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.