Pragmatism sets tone for political studies in new era

BY LIN YI | 11-01-2018
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Citizens cast their votes for deputies to the local people’s congress in Baokang County, Hubei Province. Photo: CHINA DAILY 


For China, a great political power and an ancient institutional civilization, a lack of political thought and practice is never the main obstacle to the development of political science research. In analyzing Chinese academia’s inability to vocalize theory, it is worth noting that the Westernization of the Chinese way of thinking and value orientation has a more profound impact on the overall approach and future prospect of Chinese theory than the adoption of Western practice superficially.

This influence is in one way reflected in the fact that some Chinese scholars in the mainstream Western academic circle adopt the “logic comes first” mindset. When carrying out political analysis, they put less emphasis on objective facts and historical logic; instead they are accustome

d to reiterating “common sense” originated from the West in the Chinese context.
This influence is in another way reflected in the fact that we seldom question the value premises and political orientation of Western mainstream political theory. We often have overly optimistic expectations about the value neutrality and scientific methods in Western research. In fact, ideological differences aside, it is rather doubtful whether mainstream Western theories can maintain a detached stance when analyzing non-Western issues.


Innovation is key
Criticism and deconstruction is only the first step to removing obstacles for the formation of revolutionary and constructive dimensions. To reflect on Western mainstream theory and its influence on the development of Chinese political studies does not mean to launch a de-Westernization campaign.

Instead, the construction of a Chinese theoretical system really needs to accomplish a task of “disenchantment.” We still need the modern scientific thinking carried by Western theories to dispel the agnosticism shrouded in pre-modern social and political views. However, the scientific and practical nature of political science should be comprehensively studied.

Political science is rooted in reality, so the creation of Chinese political science theory should take serving China’s reform and promoting China’s development as its primary standard. It requires Chinese scholars to consciously throw away their crutches, think independently and, more importantly, strike up an equal dialogue with their counterparts in the West, so as to come up with a Chinese theoretical system that is more explanatory and practical than Western theories.

To make up for the lack of practical theory, we need to stimulate the sources of innovation for Chinese political studies, beginning with innovation in topics and research paradigms. Practice has proven that it is not feasible to directly measure China’s reality with the existing theoretical framework. The really valuable, critical issues that Chinese political theory needs to answer are often not discovered by our Western counterparts, but drawn from the ever-changing world of Chinese experience and condensed from China’s unique ideas and cultural traditions.


New research paradigm
In order to offer a scientific and practical response to emerging problems in China, it is necessary to innovate with the research paradigm of Chinese political studies, in the following aspects specifically.

The localized innovation of theory does not mean simply replacing the Western cases in the existing Western theoretical framework with Chinese cases, nor does it mean replacing the normative theoretical construction with the propaganda different from academic discourse. It is necessary for Chinese scholars to explore the establishment of domestic research paradigms that have stable cores and a self-renewing vitality.

In Chinese political studies, it is common practice to establish a self-consistent causal association among some systems, performance evaluations and contradictory phenomena for the convenience of comparative research, while ignoring the universal laws behind the differences. In view of this, for the discipline to embark on a path different from that of the West, we must avoid the malpractice of distorting history and replacing experience with logic.
Careful use and interpretation of some basic concepts and presuppositions should be included in the innovation of the Chinese political science research paradigm. For those concepts that are unclear or harmful to the interpretation of China’s problems, it is better to abandon them rather than force them to be localized for the sake of engaging in dialogue.

Under this premise, it is also necessary to systematically reinterpret some basic presuppositions and thinking patterns implied in Western mainstream political theories. In short, the systematic innovation of academic concepts and research methods is absolutely necessary. Only in this way can we clarify the nature of the China problem and China approach in the discussion of those universal problems.


Serving reality 
In this era, the pragmatism of Chinese political studies depends both on the extent to which the discipline can dominate the discourse and the extent to which it can better solve China’s problems.

In fact, discourse hegemony exists not only in class-based society, but also in the possibility that different theories and different civilizations influence the direction of history.

Therefore, in order to avoid the trap in the Western theory and system of believing the system affects the historical trend according to the predetermined track of political correctness, and even to offer solutions to overcome the crisis of the Western model and Westernization, it is necessary to explore theoretical construction and practical experience outside the West.

As a civil society with profound political practices and a non-Western path of political development, China naturally shoulders this historical responsibility. Only through reinterpreting Western concepts, Westernization and the crisis in the Western world can Chinese political science do the research to summarize the universal laws of human political development.

It is possible to get some inspiration from the deep insights of existing theories, but real theoretical innovation should follow the original research process of those existing theories—political reality. At present, China’s reform and development is still in progress, which means there will be a lot of new problems and contradictions. Therefore, whether these new problems and contradictions can be explained and solved more reasonably has become a major question in Chinese political studies.

If our understanding of the law of social growth in China is truly consistent with China’s cultural traditions, realistic demands and value orientation, China’s social construction may effectively avoid some risks and take fewer detours in the future. To say the least, we need to shift from studies of knowledge to a problem-oriented research.

The value orientation of constructiveness and practicality should be emphasized in the assembly of a mature Chinese theoretical system. This is because, whether viewed from the historical conditions of China’s political development or today’s actual needs, there is no reason for us to separate the development of disciplines, academic prosperity, national progress and people’s well-being.

The significance of exploring the academic and discourse system of political science lies in its realistic application in national political development and the improvement of political life and the life quality of the people.

This is the best of times, because Chinese political scholars no longer have to bear the heavy historical burden of their predecessors to catch up with the West. In the new era, reflection on Western models and theory stands beside the construction of innovative and practical theories in China, and each constitutes a complete logical path. Needless to say, this is a difficult task.
Chinese political science research should not only aim to solve problems in China, but also spearhead a higher level of scientific revolution and contribute more to the study of the political development of all mankind.


Lin Yi is from the School of Marxism at Tsinghua University.

​(edited by CHEN MIRONG)

(Chinese Social Sciences Today)