Inside track to the guid­ing ad­vice of Chi­nese thinkers

Catherine Ar­mitage What Does China Think? By Mark Leonard HarperCollins, 164pp, $ 27.99

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.