Is China a risk society?

Is China a risk society?

Recently, following various environmental disasters, but in particular after the epidemic disease outbreaks and public food safety scandals of the last decade, some anthropologists and sociologists have begun to argue that "risk society has come to China." During my fieldwork, risk was certainly a common topic of conversation among food experts and veterinarians. This was framed in two ways which, I believe, are too naively adopted by would-be risk society theorists of China. First, it was argued that China's food safety scandals only appear today because food security has been achieved. For example, at the first annual "Food Safety and Animal-Origin Disease Meeting" in Beijing July 2011 (a kind of academic/press conference in which veterinary bureau and other livestock production experts gave speeches), the Chief Veterinary Officer argued that despite the attention given to food safety problems, China was actually in "the best era in its history in terms of food safety." He argued that in previous times, food safety was actually far worse, but had not yet been turned into a "social problem." He pointed to the media's role in creating recent "food safety events" (shipin anquan shijian). It is common for comments to be made about the Chinese phrase shipin anquan, which can mean either food security or food safety, to "demonstrate" the historical shift from food security to food safety problems due to the changing topography of the terms usage. Ulrich Beck's "risk society" thesis does argue that "second modernity" only begins to appear once the initial problems of modernization (with the classic example being scarcity) are solved. But I will argue, given my second fieldwork example, that this model of "second modernization" retains a linear framework of development that, when applied to China, extends problematic figures of Chinese modernity rather than developing the modernist self-criticism proposed by Beck.

Throughout my fieldwork, the adoption of and training in techniques of "risk analysis" or "risk assessment" was extremely widespread among food experts, veterinarians, and even government leaders. For example, I learned from a Chinese employee of the German development organization GEZ that in addition to the many meetings on "risk analysis" they held, in which they invited German or European experts to present to Chinese audiences, they also frequently flew Chinese bureaucrats or leaders to Germany for special training sessions there. My point is that in addition to declaring China to be a "risk society", such narratives often identify China as a backward risk society, a place that needs to learn how to be a risk society from those who already are (especially Europe, and maybe even more particularly, Germany). In this sense, they eerily repeat modernist narratives from the early 20th century, which struggled to identify what China was or where China stood in various Western philosophies of history. I almost think we could describe anthropologist Yan Yunxiang, one of the main proponents of analyzing China in terms of Beck's "risk society" thesis, as a contemporary Li Dazhao, the co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party who declared China to be a "proletariat nation." The danger of this move is to simply reiterate the modernization narrative about China's position in relation to European modernity, limiting understanding of the Chinese historical context in which these concepts are adopted.

I argue instead that what is needed is an analysis that incorporates how concepts of risk and risk society are translated into Chinese practice (Schwartz; Levenson; L. Liu), rather than simply an examination of whether or not contemporary Chinese society "fits" into Beck's theory. One of the biggest weaknesses I find with the literature on "risk" in contemporary China is its focus on risk perception, by which is meant the understandings of risk held by consumers and sufferers. Beck's work itself indicates the need for a more complex analysis that moves between scientific, expert, and lay actors (including both consumers and producers such as farmers). In an early article on the risk society in China in the context of SARS, Paul Thiers distinguished between the demands for transparency by global authorities such as WHO and local demands for "accountability" represented by "web-surfing, text-messaging university student, and the frightened villager." I doubt these two sources of critique can be so neatly separated, and instead what is needed is "multi-sited" fieldwork into how concepts of risk embodied in global governance regimes (such as the World Trade Organization) are being adopted and translated into China. In other words, rather than simply looking at new forms of social organization and social perception of natural dangers, it is important to examine configurations of biosociality (Rabinow 1996) that draw together scientific techniques, traditions of agricultural practice, the symbolism of food as well as new modes of life (to take one example).

As Francesca Bray has argued in her work The Rice Economies, the particular ecological and cultural practices of wet-rice agriculture in China (and the Asian region) promoted a distinct pathway of agricultural development. In Europe as its settler colonies, the 'progress' of agricultural development "lies chiefly in the increasingly efficient substitution of alternative forms of energy for human labour." For the wet-rice systems, by contrast, "progress" took place not by substituting animals or machines for human labour, but by increasing the application of labour. In other words, where Western grain-farming progressed by increasing the productivity of labour, in the Asian wet-rice system progress was achieved by increasing the productivity of land (sometimes requiring large inputs of labour). Bray argues, based on her own fieldwork in Malaysia, that the innovations of the "green revolution" in wet-rice economies did not necessarily eliminate this trend. In other words, the advances of modern technology could be incorporated within the wet-rice system, rather than supplanting it.

Such a broad theory is doubtless overdrawn to some extent. However, it does reflect the possibility of how forms of modernity can be incorporated into Chinese contexts, not translated into some idealized Tradition, but rather into systems of material practice. I need to think further about how the development of poultry farming over the past thirty years has interfaced with the "rice economy." Indeed, in the Poyang Lake region, despite the "revolution" that occurred with the introduction of industrial feeds, most poultry farmers rely on the rice paddies to provide supplemental feed to the birds following the harvest, when they are brought to glean. As a result, avian influenza researchers found that satellite maps of rice paddies could be used as a heuristic to map the geography of "free-grazing duck farms", a key risk factor for bird flu.

Perhaps this all is an attempt to explain what I found to be the somewhat peculiar use of the term "risk" (fengxian) by farmers and "grassroots" veterinarians I met during my fieldwork. "Raising pigs? Ha! Well the risk (fengxian) is high!" I was frequently told, and similar things were said about ducks, chickens or quails. Fengxian seemed to appear at the intersection of commerical markets and disease. Fengxian would be described in terms of the loss of the 'investment' (chengben), with strings of figures from the costs of labor and other necessary 'overhead', and the weight of the pig, the sale prices of the pig, the difference between a good sale price and a low price for sick or dead pigs, and finally, time. However, the force that made all of this fengxian rather than a sure investment was almost invariably disease. One organic egg farmer in the Beiing region told me: "There is an old saying in China. When assesing the families wealth of ten thousand guan, those things that have hair or feathers should not be counted”( 家财万贯,带毛不算). His interpretation was that the tendency to fall ill from disease made livestock not countable as property. As a result, there were two countervailing forces to fengxian. The first of these was yufang, literally meaning "prevention", but a term usually used to mean the more specific technique of immunization. The second was told to me by a "grassroots" veterinarian outside of Chengdu who specialized in the health and husbandry of pigs. Talking to me at length one day about the fengxian involved in raising pigs these days, he concluded by simply saying that to farm pigs today, you need "guts" (danliang).

Works Referenced:

Beck, Ulrich. Risk Society: Towards a new modernity. London: Sage, 1992.
Bray, Francesca. The Rice economies: technology and development in Asian societies. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
Lora-Wainwright, Anna. "Introduction: Dying for development: Pollution, illness, and limitation of citizens' agency in China" China Quarterly. Volume 214. June 2013. [This entire special issue is devoted to environmental and food problems and "risk perception".
Rabinow, Paul. “Artificiality and enlightenment: From sociobiology to biosociality” Essays on the Anthropology of Reason (Princeton University Press, 1996).
Thiers, Paul. "Risk society comes to China: SARS, transparency and accountability." Asian Perspective. 2003.
Yan, Yunxiang. "Food Safety and social risk in contemporary China." The Journal of Asian Studies, 71, 2012: 705-729.
Yan, Yunxiang. The individualization of Chinese society.