Sociologists Visit a Changing China

China, in the midst of tremendous economic and social change, has accomplished in two decades what in Europe took two centuries.

Its size and vitality have made it “the second most important country on the planet,” to use Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria’s words, on an array of major political, economic, and social issues. Its rich cultural history has had widespread influences throughout the world.

As this issue of Contexts goes to press, I’m leading a group of sociologists on an American Sociological Association-sponsored trip to China. We’re taking advantage of the chance to observe the scale and pace of change there, as well as how political forces are shaping economic and social forces (and vice versa).

for photos and reports from the trip

China emerged as a global superpower in the 21st century. Its 1.3 billion people make it the most populous country in the world, constituting about 20 percent of the world’s population. Its economic growth rate—increasing at an average of 9 percent annually since the early 1980s—represents the longest period of sustained economic growth in modern times. Its Gross Domestic Product makes up 13 percent of global output, ranking second only to the United States, Thomas Campanella tells us. It’s also the world’s largest consumer of basic food, energy, and industrial commodities.

China’s growth has produced bad news as well as good, however. Some 400 million people have been lifted out of poverty in the past 30 years and new cities, roads, and ports have been built, as Zakaria reported earlier this year. But this progress has come at considerable cost in terms of environmental degradation and growing inequality.

As a consequence of these economic and cultural forces&and because of its historic significance&the World Tourism Organization predicts China will become the largest tourist market in the world by 2020. Interest in China will undoubtedly accelerate due to the 2008 Summer Olympics, which will take place shortly after our trip and center the world’s attention on Beijing.

We’re taking advantage of the chance to observe the scale and pace of change in China, as well as how political forces are shaping economic and social forces (and vice versa).

This focus on China isn’t new for sociologists, of course. China has long been central to American sociology due to both the frequent exchange of students and its significance as a research site for studying the Chinese version of capitalism, according to Michael D. Kennedy and Miguel A. Centeno.

A 10-day visit to a country as vast and complex as China is obviously limited in how much we can see or do to appreciate the diversity of Chinese social life, the country’s economic system, or its political intrigues. Nevertheless, on this trip we will glimpse some of the central challenges and issues facing the country. It will also help us ask better questions about how what’s going on there may impact the United States and the rest of the world.

During our visit we plan to observe the massive urban development taking place in the capital city of Beijing and the port city of Shanghai—the center of China’s unprecedented economic growth and a city that has been transformed from one that had hardly any modern high-rise office towers in 1980 to one that today has more than twice as many as New York City.

We will observe some of the results of the massive rural change and migration of Chinese peasants from poor areas and inland provinces to work in the construction industry in Beijing and Shanghai. In our discussions with sociologists at Peking University and Fudan University, we will also explore the nature and impact of social change in China, political and economic changes, sociology’s institution-building, and the human rights abuses for which the country has often been criticized.

Visit for photos and reports from the trip. I hope you’re as enthusiastic about reading about these experiences as we are about sharing them. And I look forward to sharing more with you during ASA’s Annual Meeting in Boston next month.