"Too Many People":

Crowds and Cliques in Contemporary China

What are the political implications of crowds in the PRC?

Abstract: Theorists of modernity, such as Walter Benjamin and Jacques Ranciere, have long debated with the question of whether crowds are inherently fascist or more readily advance fascist political agendas. In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), public displays of national unity almost always take the form of synchronized mass movements, and government campaigns explicitly command citizens to allow the goals of the nation to subsume their personal desires and dreams, which would theoretically seem to support arguments for the fascist nature of the crowd. Nevertheless, this paper argues that when crowds emerge spontaneously in the PRC in practice, they express not a diversion of political energy but rather have the effect of enforcing accountability and transcending typical social restrictions. It compares the carefully choreographed aesthetics of clique formation with a crowd of spectators that formed in the wake of a hit-and-run traffic accident in October 2013. Cliques or quanzi embody the idea of intimacy through exclusion—a principle interlocutors describe as essential since the PRC has “too many people.” By forming and maintaining a broad quanzi, people spare themselves the trouble of having to manage, care about, or even recognize the humanity of the many people outside their quanzi. In contrast, on-site interviews with people in the spectator crowd revealed that while participants had different interpretations and intentions, the collective effect of their absorption into the crowd was to ensure the safety of the victim, regardless of whether or not they recognized him as being a person like themselves.