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Power and Knowledge in 21st Century China: Producing Social Sciences Issues in Social Science Debate in Xi Jinping’s China
Chloé Froissart
p. 3-9


The social sciences are intimately linked to understanding the societies in which we live. This is why the question of the historical and political anchoring of this knowledge arises. As postcolonial studies have shown, the social sciences have produced theories, concepts, and paradigms in Southern societies conveying a discourse on “modernity.” According to Edward Saïd, scientific knowledge is a form of power that confers authority on the person who produces it. However, knowledge is largely controlled and produced by the West, which therefore has the power to name, represent, and theorise (Saïd 1995). By entering into the field of these theories, indigenous researchers impose on themselves a representation of themselves and the other that endorses these power relationships. In order to finally break with this type of domination, indigenous societies are encouraged to move away from the Western ethnocentrism carried by the social sciences, and their particular vision of modernity, in order to construct their own narratives.

Issues of domination are therefore at the heart of the social sciences, and in China as elsewhere, in the modern and contemporary period, these issues have not ceased to be taken into account, discussed, and thwarted. Historically, the birth of the human and social sciences in China at the turn of the twentieth century is closely linked to the desire of intellectuals to contribute to the emergence of a “powerful and prosperous” China (fuqiang 富强) following its traumatic encounter with the Western powers during the Opium Wars. As an integral part of the “self-reinforcing movement” (yangwu yundong 洋务运动), which consisted of learning from the West in order to better counter it, the human and social sciences, in China as in other non-Western societies, from the start engaged the relationship to the Other (the West) and to the Self. Trained for the most part abroad and especially in Japan, a country through which Western concepts first passed, Chinese researchers quickly strove to situate themselves in relation to this Western knowledge. As early as the 1930s, in the wake of the sociologist and anthropologist Fei Xiaotong in particular, many sought to “indigenise” the social sciences, in order to better understand the issues specific to their country and to move in the direction of a specifically Chinese modernity. The same dynamic is found in the aftermath of the Maoist period, marked by the isolation of China and the ban on social sciences. The“feverish” re-introduction of Western theories to fill the three-decade gap, which marked the 1980s, was followed by a movement of critical re-appropriation of these theories (Merle and Zhang 2007).

The lecture given by Xi Jinping in May 2016, during which the President of the PRC called on Chinese researchers to “accelerate the construction of a philosophy and social sciences with Chinese characteristics” (jiakuai goujian Zhongguo tese zhexue shehui kexue 加快构建中国特色哲学社会科学), raises the question of the extent to which national characteristics are linked to the social sciences of each country and to question the validity of epistemological relativism. Is the assertion of a national specificity of the disciplines compatible with the aim of the human and social sciences, and to what extent can a scientific discourse or approach have cultural or national characteristics? Xi Jinping’s speech also calls for an update on the longstanding opposition between Western and Chinese social sciences, inherited from postcolonial studies, which this discourse seems to mirror. What is the significance of such an injunction today in China, and how do Chinese researchers respond to it? Ultimately, this special issue aims to question the relationship between knowledge and power, science and ideology in the light of the Chinese case.

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Bibliographical reference

Chloé Froissart, « Editorial », China Perspectives, 2018-4 | 2018, 3-9.

Electronic reference

Chloé Froissart, « Editorial », China Perspectives [Online], 2018-4 | 2018, Online since 31 December 2018, connection on 15 December 2019. URL :

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About the author

Chloé Froissart

Chloé Froissart is Associate Professor in political science at the University of Rennes 2 and the former director of Tsinghua University Sino-French Centre in Social

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