Societal dynamics in China’s recent past: a scoping review of the research literature (Jia Gao)
Societal dynamics in China’s recent past: a scoping review of the research literature (Jia Gao)

Societal dynamics in China’s recent past: a scoping review of the research literature (Jia Gao)

Social change in China has been one of the fascinating research topics among researchers from within China and many other countries for the past few decades, despite the growing negative views and assessments of a rising China before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

China has long ago entered its era of rapid social changes, and the analytical concepts of social change and dynamics were also applied in numerous studies soon after the country opened the door to the outside world in the late 1970s. 

In the past four or so decades, a significant amount of research efforts has been made to examine the rapid and constant social changes happening in China and the dynamics behind the process, resulting in a large amount of research literature on a wide range of issues and aspects of China’s recent transformations.

Most of the literature has, however, largely focused on either the political, ideological and policy problems at the macro level or the various forms of spontaneous resistance and protest at the micro level. 

The research focus on top-level politics has since the beginning of post-Mao era not only attracted considerable interest, but has also produced a huge number of publications, examining the many issues emerged at each stage of China’s reform. Such research attention has, therefore, been characterised by a temporal variability, which is consistent with what China has decided to reform and what problems its reform programs have encountered. This particular focus has also made both research activities and publications very top-down, institution-oriented, or state-centric, if not Beijing-centric.

In addition to the excessive attention to politics at the top and the fate of ideology of China’s ruling elites, there has been another lasting research focus on widespread discontent, anger and protest that have frequently happened in the country since the late 1970s. Most of such protests, large-scale or otherwise, violent or non-violent, have predominantly been localised, spontaneous, narrowly-focused and short-lived. While protests have been more closely correlated with China’s reform process than the various lofty ideas voiced by protesters, many studies have tried to link them with the fates of authoritarianism and democracy in this changing society.

What has not been adequately studied, however, is how the vast majority of Chinese people has reacted to and influenced the many changes in society over a longer period of time. This evident analytical gap or inadequacy has restricted our understanding of Chinese society, its societal dynamics and its turns and directions China may take.

Based on the extended review of the scholarship on social positioning and repositioning in sociology and social psychology, and competitive repositioning in marketing studies, a new competitive social repositioning perspective has been suggested as an alternative approach to studying China’s societal dynamics. The core ideas of competitive social repositioning are found to be helpful in repairing the problems reviewed above through focusing attention on the actions of the ordinary, but aspirational, members of the population in ongoing social processes. These people are the actual driving forces of many changes, including what has been reflected at the macro-national and micro-grassroots levels.

The full paper is available here.

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