Prof. Pan Wei Delivers Lecture on New Perception on Political Life

On March 24, Professor Pan Wei, Professor at the School of International Studies, Peking University, gave a lecture titled "A New Perception on Political Life" as part of Yenching Academy's Topics in China Studies Lecture Series for the 2022/2023 academic session. Hosted by Prof. Fan Shiming, Yenching Academy Associate Dean, the class aimed to demonstrate the most significant differences between the Chinese and Western perceptions of politics, and examine advances in the existing knowledge of political science.

Prof. Pan started the class by defining three concepts critical to grasping the topic – politics, power, and state/government power – while distinguishing between soft and hard power exerted by individuals, groups, and governments to influence action. The guest lecturer noted that politics is, perhaps, the most important aspect of human life, with three major sub-areas: domestic (politics of hierarchy with the government on top), international (politics of anarchy without the government at the top), and ethnic (political impacts of languages and religious cultures). Prof. Pan explained that although the three sub-fields are incompatible, his research has focused on synthesizing them into one based on a single unified logic: for over 5000 years, the "competition among political entities for survival" has been shaping domestic, international, and ethnic politics.

To explain domestic politics and answer his question on whether a society/people shape a state/regime or vice versa, Prof. Pan compared Western and Chinese thoughts on the issue. He noted that considering Western learning focused on the structure of power in a society (ruler and ruled) and Chinese wisdom focused on history driven by officials, the most straightforward answer is people and government 'interact and mutually cause each other'. Prof. Pan explained that while the people have equal opportunities to become officials, the Chinese perception places the government high above the people because the rise and fall of the Chinese nation depend on the quality of the government. Although officials are supposed to be more 'moral' than the common people, they sometimes degenerate into selfishness in the name of serving the public interest, with the Chinese response being a Confucian solution of indoctrinating officials on inner sanctity.

Going beyond these perceptions of politics, Prof. Pan discussed his theory of political entities to answer the original question of society and state. He argued that a third factor – nations competing with one another for survival in a world of anarchy – determines the shape of the state and society. He noted that the theory of political entities, like other social science theories, has three parts: definition and preconditions, causal relationships, and mechanism of process and results. Prof. Pan defined a political entity, drawing on the Greek word 'polis', as a community of livelihood for human reproduction within a territory with authority to lead. He discussed the evolution of earlier city-states as political entities, arguing that the rise of the nation-state system since the Treaty of Westphalia gives little focus on them.

Secondly, Prof. Pan noted that causal relationships or the competition for survival had shaped four major outcomes: progress in technologies and wealth production, social structure and concepts, political infrastructure and legal systems, and the evolution of all languages and religious cultures. He explained the drivers of the four advances, detailing that "the main clue of human social history is thus that primitive tribes converge into city-states, small and large city-states converge into empire territories, and many feudal territories converge into nations of unprecedented internal solidarity, and small and medium nations converge into large and even super large nations today."

Lastly, Prof. Pan noted that nations rise and fall, or enlarge and shrink owing to the process and results of the mechanism of competition that are defined by four relative factors: territorial and population size; internal solidarity between the elites and commoners; per-capita productivity by applying advanced technology of military potential; and proper handling of the tensions among the above three factors.

Prof. Pan concluded that his theory on social evolution, which synthesizes the knowledge of domestic, international, and ethnic politics, replaces the puzzle of whether the state shapes society or vice versa with the competition for survival among political entities. He added that the new theory is significant as it reveals the main clues of social history, ideology, globalization, technology, and culture.

The Q&A session followed Prof. Pan's lecture. A Scholar inquired into how valid it was to argue that the quality of international organizations and collaborations of nations provide a more robust framework for the continued existence of political entities than their likely dissolution. Prof. Pan disagreed, explaining that political entities banded together into a single larger entity or disintegrated into many smaller parts mainly because of structural pressures/competition rather than the prevalence of international institutions. He cited cases of the rise of the European Union and NATO, and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Another question focused on how the theory of political entities' argument on ideology and corruption – mainly domestic political issues – could be aligned with international politics. Prof. Pan reiterated the Western view of the power of the people to supervise the government and curb corruption, and the Chinese perspective of Confucian indoctrination of the inner sanctity of government officials. But the reality within both systems is different; the democratization of nations and the adoption of a Confucian solution have not eradicated corruption within political entities. Turning to international politics, many see globalization as an avenue corruption spreads to a few elites' benefits due to power imbalances. Although the level of corruption differs across nations, with many having efficient and effective governments, China's move to curb corruption is more or less a quest for survival and for the people (and other political entities in international politics) to believe in the accountability of government officials. This is vital since the Chinese perspective holds that the rise and fall of the Chinese nation depend on the quality of the government.

Drawing similarities between Prof. Pan's theory and the Social Darwinian perspective on international politics, especially along the historical impacts of competition, another Scholar inquired into how the hypothesis of political entities operationalized a political entity's "fitness", and whether other factors exist that make a political entity more or less fit. Prof. Pan responded that the Social Darwinian idea of social differentiation shows that a more divided and specialized internal structure denotes a more advanced or 'fit' political entity, hence, the concept of the survival of the fittest. Although insightful in its rights, instances of the fall of the Roman empire and the Song dynasty, with their sophisticated sub-structures, by Germanic tribes and the Mongolians, respectively, raise several concerns about the validity of the perspective. Also, Prof. Pan explained that although other external factors – e.g., social stratification, culture, etc. – may impact the survival of political entities, eventually, all are traceable to the competition for survival. In this vein, Prof. Pan emphasized that a single-factor explanation is much more favored as it is parsimonious and possesses less degree of abstraction.

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