Technology Studies and Development in China


Andrew Feenberg, Simon Fraser University


The author notes that he is not a China expert and has never lived for an extended period in China. Whatever interest this and succeeding articles may have, must be owing to  his outsider’s point of view as an observer who looks at China through the lens of Western research on technology and development.


Marx wrote Das Capital in England, inspired by the industrial revolution which first took off in that country. But he wrote the book in German. In the preface he explained the relevance of the English experience to still agrarian Germany with a Latin phrase: “De te fabula narratur,” which translates “Of you the tale is told.” By this Marx meant that the future of Germany was already visible across the water in England. And so it was. Germany industrialized too toward the end of the 19th Century.

Soon thereafter Russia and Japan entered the race to industrialize and later social theorists adopted Marx’s prophetic confidence that late modernizers would recapitulate the experience of the early forerunners such as England. However, national particularities and the consequences of earlier developments made for significant differences in the “tale” of modernization in Russia and Japan. Today it is China of whom the old tale is supposed to be told.  But in this case too the similarities begin to recede before the differences.

The models for China’s rapid economic advance are the US, Europe, and Japan, and the obstacles are usually said to be inheritances from Chinese history and culture. But there is an enormous problem with this way of telling the story of progress: China’s large and diverse population. Russia is also big, but it has its own vast resources. When Japan entered world resource markets its purchases represented a small increment in demand. Exploration and exploitation of new resources could easily match anything Japan required.

In the case of China imitation of the very wasteful consumption models of the existing industrial societies threatens huge disequilibriums in resource markets, especially in energy. The waste, furthermore, appears to be incompatible with effective strategies for dealing with the increasing inequalities that threaten social order.

The world will not “run out” of oil all of a sudden because millions of Chinese buy Toyotas. But the price of energy can rise to the point where a social and economic model based on automobiles is impractical, leaving China stranded with enormous investments in an outmoded transportation system. Although cars and trucks will no doubt continue to be used where they are most appropriate, it seems unlikely that most people will drive to work or to the store to shop in a foreseeable future.

Apart from the question of whether, or rather how soon, the shift away from private automobiles may occur, there is a larger issue which has to do with the imitative basis of Chinese modernization. Imitation of technical knowledge, know-how and design can speed up development enormously. Transfers of technology and the knowledge on which it is based have been going on for thousands of years, including of course transfers from China to the West in earlier times. Without the possibility of drawing on the intellectual resources of the whole planet, development would slow to a crawl.

But imitation of technical knowledge is quite different from imitation of the model of consumption of the advanced countries. By a “model of consumption” I mean a specific basket of consumer goods and associated infrastructures that includes necessities and also the typical luxuries identified with prosperity in a given society. Technical knowledge is practically the same from one place to another, but what people prefer to consume varies widely and there is no criterion by which a best model of consumption can be distinguished. This is not a matter of the accumulated knowledge of the human race but a local cultural phenomenon.  

What it signifies to be rich and successful at any given point in history is relative to cultural factors that call into existence the corresponding technologies to the extent the prevailing level of technical knowledge and resources permit. Different times and places, different ideas of wealth. But China is importing a model of consumption along with the technologies designed to serve it. The deep question of what model of consumption might emerge from indigenous cultural roots and local resources is not addressed.

But is such a nativist variation in consumption models possible when a modernizing country such as China must depend on knowledge and technology imported from abroad? Western scholars do not all answer this question the way they used to 30 years ago and Chinese development experts need to be aware of this change.

The idea of technological determinism was very influential after World War II. The most popular expositions of modernization theory, such as Walt Rostow’s theory of the five stages of development, described the path of poor agricultural societies toward something very much like the American Way of Life. The theoretical certainty that America represented the future rested on the assumption that technology developed along a fixed track from lower to higher stages, determining social life in accordance with its requirements at each stage. If this is true then the most advanced country does indeed show the future to its less advanced neighbors, just as Marx claimed in the preface to Das Capital.

Since the 1980s this deterministic understanding of technology has come under increasingly effective attack by alternative theories such as social constructivism. These new theories argue that there is no one necessary line of technological development but many branches that correspond to different interests, cultures, and political forces. Of course there may be inventions so fundamental that all lines of development draw on them, such as electric power or the wheel, but many very different devices can make use of such basic discoveries. They do not determine a restricted panoply of devices with a single set of consequences at the social level. This is why it is possible for societies to adapt technology to their own needs rather than simply remaining backward where they lack certain resources or potentials exploited in more advanced countries.

Practically speaking, what is the significance of these new ideas? Recent scholarship in technology studies emphasizes the transformations technologies undergo as they are transferred and adapted from one institution to another and one nation to another. The extent of the change varies greatly. There is no rule or law of adaptation from which one could predict outcomes. In some cases, for example, early German industrialization, the changes may have been small enough to say that England truly represented the future. In other cases, for example, the Asian “Tigers” it is far from clear that the societies are becoming Americanized. In the case of China’s future, even more radical departures from existing models will become necessary as the full weight of its huge population influences its developmental path.

 Note that none of this means China will have to remain poor if by poor we mean a lack of access to basic necessities, a wide variety of consumer goods, education, and opportunities for many individuals to develop and apply their talents. The point is rather that what it means to be rich is subject to social definition and redefinition. Korea has a level of computerization and computer usage unrivalled in the world today but fewer cars per capita than the United States. Which society is more prosperous? French people eat far better food than Americans, but live in smaller lodgings. Who is better off? There are no final answers to such questions.

Furthermore, objective constraints and subjective desires do not always stand opposed. Rather, culture shifts in response to reality in interesting and complex ways. What people want and what they can realistically expect often change together. For example, when in the first big OPEC oil shock multiplied the price of gasoline many times over, Americans (temporarily) discovered the joys of owning smaller, more efficient, and more manoeuvrable automobiles. We can hope that constraints on Chinese development will be internalized as part of the culture and influence preferences, rather than simply experienced as obstacles to prosperity.

In conclusion, here is a foreigner’s impression: a critical appropriation of Western ideas and technologies is indicated for China with a realistic sense that Chinese interventions into world markets will change those markets profoundly. China must anticipate the changes and plan its future accordingly. It will not find its future told in the tale of the US, Japan, or any other country but must make up its own story from out of its own culture, resources, and dreams.