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Sociology under Communism

The Genesis of a Chinese Public Sociologist

Shen Yuan.

May 21, 2016

“Where society comes from is an extremely important question. Because you [Westerners] are born in a country with a society, [the very concept of society] is taken for granted. This is completely different for us. We have to start anew.”

Interview with Shen Yuan, 2012, Tsinghua University, Beijing.


Sitting behind his office desk, smiling slightly, Shen Yuan appeared somewhat entertained to be the subject of a Canadian sociologist’s study. Before I could even ask him my first question, the Chinese scholar inquired, “Why are you researching Chinese intellectuals?” – only to interrupt himself by observing : “you should not study me. If you want to study any of us you should study Sun Liping”.[1] Pointing towards his well-known colleague’s office, Shen continued, “he is the most brilliant of all of us. Or you could study us as a group who has worked together for over a decade.” Later in the interview, Shen identified Li Qiang and Guo Yuhua along with himself and Sun Liping as the other members of this group, all of whom were also founding members of the Tsinghua Department of Sociology in 2000.

Born in 1954 in China’s capital of Beijing, Shen Yuan is part of a generation known in China as zhiqing – educated youth. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao Zedong abruptly interrupted the formal schooling of nearly 17 million Chinese youth by sending them to the countryside for radical “re-education”. By thus learning from and being transformed by the revolutionary wisdom of the rural masses, they were to become the next generation of Chinese revolutionaries. Like so many other displaced youth, Shen was sent away for a number of years. After the death of Mao in 1976 and the re-establishment of China’s educational system over the following two years, only a small fraction (2.3%) of Shen’s generation had the privilege of entering university to resume their education. He was one of them.

Shen graduated in 1983 from the capital’s People’s University (Renda) with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Then, in 1986, he defended a master’s thesis on the leader of the 1917 Soviet Revolution entitled The Exploration and Contribution of Lenin to Dialectical Epistemology. Although Shen saw himself as resolutely Marxist, after seven years of intense immersion in Maoist-Marxist-Soviet philosophy his enthusiasm for that most vaunted of disciplines had waned. As he explained, “At this point [in 1986], I felt philosophy was very abstract. The philosophy from that time was not able to solve [concrete/social] problems.”

Thus, shortly after leaving Renda, Shen switched to sociology, still a relatively sensitive discipline that had been rehabilitated just eight years before, in 1978. A dangerous endeavor, certainly, but sociology was also something new, an uncharted realm of knowledge offering the possibility of intellectual exploration beyond the holy trinity of Maoism-Marxism-Leninism. More importantly, both state leaders and zhiqing intellectuals such as Shen Yuan saw sociology as the best means of facing and performing the daunting task of national modernization.

Therefore, inside the walls of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) at the Institute of Sociology, Shen worked as a full-time researcher between 1988 and 1998. Established in 1977, CASS – China’s most powerful state-run think-tank – quickly became, in the early Deng Xiaoping era, the main brain trust of the Central Committee and the State Council, supplying the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) most powerful organs with the social scientific data and knowledge needed to formulate policy (e.g., in regard to unions, private enterprises, migration, and unemployment).

In the 1990s, after the massacre of the Tiananmen Square, Shen remained at CASS but, as was also the case for so many other Chinese intellectuals, his relationship with sociology and the state began to change. While still playing key roles at the Institute of Sociology in some of the major sociological research projects of the reform era, Shen was increasingly drawn towards intellectual circles outside CASS. In the early 1990s, he befriended Guo Yuhua and Sun Liping (the latter regarded as the most brilliant sociologist of his generation) and collaborated with them on Sun’s oral history of the Chinese experience of Communism. Then in 1997, at the age of 43, Shen completed his PhD on the topic of New Economic Sociology and post-1978 market reforms. That same year he became the editor-in-chief at Sociological Research, one of the main sociology journals in Mainland China. During his tenure as editor there, Shen actively worked not only to improve the quality of articles published in the journal but also to carve out, at least, a limited autonomy for the discipline vis-à-vis the CCP.

Then, after leaving CASS in May 2000, Shen Yuan and half a dozen other sociologists established the Department of Sociology at Tsinghua University, Beijing. The initial paradigm of the Tsinghua School was based on Sun’s sociology of the Chinese Communist civilization, what Claude Dubar called “Chinese sociology’s Copernican revolution.”. In less than 20 years, the rehabilitated discipline was transformed from a social policy agent for the state – a tame socialist sociology – into a discipline able to formulate a reflexive and “independent” research paradigm focusing on the study of the Chinese people’s experience of CCP rule and of Chinese power itself after 1949.

During his first two years at Tsinghua, Shen’s previous statist interest in economic sociology merged with his Marxist interest in labor sociology as he studied social actors and their abilities to act and resist the advancing market forces.

Between 2002 and 2004, Shen undertook a project called The Construction of Baigou Migrant Worker’s Night School with the goal of co-researching, teaching, and helping to organize that group of migrant workers. Building on Alain Touraine’s idea of sociological intervention, Shen would theorize such praxis in his article “Strong and Weak Intervention: Two Pathways for Sociological Intervention,”[2] his most important sociological contribution to the field. By this point, Shen had definitely left behind statist concerns about the birth of the market in favor of an academic and activist focus almost exclusively on “the production of society,” that is a society capable to defend itself against both the state and the market.

It was during this early period of Shen’s career that Michael Burawoy coined the idea of public sociology. When asked how he reacted to first hearing about Burawoy’s public sociology, Shen told us: “Already our paper published in 1998 had the orientation of public sociology. Then, when we had the opportunity, we came to Tsinghua to found the Department of Sociology. From the very beginning we [our department] retained a tradition of public sociology. [Although] at that time Michael Burawoy had not yet coined this idea, we had [already] thought that sociology had to intervene.”

In Shen’s view, he and his colleagues were public sociologists avant la lettre. But for the Chinese intellectual, public sociology did much more than accurately capture his sociological doing; Burawoy’s theory also provided Shen with an intellectual self-concept, an identity accurately naming his sociological being.

The effects of Shen’s new identity on his intellectual life have been quite powerful. Since his conversion to public sociology, Shen has wholeheartedly acted on the view that the mission of sociology is to participate or intervene in the production of society so as “to help resist pressures from the state and the market on the one hand, and assist society to emerge and grow on the other.”. On the academic front, over the last ten years virtually all of Shen’s publications have been markedly influenced by Burawoy and Touraine. The title of one of his latest co-publications “Worker-Intellectual Unity: Trans-Border Sociological Intervention in Foxconn,” epitomizes the energy with which Shen has undertaken this work. But more importantly, on the public front, Shen’s social endeavors with labor NGOs, various media and Internet platforms, policy-makers, and union workers actively embody the spirit of public sociology.

This essay is drawn from my MA Thesis, From Nameless Marxist to Public Sociologist: The Intellectual Trajectory of Shen Yuan in Contemporary China (University of British Columbia, 2014).

[1] See Global Dialogue 2(4), May 2012, for an interview with Sun Liping.
[2] Yuan, S. (2008) “Strong and Weak Intervention: Two Pathways for Sociological Intervention.” Current Sociology 56 (3): 399-404.

François Lachapelle, University of British Columbia, Canada <f.lachapelle@alumni.ubc.ca>

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