A little while ago, Professor Gong Fangbing of the Chinese National Defence University became the subject of widespread mockery, after he published an article claiming that the development of democracy in China is held back because insufficient theoretical preparations have been made so far. The phrase “because of insufficient theory”, became a justification for a host of ills on social media platforms, ranging from the delay of trains to the dismal performance of China’s national football team. At the same time, this quote is actually rather revealing about how Chinese elites conceive their role in policymaking, their conception of society and the role of truth.
First and foremost, there seems to be a fundamental belief or assumption in these circles that, in the same way that the natural world is underpinned by laws that can be understood and used to predict future phenomena, there are “rules” which govern the development of societies. The objective of scholarly research is to discover theses rules and provide suggestions on how they should be applied in reality. In the view of the present leadership, that structure is grounded by the basic principles of Marxism, or socialism with Chinese characteristics, as it is called now. This claim, that social theory can not only help in understanding and explaining the past and the present, but also reveals and determines the future, is based on the purported scientific nature of its historical and dialectical materialism. As a consequence, it is possible, in this view, to discover what should be done to develop society through diligent exegesis, theoretical study, or small-scale experiments, and to arrive at optimal solutions that benefit all. These assumptions run deeply into the language of Chinese politics. Even Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum, that China should “cross the river by feeling the stones”, presumes that the stones are there, that they each are within stepping distance of each other, and that the other side of the river is the destination to be reached.
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