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Commercial Civil Society: A Perspective on Private Higher Education in China

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Two distinctive paradigms have been used in researching higher education phenomena in China’s process of social transformation. The first might be described as “critical realist,” and the second as “interpretivist.” The book Portraits of 21st Century Chinese Universities: In the Move to Mass Higher Education, has inclined toward the second paradigm and a central concept is that of “civil society.” However, the authors of this article argue that the concept of “commercial civil society” may better explain the characteristics of Chinese private higher education. Different from civil society that is based on voluntary action and contributions, commercial civil society is characterized by profit making behavior. This article focuses on analyzing the profit making features of Chinese private higher education, and thus aims to supplement the interpretivist analysis presented in the book. The authors believe that the concept of “commercial civil society” not only reflects certain features of the social environment in which Chinese private higher education operates, but may also be helpful for analyzing private higher education phenomena in other countries.


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