May-June 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 5

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International Perspectives

Between Public and Professional: Chinese Sociology and
the Construction of a
Harmonious Society

by Xiaogang Wu, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Unlike American colleagues who lament their invisibility in the Ivory Tower and who only recently called for a public sociology, Chinese sociologists are very involved in the society they study, either through policy research consultation for the government or through public discussion and contributing essays to the mass media. Sociology in China, since its re-establishment in 1979, has been deeply imprinted by an applied orientation, mixed with what Michael Burawoy called policy and public sociologies. This orientation can be traced back even further to the older generation of Chinese sociologists, influenced by the Confucian tradition, who believed in a mission of using their professional knowledge to advance the social well-being.

From Being Abolished to a "Spring of Sociology"

To be sure, the fall and rise of Chinese sociology has been strongly influenced by politics and the Chinese Communist Party’s policy agenda from time to time. Sociology was denounced as a bourgeois science and abolished in 1952. In 1979, after Deng Xiaoping, the leader of China from 1978 to the early 1990s, acknowledged the neglect of sociology in China in the past and called for "catching up," sociology was re-established as a discipline with much focus on policy-oriented, empirical-based research. To justify the existence of their discipline, Chinese sociologists stressed the notion of "problem consciousness" and actively attempted to use their knowledge to give advice on various critical issues that the country faced. A landmark project in the early 1980s, led by China’s prominent sociologist Fei Xiaotong (1910-2005), was on the development of "small towns," focusing on the path of urbanization for a country with a huge rural population. The findings of the project had a large impact on government policies on rural industrialization and population migration in China. The sociology major was able to recruit talented students in the 1980s, and graduates usually had good careers in government or educational institutions.

The development of Chinese sociology had experienced a setback after the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989. With the suspicion by the regime that sociology was a politically sensitive discipline and with the further economic marketization since 1992, sociological research was sidelined for a decade or so, in sharp contrast to the booming economic research in China. Hence, Chinese sociologists should have been encouraged to observe the recent policy initiatives on the construction of "a harmonious society" (hexie shehui) under the leadership of Hu Jintao (China’s President) and Wen Jiabao (China’s Premier). Recently, development priorities have gradually shifted from over-emphasis on efficiency and growth to social justice and harmony, with aims to reduce social tension and maintain political stability. On February 21, 2005, after a lecture presented by two sociologists to the members of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, President Hu Jintao remarked that "the construction of a harmonious society is a very good opportunity for the development of sociology, or we can say that the spring of sociology is coming!" Sociologists are expected to play a significant role in setting China’s policy agenda on education, employment, income distribution, social security, public health, and community governance in the future.

Research Interests and Agendas

china.gif "Sociologists are expected to play a significant role in setting China’s policy agenda on education, employment, income distribution, social security, public health, and community governance in the future."


Against this context, Chinese sociologists’ research interests are generally concentrated in three areas: Social stratification and mobility, community construction, and migration. In the first area, an influential project, led by Lu Xueyi at the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS), shows that, after 30 years of economic reforms, Chinese society has differentiated into 10 strata (classes), with state cadres on the top and peasants on the bottom. Special attention is paid to the emergence of a new middle class, especially its members’ values and their identities. In the second area, with the decline of work units (danwei), the commercialization of housing allocation, and the development of the real estate market, sociologists are now analyzing the community as the basic unit of social administration in urban China. Finally, waves of internal rural-to-urban migration have generated a large number of policy-oriented sociological studies on the minggong (peasant-workers) since the mid-1990s.

While sociology in China could not have survived and grown without the blessing from the state, it would be naïve to assume that the sociological research agenda entirely follows the party’s policy initiatives or ideological teachings. Scholars are vigilant in their attempts to avoid controversial, theoretical issues and focus on empirical research through large-scale surveys or case studies. Western (American) academic jargon and neutral terms are more favorably used than Marxist clichés in sociological writings. A typical example is the choice of the term "strata" instead of "class" by the CASS stratification project on the grounds that the latter has roots in Marxism, which emphasizes conflicts of interest, antagonism, and struggles among social groups. On the other hand, by recognizing diverse interest groups in a rapidly changing society, and under pressure from aggrieved citizens, laid-off state workers, rural migrant workers, villagers, and middle class homeowners, the current leadership has begun to adopt a pragmatic attitude towards social conflicts and has given more room to research on social movements and collective action from the standpoint of maintaining social stability.

To the young generation of scholars trained in the discipline, sociology is not only a tool for resolving the problems of Chinese society, it is also a scientific discipline with its own agenda and standards. Despite a proliferation of empirical research in the 1980s and 1990s, not much sociological knowledge had been accumulated because many projects have tended to be on similar topics without clear theoretical guidelines and appropriate research designs. Hence, there is a pressing need in China to institutionalize sociological research, to establish an evaluation system to assess the quality of scholarly work, to develop shared standards of sociological research, and to disseminate sociological knowledge. Universities and social science academies—the two types of institutions in China that employ over 6,000 professional sociologists—have gradually differentiated their roles, with the latter more focused on policy research and government consultation and the former on academic research. As of 2008, within Chinese universities, 74 programs offered bachelor’s degrees in sociology, 87 offered master’s degrees, and 16 offered doctoral degrees. Qualitative and case studies continue to prevail in empirical investigations.

The Central Government’s Role

The greatest impetus for the professionalization of sociology comes from the central government’s initiatives to build programs of academic excellence. The "985 Project" identified the best universities to enhance the first-rate quality of the country’s academic research, whereas the "211 Project," which sought to strengthen a number of higher learning institutions and disciplinary areas, selected two top sociology programs (at Renmin and Peking Universities), among 98 others programs, as the recipients of infrastructure building through data collection, course training, and international collaboration. For example, Renmin University, in collaboration with Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has launched and run the Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS) since 2003; Peking University is home to the Chinese Family Panel Studies (CFPS) project, a long-term project (2008 to 2020), as well as a summer training program with the University of Michigan on quantitative methodology since 2006. Following international practices, the CGSS and CFPS data sets will be available to other users and will become major pubic goods to benefit the social science research community both inside and outside China.

With sharpened professional skills, increased interactions with the international research community, and local insights, Chinese sociologists are now in a unique position to study the monumental social changes in human history, and they will likely make important contributions to sociological knowledge. Their sociological imagination cannot be tamed by political force, and their professional research will not make them disappear within the Ivory Tower, but, rather, earn them greater confidence in addressing critical issues that China is now facing. The recent importation of the American version of public sociology, if not entirely counter-productive, will unlikely change the trend of professionalization of
Chinese sociology. logo_small

The author can be contacted at: Social Science Division, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, Hong Kong;


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