Blogging the Bookshelf

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“What Does China Think”, Mark Leonard

August 14th, 2009 · No Comments · Asian, China, Chinese, Philosophy

Synopsis: An idiot’s guide to the various streams of contemporary Chinese policy debate. When you view the world through the eyes of China’s intellectuals

My Take: Those who know me know that I’m a bit of a Sinophile. While the human rights record of the Chinese government is obviously indefensible and deserves public attention and debate, I do get a bit annoyed at the generally simplistic analysis applied to issues involving China.

China is obviously not a free society. Its citizens are constrained by the constant threat of brutal repression. But the trajectory of societal development is clearly towards increased personal freedom. There’s a legitimate discussion about whether the pace of this societal change is adequate, but nobody could argue that China under Hu Jintao is less free than it was under Jiang Zemin, or less free under Deng Xiaoping than it was under Mao. China today is more complex than the totalitarian police state caricature.

China’s people are far from a brain-washed, homogenous mass. While there are still absolute taboo topics with hideous consequences for transgressors, there is currently a vigorous political/philosophical debate occurring in China. Mark Leonard’s book, “What Does China Think?” provides a useful idiot’s guide to these debates. The book’s introduction provides a good synopsis of the ground that Leonard covers:

“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.

….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.”

To my mind, the most interesting part of “What Does China Think” is Leonard’s survey of Chinese experiments with new models of governance. There seems to be a lot of experimentation with different ways of making Government more responsive to its citizens – without actually introducing democracy. The result is an interesting series of bounded public consultations – focus groups, opinion polls, citizen deliberative juries – designed to increase citizens’ voice within specific circumscribed parameters, without actually giving them the power to challenge the Communist Party’s power.

As Leonard tells it:

The west still has multi-party elections as a central part of the political process, but has supplemented them with new types of deliberation. China, according to the new political thinkers, will do things the other way around: using elections in the margins but making public consultations, expert meetings and surveys a central part of decision-making. This idea was described pithily by Fang Ning, a political scientist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He compared democracy in the west to a fixed-menu restaurant where customers can select the identity of their chef, but have no say in what dishes he chooses to cook for them. Chinese democracy, on the other hand, always involves the same chef—the Communist party—but the policy dishes which are served up can be chosen “à la carte.”

The authorities certainly seem willing to experiment with all kinds of political innovations. In Zeguo, they have even introduced a form of government by focus group. But the main criterion guiding political reform seems to be that it must not threaten the Communist party’s monopoly on power. Can a more responsive form of authoritarianism evolve into a legitimate and stable form of government?

Leonard terms the result ‘deliberative dictatorship’ and it’s interesting despite its numerous and obvious shortcomings. “What Does China Think” is a useful primer for the way the Chinese elite view the world and the policy challenges facing their nation.

Highlights:

“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.”

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