instruction and guidance. If the damage caused by the earthquake is described as a “natural disaster” (tianzai) and not a “manmade catastrophe” (renhuo), then the Party plays the role of the savior and not the culprit. I really don’t agree with the prevalent argument that in today’s China propaganda is entirely “empty” or just a matter of “signaling” power—words and contexts matter. The Party will often ignore actual people’s demands (and perhaps harm itself in the long run) in order to defend its legitimating narratives and produce images of its benevolence.

Among the things that stood out were the red colored banners hanging in the earthquake zone with slogans such as: “An earthquake doesn’t care, the Party does” (dizhen wuqing, dang youqing) and “When drinking water, remember the well-digger. We rely on the Communist Party for happiness” (chishui bu wang wa jing ren, xingfu quan kao gongchandang). Most scholars dismiss this kind of propaganda as out of touch with people’s daily concerns. In contrast to this position, I argue that even if people have a cynical attitude to official propaganda, they inhabit its discursive community, speak through its idioms, and are shaped by its practices of speaking. I think that Althusser’s concept of “interpellation” is helpful for addressing why lack of belief does not invalidate the effectiveness of public discourse—but a small dose of Althusser can go a long way.

Cunningham: In your three case study chapters, there’s a notable disconnect between those planning the reconstruction and those who actually lived in the communities. How did the CCP use the earthquake to further its own political goals, and what sorts of problems did this top-down approach cause?

Sorace: When top-down planning ignores local conditions, knowledge, and aspirations, it will typically end in failure, if not human catastrophe. This is James Scott’s argument in Seeing Like a State. While I agree with Scott, it is frequently overlooked that China’s political system of “democratic centralism” (minzhu jizhong zhi) was designed to address this problem through mechanisms such as “the mass line” (qunzhong luxian) and embedding Party cadres among the people. It is also easy to forget that the Communist Party is still a Leninist vanguard party which claims to represent the interests of the people. These core contradictions of China’s political system have never gone away.

We can see their effects in the trajectory of the development strategy of “urban-rural integration” (chengxiang yitihua). After the earthquake, villagers’ houses collapsed. It was a perfect opportunity to move otherwise reluctant and perhaps recalcitrant villagers into new apartments. Once moved into their apartments, they would be able to obtain a steady income through non-agricultural employment, which would fuel domestic consumption. Perfect in theory. In reality, many of these “new urban citizens” were dispossessed of their land and lacked the new urban jobs and incomes they were promised. They complained that the apartments lacked space in which to raise pigs. Such complaints were rooted in fears of becoming dependent on money in a market economy without economic prospects. A lot of these people didn’t see themselves as the intended beneficiaries, let alone authors, of the reconstruction process. One of my favorite explanations for popular anger over the reconstruction process was from a municipal vice-secretary who rhetorically asked: “If I gave you a present, but it didn’t suit you, you didn’t need it, and you didn’t even want it, but I was adamant about giving it to you, does it still count as a present?”

Cunningham: What are you working on (or planning to work on) next?

Sorace: I just finished writing an article on the recent televised confessions of Party cadres in China. I was drawn to this topic in particular because of my interest in the relationship between language and power. I am also fascinated by the genealogical of different genres of “confession” (chanhui) and “self-criticism” (ziwo piping) from the Mao era to the present.

My new long-term project is about urbanization as an ideological project of the state. For the past few months, I have been living in Ulaanbaatar learning how to speak Mongolian. I have also been poking around the archives gathering material on labor agitation and strikes among the Chinese workers who helped build Ulaanbaatar in the late 1950s and early ’60s as part of a socialist friendship exchange. Today, Ulaanbaatar is perhaps most famous for its horrendous winter air pollution caused by informal settlements or ger districts (a ger is a Mongolian yurt or menggubao) ringing the city. I am currently doing research on the Mongolian government’s plans and strategies for redeveloping the ger districts. Eventually, I will extend my fieldwork into China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and research the process of “ecological migration” (shengtai yimin) through which herders have been moved off the grasslands and into cities.

Christian Sorace received an AAS First Book Subvention grant to support the publication of Shaken Authority. For more information about this program, please see the “Grants & Awards” section of our website.