From our high school and college education in math and physics, as well as in other science courses, we know that for many problems, there could be multiple solutions, and often one solution is not necessarily better than the other solutions. This article discusses the implications for social and political analysis when we take into account that there could be multiple solutions to any particular social or political problem.
To illustrate the concept of multiple solutions to problems, let’s consider a simple arithmetic problem. Suppose the problem is to calculate (19×6), then one solution is to just multiply 19 by 6 and get the result 114. Another solution is to multiply 20 by 6 to get 120, and then subtract 6 from 120 to get the same answer 114. Although the second solution involves two steps, instead of one step as in the first solution, because it is much easier to multiply 20 by 6 as compared to multiplying 19 by 6, the second solution is just as easy, and just as good, as the first solution.
What about social and political problems? It seems natural to assume that for many social and political problems, there could also be multiple solutions. As a matter of fact, social and political problems may be even more complex than math and science problems, because there may be more variables, many of the variables may not even be known, and they may involve human behaviors that are not always predictable. Because the problems are so complex and not necessarily well defined or completely defined, for any particular problem or a set of problems, there could be even more solutions or perhaps partial solutions, and it may be difficult to judge in real time whether one solution is better than another solution.
In this article, we want to discuss the above concept in the transformation of a semi-feudal, poor, mostly under-developed country to a modern, industrialized, and fully-developed country, in particular the transformation of China from the middle of the 20th century to the middle of the 21st century. During this transformation, China has or will have to address many issues, such as transforming:
- From a country where hunger and poverty are daily issues faced by hundreds of millions
- From a country where the average life expectancy was 32 (to the current 73) 
- From a country where illiteracy was around 80%  (to less than 10% today )
- From a country consisting of mostly peasants (about 80%) living in the rural countryside to a much more urbanized country with many large metropolitan areas and large amounts of industrial production
- From a country with a small amount of infrastructure (e.g., railways, highways, electricity, telecommunications) to a country with large amounts of modern infrastructure (e.g., quadrupling of its railway systems, and from essentially no expressed highways to more than 65,000 kilometers and second in the world behind only the U.S. )
- From a country where authority basically resides within the Chinese Communist Party to a country where authority is distributed and where people’s voices can be more directly reflected in the governance structure
- From a country where rules and procedures are not always well defined or followed and what is important is whom you know to a country where laws and rules are clearly defined and followed and where things move forward or people get promoted because of their capabilities or the values of their proposals, and not on whom they know
- From a country where the press and other mass media, and individual freedom are tightly controlled by the central government to one with more decentralized regulation and more importantly much more freedom for the press and for individuals
- From a country with great differences between rich and poor where differences were greatly reduced during the first 30 years or so of its existence to a country with its emergence as a great economic power where the gaps between rich and poor may also be reemerging
- From a country with 56 major minorities (and many more smaller minorities) with their own cultures and languages and where on and off some had some degree of autonomy to a country unified under a strong central government but sensitivities need to be considered in treating the differences of the minorities
- From a country where little attention was paid to environmental pollution or protection to a country with its ever increasing productivity where controlling pollution and protecting the environment are critical
- From a country where her best and brightest young people go oversee to study and work to a country where its own universities, research institutes, and enterprises are among the best in the world
- From a country which for over a century was partially occupied by foreign powers to a country that is no longer intimidated by foreign powers but also needs to use its powers prudently and fairly
- From a country whose internal economic condition had no major impact on the world economy to one where the country’s production capacity, wages and purchasing power of its citizens, and value of its currency have major impacts on the world economy.
The above list is definitely by no means complete. There are many more problems that China needs to address during this transformation. Nevertheless, the above list already shows the huge problems and the complexity of the problems that China must solve during this transformation. I am in no illusion that I can offer a lot of insights in solving these problems, although future articles in my website may provide additional discussion on some selected problems.
As we said at the very beginning of this article, there could be multiple solutions to a particular problem, and one solution is not necessarily better than other solutions. When we take into account that China, as well as other countries, may have its own unique history, culture, and circumstances , then it is very likely that the best solutions to their problems may not be the same as the solutions being used in other countries. Just because certain solutions are being adopted in certain countries, it does not necessarily mean that those solutions are the best solutions for China, or even if they are workable solutions for China. Furthermore, the solutions being adopted in other countries may not even be the best solutions for those countries.
Note that the first three issues in the above list are “life and death” problems. Although Issue #3 on illiteracy is not necessarily a life and death problem for any particular individual, it is a life and death problem for a country as a whole. A country must first solve these life and death problems before it can seriously try to solve the other problems. Countries like the U.S. do not have to face these problems during the period between the middle of the 20th century and the middle of the 21st century. For example, in 1950, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was already over 60 years , and the illiteracy rate in the U.S. was only 3.2% .
At the beginning of this article we illustrated with a simple math problem how there might be different ways of solving a particular problem. In that example, the final answer was still the same even though the method of arriving at that answer may be different. We also know from solving math (e.g., solving differential equations) and science problems that different initial conditions may lead to different answers. Therefore, not only that the method of arriving at an answer could be different, but the answer itself could be different! This is a fact in solving math and science problems. Could it be any different in solving social and political problems. Shouldn’t we then expect that there could be multiple methods of solving social and political problems, and when there are different initial conditions, the final answers could also be different.
If we keep the above perspective in mind, then one should be careful in quickly passing judgment on others, just because they don’t always do things in the same way. This is important in assessing China’s economic, social, and political policies, especially in the current environment where the U.S. government and western mass media are fairly critical and antagonistic toward China, thus making an objective and unbiased assessment difficult. There are many reasons for such an attitude, but one of them is trying to find a scapegoat for the current depressed economic conditions in the U.S. Instead of trying to find and attack the root causes of our problems (e.g., overspending our resources for an extended period), it is much easier and politically safer to find an external scapegoat. Not only that this will not solve our problems, it will make the world a more dangerous place to live in. For the sake of the future of our children and grandchildren, this is something we should work hard to avoid.