Understanding Contemporary China

istock_67881297_large-shanghai-asia-chinaOver the last decade or so China’s remarkable pace of growth and its rise as a major international superpower has been noted by many commentators. In this blog piece, Sabrina Ching Yuen Luk and Peter W. Preston unpack the logic of contemporary politics in China.

It is safe to say that China’s rise is reshaping the global system. China is exerting a significant impact on the global economy, is playing an increasing role in international politics and as outsiders discover its rich cultural history, its soft power is also growing. Every strategic move of China can have a profound impact on the world. The implications of China’s rise for the United States, Europe and the rest of the world are widely debated in the international community as well as within China. Countless Western commentators, scholars and government agencies have become cognizant of the need to understand China’s development, especially when economic and political opportunities presented by China become more visible in this interconnected world. It is clear that the country is quite different from those in the West. Its leaders propose building a ‘community of common destiny’ that seeks win-win cooperation and stable neighboring environment. They also speak of ‘peaceful rising’ or ‘peaceful development’, pointing to a benign future trajectory. Other observers are not so sure. So how should leaders worldwide and their wider populations make sense of China? How should they understand China correctly?

The Logic of Chinese Politics: Cores, Peripheries and Peaceful Rising had its occasion in our reactions to post-2008 commentary on China when two strands of overlapping discussion seemed to have taken root, with neither entirely convincing. On the one hand Washington-oriented commentators took the model of the West in general, and the United States more particularly, entirely for granted, a standard against which others, in this case China, could be judged, and thereafter, somewhat inevitably, found wanting. Chinese commentators responded to foreign criticism by celebrating the long history, culture and present achievements of contemporary China, offering a counter-narrative of success, albeit with some of the arguments being cast in aggressive nationalist term.

But when one stands back from these exchanges it is clear that the lines of commentary from Washington have been too skeptical while the lines of commentary from China have been far too unreservedly enthusiastic. In our work – offering neither partisan-boosting nor criticism – we have been concerned to uncover something of the underlying logic of Chinese politics. We have not asked whether China was about to collapse or make businessmen rich or take over global leadership, but rather, how it worked; what were the key structures, who were the key agents and thus what was the animating logic of the political system in China.

The approach adopted in our book is fundamentally interpretive. It is rooted in historical institutionalism along with culture critical analysis, and this approach directs attention to agents, their ideas, the institutional machineries that they construct and thereafter inhabit, and the subsequent patterns of policy action pursued over time. Contemporary political and policy debates among elites and masses can be understood as rooted in the unfolding historical development trajectory of the country, and, of course, it is within the framework of inherited institutions and inherited culture that the resources necessary to guide further change will be found.

In our book, we also acknowledge the notion of the shift to the modern world. However, this shift to the modern world is not a unitary process and nor is there a clear end-point as matters of political life are contingent.

It is clear that there is no ‘end of history’

We argue that each state within the contemporary world is in fact a variant form of those machineries necessary to constitute and lodge discrete polities within the complex modern world. This approach calls attention to the dynamics of the unfolding shift to the modern world in China. It calls attention to the shifting international contexts and domestic arrangements within which local political agents in China had to act, and it takes note of the goals that they pursued.

In this way, it seems to us, an analysis grounded in a distinct intellectual approach can be constructed which is both straightforward and realistic. China’s overall national strength has grown stronger. But it still has to address a wide range of domestic and foreign policy challenges in order to let its people become better off and secure friendship and partnership with its neighboring countries. In our book, we examine a range of hot topics in China, including Internet sovereignty, the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiatives and the South China Sea issue along with the problems of the elderly empty nesters and left-behind children.

The Logic of Chinese Politics: Cores, Peripheries and Peaceful Rising represents our current take on the logic of Chinese politics. We appreciate that there is much more to be said but we hope the book will offer some assistance to all those scholars, researchers and government officials, who wish to grasp the underlying logic of Chinese politics better to advance their own specialist understandings.

Sabrina Ching Yuen Luk, is Associate Professor at Kunming University of Science and Technology, China and Peter W. Preston, is Emeritus Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Birmingham, UK.



The Logic of Chinese Politics: Cores, Peripheries and Peaceful Rising is available now.

Chapter One: China and the Modern World is available to read free on Elgaronline




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