In Footnotes, a publication of the American Sociological Association, Leta Hong Fincher, an American doctoral student at Tsinghua University, writes about the restraints placed on social science researchers in China and the role played by president-in-waiting Xi Jinping:
Xi, set to become China’s next president, criticized cadres who curry favor and flatter superiors: “They are unwilling to look squarely at reality, they do not dare to speak the truth.” Then, he made a striking parallel between Chinese society today and the beginning of the 1960s.
Xi did not name the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s disastrous revolutionary campaign, which resulted in mass starvation and death. Rather, Xi referred to the time when Communist Party officials toured the country, recognized the widespread falsification of statistics, and abandoned Mao’s Great Leap policy: “At the beginning of the 1960s…all Communist Party comrades undertook survey research…to solve a series of major economic and social problems with the correct policy, thereby quickly turning around a difficult situation.”
Xi’s suggestion is similar to a passage from Yu Hua’s recent book, China in Ten Words, which compares China’s economic miracle today with the revolutionary zeal of the Great Leap Forward, when “fakery, exaggeration, and bombast were the order of the day.” Could China’s future president, too, believe that his country’s breakneck economic growth might be based on distortions and exaggerations in urgent need of correction?
If China’s senior leadership truly wants to encourage more accurate social research, Chinese social scientists should be uniquely positioned to “look squarely at reality,” as Xi puts it. Yet, in one of the many contradictions typical here, social science in China is so tightly controlled by the state, it is difficult for academics to publish the very research on “anxieties and resentments of the masses” that Xi’s speech exhorts. Although democracies such as the United States also direct research through government funding, China has taken the concept of social science in the service of the state to an entirely different level.
Read more about academic freedom in China via CDT.