Most cities of this period, despite evidence produced by muckraking critics who saw urban concentrations only as corrupt and evil places, had significant supplies of what Robert Putnam has recently described as "social capital" or "features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions." In Putnam's book on Italian political development, he contrasts the "feudal autocracy" of the Italian south and the "communal republicanism" of the north. The former made the dynamic and progressive rule of a Frederick II possible but also hastened the decay into clientelism and fragmentation when a strong central power was not present. The latter provided community support and direction for civic action and development, projects twentieth-century Chinese would term jianshe. Putting aside the important question of regional differences, Chinese cities of the early twentieth century inherited a late imperial legacy of autocracy that normally pulled its administrative punches (in part by the subtle means of not granting cities special municipal status beyond serving as the centers of larger territorial units) and communal or corporate self-management inclined toward political self-restraint. The balancing act performed by state and city depended on the intermittent exercise of social connections and a stabilizing structure of patronage and clientelism extending through state and society.
The remodeling of the Chinese city through the import of new technologies and organizational forms in the twentieth century presented officials and city people with new opportunities for building from the top down (technocratic and administrative initiatives), the middle out (the realm of fatuan and local elite bodies), or the bottom up (the growth of labor unions and other grassroots organizations). From one point of view, the problems lay in the middle where local elites used modern organizational forms and ideologies to prevent administrators from acting decisively and mobilizing the energies of ordinary people. Chambers of commerce,
In order for social capital to be actually spent on civic endeavors, the catalytic or mediating influence of a Zhang Zhidong in Hankou, Zuo Zongtang or Cai Mengjian in Lanzhou, or Zhang Jian in Nantong was extremely important. These leaders helped integrate the pivotal middle level of elites into projects and tap resources available in higher-level administrative budgets or more distant metropolitan centers. Without such leadership, the power, wealth, and status available to support development might remain dormant or devoted solely to private or corporate enterprise.
Such projects were often pursued in a spirit of boosterism. Cai and Zhang Jian were heir to a tradition of localism that celebrated everything from tasty hams and fine pottery to beauty spots, pilgrimage sites, virtuous widows, and brilliant scholars. The test of a locale's value was measured in recognition accorded by elite consumers and imperial edict. The early twentieth century found new standards in the form of production figures, bacteria counts taken from water sources, the size of membership rolls, numbers of tourists, and recognition of a city, building, or person as a national model. As one travels around China today, at the turn of another century, and samples local beers and other liquors touted as superior to those of a neighboring county or province, visits newly developed theme parks and warm-spring resorts, tours sausage plants and pottery factories run as township and village enterprises, and talks to local officials and entrepreneurs about their dreams and schemes for development, echoes of Lanzhou as garden city or Nantong as a little Shanghai are clear and insistent. Broad participation in China's development has long been more than a matter of state control or popular protest. One could become Chinese in the modern sense by joining a demonstration or a party, but also by training for a profession, opening a local museum, or marketing a local resource. These latter, more local and pluralistic enterprises should not be equated with democracy or a localism invariably hostile to national authority. But they do comprise sites where social capital can be invested in ways that foster diversity, criticism, and a measure of autonomy.
In tracing the distribution of technical and institutional modernity, we can with some confidence identify the component parts of an urban China reorienting itself around a recognizably modern city of offices, factories, movie theaters, and public parks. But it is also clear that the more complex reality of urban—and rural—life "away from Nanking Road," Tiananmen, and the iron bridge at Lanzhou