SU CHANGHE: Time to step out of blind cult of Western system

By Su Changhe / 04-23-2014 / Chinese Social Sciences Today
Su Changhe
Political studies is the study of the state and how states govern. China is a nation with a long tradition of political civilization, thought and culture. Since the foundation of People's Republic of China in 1949, it has made especially remarkable achievements in state building. China's path and system have attracted the wordwide attention. Its governing ethos, principles, systems, methods and practice in particular have captured international academic interest. Both China's unique political practice and international academic attention created an opportune moment for building a system of discourse within Chinese political studies, and for its "going out".
Some may believe that in a strict sense, there is no "political studies" in China and that real political studies can only be borrowed from the West. The backwardness of Chinese political studies makes it impossible for it to have a fruitful dialogue with its counterparts outside of China, they contend. These arguments are completely erroneous. These conceptual problems need to be resolved before Chinese political science can successfully "go out" and engage in a global discussion of politics. First and foremost, researchers should "step out" of the blind cult of Western political studies and then "walk into" the practice of Chinese politics. Studying China should start from the experience of China in addition to the comparision between the East and the West. It is a path of moving from the specific to the general, a process for Chinese political studies "going out".
'Step out': independent awareness
It is not easy to step out of the hundred-year blind cult of Western politics. First, we need to develop an independent political awareness in our study of China. Second, we must comprehend both the broad outline and specific principles of political studies in other countries. Through comparative study, we can grasp the advantages and disadvantages of each country's political system. The last step is then to translate, digest and internalize the merits of foreign politics.
Stepping out of the blind cult of Western political science does not mean we have to completely negate or refuse to learn about the politics of other countries. Rather, we should adopt an independent spirit and continuously bring the best foreign ideas into use within China. In the era of economic globalization, if we do not understand other countries, we cannot deeply understand our own country. If we blindly worship Western political science, regarding it as the "sole benchmark", we will ultimately lose our sense of self. We might even lose our appreciation for the uniqueness and wholeness of the wisdom of the political science we have painstakingly produced, mistakenly regarding it as a component within another system.
Political studies is a discipline that often takes on a national character and cannot help but absorb certain values based on where it is practiced. We must therefore approach Western political studies with a critical eye, being careful to distinguish genuine scholarship from propaganda and general principles of governance from those with a specific political agenda. Research on freedom and democracy within American political theory, for example, is often heavily funded. To some extent, this research may serve the U.S.'s interest in terms of the image it creates, both domestically and internationally, while also constituting part of America's unique political ideology and the knowledge system for its international relations. If we cannot clearly perceive these questions of political essence, it will be very difficult to overcome the influence of other countries' political discourse and to appreciate that a world power like China should have its own distinct system of politics.
'Walk into': establish China's own discourse
The core of Chinese political studies is to penetrate Chinese politics and political practice through comparative study with foreign political systems. This will enable us to summarize the ethos, principles and systematic features of Chinese politics, and in turn, to establish China's own academic discourse on political studies and its own standards for interpreting China's political development. During the process of sticking to Chinese political studies, conceptual problems are still critical. If we cannot make a clear-cut judgment between Western and Chinese political standards when we study Chinese politics, the research will simply become an appendage or a footnote in other countries' political studies. In trying to "go out", Chinese politics would not go very far, very deep or for very long. What has been referred to as integrating Chinese and foreign political discourse does not mean catering to others' notions, but rather to use China's own values and concepts to explain clearly the general and specific principles of its own politics. From my own observations, reading and comparisons, since China began large-scale translation of Western works of political science, what we have most lacked is to use our own concepts toward changing our general principles and improving our abilities. This has led to us being constrained by or simply using other countries' political concepts to study national political practice. The key operative word here is "convert".
For instance, harmony and order are highly valued in the Chinese political ethos. Both are derived from political unity. For all countries throughout the world, developed or developing, political unity is an essential issue that needs to be resolved for their political development. Political polarization in the U.S. and political fragmentation in Ukraine and Thailand are present day cases of countries where political unity has been somewhat disrupted. Just because no clear definition of this concept can be found in a Western political science textbook does not mean we should write it off as "native" and give up using it in mainstream international politics. Actually, a comparable concept is also advocated in Western political study—"political consensu". If we conduct research based on these core concepts and use Chinese terminology to explicate the principles of Chinese politics, we will gradually form a sophisticated political discourse and amass a body of related research. Foreign students studying social sciences in Chinese universities often notice that reading lists are primarily composed of American books. Why not just have overseas studies in the U.S., they ask. This question is worth contemplating for academics in the social sciences, including political studies.
'Going out' : introduced internationally
Having established a discourse system for political ethos, principles and practice, our knowledge about Chinese politics can be elevated into general principles. We can finally achieve a systematic understanding of the knowledge and experience accrued from political practice in China, and gradually share this understanding. This will help China amass important resources for wielding international political influence. There are various solutions for Chinese political studies to "go out", one of which is translating domestic works into foreign languages. However, we must blend the momentum of China's "going out" with others' being "introduced in". In terms of the psychology of cultural acceptance, foreigners' innate curiosity will impel them actively to learn about China's political principles and knowledge. Something we tend to overlook is that political studies can more easily "go out" by using China's own political concepts to study the international community. This approach will be invigorating for China's international relations, particularly the study of global regions, development politics and comparative politics. Constructing China's own system of discourse while adhering to Chinese political values and concepts is therefore of paramount significance.
As China's system becomes more clearly defined and its governance grows more mature, Chinese politics and political studies are encountering more sound opportunities for development. Extracting and summarizing these experiences is the basis for China's participation in international academic discourse.
Su Changhe is the vice-dean and a professor of the School of International Relations and Public Af­fairs at Fudan University.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 578, March 31, 2014             

Translated by Bai Le

Revised by Charles Horne