Chinese laboratory: Complex modern actor, sophisticated traditional practices Dra. Liska Gálvez

In Estudios, Política exterior by Xulio Ríos

Although China has become the world second largest economy and one of the most important player in the international affairs, the oversimplistic idea of ‘China’ can be enhanced by a deeper understanding of Chinese cultural values and its traditional practices. Not with the intention to look for some linkages between imperial’s rules and China’s current performance that justify Chinese practices, but in order to deepen our understanding of how the problem of Chinese is not simply culturalist, but persists in the present: while China has experienced a remarkable economic growth and modernization, together two concepts relation-based society and Civilization-State show the interplay of modern state and traditional practices in China’s identity. Not surprisingly, these two concepts had been a constant and featured the processes that in many respects are shaping the foundation of Chinese identity —means the framework within which Chinese locate themselves within a community.

Keywords: civilization-State, relation-based society, Tian Xia system



  1. The Chinese laboratory.
  2. Two often ignored concepts: Civilization-State and Relation-based society .
  3.  China: the civilization, the State and the Chinese identity.

 For many China is still a story of an uncomplete market with strong central planning economic led by an authoritarian regime which seeks for the strength of a centralized power while espousing socialism. Although China has become the world’s second largest economy and one of the most important players on the international stage, the over simplistic idea of ‘China’ can be enhanced by a deeper understanding of Chinese history, cultural values, practices and its performances. Indeed, China is far more than just the above quote. It has become a more complex and sophisticated practices that it was in the early 80’s when Deng Xiaoping launched China’s economic reform which created an open but superficial system defined by incomplete capitalism, forgotten socialism and authoritarian communism[1]. Further problems, defining China is raised by the fact that in the process of achieving modernity, traditional values and modern social forces are shaping its societal dilemmas.

It is difficult to go far into discuss of China without integrate its traditional practices and history. Not with the intention to look for some linkages between imperial’s rules and China’s current performance that justify Chinese practices, but in order to deepen our understanding of how the problem of Chinese is not simply culturalist, but persists in the present: while China has experienced remarkable economic growth and modernization, two traditional concepts —Relation-based society and Civilization-State —it’s modernization is still shape by the interplay of state policy and popular practices. Thus, China’s modernization and challenges are not only about the right-wing authoritarian party-state decisions, but also the interplay of modern state and traditional practices. Its current economic, political and socio dynamics have generated a variety of landscapes in its society. Not surprising given the drastic transitions that the modern Chinese state has undergone[2]. But where two often ignored concepts, —Relation-based society and Civilization-State, have been a constant and featured the processes that in many respects are shaping the foundation of Chinese identity —means the framework within which Chinese locate themselves within a community.


  1. The Chinese laboratory

One way to interpret China is as a laboratory. The country gives the appearance as a workshop of social and economic experiments where the future is combined with the past along with foreign ideas while a corporative state promotes modernization. And as in any laboratory, old, new, endogenous, exogenous and old-new mixed ideas are expected to be tested.

Just as the principle of process is central Taoism, the idea of this process is also fundamental to Chinese practices. The technocrats have created an institutionalized bureaucratic planning process – a laboratory – where Chinese technocrats rethink diverse policies (some of which have created contradictions and dualistic results), promote those that worked, and abandon those that failed. While the experiments of socio-economic phenomenon in the laboratory are far from perfect, the degree of adaptation, openness[3] and flexibility of the system is remarkable.

In that sense, Chinese practices need not be confined as homogeneous, monolithic and unique. From this perspective, China is often portrayed as unified whole in terms of its historical experience, in particular, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. This apparent homogenous does not consider the diversity of the citizens —domestic strangers (i.e., national minorities) and foreign brothers (i.e., overseas Chinese)—, regional variation throughout China’s territory and different performances of its enterprises. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a closer look at China show a much more diverse country  and it can be noticeable in several  aspects within China.

For instance, the economic growth has been marked by income and regional inequality[4]. With regard regional disparity, the “One China, Four worlds” (Hu, 2003)[5] described by Hu still vividly reflects  the regional gap in development[6]. Urban-rural gap is another difference that still exists in all provinces in China and this gap contributes more to the general disparity in China than regional inequality.

The hukou system[7] is another structural force that leads to deep division and inequality.  The well-known household registration system, defines their status as local or migrant and agricultural and non-agricultural. Different from the past, the hukou does not restrict the free movement of people, but it still has an important implication in provision of social welfare. For example, access to public welfare is limited to local urban hukou holders, while temporary rural migrant workers, since they do not hold local hukou, are not entitled to these subsidized public services[8].

In addition, Chinese diversity is also underlined by the internal ongoing debate on its economy and political system. Despite the limits on the sensitive issues and the impact of the government, intellectuals now have greater freedom in voicing their opinions than those in previous decades. And even though most of the intellectuals are government sponsored, an independent group of think-tanks have emerged along with the increasing network of policy advisors to China’s top leaders. These debates include a range of topics from deepening of market reform, to strategies on political norms and welfare reform. Most significant, is their diversity of methodology to approach a problem but keeping the nationalism as a common view.

One last point on Chinese heterogeneity is its enterprises’ performers and operations. The role of Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) on the economy, are still complex and still debated. Decades ago, its role as a tool to pursue social, industrial and foreign policy was undeniable. Even though SOEs are still powerful and the government continues owning and controlling strategically important firms, and that mean enjoying advantages in obtaining bank loans and regulatory approvals, its importance in the economy has been in a constant decline with the non-state sector taking a more active role. The current stage of the reform has grouped enterprises into one of the following three categories: state-owned, hybrid, and private, but in reality, as many Chinese social phenomenon, the blurring line between the state and the ownership make it difficult for researchers to define a clear categorization between SOE and non-state private enterprise. Contrary to popular claim that all Chinese enterprises are owned by the government, different ownership structures can be seen in Chinese companies’ world[9]. Thus, Chinese enterprise’s nature has been far from homogeneous and along with that, different in their operations and performances. Interestingly, SOE origins are as much political and welfare-providing units as they are economic entities. Their operations were not limited to the economy sphere, but to provide political representation of the state and basic social security, medical services, education, housing and cultural social amenities.

Because in all these phenomena there are palpable traditional elements, traditional values still matter to the analysis of Chinese practices. In the Chinese laboratory there are a variety of practices, experiences, local and regional realities, dichotomies, multiple approach and multidimensional tools, and a mixture of business performances where nativist and traditional values solutions, along with previous well selected, interpreted and adjusted foreign ideas are interacting in a complex dynamic  simulating the effects of the Yin Yang synergy. Rather than being opposites, in China these ideas are interwoven, separated only by a fine line and can easily trade places.

 2. Two often ignored concepts: Civilization-State and Relation-based society

A useful starting-point to understand the highly complex and increasingly sophisticated Chinese practices is provided by Pye in his analysis of the Chinese problems. In a detailed study of China’s state and society relations, Pye claims “to recognize that China is not just another nation-state in the family of nations. China is a civilization pretending to be a state” (Pye, 1990). Yet Chinese civilization is an uninterrupted civilization that extended from the first day of its formation to the modern era. The peculiar civilization-state is firmly entrenched in traditional Chinese practices and thoughts, which is seen in the strong sense of belonging to the culture, tradition, history, language and custom among Chinese people[10].

The concept of civilization-state has its origins in the notion of Tian Xia System (天下) (Zhou Dynasty – 1046-256 BC). Translated as “all-under-heaven”, it dates back to 3,000 years ago before China became a unified and unitary empire. According to Zhao Tingyang’s study, instead of the use of the force in at time of chaos and of their powerlessness, Zhou Dynasty’s solution was to establish a completeness system inclusive of all nations and a world, not restrictive to states matters, but extensive for all people. Even during the Qing dynasty, it was actually, as Miller described, neither superior military power nor assimilation but rather flexibility in political organization that allowed them to effectively govern for more than two centuries (Michael, 1972).

An important core of this completeness feature in the Tian Xia System is its relation dynamic. As can be seen through out history, an important feature of China is that the foundation of the society is neither individual based nor society-based but rather relationship-based (King, 1991: 30). What is central to Chinese society is the quality of human relationship where the self-realization can be achieved only through as a social being, means as a member of a group.  In Fei’s words, “Chinese society was constructed according to a differential mode of association” (Fei, 1992:62-3). In this concept, there are no fixed groups with the defined memberships, but rather, myriads of overlapping networks of relationships. This considerable emphasis on the primacy of social relationships has an important impact of their identification in society. As “collective society”, the “individual” self is often seen as immersed in and defined by its social relationship of the group (family).

Tian Xia System emphasis on its relationship is consistent with the longstanding tradition in Chinese family, as one of the most entrenched institutions in China. Indeed, family has actively played a key role in shaping the Tian Xia System and the society as well, where according to Zhao, all calculation of self-interest is minimal, and where the atmosphere is completely harmonious, and thereby favourable for the unconditional development of cooperation, caring, and responsibility between the different members (Zhao, 2005). Despite it appearing to be idealistic, it is true that in Chinese society the relevant core is the family. Indeed, as Pye’s work has demonstrated with special attention to the governance: “The fact that all Chinese derived their identities from being members of a group, starting most importantly with the family and the clan, gave stability to China’s unique structure of state-society relations, making it relatively easy for the government to rule” (Pye, 1990).

Family also coincides with the ancient Confucius fundamental concept for governance, as the basic unit in society. Here Zhao claims that the Tian Xia System family base, seeks to rely on  “inclusive relations, such as love, harmony, mutual aid, and reciprocal obligations, therefore [it is] championed as the qualified archetype of social systems. Confucianism therefore insists that states and all-under-heaven should be better developed by mapping the model of the family, inheriting the harmonious gene of family ties, so as to maximise the possibilities of universal cooperation and peace” (Zhao, 2005: 66-67)[11][12].

For many observers, in particular Western political scientists attempting to explain the peculiarities of the Chinese economy, the intervention of the state on the economy along with the politicization of the economic forces and the non-democratization of the society, are not durable and will fail because it is contrary to human nature. Without denying the importance of the urgent adoption of the rule of law in China to materialize its modernization goal, the real story of the social control of the Chinese state over the society is far more complicated.

One of the most significant expressions of this distinctive and enduring pattern of relations between the state and society, can be seen in the forces of institutional framework that shape the Chinese state. China’s institutional structure did not result in a differentiation between sacred and secular realms, or even the absence of autonomy of cultural activities from the state, or even independent bodies of social life such as those in western societies. In ancient China, there was no separation of powers, no separate legislative or judicial instances and there was no institutional differentiation of the economy and the policy (Stockman, 2000). Thereby generating an inclusive system where the emperor, through the mandate of Heaven (Tian Xia System), was empowered with complete capacity to link the different realms of the society, heaven, earth and the humanity and the governance of the people whereby denying the dichotomy o separation between the self and the other.

Any exhaustive effort to provide a comprehensive description of Chinese state-society relations is beyond the scope, and indeed purpose, of this study but here it is interesting to note that the degree and nature of this interconnection has varied over time. For example, without continues and discontinuities of the social control over the society, was the baojia registration (kinship based community) adopted by several dynasties. Interestingly, even though the seventeenth-eighteenth century Qing reigned for more than two centuries, the emperors did it through developing their own administration, both through links to civil servants in the outer court and in the provinces and through a strengthened inner court (Bartlett, 1991). This led Miller to conclude: “Emperors in the late imperial era reigned far more frequently than they ruled” (Miller, 2000: 22). While similar in its registration and control mobilization purpose of the baojia system, governments before the Communist era, had never operated so effectively to ensure neither social indoctrination or ideological cohesion nor police control. Indeed, with the party state system borrowed from the Soviet Union, the Maoist urban authority shaped a neighborhood society under the Danwei (“work unit and hukou system)”, which not only provided the housing, amenities and public services, but organized all related activities and aspect of the people life (Lu and Perry, 1997)[13]. And once, during Deng Xiaoping this relation has changed again. Deng’s reforms kept the continuity of several core elements, but at the same time, the  control over the society were substantially reduced.

Most prominent example of the interplay of state and society is the “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” officially adopted in 1993. It is one of the most representative elements of how the relational natures of the politic and economy forces are tightly interwoven, resulting from the Chinese’s ability to bring multiple entities to the so called Chinese Business Model: market forces, developmental state, corporatist state and government intervention. This is not surprising, given Chinese historically close links between the enterprises and the household, which have lead to enterprises taking  the form of a family business with no clear difference between household and enterprise accounts, location or personnel. Thus, economy and politics were not separable, rather the civilization-state created a connectivity and complexity of relations which included a constant interplay between the public and private, the local and global and the synergy between the political and economy and today it is seen in the day –to – day lives of the people of China.  In the business sector, once China arrives to an overseas project, they are used to controlling all the commercial process. China is at the same time the investor, the owner, the carrier, the developer, the constructor, the partner, the stockholder, the seller, the buyer, the operator and the service provider. This is why Cardenal y Araújo have referred to the Chinese business in Africa as “Chinese is the owner, cashier, the car driver, the seller, the stockholder, the boss and the labor worker”[14]. At the domestic level, national policies and public and private corporation’s profits are tangled, overlap and complement international projects. Indeed, this is a theme pervading China´s business model: while top political leaders, acting as a diplomatic representatives, make deals  for the country’s companies, these companies then become representatives of the government.

What has been sketched in this section is the complex and interwoven relation between the state and Chinese society, when the state intrudes deeply into society for purposes of authoritarian and times when it was actually limited by the society. The significance of the Tian Xia System is that it reinforced the Chinese’s unique structure of state-society relations and its prevalence and important role in China today. Utilizing this approach, it is possible to argue that the Chinese State and Chinese society are in fact the same thing[15]. The two forces oppose and complement one another simultaneously. They cannot be separated but must be considered as a whole. This concept of completeness makes it difficult to identify the (blurred) line separating State from society. As Qin Yaqing said “for a system called all-under-heaven, everywhere and everyone is within rather than without, so that only degrees of closeness exist” (Qin, 2012: 72)[16].

3. China: the civilization, the State and the Chinese identity

To fully understand China, it is necessary not only to take into account the structural links between state and society (mutual identification) that have been formed through traditional practices to this day, but also consider that some traditional values are now inconsistent  with the modernization of the society. Furthermore, in the words of Harding’s work in Pye’s conceptual framework, Chinese parochial values can be expected to prevail over universalistic global standards (Harding, 1987). In these important respects, the state-society relations based on the Tian Xia system and its historical tendency to blur the distinctions between state and society, remains the central issue to China, and it has grown more complicated with the modernization.

For now, despite moves toward some degree of autonomy, all social activities are still interwoven with the state’s political decisions in a variety of ways, intentions that in many respects have created a situation in which, to borrow Stockman’s characterization, “the government clearly does not envisage a high degree of insulation between economic and political process, but rather a regularization of the interaction between them” (Stockman, 2000: 218). The absence of an independent judiciary system, the intervention of the economy on the market, centralization of power, the reforms of SOEs, as well as the political reforms are certainly not challenges Chinese strategists of “market socialism” have created, but were intensified by the communism with implications in for the way Chinese political life developed. In the context of a more assertive diplomacy, the right given to Xi Jinping to remain in office indefinitely, the promotion of cross-border projects of One Belt One Road initiative while enhancing the centralization of domestic political power, the Chinese relation-based society and Civilization-State are concepts still alive in all segments of Chinese society. But these concepts are more than the result of Chinese’s modernization which tend to combine traditional and modern ideas; these concepts are the system itself. A centralized, anachronistic and simultaneously resilient system— giving precisely its effective mechanism to measure the society needs—, in which the traditionally complex relation between state-society is as tangible today as it was in the past. The 1911 Revolution started a new order, but it failed to establish an alternative. The Nationalist regime in Nanjing in 1928 embraced tradition as a strategy to rule and finally failed to materialize pending social changes necessary to bring China into the modern era. Only the communists succeeded in providing a different alternative. But was Mao, the perceived of Chinese modernity, an innovator or transmitter of Chinese traditional values? As Miller aptly put it, “the communist regime turned out not to be truly revolutionary, however; it was also still Chinese. And so in telling ways, the new regime reflected the values and practices of the political culture that the state in traditional China had embodied” (Miller, Lyman. 2000: 40).

The dilemmas are even evident with one simple fact: the education. As an important cultural value, the education has played a significant role in China for a least two millennia. A 13th –century distillation of Confucian principles states, “A child should be educated, not just raised, or else the parents are at fault”. In the mid-Tang dynasty (618-907), the imperial civil service examination became standardized and from then education had an immediate, real impact on Chinese families, which have resulted in what has today become the gaokao (National College Entrance). However the side effect of these traditional practices is the high level of academic stress that Chinese students and their parents experience . A study showed that 80% of 9-12 years olds “”worried a lot” about exams, and one-third exhibited physical symptoms of stress. One can see the same phenomenon in other Chinese dilemmas: corruption, regional disparities, social and economic inequalities, environmental degradation, changes that the consumption-driven model could bring.

Although it appeals to history and culture, the analysis here is not culturalist in the sense of positing a non-conventional and unique Chinese way that is totally different from the West. The dilemmas of Chinese modernization are not coming only from the party-state instrumentally control over the populace, or the spontaneous actions of an authentic grassroots community. The party-state-society is so successful because they also draw on ideas that preceded the state-civilization and relation state-society that resonate with popular feelings.  Both these concepts are a useful way to understand China’s practices because the discourse has particularly deep institutional foundations both in the party-state and local gossip networks. Rather than simply being authoritarian government that suffers from the abuse of power, it is necessary to see how China´s sense of belonging to the culture, tradition, history, language and custom are actually intimately interwoven in a complex dynamic that shapes China’s state. In this way, we can see how the modernization of China is linked to its culture and issues that frame China’s domestic and people’s identities.

The hearth of Chinese modernity is therefore a cultural dilemma. In other words, its identity, what does it mean to be “Chinese” today. Yet the place, the past and the culture offer a range of ideas and precedents that can be adopted and adapted to meet the needs of the time, tough but not fixed yet in the Chinese laboratory. The nature of its complexities resulting from the chiaroscuros, contradictions of the relationality of the societal forces, trial and error tactic generated by the practices themselves, have lead an open  to multiple uncertainty hypotheses.



_Bartlett, Beatrice. (1991). Monarchs and Ministers: The Grand Council in Mid-Ch’ing China, 1723-1820. Berkeley: University of California Press.

_Bruce J. Dickson. (1997). Democratization in China and Taiwan: The Adaptability of Leninist Parties. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

_ Fei, Xiatong. (1992). From the Soil: the foundations of Chinese society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

_ Harding, Harry. (1987). China’s Second Revolution: Reform After Mao, Washington, D.C.: Brookings.

_ King, A. Y. C. (1985). The individual and group in Confucianism: a relational perspective. In D. J. Munro (ed.), Individuals and Holism: studies in Confucian and Taoist values, Ann Arbor: Centre for Chinese studies, The University of Michigan, 57-70.

_Michael, Franz. (1972). The Origin of Manchu Rule in China: Frontier and Bureaucracy as Interacting Forces in the Chinese Empire. New York: Paragon Books.

_Miller, Lyman. (2000). The Late Imperial Chinese State H. Lyman Miller in David L. Shambaugh (ed.), The Modern Chinese State, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

_ Perry E., and Li Xun. (1997).  Proletarian Power: Shanghai in the Cultural Revolution, Boulder: Westview Press.

_Pye, Lucian. (1990). “China: Erratic State, Frustrated Society”, Foreign Affairs; Volume 69, Number 4 (Fall).

_ Yaqing, Qin. (2012). Culture and global thought: Chinese international theory in the making. Revista CIDOB’s Afers Internacionals, n. 100, p. 67-90 (December).

_ Shambaugh, David. (2000). The Modern Chinese State, New York: Cambridge University Press.

_Scissors, Derek. (2012). Chinese State Owned Enterprises and the US Policy on China. The Heritage Foundation.

_Stockman, Norman. (2000). Understanding Chinese Society, Polity Press, USA.

_Zhao Tingyang (2006) ‘Making the World into All-under-heaven (Tianxia)”, in Rethinking Empire from a Chinese Concept ‘All-under-Heaven’ (Tian-xia), Social Identities Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 29 /41.

[1] It is noteworthy that Sun Yat-sen’s ideology was to establish a unique hybrid form of system based on neo-Confucian values with Leninist organizational techniques (Dickson, 1997).

[2] China has passed through several different regimes: from imperial state to republic to revolution to the current modernization of its society and economy; and within a short time frame.

[3] China is now one of the most open developing economies in the world.

[4] As Xie notes that China income inequality has reached a Gini coefficient well above 0.50 around 2010: high both from the perspective of China’s past and in comparison with other countries at similar stages of economic development (2014).

[5] Hu, Angang, 2003, “One China, four worlds: The inequality of uneven regional development in China”, in Hu Angang, Wang Shaoguang, and Zhou Jianming, eds, China’s Second Generation of Reform Ideas: Centered with Institutional Construction, pp. 1-20. Beijing: Tsinghua University Press (in Chinese).

[6] According to a study published by Lowy Institute, for example, Shanghai is five times wealthier than the inland province of Gansu. Despite Beijing’s launched the so-called ‘western development strategy’ to revitalise chronically underperforming provinces, the western provinces’ share of China’s total GDP increased only marginally from 17.1 % in 2000 to 18.7 % in 2010 “Regional Development: Rich Province, Poor Province”, The Economist, 1 October 2016,

[7] Contrary to the conventional idea the foundation of the hukou is not a communism creation, its origins back to the imperial regimes. The imperial system used the so called “baojia system”-collectively & mutual responsibility- a system which is back to the 11th century used to organize families into units and was implemented by different dynasties, although the CCP institutionalized it (Dutton, 1992).

[8] Although there have been numerous reforms, the hukou system still plays a large role in Chinese people’s lives.

[9] The case of Hair is very representative. While Haier is not an SOE, as a large successful company, the Qingdao government treated it in a similar fashion. For example, Scissors refutes the assurance of some government’s data by argue the genuinely private share is a bit short of 25 %, the other, he continued,  38 % often called “private” is of various kinds of mixed ownership through joint ventures, joint partnership, joint business operations, or public listing (Scissors, ).

[10] This relationship between the individual and the state can be seen in the fact that 80 percent of China’s foreign direct investment has come from the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia (Peerenboom, 2007).

[11] Two aspects of this principle may be stressed here. In the first place it emphases a clear definition of each individual’s duties and responsibilities. Since the morality of differential relationships is particularistic, one’s obligations to others depend on the specific nature of the relationship and the network in which it is embedded. Second it encourages a rigorous obedience and respect to the authority for the stability and order of the group.  Thus, the relation-oriented tradition not only implies a simple acceptance of the hierarchic authority and her/his role and status in the society, but the recognition that through the principle obedience and respect to the authority the stability of the group can be ensure. As Stockman remarked, “If everyone held to the expectations associated with their status, social stability and harmony would be maintained, and the order of the cosmos would prevail” (Stockman, 2000: 71).

[12] In actual fact, traditional Chinese grassroots society was composed of semi-autonomous local units, each of which was structured around the Kinship system as its core, in which the tradition of a sense of community by loyalties to native place, family and status group was the common norm (Xiaowei, 2011). Even though the imperial formal bureaucratic power was undeniable, traditional agrarian society was governed by high level of autonomy- indigenous leadership based on the solidarity groups of kinship, and social control was based upon the collective principles of joint-responsibility and mutual surveillance.

[13] Translated as “Place of work”, the Danwei was the organization responsible for the management of employee, employer and the provider of housing and social services for its employees post 1949. Generally, Danwei was used to be the basic unit of urban grassroots organisation for the state. In the context of Mao era, Danwei was not only responsible for distributing all kinds of resources in addition to others society sphere such as recreational, educational, ideological, and so on, but also used as a tool in which the state could control the society (Hua, 2000; Tang and Parish, 2000). Along with Danwei, came the the system designed to restrict and regulate the movement of population around the country – the hukou (residence permit). According to Shambaugh “Despite bankruptcy laws, the Danwei rarely die – so far” (Shambaugh, 2009, 211).

[14] See Juan Pablo Cardenal y Heriberto Araújo,  La silenciosa conquista china, Crítica, 2011.

[15] Mention should be made about the Chinese term for state is: “guójiā” (国家). It is a combination of “guo” ( 国-nation) and “jia” (家-family), denoting the strong sense of this paternal and consensual relationship between family and state.

[16] The nature of the modalities and path of this concept was more complex in the Maoism area where Chinese state was in fact the party.