Mark Leonard: What Does China Think?

Mark Leonard:  Well, I was running a foreign policy think tank in London, and what I found on issue after issue was that China started popping up on themes which were completely outside of its traditional stereotype, from climate change to nuclear proliferation to what to do to solve genocides in different parts of the world.  So I decided to go to China and to try and find out a bit more about what was going on there.  When I went there, I was completely sucked into this hidden world of think tanks and universities where there’s big debates going on, which one reads very little about in the West.  I was just very struck both that the kind of signs of the intellectual community, the vibrancy of that debate, and also the stakes involved, because the differences between, for example, the new left and the new right on economic policy in China are far greater than the differences between Democrats and Republicans, or the British Labor Party and the Conservative Party.  So it just felt like there was a lot at stake, and there was a lot going on, and that we only get a very imperfect grasp of it, if you read the Western media, or even if you read foreign policy journals in the West.

Question: What are the debates going on within China?

Mark Leonard:  Well, on my very first visit to China, I went to this think tank called the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, and was just struck, both by the scale of the place.  There are 4,000 researchers there who are working on a whole series of different issues.  But also by the quality of thinking that’s going on there.  Not all of these 4,000 people are world class thinkers, but there is just a lively community, which is bigger than any other think tank community that I’ve seen outside of the United States.  And I soon found out that the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is just one out of a dozen in Beijing alone, and each of the big cities have got these think tanks, and they also have universities, as well.  So I started going there more often, and I got to know more and more people, and started reading what they were writing in academic journals and newspapers, and looking at some of the debates that were taking place both in person and also on the internet.  And I suppose I found there were three parallel debates going on, which all have a lot of significance both for China’s own development, but also for the West.  One is about what model of capitalism China embraces.  And there you have a group of people who were very influential in the 1980s, who were essentially into Reaganomics, free market economics.  They want the state to disappear.  They want China to privatize everything and embrace the market at the expense of everything else.  And they are being challenged by an increasingly intellectual loose grouping of people called The New Left.  The New Left, because they’re not the old left that was against the market, but they are left because they care about inequality and the incredible damage that’s being done to the environment by China’s breakneck economic growth.  So that was one kind of debate about the model of capitalism that’s going on.  Secondly, there’s a debate about what model of political reform China should adopt.  Between some people who believe in incremental democracy, they want China to experiment with elections at a grass roots level.  It’s only started with villages.  It’s going kind of gradually higher up within the structure.  The thing which they’re most excited about is what they call intraparty democracy, trying to introduce more democracy within the Communist Party, within the sort of 70 million Chinese party, members of the Communist Party.  But on the other hand, there are another group of people, who are increasingly influential saying that the last thing China needs is elections.  It needs the rule of law, and it needs a one party state that knows what the public wants, so they can give the public what they want.  But the way to find out what the public wants isn’t through elections.  Instead it’s by using focus groups, opinion polls, public consultation.  And what they’re developing is what I call deliberative dictatorship, a dictatorship that’s much more able to understand and to preempt public opinion.  And then the third argument, which is maybe the most challenging for the Western world, is about power and world order.  And there all Chinese people want China to become a great power again, and to build its comprehensive national power.  But the way they’re doing it is very interesting.  They’re taking a lot of cutting edge Western ideas, like soft power, multilateral integration, and asymmetric warfare, and turning these things which we, in the West, associate with the decline of the nation state, into ways of making the nation state more powerful.  And there, there are two kind of main groups of people.  One group of people thinks that China needs to reassure the West about its rise and to essentially adapt itself to the existing international system and to fight for bigger rights within it.  And then there are other people who think that in the long term, China needs to stop appeasing the West, and it should create a system based on its own image.  And I call that debate a battle between liberal internationalists and China’s answer to the Neocons.  I call them the Neocoms, because they’re trying to promote the kind of old Maoist idea of overthrowing the West in a new guise, not by directly attacking the existing structures, but by cleverly using these ideas like soft power and multilateralism to build another world around the existing institutions. 

Mark Leonard discusses how he became interested in China and its internal debates.

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