What Does China Think? Review

What Does China Think
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What Does China Think ReviewTo get a perspective on what some Chinese political theorists are thinking, consider this: While Westerners "anguish" about how to manage China's rise, Chinese think-tankers debate about "how to manage the West's decline"! Wang Yiwei, from Fudan University, shares this worry, and asks, "How can we prevent the USA from declining too quickly?" (pp. 115-116)
What this book attempts to provide is a Chinese perspective on the rise of China and its place in the world as it has grown from a largely agrarian society in the days of Mao to a superpower of the 21st century. To do this, Mark Leonard, who wrote "Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century," traveled in China and interviewed many of China's leading thinkers on politics and economics. A number of these scholars have advanced degrees from American universities. They have taken Western ideas back to China and incorporated them into traditional Chinese ways of thinking, consistent with the dictates of the ruling Communist Party. Leonard shows that within this unique political culture there have arisen various points of view, from the "New Right" of, e.g., Zhang Weiying, to the "New Left" of, e.g., Wang Hui, from ideas about the "peaceful rise" of China to notions more in keeping with the thinking of the so-called "neo-comms." Part of the debate is about the use of military power, part of it is about how to influence other countries, and part of it is about how to manage its own people.
Since Deng Xiaoping opted for a market economy within the political dictatorship, the growth of China has been extraordinary. But with this growth have come problems: pollution, growing economic inequalities, the yearning for political democracy, and the infusion (perhaps one might even say the "invasion") of ideas foreign and inimical to the perceived interests of the communist state. To fight the disagreeable ideas from without, the government has trained "an e-police force of 100,000 people employed to scour the net, blocking sites and checking e-mails."
Leonard allows that this number may be exaggerated, but the point is clear: China wants to modernize, and to do so, must learn from the West, but at the same time it must not allow Western ideas to ferment dissention at home. Just how this delicate tightrope walk works in the public forums for China's leading thinkers is part of what makes this book interesting.
The "New Right" which led the change from Mao's soviet style economy to what the Chinese call "Yellow River Capitalism," which ushered in the gargantuan economic growth, has come under fire from various quarters, including the "New Left" which unlike the "old left" supports market reforms. However, as Wang Hui sees it, "China is caught between the two extremes of misguided socialism and crony capitalism...."He adds, "We must not give total priority to GDP growth to the exclusion of worker's rights and the environment." (p. 33) "Princeling" Pan Yue (as some of the privileged and talented members of the younger Chinese generation are called) "has talked of `China's environmental suicide,' and in an interview with the German magazine, Der Spiegel, predicted that `China's economic miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.'" (p. 42-43)
Cui Zhiyuan, who is professor of Politics and Public Management at the Tsinghua University in Beijing, sees Chinese politics in Machiavellian terms: "For Machiavelli power was not divided between two levels: the state and the people. Florentine politics was split between three groups, the prince (the `one'), the nobles (the `few') and the people (the `many'). In today's China, the `one' is the Communist Party, the `few' are the super-rich, and the `many' are the people." (p. 47)
There have been some experiments in "deliberative democracy" at the village level to allow some input into central party decisions. The Chinese have learned from the experience of the Soviet Union that ignorance of what people at the grass roots level think can lead to not just inefficiency but to disaster. However this token gesture toward political reform is not likely to replace the "deliberative dictatorship" that current holds sway. Nonetheless, "The government seems to realize that developing institutional ways of dealing with grievances can make the state more stable." (p. 74)
I think this last point is one that we in the West and especially in the United States need to understand. For most people in the world the first responsibility of the state is to provide security and stability. After that perhaps political freedom can evolve. China, learning from the failed Soviet experiment, has put economic reform first and political reform later.
In international relationships, China is trying to develop "soft power" as a means to further its interests. The US, until the recent rise of George W. Bush and the neocons, exemplified the use of soft power to influence others through its culture and its economic strength. China wants to avoid the recent mistakes of the US such as invading other countries and is pursuing a policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other nations. Unfortunately it is also indiscriminately supporting dictators such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Leonard asserts that "China will never be supportive of multi-party elections and human rights: why would it promote rights for foreigners that it denies to its own citizens?" (p. 126)
Leonard provides a "Dramatis Personae" near the end of the book identifying some of China's leading political and economic thinkers. There are endnotes and an index. All things considered, this is a good, albeit short, introduction to contemporary Chinese political thinking.
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