In this conceptual essay, the authors argue that one way to understand the Chinese state is to view it from below, from the perspective of people advocating change. The authors’ “state reflected in society” approach is illustrated with accounts of Chinese lawyers, journalists, and NGO leaders who operate at the boundary of the acceptable and are attentive to signals about what the authorities will tolerate. Their experiences suggest that mixed signals about the limits of the permissible is a key feature of the Chinese state. Beyond a number of well-patrolled “forbidden zones,” the Chinese state speaks with many voices and its bottom line is often unclear. At the border of the uncontroversial and the unacceptable, the Chinese state is both a highcapacity juggernaut capable of demarcating no-go zones and a hodgepodge of disparate actors ambivalent about what types of activism it can live with. Whether mixed signals are deliberate or accidental is hard to determine, but they do offer the authorities certain advantages by providing a low-cost way to contain dissent, gather information, and keep options open.

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