Western Misperceptions of China

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.

Mark Leonard discusses basic misconceptions about China in the West.

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