Inside track to the guiding advice of Chinese thinkers
Catherine Armitage What Does China Think? By Mark Leonard HarperCollins, 164pp, $ 27.99
WHAT does China think? How can the disparate thoughts of China’s 1.3 billion people be crammed into a 134- page narrative? And how could Mark Leonard, a British intellectual and self- described accidental Sinologist, answer the question anyway when polling one- party China is off limits lest some politically unpalatable fact comes to light?
But the premise of Leonard’s book is smarter than it appears. The Western world buzzes with talk of China’s rise and how to manage it, yet few have bothered to ask China’s leading thinkers what they think. So Leonard got himself a visiting scholarship at China’s premier think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He spent a few years immersing himself in the ideas of China’s most prominent intellectuals. And he has made sense of it all for us in this lively and interesting book.
As Leonard observes, thinkers such as Wang Hui, Zhang Weiying, Zheng Bijian and Yan Xuetong are virtually unheard of outside China, yet they enjoy more influence in China than their counterparts usually do in the West. ‘‘ We will soon find our world changed by their thinking,’’ Leonard suggests.
Paradoxically, China’s repressive political system amplifies their power. Because public disagreement with the party is forbidden and because the party must present a unified front to the people, its leaders look for thinkers to disagree with them in the search for new solutions to China’s formidable problems. In the great contest of ideas, all the action goes on behind the scenes.
These policy titans are on a much longer leash than ordinary citizens. ‘‘ As long as you don’t write that the Communist Party should be overthrown immediately, you can write what you like,’’ one of them told Leonard. Intellectual debate in academic journals and at closed conferences is a surrogate for politics. The clashes rarely come to public notice, except when
they are over, and a new set of words from the top signifies a shift in the party line.
In three self- contained chapters, topped and tailed with an introduction and a conclusion, Leonard takes us through post- Tiananmen developments in debates about the economy, politics and foreign policy respectively. But this is no dry dissection of scholarly discourse. Leonard is as interested in the people as in their thinking and we get to know them, too, through penetrating character sketches woven into the text and a dramatis personae for reference at the end.
We meet economist Zhang, the New Right marketeer whose teetering desk collection of Cuban cigars is a potent status symbol and a ‘‘ haphazard monument to the economic opportunities of today’s China’’. His star is waning as his opponents on the New Left, advocating a gentler form of capitalism focused on social and environmental goals instead of growth alone, gain sway.
Yan, the fiery nationalist neo- con, or ‘‘ neocomm’’, is introduced as the mirror image of US conservative commentator William Kristol. Yan is fixated on US hegemony as the problem and a stronger Chinese military as the solution, just as Kristol is obsessed with the China threat and convinced that US supremacy offers the only prospect for global stability.
This book, in which the Chinese are thoughtful individuals advancing reasonable arguments in context — whether or not we agree with them — is a refreshing departure from some of the stodge dished up as China analysis.
By giving full weight to the ideas he encounters and resisting the urge to pass judgment on them, Leonard shows convincingly how China may be moving towards a credible alternative to Western liberal democracy for developing countries, thereby confounding Francis Fukuyama’s end of history thesis.
Leonard’s China alternative has three components. For the economy, so- called ‘‘ Yellow River capitalism’’ delivers growth by synthesising the market with collectivism. State institutions marry co- operation with competition and distribute the proceeds of growth to meet inequality and environmental concerns. Politics is organised as a ‘‘ deliberative democracy’’, a kind of ‘‘ hi- tech consultative dictatorship’’ in which the government is in touch with citizens’ aspirations and bound by law. In the international sphere, nation- states practise strict non- interference in the affairs of others, trading with each other but each maintaining sole control over their economic and political systems and foreign policy.
As Leonard shows in fascinating excursions into real- life policy experiments under way in China, the foundations for a China alternative are taking shape. It may be a long way off and it may yet fall apart, but many observers have been blinded to developments by their assumption that political change can lead in only one direction. Last year’s excruciating polemic from Leonard’s fellow Briton, Will Hutton, The Writing on the Wall, is a case in point.
Leonard has taken the trouble to learn that what China wants is to take control of its destiny, to engage with the world on its own terms rather than be flattened by globalisation. His book has been described by old China hands, rather sniffily, as an undergraduate primer. I think they are a bit miffed that reading the tea leaves, as the once dark art of China watching used to be known, is no longer confined to a narrow circle of scholarly devotees but has become an international pastime.
That’s a good thing. For readers who want to understand better how China really works, and to make more sense of the daily twists and turns in China news, so is this book. Catherine Armitage is a Sydney writer and consultant and a former China correspondent for The Australian.
Unlikely freedoms: Paramilitary in Tiananmen Square prepare for the arrival of the 2008 Olympic torch