Paternalism and the family in Chinese state legitimation discourse, 1902-2012

Gregory Paul FAIRBROTHER, Peggy A. KONG

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


Key to understanding the resilience of the Chinese authoritarian state is understanding legitimation – how the state encourages popular perceptions of its legitimacy and exclusive right to rule. Our primary interest in this paper is to understand how the Chinese family is incorporated into this process of legitimation. A prominent perspective on Chinese state legitimation focuses primarily on legitimacy claimed based on continuous positive performance in national economic development. Within this perspective, the family’s contribution to legitimation works indirectly through its contributions to development. While aspects of this contribution could include family businesses and parental migration for work, much of the relevant literature here discusses parental contributions to children’s education, as a mediator for family influence on economic and social development. Relevant themes include family education expenditure as human capital investment; family educational expectations and children’s educational performance and attainment; parental migration for children’s educational opportunities; family networks and education; and others. To the extent that family influence on children’s better education attainment and performance contributes to increases in human capital and that such increases contribute to overall economic and social development, the family could be said to be contributing to Chinese state legitimation. An alternative view on legitimation starts from the idea that the Chinese state legitimates itself by demonstrating its adherence to traditional political-cultural rules on the proper state-society relationship, cultivating and spreading an image of its identity as paternalistic – the head of the Chinese family writ large. Specifically, the paternalistic state portrays itself as faithful to an orthodoxy of good governance, morally exemplary, concerned for people’s material and spiritual livelihood, attentive to people’s views, and encouraging of people fulfilling their responsibilities to family, community, and the nation. Although there is a small but growing literature on this perspective on legitimation, drawing in turn on a larger body of literature on moral-political education in China, it so far pays no explicit attention to how the family fits within the state’s legitimation project. To address this issue, instead of focusing on the activities of actual families in large-scale societal projects for which the state can claim legitimating credit, we turn our attention to how the state explicitly addresses “the family,” from multiple angles, as it uses education to spread legitimating messages about its paternalistic identity. Taking a historically comparative approach, we specifically ask how developmentally and ideologically diverse Chinese regimes since the early 20th century have incorporated themes related to parents and the family in state policy discourse on moral-political education, with an aim towards understanding how the idea of family is used discursively to legitimate the state. Our data consist of 250 policy directives on moral-political education from 1902 to 2012, a period spanning revolution, civil war, foreign invasion, domestic turmoil, and periods of stable economic conditions and development. Our paper will discuss themes elicited from these directives, including parents and the family as presented as a topic in the school curriculum, as targets of moral-political education themselves, as agents of moral-political socialization, and as objects of state concern.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017
EventThe 61st Annual Conference of the Comparative and International Education Society: “Problematizing (In)Equality: The Promise of Comparative and International Education” - Sheraton Atlanta Downtown, Atlanta, United States
Duration: 05 Mar 201709 Mar 2017


ConferenceThe 61st Annual Conference of the Comparative and International Education Society: “Problematizing (In)Equality: The Promise of Comparative and International Education”
Abbreviated titleCIES 2017
Country/TerritoryUnited States
Internet address


Fairbrother, G., & Kong, P. A. (2017, March). Paternalism and the family in Chinese state legitimation discourse, 1902-2012. Paper presented at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES 2017): Problematizing (In)Equality: The Promise of Comparative and International Education, Sheraton Atlanta Downtown, Atlanta, Georgia.


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