We know a lot about the Chinese economy - but how do the Chinese think? What do they discuss? Are they all Maoist automatons, or is there a lively debate occurring which Western observors are barely aware of? Veteran think tanker Mark Leonard favours the latter view, which he puts forward at some length in his new book, What does China think?
This is also the lead story in the March 2008 issue of Prospect magazine. Leonard makes some inteersting points in his cover piece, China's new intelligentsia. He documents the shift away from Deng's 'growth at any price' approach, as 'new left' views gain ground. Here are some excerpts from the article:
I had imagined that China's intellectual life consisted of a few unbending ideologues in the back rooms of the Communist party or the country's top universities. Instead, I stumbled on a hidden world of intellectuals, think-tankers and activists, all engaged in intense debate about the future of their country. I soon realised that it would take more than a few visits to Beijing and Shanghai to grasp the scale and ambition of China's internal debates. Even on that first trip my mind was made up—I wanted to devote the next few years of my life to understanding the living history that was unfolding before me.
Over a three-year period, I have spoken with dozens of Chinese thinkers, watching their views develop in line with the breathtaking changes in their country. Some were party members; others were outside the party and suffering from a more awkward relationship with the authorities. Yet to some degree, they are all insiders. They have chosen to live and work in mainland China, and thus to cope with the often capricious demands of the one-party state.
We are used to China's growing influence on the world economy—but could it also reshape our ideas about politics and power? This story of China's intellectual awakening is less well documented. We closely follow the twists and turns in America's intellectual life, but how many of us can name a contemporary Chinese writer or thinker? Inside China—in party forums, but also in universities, in semi-independent think tanks, in journals and on the internet—debate rages about the direction of the country: "new left" economists argue with the "new right" about inequality; political theorists argue about the relative importance of elections and the rule of law; and in the foreign policy realm, China's neocons argue with liberal internationalists about grand strategy. Chinese thinkers are trying to reconcile competing goals, exploring how they can enjoy the benefits of global markets while protecting China from the creative destruction they could unleash in its political and economic system. Some others are trying to challenge the flat world of US globalisation with a "walled world" Chinese version.
Paradoxically, the power of the Chinese intellectual is amplified by China's repressive political system, where there are no opposition parties, no independent trade unions, no public disagreements between politicians and a media that exists to underpin social control rather than promote political accountability. Intellectual debate in this world can become a surrogate for politics—if only because it is more personal, aggressive and emotive than anything that formal politics can muster. While it is true there is no free discussion about ending the Communist party's rule, independence for Tibet or the events of Tiananmen Square, there is a relatively open debate in leading newspapers and academic journals about China's economic model, how to clean up corruption or deal with foreign policy issues like Japan or North Korea.
Although the internet is heavily policed, debate is freer here than in the printed word (although one of the most free-thinking bloggers, Hu Jia, was recently arrested). And behind closed doors, academics and thinkers will often talk freely about even the most sensitive topics, such as political reform.
The Chinese like to argue about whether it is the intellectuals that influence decision-makers, or whether groups of decision-makers use pet intellectuals as informal mouthpieces to advance their own views. Either way, these debates have become part of the political process, and are used to put ideas in play and expand the options available to Chinese decision-makers. Intellectuals are, for example, regularly asked to brief the politburo in "study sessions"; they prepare reports that feed into the party's five-year plans; and they advise on the government's white papers.
So is the Chinese intelligentsia becoming increasingly open and western? Many of the concepts it argues over—including, of course, communism itself—are western imports. And a more independent-minded, western style of discourse may be emerging as a result of the 1m students who have studied outside China—many in the west—since 1978; fewer than half have returned, but that number is rising.
However, one should not forget that the formation of an "intellectual" in China remains very different from in the west. Education is still focused on practical contributions to national life, and despite a big expansion of higher education (around 20 per cent of 18-30 year olds now enrol at university), teaching methods rely heavily on rote learning. Moreover, all of these people will be closely monitored for political dissent, with "political education" classes still compulsory...
And there's plenty more in his piece. Fascinating.