Western Misperceptions of China

Mark Leonard is Executive Director of the first pan-European think-tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations. It was launched in late 2007 with backing from the Soros Foundations Network, Fride, the Communitas Foundation, the Sigrid Rausing Trust, and the Unicredit Group.

His first book, Why Europe will run the 21st Century, published in the UK by 4th Estate in February 2005, has been translated into 17 languages. His second book What does China think? will be published later in the year.

Mark writes and broadcasts regularly on international affairs – assignments which have led him to seek out barbecues in Texas, prisoners in Egypt and cutting-edge architecture in China. His work has appeared in publications including The Financial Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, Prospect, The Spectator, New Statesman, Foreign Policy, The Washington Quarterly, Country Life, Arena, The Mirror, The Express, and The Sun.

Mark also acts an adviser to companies and governments on China, Middle East Reform, the future of Europe and Public Diplomacy; occassionally collaborating with the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to produce work for clients ranging from the European Commission to Prada.

  • Transcript


Mark Leonard: first of all that it’s a monolithic country.  People think that the Communist Party runs it.  Maybe some ideologue sitting in the Central Party School that the Communist Party decides what’s going to happen, and these ideas then get diffused throughout society.  But, in fact, what you have is a highly decentralized political system, a bit like the United States, where all sorts of idea are being experimented at a provincial level, and where central government is actually relatively weak.  It’s one of the weakest states in the world if you look at the
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amount of GDP that’s controlled by the central government.  It’s much less than in many other countries.  I think that’s one thing.  It’s not monolithic, but it’s more complex.  Secondly, many people assume that because it’s a Communist country, it will have a large welfare state, that it would be able to deliver public services for its citizens, when, in fact, they’re on pensions, so many Chinese people.  There’s a very limited amount of healthcare and welfare.  In some ways it’s one of the most Darwinian states in the world.  I mean, you basically, there is no real faith in that for people.  When you get old, when you get sick, if you’re poor, you more or less have to rely on your own wits and on your family.  No one is there to look out for you.  So I think that’s quite a shock to people who think that because it’s a Communist state it will be good to the poor. 
Brett Dobbs:  So these think tanks in the universities you went to, were they all government sponsored?
Card: Are the think tanks and universities government sponsored?
Mark Leonard:  Yes.  I mean, in China there’s not a very clear distinction between what is the state and what is not the state, because the state continues to fund most things that happen in China.  A lot of the big companies are still state owned enterprises.  And even those that have been privatized, there are often sort of shadowy links between them and the Communist Party and party officials, and the Communist Party has tentacles in all aspects of society.  That means that it’s not a free country.  There are limits to what people can say in these debates.  You and don’t call for the end of Communist Party rule.  You don’t call for the independence of Tibet.  But nevertheless, in spite of those restrictions, there is a vast amount of contested political space, and the differences which you have between different camps in these Chinese debates are very real.  And in fact, in some ways, they’re much more significant, the differences between these different Chinese positions and the differences between political parties in the West.