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Globalization and 'Chinese Experience'

By Li Peilin

The globalization and the diversification of the social cultures are the two dimensions of same development trend. The globalization is not given by the determinism of history, but constituted by the social action of human being, based on the development experiences of all countries. The "Chinese experience" is also one part of contribution to the constitution of globalization.

The Chinese economy has now entered a new cycle of rapid growth. At this critical point, China has proposed five "overall developments" in the areas of rural-urban, inter-regional, socio-economic, human-natural, and domestic development-open to the world. The emergence of this new strategic thinking and shift in policy issues has stimulated a heated discussion among intellectuals as well as among the general public. Its emphasis on a humanistic, holistic, coordinate and sustainable view of development marks a major breakthrough in developmental strategy that is based on "Chinese experience". It is this "Chinese experience" that provides significant theoretical implications for the scientific approach to development to be further examined.

To sociologists, harmonious development is by no means a new idea. The past 160 years has witnessed the classical sociologists repeatedly advocated the themes of harmony, order and progress. Basic concepts in social sciences, such as "harmony" in sociology, "balance" in economics, "justice" in the science of law, and "cooperation" in political science, all express similar ideas to that of the scientific approach to development. But in the real world, harmony, balance, justice and cooperation in the absolute sense could never possibly exist. Too much emphasis on harmony or balance would lead to egalitarianism and result in the lack of stimulation and vitality. Therefore, in many cases, it becomes necessary to break with the seemingly harmony and balance. The economic reform and open door policy in China introduced market mechanisms, broke the "eating from the same big pot" notion, and allowed some people to "get rich first." All these policies involved the abolishment of absolute egalitarianism, the increase of competitive incentives, and development at an accelerated speed. This unconventional approach to development, however, has caused many problems, i.e. maladjustment and imbalance, very severe ones in some areas. It is this background against which we may argue the essence and value of the new strategic thinking of development is derived from the "Chinese experience."

It is noteworthy that among the China observers, those from outside seem to be more optimistic about the prospect of China than those inside of china. Although some do argue that "China will crash" or "China's growth has been exaggerated," many more hold that China's unconventional approach to development will modify the existing economic and political power structure of the world. China observers, regardless their positive views (e.g. "China is a miracle" and "China is rising.") or negative views (e.g. "China will be a threat"), all hold that China's rise is inevitable. As they draw upon the historical experiences, they are most concerned that China's rise will bring about unpredictable consequences for the economic and political structure in the world. Nevertheless, China observers residing in China, whose extensive firsthand experience gives them insights beyond the growth of the GDP, are more concerned with the severe problems such as unemployment, unfair distribution of income and wealth, rural-urban gap, heavy burden of social security, and corruption.

As the most populous country in the world, China has 1.3 billion people, which makes a qualitative difference in many matters. Any common practice of development would become irrelevant once the 1.3 billion people are taken into consideration. Any magnificent accomplishments for a country with fewer people may become insignificant for China, while any minor issue could generate explosive effect when multiplied by the 1.3 billion people. Take the growth of the GDP for example. It has recently been said that "China is rising while Japan is sinking." However, with the 8 million population growth in China per year, China's GDP per person is only 1/30 that of Japan. The 8 percent seemingly high economic growth rate of China is only equivalent to 2 percent in Japan. Other seemingly insignificant issues such as AIDS epidemic and imbalanced sex ratio of infants may have explosive effect because of the vast size of the Chinese population.

In another word, what is being stressed here is the significance of the "Chinese experience", which will no doubt modify theories on modernization and globalization, as well as many of the generally accepted ideas in social sciences, at least in my own discipline of sociology. This is because the extraordinary development of a super-large country with 1.3 billion people such as China will provide fresh experiences exceeding those emerged in the "normal society."

The mainstream sociology has long focused on the study of the "normal society". Under ordinary circumstances, social change and transformation follow certain routine patterns, resulting from long term accumulated alterations. The mainstream sociologists generally believe in the power of rationality and the orderly transformation of society. They argue that, in the area of social change, drastic transformation without cause-effect relationships is nonexistent. Even the specialized fields on social problems such as the sociology of deviance or the sociology of disasters deal with "normal society". The problems of unemployment, overpopulation, inequality, poverty, diseases, crime, lack of educational resources or opportunities, insufficient social security, and environmental pollutions are simply regarded as "anomies" in "normal society".

In addition, the international community of sociology has long been overly optimistic about the prospect of the future society. From D. Bell's Coming of Post-Industrial Society, A. Toffler's Future Shock, to M. Castells' Rise of the Network Society, all described the exciting prospect of the information society. It has been argued that human conquest of the nature and control of the social development will continuously generate triumphant results, and new technological breakthrough will spontaneously solve problems that have long troubled us. Of course, more pessimistic schools of thoughts did appear in the international community of sociology. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the developed countries celebrated the "golden age" of high economic growth and mass consumption, the "Roman Club" published the report of "The Limits to Growth", which issued alarming warnings with respect to rapid population growth, resources scarcity, environmental pollution, and ecological damage. In recently years, scholars issued warnings from the cultural perspective, e.g. S. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order and F. Fukuyama's Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order. Nevertheless, these warnings were often excluded from the "normal research" of intellectual mainstream in academic fields, to which these transient "clouds" will soon clear up because human rationality has hardly any limit. If coal is exhausted, there is oil. When oil is exhausted, there is nuclear power. Not until the prominent German sociologist U. Beck and British sociologist A. Giddens proposed the Risk Society theory, did the international sociological community begin to seriously ponder whether we are indeed confronted with a Risk Society, distinctively different from the conventional "Normal Society". This issue has yet to catch the attention of Chinese sociologists since their attention has primarily focused on the drastic economic growth and problems emerged during the opening up of the society. They have yet to reflect on the implications of the Risk Society theory for China's development.

The concept of the "Chinese experience" is very crucial to the understanding of China's new strategic thinking of development. It will allow us to find the threshold of social risks during the social transformation. Take for example the gap between the rich and the poor. According to the research of S. Kuznets, the evolution of the gap takes the shape of a reverse "U" curve, corresponding to the economic development of a given country. In another word, the gap increases with the economic growth, and then, at a certain point (e.g. GDP of $1,000 per person), begins to decrease. This is due to the ceased population growth, shortage of labor, the negotiation and bargaining power of labor would be greatly enhanced, thus results in the growth of gains of the labor and the decline of the capital gains. But the situation in China is rather unique. With an almost infinite labor supply, although the gains from the capital and technology have increased dramatically, the wages of the unskilled laborers have hardly changed at all for the past decade. The rural-migrant laborers have to seek assistance from the government to protect their rights. The gap between the rich and the poor appears to still increase rapidly. Another example is grain. As early as twenty years ago, China's food shortage became a general concern. In fact, China's cultivated land decreases each year in large quantity along with the continued population increase. But China has not suffered from grain shortage and the price of the grain has not soared even without the dramatic increase of the import. Why? The changing consumption patterns of millions of people have made a great difference. The drastically increased supply of seafood, vegetables, fruits and milk products led to the decreased consumption of grains per person in urban areas from 150 kilograms 20 years ago to fewer than 80 kilograms today. The point being made here is not that grain reserves are not important. In my opinion, the real threat to China's grain security is that "low price of the grains hurts farmers" which results in the abandonment of land, rather than the changing structure of grain growth. Another example is the AIDS epidemics. China in the past did not acknowledge this problem publicly. Now the China has openly declared war against the AIDS epidemics since the recent SARS crisis has taught us a severe lesson: In a huge country with extremely high population density like China, even though the 840 thousand people with HIV account for only less than 1 percent of the total population, it is totally unclear under what circumstances the disease would spread at an unusually accelerated speed. In a word, China's vast population size not only contains high degrees of suddenness, uncertainty and unpredictability of the social risks during the development, but also imposes challenges to the tested findings in social sciences as well.

The new strategic thinking of development grounded in the "Chinese experience" will point to a new development road of China. In the international arena, it signifies certain changes in the economic and political structure of the world, which will contribute to peace, stability and progress rather than threat. For China herself, it will take the road to the coordinate development between economy and population, resources and the environment, to the socialist market economy with distinctive Chinese characteristics, and to the shared prosperity with strong forces of social stimulation, and to the prevention of significant imbalance among economy, society and nature, and possible direction of the crony capitalism.

The author is a researcher of Institute of Sociology under Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China.org.cn July 13, 2004)

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