Luigi Tomba: The Politics of Privatized Housing

In an interview with Ian Johnson at The New York Times, political scientist Luigi Tomba of the Australian National University looks at Chinese homeowners’ use of government rhetoric to justify their demands during protests with developers and management companies. The discussion is part of a larger investigation into the politics and associated governing practices in China’s urban residential communities that Tomba explores in his new book, “The Government Next Door: Neighborhood Politics in Urban China.”

Q. And then you noticed that residents were not only not challenging the state, but actually adopting its language.

A. Right. The language was often the same being used by the government. That was the first revelation to me, that they were echoing the government’s language. I was in Beijing and I wondered if Beijing was a one-off, so I went to Chengdu and found very similar behavior.

Q. What kind of language was that? Can you give an example?

A. To justify their activism, homeowners often referred to the importance of maintaining social order, to self-responsibility, and to the middle class as being the “cornerstone” of a stronger China. Ideas of the nation were also very common, and that defending the rights of consumers and homeowners was crucial to build a stronger nation.

Q. But couldn’t this be seen as co-opting the government’s language? Maybe they didn’t really believe that? Perhaps they were just using it strategically to achieve goals?

A. A lot of people are dismissive of party propaganda. But I think sometimes we need to take things at face value rather than passing judgment on what people “really” mean. My neighbors did use this language strategically. But when you look at the expressions they used, they were not just using the slogan of the day, they were buying into ideas that were rooted in their long-lived experience and that generate governing practices they can refer to. They grew up with it. It’s actually much deeper and much more spread across society for one to simply dismiss it as strategic language.

Some argued that the actions of homeowners were not only important to improve things in the housing development, but also to advance the idea of moral and responsible communities, as in, “If all communities were like us, China would be a much greater country.” That sort of language wasn’t only necessary to shield them from repression. They could have just referred to specific real estate policies instead. So I felt it meant something. [Source]

Tomba has been awarded the Association of Asian Studies’ Joseph Levenson Prize for his work.