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Welfare for Autocrats: How Social Assistance in China Cares for its Rulers

, Jennifer Pan (Oxford University Press, 2020)­
­That the Chinese Communist Party maintains an extensive domestic surveillance apparatus should come as no surprise to anyone. Maintaining political stability is the clear number one priority for the Chinese authorities and plenty has been written on this subject. But Jennifer Pan’s Welfare for Autocrats sheds a unique light on this issue by analyzing how the provision of welfare can be appropriated for surveillance and social control.
The book focuses its attention on the Chinese dibao system – the Minimum Living Standard Assistance that provides cash transfers to the poorest. In theory, anyone below a certain income threshold is eligible for these transfers. However, because the system is severely underfunded, just 16 percent of eligible citizens actually receive the dibao.

Drawing on extensive fieldwork in China and test requests to local authorities, Pan demonstrates that, through the allocation of these funds, stability maintenance “seeps” into the welfare system. Pan shows how the Chinese authorities prioritize groups that pose a potential threat to the political order – usually former prisoners and those with a history of stirring up social or political unrest. By providing cash transfers to these targets, the authorities create opportunities for repeated contact during which community cadres can talk to the target and learn about potential concerns. This way, social welfare is used to deter recipients from engaging in “problematic” activities.

Welfare for Autocrats is a great read for anyone interested in the more subtle mechanisms of political control in China. The only minor weakness is the reflection in the last chapter on the government's broader quest for digitized surveillance. Pan discusses all initiatives in the same breath, whereas a more differentiated analysis of how these systems work and interact, and how digitized they actually are, would have been preferable.

Review by Vincent Brussee, Associate Analyst at MERICS


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