Chinese democracy

Shiyu Tan reviews Mark Leonard's latest book about the different ideologies that may shape China's relationship with the West

By Shiyu Tan
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


What Does China Think?
Mark Leonard
164 pp: PublicAffairs, 2008. $22.95





When it comes to discussions on politics and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chinese have been habitually silenced. Attempts to engage in such conversations with regular Chinese may be met with hostility or shy evasion. But Mark Leonard, executive director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, managed to talk with over 200 Chinese intellectuals and officials over a three-year period about modern Chinese political thinking and the multiple schools of thought dominating discussion. A self-proclaimed "accidental sinologist," Leonard asserts that as the West worries about how China might progress, China has yet to reach a consensus on the matter. From how the country should be governed to preventing the United States from "declining too quickly," rife debate is taking place between leading thinkers in support of different political theories.

In this moment in history, when China fever is taking the world by storm, many books about China discuss its history, culture, economy, government policies or military bloc, but Leonard's book explores how leading Chinese thinkers, who will shape the nation's future, debate and view issues regarding China, such as policies on the country's move from a labor-intensive to a skilled, knowledge-based economy, its diplomatic ties with the United States, Taiwan, African countries and the rest of Asia, and its own take on democracy. Leonard charts the shaping of this "China model" in his new book What Does China Think? The objective of which is to try to make sense of these Chinese ideologies which Western policymakers will need to understand if they want to successfully promote their own world-view as they meet rising challenges from the developing Chinese world-view.

Little known to the world, behind the authoritative iron-fist rule of the CCP the government has been experimenting with "deliberative democracy" and "deliberative polling" on village and town levels by bringing in more public participation to central party decisions at testing grounds like Pingchang and Zeguo. Public consultations, expert meetings and surveys are becoming a central part of Chinese decision-making. Seeing developed democracies face declines in election turnout, faith in political leaders, and party membership while populism is on the rise, China will approach democracy another way. Many of China's leading thinkers were educated in the West, and they are now taking Western ideas and adapting them into a new Chinese approach for dealing with the world. Fang Ning, deputy director of the Institute of Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences tells Leonard:

"Western democracy is like going to a restaurant and choosing whether you want a French, Italian or German chef who will decide on your behalf what is on the menu. With Chinese democracy we always have the same chef -- the Communist Party -- but we will increasingly get to choose which dishes he cooks."

The "New Right," represented by famous economist Zhang Weiying, believes that freedom is possible only when the public sector is dismantled and a politically-active "propertied class" emerges. Ironically, Rightist thinkers experienced their greatest success pushing for liberalism when the Communists faithfully implemented their ideas for reform while silencing critical voices. Increasingly setting the tone for political debate is the "New Left," led by thinkers such as Tsinghua University professor Cui Zhiyuan, who advocates a gentler form of capitalism with a social safety net that reduces inequality and protects the environment.

In the scope of foreign affairs, "liberal internationalists" believe that China should play a more active role in global affairs but should also have a concerted strategy to show China's interest in joining, rather than overthrowing, the existing international order. Opposing this viewpoint are the assertive nationalists, or what Leonard labels as China's "neo-comms." They argue against peaceful rise and want to use military modernization, cultural diplomacy and international law to assert China's power in the world. In between the two groups are the pragmatists who will support any idea that advances China's interests.

While Leonard hooks readers with insider perspectives on the different Chinese ideologies, this thin read may leave many yearning for more. It is an impressive work for a foreigner who previously was no specialist on China issues, but it feels shallow since Leonard touched on an array of topics but never goes in-depth enough on any. For example, more could be mentioned on how the rest of China's 1.3 billion people think about their country's issues, on the number of supporters each ideology has garnered, and on the interaction between advocators of the different factions and their relationship with the CCP government. Nonetheless, the simplicity of the book also makes it accessible and enlightening to anyone new on the topic of China.