Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA)
Oral Presentation Session
Ideals of collectivism have suffered two critical shocks in modern Chinese history: First, from the trauma inflicted by the failures of the 1960s; and second, from the transition to a capitalist economy which began in 1978. Throughout the reform era, some have resisted the notion that the economy outside of the state sector must be fully corporatized; but these idealists have had to contend with the mixed motives of institutions driven by the spirit of neoliberalism, rather than socialism. Based on fieldwork conducted in the new Chinese co-operative movement from 2011 to 2014, this paper explores the multitude of voices and interests within that movement. It argues that, while discourses of economic democracy motivate activists in an atmosphere of perceived moral breakdown, these discourses are easily appropriated by institutions seeking to promote capital accumulation, bureaucrats seeking personal advancement, and others who do not share the activists’ vision, but who control vital resources. But they, too, can be seen as morally motivated—whether by nationalistic dreams of a better China, or by personal obligations to acquaintances. Far from a moral vacuum, post-socialist China comprises a complex and shifting moral matrix, in which individuals must increasingly create their own sense of purpose, disconnected from socialist and pre-socialist value systems. The co-operative movement is thus an example not of the continuity of older social forms, but of individuals trying to make sense of a radically fragmented present.