Citizens, the state and society: Chinese citizens' understanding of citizenship

by Sicong Chen

Citizenship means different things to different people as well as in different societies, partly because citizenship is of social and cultural construction. This is why some claim that citizenship in China is and can be distinct from that in other societies, particularly the Western democracies. For example, there was talk of “Asian values” in the 1990s. Yet citizenship is also dynamic rather than static. It changes as society develops. China’s profound economic and social transformation in the past three decades and its increasing interaction with the outside world are deemed to have brought changes on citizenship understanding in Chinese society. Amid the on-going transformation, one question needs to be asked: what citizenship means to today’s Chinese citizens?

I searched for the answer in Guangdong Province, targeting Chinese university students and factory workers, two social groups that have tradition of connection in political struggle in modern Chinese history. The views of both groups were represented equally through 557 questionnaire respondents, 22 of whom I also interviewed.

One aspect of the inquiry was their understanding of the role of citizens in the state and society. Both groups saw citizens more as members of society rather than as independent individuals, and persisted in the belief that citizens are both active political agents and subjects of the state at the same time.

This view supports the stereotype that Chinese society puts emphasis on collectivism. Seeing citizens as members of society implies their awareness of society as a whole and of the need to contribute to it. This awareness may impel them to participate in society actively or, at least, if society requires.

Their paradoxical understanding of the role of citizens in the state reflects the political reality in China today. On one hand, the absolute party-state rule stated in the Constitution has been indoctrinated for decades in education. It comes as no surprise then that the two groups perceive citizens as subjects to the state. On the other hand, as part of efforts on political transformation, citizens’ political participation has been officially upheld in recent years, proposed for the first time in 2000 and reiterated in a high-level report in 2007. There has been wide coverage of the issue in media where was the main field that the two groups encountered the term gongmin, the Chinese term for citizen or citizenship. This may lead to their understanding of citizens as active political agents in the state. As the issue of political participation is on the table, to what extent citizens can participate in politics remains to be seen.

It is interesting that Chinese university students and factory workers have similar views on the role of citizens in the state and society. It gives a positive signal that the two groups can communicate with each other on the issue of citizenship practice in social and political affairs.

One may then ask: is citizenship practice necessary? It seems awkward to advocate it by claiming that it is a virtue. Inspired by Michael Wazler, a more convincing approach could be in seeing citizenship practice as citizens’ competence, not required at all times but should be able to practice as citizens when necessary. Citizenship can mean the same thing to everyone, that is democracy, human rights, fairness and justice are the cornerstones of citizenship since, as John Locke tells us, we are all born free and equal. When these cornerstones are threatened or even yet built up, citizenship practice becomes necessary. Are Chinese citizens ready for it? It is too early to tell. But at least the awareness of social membership and political agency found in Chinese university students’ and factory workers’ understanding of citizenship in this study brings some hope.

* This is a follow-up article of Development Vol. 55.2 Citizenship for Change produced in partnership with Hivos. Click here to read the other contributions on citizenship related issues for DevelopmentPLUS.


Sicong Chen is a doctoral student of the Lifelong Education Division, Graduate School of Human Sciences, Osaka University, Japan. His doctoral project examines the meaning of gongmin (citizen or citizenship) in contemporary Chinese society. He can be reached at:


Photo: superplex/flickr