The Intellectual Elite of China

Question: Where are the debates over China’s future taking place?

Mark Leonard:  What I focus on in my book is the debate between elites.  I mean, there is a large elite within China.  They are very influential.  And in a way, they act as a sort of surrogate for the absence of the sort of institutions that you have in a free society.  There are no political parties.  There’s no free media.  You don’t have trade unions to stand up for workers’ rights.  And that, in a way, gives the intellectuals a more important voice than they have in Western society, because they become a surrogate for political competition.  The political class is happy to let ideas, have ideas in play, and these intellectuals who keep these ideas in play, and they see the sort of marketplace of ideas emerging.  Sometimes the intellectuals do speak up for genuine concerns on a lower level, and they reflect the concerns that are happening within society.  But it is very different from a Western political system where you have ideas filtering their way up through civil society and political platforms, which then compete in general elections. 

Question: How has the Chinese government responded to these debates?


Mark Leonard:  Well, the government is incredibly pragmatic.  It’s not an ideological government anymore.  It’s desperate to succeed.  It knows there are all sorts of problems that it faces, and it’s paranoid about China collapsing.  So therefore they are very happy to kind of pick and chose different ideas and to test them out in different places.  And that also empowers the thinkers in China, because the man with a good idea is kind of

king in that sense, and if ideas are well developed and attractive enough, there’s a good chance they’ll be picked up by a policy maker somewhere in China.  And there’s a very porous relationship between the universities and the think tanks and the government.  For example, when they developed their 11th five-year plan, which was the last attempt to really think about the strategic direction of the country, they launched a 100 academic studies that fed into it, and involved literally 1000s of researchers from all over China in working these ideas up.  So it’s a very different sort of political system from when you had sort of Deng Xiaoping or Mao sitting in a room and working out what he wanted to do.  And that’s one of the ways that these debates move from the academic realm into policy.

Mark Leonard describes how academic elites work with the government to shape Chinese debate.

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