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Leta Hong Fincher, Tsinghua University
The Great Wall of China
China’s vice president, Xi Jinping, spoke in November about the urgency of going into the field to conduct research on “the masses.” In his speech to the Central Party School, where Communist Party leaders are trained, Xi made an impassioned plea for Party cadres to find out the deepest “hopes, worries, anxieties and resentments” of the Chinese people (see politics.people.com.cn/GB/1024/
16332666.html). Xi, set to become China’s next president, criticized cadres who curry favor and flatter superiors: “They are unwilling to look squarely at reality, they do not dare to speak the truth.” Then, he made a striking parallel between Chinese society today and the beginning of the 1960s.
Xi did not name the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s disastrous revolutionary campaign, which resulted in mass starvation and death. Rather, Xi referred to the time when Communist Party officials toured the country, recognized the widespread falsification of statistics, and abandoned Mao’s Great Leap policy: “At the beginning of the 1960s…all Communist Party comrades undertook survey research…to solve a series of major economic and social problems with the correct policy, thereby quickly turning around a difficult situation.”
Xi’s suggestion is similar to a passage from Yu Hua’s recent book, China in Ten Words, which compares China’s economic miracle today with the revolutionary zeal of the Great Leap Forward, when “fakery, exaggeration, and bombast were the order of the day.” Could China’s future president, too, believe that his country’s breakneck economic growth might be based on distortions and exaggerations in urgent need of correction?
If China’s senior leadership truly wants to encourage more accurate social research, Chinese social scientists should be uniquely positioned to “look squarely at reality,” as Xi puts it. Yet, in one of the many contradictions typical here, social science in China is so tightly controlled by the state, it is difficult for academics to publish the very research on “anxieties and resentments of the masses” that Xi’s speech exhorts. Although democracies such as the United States also direct research through government funding, China has taken the concept of social science in the service of the state to an entirely different level.
Prominent social scientists in China take on complicated, simultaneous roles as university professors, social activists and advisors to senior Party leaders. Sociologists Ching Kwan Lee and Yuan Shen wrote of the “paramount impact of government policy in defining the agenda of sociological research.” The government provides social scientists with generous funding to publish on “national research topics” (guojia keti). Social scientists and other academics are strongly urged to apply for state funding for these guojia keti projects, as a condition of their promotion. Recent sociology topics assigned by the Central Propaganda Department include research on a gross national happiness index, the theory of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and Internet social movements and their control. One social scientist says it is dispiriting how many in the field have been co-opted by the Communist Party.
The state routinely censors social scientists who use words viewed as politically inflammatory. The Chinese word for totalitarianism, for example, is jiquanzhuyi, which translates literally as “extreme power – ism.” The Central Propaganda Department bans the use of jiquanzhuyi in reference to China, so some sociologists use the word gongtongzhuyi or “together – ism” instead.
Tsinghua University sociologists published a report on stability maintenance (weiwen) in 2010, revealing that China spent as much money on internal security as it did on national defense (see chinaelectionsblog.net/?p=5220). Since then, China’s internal security budget has exceeded the military budget. The report detailed ways in which the state’s obsession with maintaining stability caused a vicious cycle of instability and conflict. One sociologist who has briefed senior leaders said that they “were not happy” about the weiwen report. “You have to know when the leaders are receptive to your ideas and when they do not want you to push,” said the sociologist.
In 2005, Chinese President Hu Jintao announced that the “spring of sociology” is coming. Yet with the heavy surveillance on campuses over the past year, this “spring” has at times felt like a deep freeze. Last February, a classmate of mine received a call from a security agent asking the student to report on anyone participating in online appeals for a Chinese social movement inspired by the Arab Spring protests. “This is the first I’ve heard of it,” replied the student. Security police called in a social science professor to “drink tea” (a euphemism for interrogation). The police warned the professor not to speak or write about “sensitive” topics. This professor’s latest book cannot be published in China and the individual’s Sina Weibo Internet account—the Chinese version of Twitter—has been shut down.
The harassment and silencing of Chinese academics appear to be increasing as China prepares for a crucial leadership transition at the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party later this year. Vice-President Xi recently ordered universities to tighten “ideological control” over students and faculty (see http://tgr.ph/xym2BZ). Xi said “powerful measures needed to be taken to maintain harmony and stability at universities,” according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
Given the heightened intervention of the government, it should be no surprise that some social scientists are very pessimistic about the future of China. Many continue to push against the political boundaries, however. Some are able to get away with pointed criticism of government policies in Chinese-language publications, while others turn to English-language journals to publish work that would never be permitted in China. These social scientists withstand enormous pressure from the state and carry out their research with a sense of grave responsibility, which inspires my deepest respect.
Leta Hong Fincher is the first American doctoral student in Tsinghua University’s Department of Sociology. Her PhD thesis is Brides, Billionaires and Buildings: the Gendering of Real Estate in Postsocialist China. She has an MA in East Asian Studies from Stanford University and a BA magna cum laude from Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter @letahong.
Footnotes invites contributions from knowledgeable non-North American sociologists on the state of the discipline and profession of sociology in countries outside North America for publication in the new occasional column, “International Perspectives.” Sociological analyses of significant national events in these countries that would be of interest to North American sociologists are welcome for publication. Original contributions must be in English and no more than 1,100 words. To discuss possible contributions or send material, contact Johanna Olexy (email@example.com).