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In Search of A New China

March 27, 2010

In Search of A New China: State, Society and the Fate of Modern China

Zhou Guanghui (2000)

One of the central themes recurring in modern Chinese history is state building. The dream of a modern nation-state haunted the mind of Chinese who, troubled by serious crises at that time, were desperately seeking a solution. In contrast to this preoccupation with “state building,” the development of civil society, perhaps understandably, was never given enough attention. This striking asymmetry of the relationship between state and society decisively shaped the course of modern China. Yet its significance, although more or less noticed by scholars, has still remained obscure to students in this field. Two questions seem most interesting. First, why did state building become the most serious concern of the Chinese? Second, to what degree did state building account for the fate of modern China? By examining the past scholarship on the changing relationship between state and society from late Qing to the early period of the PRC, this paper attempts to offer some tentative answers.

A strong state vs. a weak society is a phenomenon of only recent origin: it emerged from the huge transformation of imperial China into a modern nation-state. The conventional picture of China in which a powerful state, owing to the need for public works and irrigation, was imposed on numerous scattered village communes, as Wittfogel argues in his famous hydraulic theory, has been proved a misleading one. It is true that the traditional Chinese state during some periods showed great capacity and ambition for managing and organizing the society, but during most of Chinese history the state let society organize itself, confined its functions to exploitation and control. The state power hardly extended beyond the county level – an arena dominated by local gentry. However, since late Qing a wave of various attempts, either successful or failed, were made to strengthen the state, which reached its peak when the CCP came to power. In Schurmann’s words, a new China – a China of organization, after more than a century of revolutionary changes, was finally brought to completion in 1949 (Schurmann, 1968: lii.). The state under the CCP profoundly changed the substance and form of Chinese society by creating and imposing a systematic structure of organization on the country.

The growing power of the state was even more impressive if we take into account John Fincher’s insightful observations. After examining the political provincialism during the decade before the Revolution of 1911, he notes that there was a competing expansion of power between the central government and the provincial assemblies. The new tone of politics was marked by those well-organized and powerful political interest groups genuinely independent of the government. This even leads him to conclude that as the sudden development of provincial politics, in China there existed both a strong state and a strong society (Mary Wright, 1968: 224). If this was the case, one may wonder whether or not there was a chance for China to develop a strong civil society, or what caused the ascendancy of the state over society.

However, if we examine the history of modern China, there was really little room for the growth of a civil society. The unique historical circumstances strongly favored the building of a strong state at the expense of the individuals and the society. Here I will discuss several mechanisms and see how they led to the concentration of power in the hands of the state.

In the first place, the particular mode of modernization or whatever you may call it taken by the Chinese precisely placed the state on the spotlight. The impacts of the West on China, as Paul Cohen correctly points out, can not be exaggerated because the vast area of China for a long time was still beyond the influence of the West. But on the other hand, the encounter with the West did fundamentally change the course of Chinese history. With the collapse of its imperial world order where it was the center, China entered into a new “universal order” dominated by the West. This new order defined a linear historical development, according to which different countries and societies were scaled and placed in a hierarchical order, with the West occupying the highest rungs. China, which was once and forever deprived of her cultural superiority, underwent a painful experience before she came to realize that the adoption of the Western technology, institution, and even morals was indispensable for her existence. Using Feurerwerker’s words, industrialization (modernization) in the broad sense had become the normative development to be expected if China’s traditional society were to adapt to the demands of the modern world (Feuerwerker, 1958: 8).

But modernization would not necessarily give rise to a strong state if there were no need for a rapid speed. In Western Europe, modernization was actually a quite gradual and slow process. And unlike Eastern European countries, i.e. Russia, where the state loomed large, there were strong civil societies in England, France and other Western European countries. Only when modernization needed to be accomplished within a short time, did the state find its full expressions, for the state, due to its monopoly of coercive power, was considered more capable of pooling resources and more effective in social mobilization than the society. As a later comer threatened by a series of crises, China especially needed a speedy modernization more urgently than any one else. As a result, the state assumed for itself the role of powerful engine for dramatic social changes; and the bureaucracy controlled the best economic opportunities.

In addition to this irresistible “pull” from the state, there was also a great “push” from the society. Chinese society, as described by Sun Yat-sen, looked like a sheet of loose sand. Isolated from each other and without cohesion, the society appeared “powerless” and incapable of making any effective response to the crises facing China at that time. A quite popular view among the Chinese intellectuals is that the strength of social classes, in particular the bourgeoisie, was very weak. “If one word had to be chosen to characterize the Chinese bourgeoisie at the outbreak of the 1911 Revolution, it would be weakness. This weakness was directly linked with the economic backwardness of China” (Mary Wright, 1968: 230). After the 1911 Revolution, that the bourgeoisie was a weak class was still a widely accepted fact. This can be clearly seen from Mao Zedong’s influential analysis of the Chinese social classes. (Schram, 1968) Paradoxically, while the weakness of social classes was considered one of the reasons for the economic backwardness of China, there seldom were attempts at “society building.” The development of a civil society was never encouraged; more often than not, it was restricted by the state. In turn, by keeping social classes weak, the state appeared to stand out above the universal level of social abasement and was alone capable of creating a new China.

The preoccupation with the state is also supported by the examples set up by Japan. Despite the dark side of its modernization, Japan was nevertheless considered the only non-Western country that succeeded in its modernization projects. What impressed the Chinese most was the role the authoritative state played during the Meiji Restoration. Perhaps it is little surprising that in the reform movement of 1898, Japan’s experience seemed especially appealing to such reformers as Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao and Huang Zunxian, who were eager to preserve the state, the race, and the religion through the building of a strong government.

Finally, considering the political disturbance and instability in the wake of the collapse of the Qing government, a strong state was deemed necessary to maintain social order. Once again, Fincher’s view on the relationship between the state and society during the late Qing period is worthy of mention. According to him, one of the important reasons that accounted for the subject of the society to the state lies in the chaos brought by “the military mob,” a product of the 1911 revolution. “The problem was not only how to control the mobs, but also how to control the apparatus for controlling the mobs while resisting foreign enemies” (Mary Wright, 1968: 225). In other words, the demands for both social order and for national pride necessitated new forms of organization at the cost of provincial parliament politics, a form that once allowed the growth of local civil society.


When the preoccupation with the state became one of the fundamental features of the consciousness of the Chinese people, individual liberty was no longer an end in itself, as treated in Western tradition of liberalism. It was merely a means to the advancement of the nation and beyond this to the purpose of the state. The fate of liberalism in China revealed this fact only too well – with the attempts at the building of a modern interventionist state, the rights of individual were doomed to be secondary, and the society a handmaid of the state.

The treatment of liberalism by Yan Fu vividly illustrates this. Yan Fu was perhaps one of the most influential thinkers during the late Qing period and his thought, which was mainly expressed in his translation of Western works, had a huge impact upon the intellectual current of his time. Bitterly disturbed by China’s current and future situation in a world governed by “the law of social Darwinism,” Yan turned to the West to search for China a wealth and power. Yen was no doubt deeply impressed with Western liberalism, yet for him, the key to understand liberalism is “social organism” in which the state was the brain governing the rest part of social body. Western liberalism, in his interpretation, was remarkable in that it was able to release individual energy that would be harnessed for the good of the state. As Schwartz points out, “what has not come through in Yen Fu’s perception is precisely that which is often considered to be the ultimate spiritual core of liberalism�the concept of the worth of persons within society as an end in itself” (Schwartz, 1964: 240). Yen Fu’s concept of liberalism highlighted individual as a means to the end of the state; beyond this individual liberty found little room in his intellectual world.

The May Fourth Movement, an intellectual revolution in modern China, as Chow Tse-tsung calls it, also witnessed a decisive shift from Western liberal democracy to Marxism-Leninism in which the state invariably took priority to individual rights. In his analysis of Hu shi and Chinese liberalism, Jerome Grieder believes that Chinese liberalism failed due to the inappropriate context. “Liberalism requires order,” but “Chinese life was steeped in violence and revolution” (Grieder, 1970: 345). Hu Shi, a believer of gradual and cautious political change, tried to reject the “abstractions” of Marxism and other “isms” but dismally found his liberal position had been rejected by most of his contemporaries. Yet in addition to violence and revolution that cost liberalism, the failure of Hu’s efforts was to a great degree due to the predominant sentiment among the Chinese intellectual that was characteristic of impatience with slow social change in China. As Chow put it, “another defect of the Chinese reformers of the period may have been over-confidence that what they thought was correct and good might be achieved in China in a short space of time. A lack of patience and persistence characterized their dealings with a number of difficult and complex problems” (Chow Tse-tsung, 1960: 366).

The intellectual experience of Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, two leading figures in the May Fourth Movement, clearly shows how Western liberalism did not work for China. Chen and Li both had sought light in the West. Their convert to the Marxism-Leninism, according to Schwartz, can be explained by their deep disillusion of Western democracy after 1919 when China again was humiliated at the hands of the West powers, and more interesting to us, by their commitment to a radical and total social transformation for China. It was precisely an all-embracing solution that Chen and Li were looking for. In this light, the “undramatic,” “gradualistic” program of liberalism “was unable to withstand the brilliant glare of the melodramatic Leninism” with its promise of a dramatic change (Schwartz, 1951: 26). The urgent need for a new China dwarfed perhaps the same important need for individual liberation. Chen and Li’s choice of Marxism-Leninism again revealed the greatest concern of Chinese intellectuals as well as ordinary people – the building of a strong state.


To what degree did the preoccupation with the state shape the fate of modern China? This is a difficult question that will perhaps never have satisfactory answers. Yet if we look at the huge efforts at modernization by the Chinese, their result was quite disappointing. Tongzhi Restoration, in Mary Wright’s view, failed because it was not able to effect the fundamental change necessary to keep their state alive in the modern world. The Nanjing decade between 1927 and 1937 was proved by Eastman an “abortive revolution.” The Great Leap-Forward under Mao, an ambitious attempt at rapid modernization, also ended in tragedy. One of the important reasons that account for the failure of China’s modernization, in my view, should be looked for within “the state approach” taken by the Chinese.

In his study of China’s early industrialization, Feuerwerker clearly shows how private enterprise activities suffered from the state “control” and “management.” Zhang Jian was a good example. Zhang was an advocate of private ownership and operation of new-type enterprises. However, his attempts to establish wholly private enterprises could be undertaken only with regard to the existing political framework, that is, with the sanction and assistance of the powerful provincial leaders who dominated late nineteenth-century China. The state appeared to encourage and sponsor a series of industrialization efforts, which could be seen from the industrial empire established by Sheng Xuanhuai. However Sheng’s enterprerial activities, if taken in the broad context of China’s modernization and if compared to Japan, was proved to be of little success. In Feuerwerker’s view, this clearly indicates the ineptness of the system of “guandu shangban” in which the state played a key role in supervising and controlling the merchant management. Under this system, the enterprises not only subject to bureaucratic methods in their management and the corollary deficiency in rationalized business practice, but also vulnerable to official extortion and power struggle between different political factions. Moreover, the monopoly privileges granted to certain enterprises put a severe restriction on private enterprises activities as a whole. Feuerwerker argues forcefully and with quite reason that “perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn” is the need for “institutional breakthrough” (Feuerwerker, 1958: 243). The state, while providing necessary institutional conditions for the market economy, should refrain itself from intervening private activities.

Eastman also illustrates how the KMT government, which favored an authoritative rule, failed in its modernization efforts. The regime, according to Eastman, was by no means lack of corruption, inefficiency, and repression. “The administration continued to be ineffective and corrupt; the regime had not begun to cope with the problems of rural masses; the process of cultural disintegration was not arrested, and the leadership’s reliance on the New Life Movement gave little promise of promising a sense of moral community; and the government never adequately resolved the problem of how to deal with the growing pressures for political participation” (Eastman, 1974: xiii). Yet all these problems perhaps were due to lack of a strong civil society. Under the KMT regime, the economy was firmly controlled by the well-known “bureaucratic capital.” Politically, liberal democracy only had shallow roots in China, and dictatorship found many advocates who sought an effective system of government and despaired of the inefficiency of democracy. However, just as Montesqiueu put it, power without check and balance will inevitably lead to corruption. Lack of effective check from the civil society, the KMT in fact was impossible to solve these problems that would finally cost their rule.

Unfortunately, when the state power expands and controls every aspect of social life, no matter how important or petty, there will be little room for the autonomy of civil society, and thus little possibility to check the government. In his study of American reformers in nationalist China, James Thomson shows how these reformers failed because of “the political contradictions the(ir) work entailed” (James C. Thomson: 1969). In some sense, their failure was unavoidable in that their work, independent of the KMT government, could not be permitted when everything should be controlled by the state. The development of this asymmetrical relationship between the state and society completely subjected the individuals to the state and suffocated initiatives and dynamics of the civil society. Perhaps this to some degree accounts for the “tragedy” of modern China, a view held by many Western scholars during the 1950s and 60s.


Albert Feuerwerker, China Early Industrialization: Sheng Hsuan-huai (1844-1916) and Mandarin Enterprise. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Benjamin Schwartz, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951.

Benjamin Schwartz, In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Chow Tse-tsung, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Franz Schurmann, Ideology and Organization in Communist China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

James Thomas, While China Faced West: American Reformers in Mationalist China, 1928-1937. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Jerome Grieder, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance: Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917-1938. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Lloyd Eastman, The Abortive Revolution: China Under Nationalist Rule, 1927-1937. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Mary Wright, The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957.

Mary Wright ed., China in Revolution: the First Phase, 1900-1913. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.

Stuart Schram, ed., The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung. New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publisher, 1968.

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