Despite the global interest in the rise of China, no one is paying much attention to its ideas and who produces them. Yet China has a surprisingly lively intellectual class whose ideas may prove a serious challenge to western liberal hegemony
Mark Leonard is the executive director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. His book What Does China Think? has just been published by 4th Estate
I will never forget my first visit, in 2003, to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing. I was welcomed by Wang Luolin, the academy"s vice-president, whose grandfather had translated Marx"s Das Kapital into Chinese, and Huang Ping, a former Red Guard. Sitting in oversized armchairs, we sipped ceremonial tea and introduced ourselves. Wang Luolin nodded politely and smiled, then told me that his academy had 50 research centres covering 260 disciplines with 4,000 full-time researchers.
As he said this, I could feel myself shrink into the seams of my vast chair: Britain"s entire think tank community is numbered in the hundreds, Europe"s in the low thousands; even the think-tank heaven of the US cannot have more than 10,000. But here in China, a single institution¡ªand there are another dozen or so think tanks in Beijing alone¡ªhad 4,000 researchers. Admittedly, the people at CASS think that many of the researchers are not up to scratch, but the raw figures were enough.
At the beginning of that trip, I had hoped to get a quick introduction to China, learn the basics and go home. I had imagined that China"s intellectual life consisted of a few unbending ideologues in the back rooms of the Communist party or the country"s top universities. Instead, I stumbled on a hidden world of intellectuals, think-tankers and activists, all engaged in intense debate about the future of their country. I soon realised that it would take more than a few visits to Beijing and Shanghai to grasp the scale and ambition of China"s internal debates. Even on that first trip my mind was made up¡ªI wanted to devote the next few years of my life to understanding the living history that was unfolding before me. Over a three-year period, I have spoken with dozens of Chinese thinkers, watching their views develop in line with the breathtaking changes in their country. Some were party members; others were outside the party and suffering from a more awkward relationship with the authorities. Yet to some degree, they are all insiders. They have chosen to live and work in mainland China, and thus to cope with the often capricious demands of the one-party state.
We are used to China"s growing influence on the world economy¡ªbut could it also reshape our ideas about politics and power? This story of China"s intellectual awakening is less well documented. We closely follow the twists and turns in America"s intellectual life, but how many of us can name a contemporary Chinese writer or thinker? Inside China¡ªin party forums, but also in universities, in semi-independent think tanks, in journals and on the internet¡ªdebate rages about the direction of the country: "new left" economists argue with the "new right" about inequality; political theorists argue about the relative importance of elections and the rule of law; and in the foreign policy realm, China"s neocons argue with liberal internationalists about grand strategy. Chinese thinkers are trying to reconcile competing goals, exploring how they can enjoy the benefits of global markets while protecting China from the creative destruction they could unleash in its political and economic system. Some others are trying to challenge the flat world of US globalisation with a "walled world" Chinese version.