Spheres of Solidarity, Moral Codes and Civil Society in China

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 16:00
Oral Presentation
David PALMER, Hong Kong University, Hong Kong
Two dimensions of Civil Sphere Theory are broadly overlooked in the literature on civil society in China: moral codes and spheres of solidarity. Alexander conceptualizes the civil sphere as beginning with the performance of moral codes of inclusion and exclusion – norms that both define the boundaries of the sphere of solidarity, and that are invoked to restrict or transform non-civil practices in other social spheres. Although there is no institutionally autonomous civil sphere in China, there are “virtual” and “micro” civil spheres in which moral codes shape spheres of solidarity. However, the picture is complicated by the coexistence of three distinct moral codes derived from Chinese traditional values, from Western liberal values, and from China’s revolutionary tradition – each of which may both contribute to or detract from civil norms. I unpack and trace the genealogies of these three moral codes in modern China, and outline the binary terms by which the boundaries between solidarity and stigmatisation are drawn in each code. While the three codes appear to be contradictory, there are plenty of overlaps and circulations between them, forming norms of civility through which popular discourses hold state and social actors to account. This forms the basis of a virtual civil sphere that comes into being when state and popular actors engage with each other, creatively deploying the ambiguities and overlaps between the three codes. But these spaces, which appear primarily in local contexts, are unstable and subject to imminent collapse. In such situations, rather than strategically deploying and performing their moral codes to establish overlaps and work creatively with ambiguities, the state and popular groups each assert the purity of a single moral code, polluting and stigmatizing the other. The paper draws on cases from Chinese popular religion to illustrate the formation and breakdown of micro-civil spheres.