By Ting Guan (Beijing Normal University) and Tao Liu (Zhejiang University)
Conventional wisdom suggests that representation is closely linked to democracy and its related political and organizational institutions such as democratic elections and constitutional states (Pitkin 1967). However, if we look back in history, neither the concept nor the practice of representation has necessarily been linked to democracy or elections. Moreover, contemporary scholars have shown clearly from a theoretical approach that political representation and representative claims exist in non-democratic settings. In our study, we have explored participatory representation in the Chinese context, to better understand its operational mechanisms and functional logic.
Besides Pitkin’s account of political representation in democracies, this study connects with contemporary accounts of representation proposed by scholars like Rehfeld and Saward, transcending orthodox thought on the nexus between democracy and representation. Referring to the concept of “participatory representation” raised by Guo and Musso (2007), we aim to examine the practices of “participatory representation” by taking Chinese homeowner associations (HOAs) as a case.
Because homeowner activities in Beijing are more broadly participatory and mobilized than in many other Chinese cities, we chose the city of Beijing as our main study site. We used a mixed-methods approach for the analysis, drawing on 20 semi-structured interviews conducted in late 2016 and December 2019, with leaders in the selected HOAs, governmental officers from Residential Committees, Street Offices, and the Beijing Municipal Government, as well as on 304 survey questionnaires from homeowners in these gated communities. By proposing a model of representational capacity and using logistic regression analysis, we find that four factors have an impact on the quality of participatory representation: (1) homeowner attributes (HOAs in a neighborhood community with female/working out-of-system (tizhiwai)/long-term households); (2) perceived efficacy of HOAs (problem-solving effectiveness of representative organizations); (3) transparent and open elections; and (4) level of homeowner participation (a homeowner’s willingness to participate).
Our study suggests that participatory representation has dynamically and energetically developed in the selected HOAs. It further reveals that participatory representation at the micro level may sporadically exist and work in different, unconnected communities without essentially challenging central authoritative rule, in other words, local-level social democracy in the urban space can be a part of social reality in a generally non-democratic context. A panorama and meta-narrative of (soft-) authoritarianism cannot completely cover diversified and dynamic social developments at the subnational level.
The study also reveals some similar features between HOA practices in Beijing and those in Western contexts. For one, both Chinese and Western constituents consider “open and transparent elections” very significant. Both place considerable emphasis on procedural justice and share common beliefs about “legitimation through procedures” (Luhmann 1983). Further, it appears to be a universal phenomenon that more willingness among residents to participate in HOA activities enhances representational capacity, demonstrating that representation cannot be separated from constituents’ enthusiastic engagement and emotional support.
We also identified some particularistic features in different contexts. First, social-demographic attributes affect the representational capacity of HOAs. Our empirical study suggests that HOAs in the neighborhood communities with female/working out-of-system (tizhiwai)/long-term households are likely to have higher representational capacity. We assume that these types of homeowners are more aware of their rights. Second, unlike the normatively based principle of participatory representation in the Western context, we have noticed that Chinese homeowners care much more about concrete issues, problems, and disputes related to homeowners’ daily concerns, and thus, they are disconnected from abstract and normative cultural principles and values. In the Weberian sense, urban participatory representation among Chinese homeowners is associated with a level of instrumental rationality, instead of value rationality.
Our study further suggests that new digital forms of participatory representation deserve more in-depth research attention. Although the frequency of communication and the use of new technology are not significantly correlated with representational capacity, we nevertheless suggest that the rise of instant communication applications, including new digital technology, foster new forms of online mobilization, which will eventually change conventional ways of offline mobilization and organization of constituencies profoundly. Thus, digital forms of representation will certainly be a very compelling topic for future research.
Pitkin, Hanna F. 1967. The concept of representation. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.
Guo, Chao, and Juliet A. Musso. 2007. “Representation in nonprofit and voluntary organizations: A conceptual framework.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 36(2): 308–326.
Luhmann, Niklas. 1983. Legitimation durch verfahren. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Ting Guan is an assistant professor at the School of Government at Beijing Normal University. Her research focuses on public administration and governance. Her recent publications focus on policy implementation and state-society relations in China.
Tao Liu is a full professor at the School of Public Affairs at Zhejiang University in China, and is also a research fellow at the Institute of East Asian Studies and at the Institute for Sociology in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. He has published articles on social policy and old age protection in China and Germany, global knowledge diffusion and digitalization in the modern society.