Science for Rule - Scientific Thinking, Legitimacy of Rule, and Governance in the PRC (Wang Mingde)

Scientism & Political Culture

On China’s journey to modernization, one of the foremost departures from its past is the elevation of science and technology to the status of a new ‘national learning.’ Though China is still rather suspicious of Western political and cultural values to date, its scientific westernization — the import of the modern system of scientific thinking and education — has been profound and sweeping, nevertheless. Scientism, the idealization of science as an omnipotent force to transform society, has gained firm ground within Chinese society as well as within politics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Schwartz 1964; Zhang etc. 1997, Ouyang 2003). Since the initial Chinese debate between scientism and metaphysics in the 1920s, the CCP had already tied the attractive core of Marxism to science; and during the years after the Communist takeover of China, this Science-Marxism alignment was invoked over and over again for justifying their legitimacy of rule (Fan 2005).

Denoting the potency of scientism is the corresponding change of social and political landscape in Communist China. Following Maoist era, a nationwide reshuffle, starting under the reign of Deng Xiaoping has been sustained all the way through the years of economic reform to staff party and governmental positions with young, better educated cadres, mostly trained in natural and applied sciences (Lee 1991). Such a transformation for three decades, thereafter, has created a ‘full-fledged technocratic leadership’ under the administrations of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao (Li & White 1998; Yoon 2007). The rise of technocratic elites and their rapid ascendency to the dominant rank, however, are quite in line with the ‘outlook of scientific development (Kexue Fazhanguan)’ that constitutes the principle of the current CCP governance (CCCPC 2008a & 2008b). Furthermore, the changing pattern of elite recruitment goes hand in hand with the shift of the broader opportunity structure.[1] In both educational system and job market into the 1980s, for example, majors in science and technology had emerged as the most significant ladder of success, which were so much favoured over training in humanities. This psyche of science superiority probably could be best illustrated by a phrase widely circulated in Chinese society at that time — ‘The mastery of math, physics, and chemistry makes one invincible all over the world (Ma & Zhao 2007).’

As shown above, the rise of scientism and especially its spread in the post-Mao period of PRC have revealed its deep entanglement with politics. The close ties of science to political mobilization, social capital, and social mobility suggest reasonably its inability to stay away from state ideologies. Rather than being ‘neutral’ and ‘objective,’ science has been actively involved in the re-configuration of a modern political culture, as opposed to the country’s long-established Confucian tradition, where success in science and technology was viewed as a secondary achievement (Ho 1962). In this regard, both the two conceptual dimensions of ‘political culture’ — (1) belief systems that influence people’s options of political behavior (Geertz 1973; Elkins & Simeon 1979); and (2) interactions between culture and political institution (Moody 1994; Yu 2004) — invite meaningful examination upon the role that ‘science’ or ‘scientific knowledge’ may play in ideological terrains. This research, thus, focuses specifically on the following two questions:

1. What role did science play in the Communist political philosophy and especially the narratives of legitimacy from 1949 to the 1980s?

2. How did the internalized scientific discourse come to affect the elite mindset, hence, the logic and process of policymaking?

State of Research

The dynamics between science and political culture so far have been under-investigated in the field of Chinese politics. Relevant scholarship falls mainly into the study of Chinese technocracy and that of China’s political culture, as two independent fields. Researchers of the former watched closely the expanding body of technocrats (especially in the central leadership, like members of the CCP Politburo) over years, examining their educational background and accessing its institutional output upon the pattern and the style of the CCP decision-making process (Li &White 1998; Zhang 2001; Xu 2001). While generating valuable insights, many studies from this camp, however, tended to align themselves with the post-industrialist sociologists, and therefore somewhat take for granted the mutually exclusive relationship between technocracy and the orthodox ideology along with the advance of modernization (Li & White 1990).

On the other hand, scholars of political culture in the PRC have paid too much attention to its classical and revolutionary roots. Proponents of the mainstream approaches were used to looking for findings in individual and collective attitudes based on ‘abstract generalizations from Chinese history, literature, and contemporary politics,’ while some in particular turned their heads to the legacies of the class struggle and mass line in Maoist China (Moody 1994; Pye 1993; Wakeman 1993; Shapiro 2001; Perry 2002). Nevertheless, the massive cultural/political implications of the ‘scientific conquest’ of China have been left almost unexamined. Generally speaking, current scholarship in both arenas tends to obscure rather than shed more light on the promising linkage between science and political culture. Therefore, it is not unwarranted to take on a synthesis approach for conceptualization, hence, developing a new theoretical framework of the knowledge-politics relationship.[2]


Research Design & Data

In this project, the major theoretical concerns call for enquiry into both elite discourses and their public dissemination, standing at the crossroads of intellectual history and political science. The research design accordingly requires a methodological interdisciplinary basis. Consequently data of particular value fall in general under two categories: (1) sources concerning the intellectual construction of scientific discourse after the establishment of PRC; (2) sources reflecting the circulation of scientific discourse among elite circles and the propaganda and publishing systems of PRC.

The primary method employed to answer the first research question is discourse analysis. It is employed to identify, classify, and outline different narratives going on across groups, texts, and periods. In this step, the investigation effort is expected to picture piece by piece an overarching framework of master narratives of science in post-1949 China (if existing) and its variations, as well as its continuity or rupture across historical contexts. Nonetheless, as an effective method to improve data sampling and avoid selection bias, content analysis can also be supplementary in determining the relative weight of source content under examination. For example, this method is especially useful to compare the public influences of certain events, themes, and keywords regarding discussions of science in periodicals. Apart from narratives, however, effort should also be devoted to examining the structure and networks of institutions that functioned as distributors and propagators of scientific thinking and knowledge. With its focus on the time span from the 1950s to the 1980s, the Shanghai Academy of Social Science (SASS) collection contains large numbers of books, journals, handbooks, and propaganda pamphlets about the narratives and distribution of science, offering insights into both official policymaking and propaganda towards the masses. Such sources include Construction Planning of Big Chinese Cities [Woguo Dadushi zhi Jianshejihua] 1950; Selected Reports of Survey Trip on Foreign Agriculture [Guowai Nongye Kaochabaogao Xuanbian] 1979 (official report); Devoting Their Lives to Science [Wei Kexue Xianshen] 1980 (propaganda book); The Glorious Historical Objective of Scientific and Technological Workers [Kexuejishu Gongzuozhe Guangrong de Lishishiming] 1983 (collection of leader’s speeches); Science and Human [Kexue yu Ren] 1981 (magazine); and Science and Daily Life [Kexue yu Shenghuo] 1986 (magazine).

Moreover, of particular significance are related sources between 1958 and 1976 in the SASS collection. Partially owing to the fact that the CCP discourses of science under mass campaigns were overshadowed by revolutionary propaganda, relevant empirical examination on the two decades has remained rare. Instead, China watchers often point to a dichotomy between Maoism (which is often perceived as anti-intellectual, hence, anti-scientific [Fan Kexue]) and the pragmatism in the Post-Mao regime (which upholds the current technocratic rule) (Lee 1991; Zhang 2005). But the dichotomy turns out to be problematic, as one takes a close look at the social atmosphere around the end of the Cultural Revolution, where scientism had already been widespread. The interplay between science and Maoist revolutionary campaigns, therefore, particularly deserves re-evaluation, on a more systematic basis of empirical evidence.

In answering the second question it is reasonable to employ the method of comparative case study, which allows one to look into the decision making process of certain fields involving relevant discourses of science, and thus the ideological impact of it. A promising category of cases to examine, for instance, is the CCP policies of flood control. On the one hand, the need for flood control, as one of the greatest concerns for the Chinese civilization since ancient times, has deeply inscribed itself in China’s political tradition of maintaining the ‘mandate of heaven,’ making notable contributions to the basis of power for the country’s imperial or authoritarian style of rule; The control of rivers and the management of hydraulics, on the other hand, are increasingly drawing on scientific knowledge and technical expertise along with China’s course of modernization (Wittfogel 1963; Wong & Zhao 2001; Amelung 2000, 2002). This recurring theme in Chinese history thus provides a fertile ground for the case selection on important junctures of science, policymaking and political mobilization. Though previous studies have dealt with this topic, they were carried out largely with a concern for decision making processes (Ross 1983; Sullivan 1999; Yeh & Lewis 2004), and hence, had been seldom put under the theoretical perspective this project proposes. Yet, the SASS collection can be especially valuable in this respect, since it contains rich sources of flood control and hydraulic management. Books, collections of official discussion, and gazetteers cover a range of projects, such as the management of Huai River in early PRC (Great Project on Huai River [Weida de Zhihuai Gongcheng] 1952), the campaign set up to control Yellow River (Conquering Yellow River [Zhengfu Huanghe] 1955; People’s Yellow River [Renmin Huanghe] 1959; Long Journey along Yellow River [Huanghe Wanlixing] 1975), the Three Gorges Dam Project from the 1950s to 1980s (Collection of the Debates of Three Gorges [Sanxia Zhengmingji] 1986; The Challenge of Three Gorges [Sanxia de Tiaozhan] 1992), and local hydraulic works (Hydraulics is Vital to Agriculture [Shuili shi Nongye de Mingmai] 1973; Wujin County Record of Water Management [Wujinxian Shuilizhi] 1984).


[1] Opportunity structure refers to the external structures that constrain or expand the field of collective actions, e.g. social or political movements. See Wahlström & Peterson 2006.

[2] Though ‘science’ forms the core of such a knowledge-power relationship in modern China, it is also related to other fields, such as scientific management for today’s ‘market economic with Chinese characteristics.’