HUANG Ping:Pursuing the Nature of Community:Community Building Practice and Reflections


Community is an important part of people’s life and a major link in social structure and social networks, so it directly affects the integration and order of society as a whole. The nature of community is the foundation on which a community and society can exist and develop. Traditional resources should be activated under market economy conditions. As well, we should take the overall and long-term interests of human beings as the fundamental reason and goal. The thinking about the rural areas governance in China largely falls into the category of developmentalism, only (or mainly) emphasizing the economic growth in rural areas, and the construction of the nature of community has been neglected. To build a xiaokang society in an all-round way, in concrete situations, is how to re-build communities.

Keywords: nature of community, community building, community theory

I. Introduction

The concept of “community” was coined by the German sociologist Ferdinand T?nnies. Fei Xiaotong and his classmates made the first translation of the English word “community” into Chinese, as shequ. The concept of “community” (the English word) was first introduced into China by Robert Park during his lectures in the Department of Sociology at Yenching University in Beijing in the early 1930s. Because no ready-made word in Chinese could properly reflect the sociological sense of community, the young students of the Yenching Department of Sociology, after repeated deliberations, adopted Fei Xiaotong’s suggestion and translated it as shequ. The Chinese term for community was used to denote a group of people living in the same place who cooperated with each other on a geopolitical basis, as opposed to kinship groups that cooperated on the basis of blood ties, such as families and clans, and the businesses, governments and other social organizations established on the basis of professional or political relationships. Since then, scholars have expanded the Chinese concept of shequ, which has evolved from being defined in terms of blood to being defined in terms of geography, and further to being defined in terms of social networks.

Currently, it is still difficult to agree on a unified definition of community, but there are three common conditions for community in the sociological sense.

The first is identity. People see each other as being basically understandable and trustworthy—as “one of us.”

The second is security. When people enter a community, they are in a basically secure system which is provided by the community itself. Although a community does not have the government’s full administrative system or even its public security system, it has another kind of security, one of mutual aid and affection.

The third is cohesion or solidarity. There is solidarity among people in a community. They all look out for and collaborate with each other in any kind of disaster, challenge or risk, even if they seem not to interact normally or frequently.

These three conditions make it clear that the community is a form of social network and social organization that has been gradually built up through practice. It is a holistic form, one with shared communal ties, in which individuals are members of a community.

A look at the history of community studies shows that the communal is the basis for the existence and development of communities/societies. This concept gained its full connotations in the course of the development of modern society and was put forward in reflecting on the problems of modernity.

As attributes of the community as a whole rather than of the individual, identity, security and solidarity have a communal nature, that is, the communal character we are discussing. They constitute the necessary conditions for community.

II. Rethinking Community Theory and Community Governance

In the prevailing narrative of the origins of modernity, classical sociologists argue that the emergence of modern society is a process of transition from community to society, thus variously pitting community against society and viewing community as traditional and backward and society as modern and progressive. In classical sociology, the disintegration of communities based on values, ethics, norms, and religion is seen as the inevitable price of moving toward a modern society based on the spirit of contract and instrumental reason. Marx called this process “alienation,” Weber called it the “iron cage” produced by rationalization, and Durkheim called it “anomie.” From varying perspectives, they put forward critiques of modern society and raised the formidable task of social integration, arguing that the future society should be based on some common values in order to form a new community.

The classical sociologists had different visions of how best to integrate society and sustain its existence. In Marx’s view, the fetishism of money resulting from the market economy and capitalism posed a huge problem for the communal nature of modern society. To sustain modern society, the logic of capital had to be broken down. This could only be achieved through class struggle, which would overthrow capitalist private ownership and establish a union of free men—communism. It would have been hard for Marx to foresee the development of communal forms of community organization such as the welfare and civil society of the West, despite the fact that the development and evolution of these forms were closely linked to socialist movements and revolutions. Weber and Durkheim did not agree with Marx’s conclusions and looked to the revival of value rationality such as religion and morality or to the appeal of charismatic figures to resist the iron cage of instrumental rationality.

One could say that the classical sociologists’ theories of modernity harbor a tension that goes beyond this dichotomy. It cannot be denied, at least, that their views of community disintegration as the origin of modernity overlooked the diversity and diachronic nature of social existence, and at the same time ignored, to varying degrees, the difficulties social integration faced amid the collapse of the community model and the emergence of modern society.

Modern sociology adhered to this theory of modernity, with its dualistic orientation, and applied it to the study of urban and rural societies. With the rise of modernization theory in the 1950s, however, the tensions contained in classical sociology’s critique of modern society were ground down as a result of political demands for resistance to socialist ideology. Within a functionalist framework, modernization theory reduced the problem of social development to the single perspective of economic growth and refined this monolithic model of community/ society development. In addition, with the wave of urbanization, modernization theory added an urban/rural dichotomy to the dichotomous framework of community/society that had been put forward.

However, in the 1970s, the development of suburbanization and metropolitanization in the United States revealed the multifaceted character and complexity of urbanization and its integration and interaction with the countryside, thereby disposing of the urban/rural dichotomy in community/society theory. However, it would appear that the dissolution of the community/society dichotomy did not automatically undermine the dominant modernity narrative; on the contrary, with the end of the Cold War and the advance of globalization, developmentalist programs of structural adjustment and neoliberal theory have swept the world. Systematic rethinking of modernity, on the other hand, came after the Asian storm and the Latin American financial crisis.

In terms of community governance or community development, the United Kingdom was a relative forerunner in the adoption of community development plans. However, the community development championed by the British government did not begin on British soil; rather, it was driven by the need to maintain colonial stability. During the neocolonial period, as the colonies industrialized and moved toward independence, there was an increase in rural poverty and ethnic conflict. In the 1920s, the British government found that effective colonial rule was not possible without giving the colonies a local identity. It therefore sought to maintain effective rule by implementing economic, health and educational development plans in poor areas, promoting local self-governance, and easing the conflicts between rich and poor. Thereafter, the basic concepts of community development, community participation and community self-reliance were laid down. After World War II, in order to address fears of a communist revolution and ease class conflict, welfare policies prevailed in the major capitalist countries, and there were significant developments in support for poor or disadvantaged groups in terms of both content and form. Social security and welfare programs such as public education and health care developed rapidly, with welfare policies covering the entire course of life.

In the late 1960s, the social problems of Western countries, especially the inner city syndrome (poverty, high crime rates, high divorce rates, lack of public services, and racial conflict) of urban communities, became increasingly noticeable. In the UK, the Labor government tried to tackle social problems by transplanting the methods that had worked in the colonies, and started community development projects in 1970. These projects gave a strong stimulus to various community-based organizations and initiatives aimed at addressing poverty and social exclusion. Community services were gradually expanded to all aspects of social life, including education, health care, housing and care for the orphaned and widowed, the old and the young, and the sick and the disabled, as well as public security. However, the projects were fundamentally a failure because the problems in the communities were not simply internal to the communities, but rather represented structural inequalities with significance for the whole of society; nor were they only the problems of poverty and unemployment, but also problems of inadequate community building. The development of the market economy boosted individualism, leaving the problem of social integration unresolved. In the 1980s, the neoliberal Thatcher government cut funding for community development, marginalizing communities. However, local governments under the Labor Party continued to advocate the idea of community development in their anti-poverty programs. In response to the major problems of family breakdown and social disintegration of their times, they emphasized the need to develop a new understanding of individualism, restore community solidarity and rebuild the public system. This resulted in Third Way theory. Anthony Giddens, its intellectual mentor, stated that, “The theme of community is fundamental to the new politics, but not just as an abstract slogan. The advance of globalization makes a community focus both necessary and possible, because of the downward pressure it exerts.

Community doesn’t imply trying to recapture lost forms of local solidarity; it refers to practical means of furthering the social and material refurbishment of neighborhoods, towns and larger local areas.”1 Since then, Labor’s concept of community development has been gaining ground, and has had a huge impact in EU countries. It can be said that the emphasis on and promotion of community development and solidarity was an important factor in the Labor Party’s eventual victory in the general election. Following the Party’s re-entry into the political arena in 1997, it continued to adhere to the basic principles of community and social development, and tried to reconstruct the relationship between the state and society and solve the dilemmas facing the welfare state.

Since the reform and opening up policy was introduced in 1978, China’s community governance has mainly focused on the governance of rural communities, where it has undergone a complex process of growing understanding, starting from the initial poverty alleviation and going on to modernization. Whether it be projects for village poverty alleviation or NGO regional development, major efforts have been made, and in certain places, some people have achieved great material gains; in general, however, rural governance has not had a significant effect. The fundamental reason for this is that our approach to rural governance has basically been developmentalist, emphasizing only or mainly the development of the rural economy while neglecting the communal nature of the village. In concrete practice, we tend to regard the village as a unit or area in the geographical and economic sense only, and frequently seek to strengthen rural governance by increasing economic and material inputs.

We emphasize infrastructure construction, such as building bridges and roads and providing access to electricity and the internet, but fail to regard the village as a community, neglecting to activate and integrate its qualities of identity, security and solidarity. In fact, it is the shrinking of the public character of communities rather than their economic underdevelopment that is the most important reason for the decline of the village. Looking at the development of community theory and community building, we can clearly see that the main reason rural society (“the traditional community”) has long been regarded as “representing backwardness” and placed in opposition to modern society is that its theoretical foundation is the linear and dualistic narrative of Western centrism. Modernity is seen as a Western “project”: it may not be unique to the West, but it was created by the West alone. It has been reduced to a linear process (that is, a phased progression from traditional communities to modern societies) and to one that involves an absolute dichotomy that opposes rural areas to urban areas. There is too much focus on the economic side of the emergence of modern society, and too little on overall social change.

When it comes to the comprehensive change of production relations in rural communities, we pay too much attention to how people move from the countryside to industry and commerce and big cities, while ignoring the way rural residents lose the various “materials” of production and daily life (the subjects of the classical social thinkers), or the way they end up as wage workers selling their labor in the new capital-labor social structure. Community development and community building show an explicit or implicit tendency toward economic determinism and a linear evolutionary line of thought. From the perspective of linear evolution, a society can be modernized only after a complete break with backward traditions has enabled it to cross over to civilized society; and from the perspective of economic determinism, economic progress ensures cultural development and prosperity. These unilinear theories of evolution and economic determinism fail to see that the sustenance of society, in ancient times and today, still depends on the basic human need for joint survival in one place, one locality or a wider space, in a way that is at once material and mental, rational and emotional, institutional and cultural, and individual and group. It is because of the shortcomings of this theory that in practice, urban areas are valued and rural areas are neglected and the traditional resources that sustain the existence of the public nature of the community are disregarded, or even discarded and criticized without analysis.

Tradition and modernity are not diametrically opposed. History is continuous: our cultural traditions permeate our food, clothing, housing and transportation. Modernity is not simply a rejection of tradition, but a rewriting and reconstruction of tradition; tradition must be regenerated with its own intrinsic values in the midst of our reflections on modernity. This regenerated tradition is “post-tradition.” “The hallmark of reflective modernity is detraditionalization. But this does not mean that traditional beliefs and practices disappear from society. In some cases, it even indicates their reappearance.”2 In response to the impact of modernity on ethics, morality, family and society, Giddens calls for the use of tradition to rebuild family unity, make society more cohesive and jettison a misinterpreted individualism. He argues that in order to repair the breakdown of solidarity, tradition must be re-examined and not simply be put in opposition to modernity and excluded. We are currently living in a post-traditional society, and while it is true that the Enlightenment has undermined all traditions, the influence of tradition is still strong, and tradition itself “is invented and continually reformed.”3

To transcend the dichotomy between community and society and to emphasize the important role of traditional resources in sustaining the communal nature of the former is not a return to “community” in the classical sense. The classical sense of community, as a geographic aggregation of people related by land and blood, is largely absent in today’s society, and even though there may be individual people or associations organized in similar communities, they are the exception. Ever since T?nnies, “communities” in the sociological sense have changed from a social type of relationship based on blood ties to one based on geography. Today, with the advent of the internet era, communities are increasingly breaking down these geographic boundaries and manifesting themselves as new “social organizations” or “social networks” with a degree of connection across geographic boundaries. In addition, we must objectively acknowledge that the community itself is facing the possibility of disintegration and collapse due to the impact of marketization and the lack or destruction of public resources (natural, economic and social). In fact, communities in many parts of the world have declined to varying degrees. Therefore, the question is not one of reversing the course of history and returning to the classical sense of community, but one of activating traditional resources to ensure that the community retains more of its communal nature under market economy conditions and that it meets the requirements for basic public goods in the meeting places of the exodus from traditional communities, so as to build new communities for the future.

III. A Moderately Prosperous Society and Community Development

The Scientific Outlook on Development, the core and center of which is “putting people first,” is fundamentally different from the old-style materialistic outlook on development. If development is material-oriented, it is likely that, in the one-sided pursuit of high per capita incomes and high GDP, people will have more high-rise buildings and high-speed highways, but they will not have a greater sense of security or trust. In addition, disparities of region, wealth, socioeconomic status and urban-rural location between and within societies are becoming increasingly serious. The environment, ethics, and trust will be disregarded or will deteriorate. Therefore, implementing the Scientific Outlook on Development actually means transcending the dichotomy that Western theories of modernity and developmentalism impose on community and society and on urban and rural areas.

Putting people first does not only mean making the individual the starting point and ultimate destination; rather, since man has always been a herd animal, it means making the interests of the whole people the fundamental starting point and ultimate destination. It does not mean simply gratifying immediate interests; rather, it takes as its goal the long-term interests of mankind as a whole, because one generation has always followed another in an endless succession. It does not mean only taking as one’s goal the meeting of people’s economic interests; rather, it also means improving the quality of their social and cultural life, because from the very beginning, people have not only been economic animals but, more importantly, social and cultural animals. It does not simply mean taking as one’s goal the improvement of the interests of man himself, but rather means maintaining the harmony between man and nature, because from the very beginning, man has been part of nature. We have only one world to share. In our one and only world, from birth onward individuals constantly interact with others—begin to rely on others—and thus acquire selfhood. This determines that human beings must live and can only live in a community, and must forge the solidarity (communal nature) of the community through an identity that includes spirit, culture and emotion. Otherwise, the absence of a communal nature will inevitably lead to disintegration, atomization and the war of all against all, in which “man is wolf to man,” and man is the enemy of nature.

Today, when we talk about a moderately prosperous (xiaokang) society and harmonious society, we have to explore whether it is possible to tread a different developmental path and redevelop a set of analytical frameworks. Of course, there are many realistic bases for the building of a harmonious society. The Scientific Outlook on Development proposes to pursue comprehensive, balanced, and sustainable development, striking a balance between the economy and society, between man and nature, between the cities and the countryside, between the eastern and the western regions, and between China and the outside world. Building a harmonious society demands a substantial amount of work in terms of policy-making and operation, but there is also a very important task to be done at the cognitive or theoretical level. The concept of a moderately prosperous society/harmonious society involves a basic concept: what precisely is society? Is it a simple addition or accumulation of people, or is it the concept of people as a type, an aggregate, or a whole? In biological, economic, social and cultural terms, people are herd animals. In the great majority of cases, society cannot be reduced to individuals, and still less can individuals be taken as merely “economic man,” i.e., as individuals seeking to maximize their own interests. Therefore, if we are to gain an impression of a society, in addition to individual indicators such as per capita income, per capita GDP, per capita profit, per capita life expectancy, and per capita educational level, we must also look at the indicators of the society as a whole, such as mutual trust, affection, security, solidarity and order. These are concepts that exist and have meaning only in the context of the whole, i.e. they exist only when they relate to each other and thereby form a society or a community. Conversely, it is only because of these things that human beings are social animals who live in groups, rather than individuals like Robinson Crusoe who would actually be unable to survive. When people relate to each other, they interact to form groups, teams, associations or communities. Once everything is reduced to the individual, social reality is misinterpreted.

If we look at the comprehensive and coordinated development of a moderately prosperous society/harmonious society in this way, then China as a whole, with its many civilizations and diverse cultures, is populous but short of land; this was not only a historical constraint, but also precisely the basic seedbed of mutual assistance, one demanded not only by morality but also by the objective social conditions that bred such things as groups, teams, associations or communities.

Why did China not follow the British route to industrialization? The accidents of history offer a number of explanations, but the objective fact is, China bred another kind of modern civilization. Hard work had nurtured China’s economy and market ever since the Tang, but from the late Qing on, this tradition of hard work and revolution seems to have been in abeyance when faced with Britain’s industrial revolution. China was thus forced to follow the road of the industrial revolution. In the Chinese context, how likely was it, in reality, that the country would definitively dispose of its own hardworking revolutionary tradition and copy wholesale the route taken by Western-style industrialization? Historically, what were the chances that China would return to the path of colonialism, imperialism, or capitalism, for example? China’s many rich traditions and experiences can be completely regenerated today, because Chinese civilization was never cut off.

Therefore, our moderately prosperous society/harmonious society contains a new mode of thinking and innovating, put forward on the basis of Chinese characteristics, the primary stage of socialism, and the practice of reform and opening up. Therefore, we use new language, new logic, and new approaches to deal with the current problems and challenges.

Moderate prosperity or xiaokang is different from what we used to call modernization. That modernization basically referred to industrialization, and industrialization was fundamentally modeled on the British experience. In Western history from the 19th century on, industrialization was a whole set of things from institutions to concepts of the self, constructed, together with capitalism and the nation-state, in what we call “modernity.” But this was never just a process of urbanization in the demographic sense or modernization in the technological sense; in the actual historical process, it was accomplished by building up wage labor and capital domestically and by invasion, expansion, colonization and immigration abroad, and by the cultural and ideological rationalization and legitimation of both processes.

The other big problem with Britain’s “industrialization” is that it was the first time man had been distant from nature, and had even destroyed it and stood in opposition to it, on such a large scale and in such an organized way. People were organized into unnatural environments; they not only moved away from nature, but also made nature the object of plunder, taking the natural world, including forests, mineral deposits, timber, fresh water, and all of nature’s living creatures and animals as an inexhaustible source of resources, an object of conquest, and even as an object to be destroyed and annihilated. Therefore, even leaving aside capitalism’s internal exploitation and external aggression, industrialization itself, in the technical sense alone, presented a great dilemma or even desperate straits for a large part of the world (not only China, but also India, Brazil, South Africa, and other late-developing countries with large populations).

Culturally/ideologically, this worldwide process of increasing industrialization is closely related to how we perceive the world. The basic mode of perception since the European industrial revolution—or indeed since the Enlightenment—has been the binary narrative of subjective/objective, man/nature, civilization/ignorance, and tradition/modernity. This has become the stereotype or basic framework of our thinking today, although in fact it says nothing more than how to make an agrarian society into an industrial society and how to move from the countryside to the city. This constitutes sociology’s basic binary narrative framework. However, although this narrative is in fact mainly based on local English experience from the 17th to the 19th century, generalizations subsequently drawn from this experience actually evolved into a theory with universalist characteristics. It would seem that all societies, regardless of their physical, geographical, cultural, and historical differences, had to do the same thing. China’s whole historical context was very different from that of England. Not only did China’s “missed historical opportunities” and strong resource constraints prevent it from repeating the British route to industrialization, but—even more importantly—China was not simply a modern nation-state in the British sense, because the modern British nation-state did not in fact take shape until after the 17th-18th centuries. China, on the other hand, took shape very much earlier than it did. Thus, the “the problem of China” is not just a problem of modernization in the modern British sense (e.g., the problem of achieving industrialization and urbanization). Of course, the modernization problem in Britain is not confined to one-dimensional industrialization and urbanization; at the least, it includes a number of basic dimensions, including industrialization, capitalism, and the nation-state. Even so, it is still not enough to clarify the “problem of China.”

So far, a fundamental problem in Chinese scholarship has been that we have long failed to pay attention to the theory and practice of socialism with Chinese characteristics and have not seen the theoretical and practical significance of the Chinese path; rather, consciously or unconsciously, we always took the Western model of modernization as the only or “universal” model. We almost always used concepts, theories, paradigms or models developed in Britain and Western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries to explain Chinese practice. In doing so, we always encountered contradictions, and when we did, we always thought that our own practice must be wrong. Rarely did we question whether these concepts, theories, paradigms, or models were themselves problematic or limited. We seldom thought about whether modernization of a compound entity like China had to be organized along British lines. That type of organization, even if “successful,” went on for three hundred years for a very limited number of people and in a very limited geographical area. However, human society has a written history going back thousands of years. Among the various civilizations that have not precisely followed the English model, some have disappeared, but some, including China, are still alive and changing and developing. They have existed continuously for thousands of years or even more. They have a much longer history, cover a much wider area, involve many more people, and offer provide much richer explanations.

Further, the problem is not whether Western theories and concepts are wrong, but that their empirical basis is too far from Chinese practice. The great practice of more than a billion people in China is itself fully capable of producing new concepts, new theories, new paradigms and new interpretative frameworks.

Building a moderately prosperous society in all respects is also, when put into concrete terms, a question of how to rebuild communities. This situation involves the question of community rebuilding, especially in relation to reintegrating potential public resources and rebuilding rural communities in the less developed areas of western China.

Here, “rebuilding” is not reversion to old practices, but a question of achieving fair and rational use of society’s potential public resources in the new growth model, so that community development becomes sustainable, people-oriented, and in the long run, rurbanization-based.4

Community rebuilding also includes promoting the stability, mutual assistance, and solidarity of the community as a whole; it is not just a matter of improving economic indicators or raising the education level, lifespan, and rights of individuals in the community. The latter actually belong to social undertakings and social work, things that are certainly important for community building. But when we say “society” or “community,” we mean the way a group of individuals coalesces into a whole. The key here lies in normative and institutional factors. Without them, if a group of people comes together only in a geopolitical sense, with neither identity nor security, let alone solidarity, they do not form a community in the sociological sense.

One of the most important tasks for the coordinated development of China’s urban and rural areas is the rebuilding of rural communities. In recent times, to a large extent, the problem of China has been the problem of the farmers. From Sun Yat-sen’s “land to the tiller” to Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Chiang Kai-shek, a succession of failures, setbacks, and successes have all focused on how to deal with the problems of farmers and rural areas. However, the difference lies in the fact that the problem of farmers in the past was mainly about the relationship between farmers and the land, while in the future, the main task will shift to solving the problem of farmers’ non-farming employment, that is, to solving the problem of rendering non-agricultural a rural labor force and rural population of hundreds of millions while ensuring the survival and sustainable development of the entire rural society on which depends the rural population that has yet to be made nonagricultural.

On the whole, China’s basic situation of having a large population and limited resources, together with today’s global environment, determines that China can no longer repeat the early Western path of urbanization. Rather, it can only pursue comprehensive, balanced, and sustainable development. China should narrow and diminish the gap between urban and rural areas, between workers and farmers, between eastern and western China, and between rich and poor, so as to achieve harmony throughout society. If this issue is resolved in a sound and cautious manner, China and the world will have a more peaceful and safer environment, and we will be able to further consider how to achieve unity within cultural pluralism and a harmonious coexistence. Strictly speaking, the issue here is not that if China develops rapidly, it will pose a “China threat,” nor is it a question of how ignorant and backward China is (especially rural China) or how the pace of modernization and urbanization can be maximized to eliminate this ignorance and backwardness, but rather a question of whether China can make its hundreds of millions of rural dwellers nonagricultural and blaze a path of urban and rural integration in a new world, so as to achieve complementary advantages between urban and rural areas and mutual benefits between China and the world.


1 Anthony Giddens, The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, p. 79.

2 Nigel Dodd, Social Theory and Modernity, p. 248.

3 Anthony Giddens, Runaway World: How Globalization Is Reshaping Our Lives, p. 38.

4 “Rurbanization” was coined by the author on the basis of the inspiration drawn from his conversations with local people during his visit to the Indian state of Kerala. There, development is not based on the premise of an urban-rural dichotomy, but rather on the search for the possibility of coordinated urban-rural development, which the locals term rurban development. 

Huang Ping, senior research fellow at the Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

The article was originally published in Social Sciences in China, Volume 43 No.1 February 2022. The article has been authorized.