Chinese Neoliberalism and Citizenship Rights


Deckard and Heslin argue in After Postnational Citizenship that the neoliberal characterization of globalization is what led to an unevenly distributed access to citizenship rights. They contend that neoliberalism has repurposed citizenship; Where it used to be based on humanity, it now is based on one’s successful market participation. Therefore, people are stateless and marginalized based on their failure to economically compete, rather than simply lacking legal membership to a nation-state. Their analysis explains how nation-states engaging in neoliberalism have witnessed a surge in wealth and income inequalities, as markets have become responsible for delivering basic public services (poorly) in lieu of austere policymaking.

Comparatively speaking, China has become both a beacon for neoliberal praise and target for Western antagonism. The contradiction at the heart of Chinese development is that while China integrated into the global neoliberal regime, it never relinquished state authority over the economy and delivery of public services. I argue that if Deckard and Heslin’s neoliberals practically seek ‘regimes of market-driven big government’, then Chinese neoliberals seek regimes of government-driven big markets.

Growing up in China during the historic boom of the 90s and aughts, I came to marvel at what my American family called “the power of the market”. After all, how else could such a poor industrially weak communist country realize such enormous economic gains? The reformist bureaucracy under Deng Xiaoping reintegrated China’s vast resources into the global division of labor, therefore binding themselves with global neoliberalism. The important caveat is that China never pursued a neoliberal economic policy, embracing the market but denying the necessity of universal private property. By reserving the right to control the economy, the Chinese government contradicts the neoliberal vision of state-market relations—only possessing what Hui Wang calls a “linguistic hegemony of neoliberalism”.[1] This doesn’t go unnoticed, as China is regularly attacked for not “playing fair” by not pursuing the core neoliberal policies of full-fledged price, trade, and financial liberalization and privatization.


Does China’s alternate model to the Washington Consensus mean their citizens still have rights based on ‘humanity’ rather than the market? Yes, by a very narrow interpretation of what Marshall called the “right to a modicum of economic welfare… and to live a life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society”. The Chinese state doesn’t extend robust rights beyond healthcare, education, the rule of law (absent the intervention of the CCP), and social security. Despite the Western democratic standard for citizenship rights, Chinese citizens generally find that their state delivers on their social responsibilities.


While the market and private property still serve the Chinese state’s developmentalist agenda, there’s still rapidly growing class divides and income inequality. Contrary to Deckard and Heslin’s argument, this suggests that the mere participation in a neoliberal regime of capital accumulation is enough to produce the uneven access to citizenship rights, rather than the prioritization of market over state.

[1] Wang, Hui. 2003. “The Historical Origin of Chinese ‘Neoliberalism’: Another Discussion on the Ideological Situation in Contemporary Mainland China and the Issue of Modernity.”


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