Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Why Are China Studies So Contentious?

Shaomin Li

Studying China can be contentious. I have been in China study seminars that were as confrontational as sessions of U.S. Congress. A primary reason for the contentiousness is that people study China from different perspectives. Here are two major perspectives: the China-centric and the other-country-centric perspectives.

The China-Centric Perspective

This perspective emerged in the late 1970s after Mao Zedong died in 1976, when China’s economy was on the verge of a total collapse due to years of communism. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) started economic reform and opening up, China’s economy was weak and small. The democracies welcomed China’s change and were eager to help, even though China was still a communist state. The help from the advanced economies ranged from investment, management know-how, science and technology, and education, and born with this effort was the China-centric perspective.

The primary objective of the China-centric perspective is China’s economic growth and development. The key questions for this perspective are: How can we help China develop? What is the institutional arrangement most conducive to China’s economic growth? What are political and economic policies best for the development of the Chinese economy?

Within the China-centric perspective, there are two competing views on what factors affect (or contribute to) China’s economic growth. One emphasizes the role of the state, and the other the market.

The first view, which has been called “the China model view,” believes that China’s rapid economic growth is the result of the unique model that China has been following, characterized by one-party rule, state intervention in economic activities, the dominance of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and well-designed industrial policies.

The second view, or “the universal model view,” argues that the way in which China achieved its economic development is just the same as what the mature free-market economies did earlier–by protecting private property rights and relying on the market.

The democracies held “the engagement view.” This view believed that we should engage with China even though China was still under communist dictatorship. With economic development aided by the democracies, a middle class would emerge, and they would be a powerful force for democratization.

The Rise of Other Countries’ Perspective

After four decades of rapid economic growth, China’s economy has reached $23 trillion (based on purchasing power parity), larger than that of the U.S. ($20 trillion), with a per capita income of $16,700 and a huge middle class (estimated to be 400 million people). But democratization, as hoped for by the engagement view, did not happen because the newly emerged middle class in China is totally controlled by and dependent on the CCP, which I will discuss in another blog post.

Internationally, the CCP uses China’s huge market power, financial resources, and military force to promote its version of the world’s order and influence other countries. This prompted an increasing number of China scholars to examine how China affects their countries, and the other-country-centric perspective emerged. The CCP does not like this perspective because it labels any criticisms of its policies as “anti-China.” The scholars who hold the other countries’ perspective do not discriminate against the Chinese people or culture; they are concerned about how the political and economic policies of the CCP affect their welfare, and therefore they are not anti-China. Given China’s enormous size and powerful influence, studying China from the other countries’ perspective is warranted and imperative.

Unfortunately, when scholars of the two perspectives convene, they tend to clash, which is not surprising. Strictly speaking, scholars from different perspectives cannot have meaningful discussions since their assumptions and objectives are different or even opposite. If the China-centric view believes China’s development is the only goal, and China is entitled to achieve its destination without any constraints, and the other countries’ view believes that China must be subject to the rule of law and should not harm other countries in its pursuit of development, there would be little overlap between the two.

Based on the above analysis, my question to our community here is: How can we find common ground between the two perspectives?

The Rise of China, Inc. by Shaomin Li

About The Author

Shaomin Li

Shaomin Li is Eminent Scholar and Professor of International Business at Old Dominion University’s Strome College of Business. He is the author of Bribery and Corruption in Weak ...

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