Tocqueville and Putnam insist that civil society helps individuals flourish and resist authority, but Daniel C. Mattingly
’s decade of research in rural China leads him to conclude that civil society offers officials leverage over citizens that strengthens the state’s coercive capacity. In his book The Art of Political Control in China
(Cambridge University Press, 2020), Mattingly argues that civil society can encourage contributions to public goods like roads, schools, and charities, civil associations increase the prestige and authority of local elites who can help insure political compliance. Civil society groups help officials in rural China tamp down protest, requisite land, and enforce mandatory birth quotas. Instead of focusing on oppressive formal
institutions such secret police or the military, Mattingly looks to the ways in which civic associations may be used to apply hidden pressure on citizens through informal
Mattingly’s extensive field work, experiments embedded in face-to-face surveys, and datasets from villages point to three ways in which the state uses civil society to coerce. First, the state collects information and tracks behavior – such that the presence of a temple or lineage associations leads to more
land requisitions and few protests. Second, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) coopts local elites by including them in political bodies. These local officials understand which citzens have grievances and are the most likely to mobilize against the state. Last, the state creates infiltrating institutions with street level agents are able to spy, coax, or snitch. This rich book combines detailed qualitative case studies with clear prose. Mattingly provides details for those well-versed in Chinese political systems and translates for political scientists seeking a more nuanced understanding of authoritarianism and civil society.
Mattingly is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship