The Cultural Logic of Politics in China & Taiwan

When Duke political scientist, Professor Tianjian Shi sadly passed away late in 2010, he left behind a manuscript already accepted by Cambridge University Press. Through the efforts of the series editor, Andy Nathan, with help from reviewers Dorothy Solinger and Doh Chull Shin, that manuscript has been finalized and brought to publication. It is a fittingly ambitious and accomplished bequest to the fields of comparative politics and China Studies, to which Professor Shi contributed so much. Theoretically sophisticated and empirically rigorous (there are 32 pages of appendices), this book will provoke great interest—and, as all ambitious books should—much contention and avenues for further research.

Shi argues that since many social scientists assume that people are instrumentally rational to varying degrees, when they find that similar social-structures in different cultural contexts produce different outcomes, they tend to explain it in terms of variance in access to information, for instance through censorship and control of the media. Thus when people in China are observed to have a relatively high degree of trust in government, particularly central government, this finding has often been attributed to the effects of an authoritarian information regime that reduces access to the information needed to make ‘rational’ decisions. Shi rejects this interpretation and instead advances a sophisticated yet forceful case for ‘bringing culture back in’. Specifically, he argues that rationality is culturally embedded, and that a culturally defined normative rationality shapes people’s choices in social and political life.

The crux of Shi’s thesis is that rather than a universal, materialist concept of reality, individual interest calculations are based on ‘socially shared ideas about acceptable and expected behaviour’ (p.2). To counter the charge that culture is not an independent cause of behaviours but rather an effect or proxy for structural or institutional factors, Shi invokes the case of China and Taiwan, two societies that share elements of Confucian cultural heritage, but which have developed very different political structures and institutions. Shi argues that the momentous processes of modernization in China and democratization in Taiwan did not cause significant cultural shifts in these societies. Indeed he cites survey data to the effect that these changes reinforced peoples’ commitment to traditional cultural norms, which in turn are associated with greater trust in government, a lower likelihood of confronting the regime and an inclination to define democracy as government by benevolent guardians. Given the resilience, flourishing even, of the CCP and KMT under these changing conditions, it is an interesting argument. Full review in China Quarterly here.