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Academic's trapped mentality: The limits of linear ideology
on July 6, 2006
Reading this book is almost like reading "China's democratic future" all over again. It is all too familiar how normative idealism ruins positive analysis in these two books. The difference is: this one is disguised by more theoretical tools, the other one was an outright shout for a democratic China.
Democracy is a beautiful linear process that can be attributed to "growth determinism". Once the per capita income reaches $1000, then just "smile, you are on candid camera". The development theory is summarized by Pei as all about how growth determines democratization, and the evidence of growth not causing democracy is easily dismissed by seeing it as a short term phenomenon (rising prosperity makes political monopoly more valueable). If this logic is valid, one can also argue that the state's decentralized corrupted "grabbing hand" can also be a short term phenomenon for the long term reform. It's all about your starting point of analysis.
The pre-determined linear ideology of Pei leads to another glaring flaw: he fails to analyze the cause of democracy, as if what appears to be a correlation between growth and democracy is the causation. Douglass North is frequently quoted in this book, yet the major feat of North is: he starts with the cause of economic growth, not a linear ideology from the "prison of one culture". Given this, the discussion of gradual reform and shock therapy is a "fake issue" and a major distraction. More important, "trapped transition" is more a normative tautology than a useful analytical concept. When Pei wears a pair of dark glasses with an idealistic picture in mind, what else can he see except problems? What else can readers experience except his troubled mentality in dealing with China's achievements and problems (the whole book simply boils down to an ad hoc pattern of "on the one hand...on the other hand...")? As for the critical question on "why China is doing great if everything is really so dark?" Pei brushed aside the challenge with only a few paragraphs of guessing work. If one uses John Rawls' "justice principles" for the reality in the US, he can also argue what we see is a "trapped democracy" which is "for the few people, from the few people, and by the few people". And he can also get a reviewer to hail "trapped democracy" as a new concept for the satisfaction of self-congratulation.
Put it simply, when the target of analysis is totally Chinese, Pei is still obsessed with "Leninism" and the cold war ideology. As a Chinese, he didn't even talk about Chinese culture; as a US educated, he failed to start from the realistic perspective of "public choice" (rather than use it selectively to support his normative conclusion). If social scientists are all moral scientists, you think all research can still be fun?
It is really sad to see another serious Chinese scholar again fell into the one culture linear ideological trap. Assuming this book starts with the cause and reason of democracy, with the employment of available theories and a peaceful mind of multi-culturalism, we might see more fruitful results. One quick example is to analyze how each reform approach is actually structured by the contextual reality and how the state evolves and functions as a grabbing hand or a helping hand (instead of asserting gradual reform leads to a predatory state, which is nothing more than an ad hoc analysis); Other questions can be asked include: Are those "copy and paste" democracy (Taiwan, Mexico, the Philippines, India) and "plug and play" democracy (Iraq) actually doing well in economic growth and government cleanness? What is really beyond the simple installation of democracy? Will culture fail in "making democracy work"? What is behind the actual enforcement of democratic institutions?
The development of cognitive science and cultural psychology may be helpful for being self-conscious of the intellectual thinking trap, but the reality of research sociology may not be really in accord with a more sensible research direction. I wish I am wrong on this.