Coevolving Innovations

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Social change without a theory

Posted on January 25, 2009 by daviding

I was browsing through academic references when I came across a familiar name. Zhichang Zhu published an article “Reform without a Theory: Why Does it Work in China?”, in Organization Studies, 2007. Here’s the first few sentences from the abstract.

The gradualism–radicalism debate on China’s reform is misleading. The reform can alternatively be seen as one without a theory. The question is why a no-theory “strategy” was “selected” by the Chinese elite, “accepted” by the Chinese people and “worked” in the Chinese context.

Since I’m educated in the west, I realized that it’s wrong for me be thinking about social change in China from a western mindset. I first saw Zhu speak in 1998 on the wuli – shili – renli model, and have seen him now and then at various meetings. I still can’t describe the WSR model unaided, and was struck by various phrases in this 2007 paper. Firstly, wuli.

Wuli: Actual Material-Regulative Resources

[….] Hostile to central planning, Mao Zedong advocated a xiao-tu-qun (smallness, localness, comprehensiveness), wuxiao kaihua (“five small flowers” blooming) policy, encouraged commune-brigade enterprises. [….]

By the time of the reform, 80% of the labour force was outside the state sector, living at near-subsistence levels (CRF 2001). When economic liberalization began, non-state sectors could grow rapidly, relying on the flow of labour from agriculture. [….]

Unlike “abandoning the plan” in a planned economy, which would probably produce great disruption, as happened in EEFSU, “abandoning commands” is more likely to produce positive effects, whether the market mechanism or planned control is subsequently adopted. This was what happened in China. [p. 1507]

Secondly, shili.

Shili: Virtual Psycho-Cognitive Mentalities

[….] As a Chinese proverb goes, nan de hutu (Ambiguity is gold). The highest virtue of art and social conduct is not to show the settled, the concrete, but to maintain fuzziness, emptiness and chaos from which creativity can emerge. [….]

In China, Confucius is respected as the ultimate sage because he rejected “four devils”: “The Master had no foregone conclusions, no arbitrary pre-determinations, no obstinacy, and no egoism” (Confucius 1971: 217). In Yijing (Book of Change), shizhong (timely balance, i.e. pragmatism-upon-time) is regarded as a great virtue: one should respond positively to changes and take opportunities in unpredictable emergences, not based on received theories. [pp. 1508-1509]

Thirdly, renli.

Renli: Social Moral-Normative Orientations

The Chinese distrust public institutions: zhongyang de zhengche xiang yueliang, chuyi shiwu bu yirang (Like the moon, the Centre’s policies differ between the beginning and the middle of the month). [….]

This demands the grass roots coping with the state apparatus creatively: shan gao huangdi yun (The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away), shang you zhengche, xia you dueiche (Regulations from above, manoeuvres from below). Both “above” and “below” take it as the moral way of life. This further reduces the necessity of theorized models and plans. [p. 1510]

Stopping to think about style of management in the west, the above three points would seem to counter the ideas of (a) thinking big, (b) being clear, and (c) respecting authority. Having been raised in a Chinese family, can appreciate the different perspective, but really can’t articulate it. This is one area where I’m going to have to remain consciously incompetent.

On the other hand, I am happy living where “Canada is a country that works in practice but not in theory“.

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