What Does China Think?


By Mark Leonard

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We know everything and nothing about China. We know that China is changing so fast that the maps in Shanghai need to be redrawn every two weeks. We know that China has brought 300 million people from agricultural backwardness into modernity in just thirty years, and that its impact on the global economy is growing at unprecedented speed. We have an image of China as a dictatorship; a nationalist empire that threatens its neighbors and global peace.

But how many people know about the debates raging within China? What do we really know about the kind of society China wants to become? What ideas are motivating its citizens? We can name America’s neo-cons and the religious right, but cannot name Chinese writers, thinkers, or journalists — what is the future they dream of for their country, or for the world? Because China’s rise — like the fall of Rome or the British Raj — will echo down generations to come, these are the questions we increasingly need to ask. Mark Leonard asks us to forget everything we thought we knew about China and start again. He introduces us to the thinkers who are shaping China’s wide open future and opens up a hidden world of intellectual debate that is driving a new Chinese revolution and changing the face of the world.


Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century

To Gabrielle

The Liberation of Thought
China's very existence creates a problem for Western accounts of world history. The Bible didn't say anything about China. Hegel saw world history starting with primitive China and ending in a crescendo of perfection with German civilization. Fukuyama's 'end of history' thesis simply replaces Germany with America. But suddenly the West has discovered that in the East there is this China: a large empire, with a long history and glorious past. A whole new world has emerged.
Gan Yang, 'The Grand Three Traditions in the New Era: The Integration of the Three Traditions and the Re-emergence of the Chinese Civilization'
Very few things that happen during my lifetime will be remembered after I am dead. Even 9/11 or the Iraq War – events which transfixed us, took innocent lives and decided elections – will gradually fade until they become mere footnotes in the history books. But China's rise is different: it is the big story of our age and its after-effects could echo down generations to come. Like the rise and fall of Rome, the Ottoman Empire, the British Raj or the Soviet Union, it is the stuff from which grand narratives are wrought. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, a non-Western power is in the global premier league: China has joined the United States and Europe as a shaper of world order.
China's scale is mesmerizing; its vital statistics are almost impossible for us to grasp. With one in five of the world's population, China's entrance into the global market place has almost doubled the world's workforce. Already, half of the world's clothes and footwear have a 'Made in China' label in them, and China produces more computers than anywhere else in the world. China's voracious appetite for resources is gobbling up 40 per cent of the world's cement, 40 per cent of its coal, 30 per cent of its steel and 12 per cent of its energy. China has become so integrated into the global economy that its prospects have immediate effects on our everyday lives: simultaneously doubling the cost of petrol while halving the cost of our computers, keeping the US economy afloat but sinking the Italian footwear industry.
The speed at which this is happening is even more shocking. Building construction in Shanghai takes place at such a breakneck pace that the city's maps need to be rewritten every two weeks. A town the size of London shoots up in the Pearl River Delta every year. In the run-up to the Olympics, China is building enough new roads to go four times around the world. China has brought 300 million people from agricultural backwardness into modernity in just thirty years – a process of industrialization that took over 200 years in Europe. If current growth trends continue – which is admittedly a big 'if' – the People's Republic could overtake the USA to become the world's biggest economy well before 2050.
But this focus on scale, speed and measurable statistics is blinding us to a deeper question: will China's rise change the nature of our world? We are getting used to China's growing influence on the world economy – but could it also reshape our ideas about politics and power? China is the first country since the end of the Cold War with the ingenuity, scale and global exposure to shape the world in its image. Its gargantuan domestic problems are driving it to seek a new model of globalization. And its huge size means that other economies and nations connected to it – from America to Zimbabwe – will need to reformat their own systems to cope with China's new ideas about economic development, political reform and world order. China is starting to think for itself. And, because of its stunning economic record, people around the world are starting to listen, and copy the Chinese model.
This story of China's intellectual awakening is much less well documented than the now familiar tale of China's economic revival. Although we obsessively study the ideas of different factions in America's intellectual life – the Neo-Cons, the assertive realists, the religious right – how many of us can name more than a handful of contemporary Chinese writers or thinkers? Who knows what future they dream of for their country, or the world it is shaping? Europeans and Americans, in particular, are ill-equipped to answer these questions. Since the time when French and British missionaries first travelled to the East, the West has focused on what it wanted from China – and how to convert the Chinese to a Western way of life. People wrongly assumed that as China grew richer, it would also become more like us.

The accidental sinologist

China crept up on us slowly in the 1990s. For most of that decade, it was the preserve of regional specialists or fantasists from the business world who dreamt of making vast fortunes, but usually lost even more. However, at some indeterminate point around the turn of the millennium, China stopped being a subject for specialists. From my vantage point as director of a foreign policy think-tank in London, I remember noticing how – all of a sudden – almost every global challenge had acquired a Chinese dimension: from African development to the reform of the United Nations system, the Doha global trade talks to the Iranian nuclear programme, genocide in Darfur to oil prices in Venezuela. China was no longer a big country with which one could choose to enjoy trading or diplomatic relationships; instead it was starting to become part of the furniture of global politics, a universal factor with which we are forced to contend. In terms of political influence China had stopped being like other large developing countries such as India or Brazil. It was turning into something quite new: a miniature USA. I suddenly knew that without understanding China, it would be impossible to understand world politics.
I will never forget my first visit 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 who was then co-editor of the intellectual journal Dushu). Sitting in oversized armchairs – arranged in parallel against the wall in order to protect the backs of the hosts and guest of honour from enemy attacks – we sipped ceremonial tea and introduced ourselves. 'The Foreign Policy Centre,' I began, 'is four years old. We have around twenty staff, we publish twenty-five policy reports a year and host around fifty seminars.' Wang Luolin nodded politely and smiled before delivering his killer blow: 'CASS is the highest academic research organization in the fields of philosophy and social sciences. We have fifty research centres that cover 260 disciplines and sub-disciplines, and 4,000 full-time researchers.' As he said the words, 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 USA cannot have more than 10,000. But here in China, a single institution – and there are another dozen or so other think-tanks in Beijing alone – had 4,000 researchers. I discovered later that even people at CASS think that many of these researchers are not up to scratch, but the raw figures were enough to intimidate me in that early meeting.
Wang Luolin's one-upmanship on size was just the beginning of a well-worn strategy designed to bewilder and co-opt outsiders. We spent many hours engaged in polite conversation without touching on the specifics of our co-operation. These elaborate courtship rituals, seemingly devoid of substance or direction, have been honed over centuries to nullify Western negotiating strategies, and bind foreigners into Chinese ways of doing things, creating webs based on personal contact rather than contractual obligations. At the beginning of the trip, I had hoped to get a quick introduction to China, learn the basics, and go home. But after spending what felt like weeks in these introductory meetings, sitting around sipping tea and exchanging pleasantries I ended up getting sucked in.
I had stumbled on a hidden world of intellectuals, thinktankers and activists who were thinking big thoughts. I soon realized that it would take more than a few visits to Beijing and Shanghai to grasp the scale and ambition of China's internal debates. My mind was made up – I wanted to devote the next few years of my life to understanding these radical developments; to document the living history that was unfolding before me. I became, so to speak, an accidental sinologist, visiting Beijing so frequently that it began to feel like a second home. And, with each visit, my entanglement with China's fate grew deeper. I became friendly with many of China's new thinkers and watched their theories develop over time, evolving in tandem with the breathtaking changes to their country. I saw them take Western ideas and adapt them into a new Chinese approach for dealing with the world – joining an intellectual journey that China began when it first became entangled with the West in the nineteenth century.

China's Ground Zero

The old Summer Palace in Beijing was as large as a city. People who saw it said it was more grandiose than the pyramids; more perfect than the Parthenon; and more transcendent than Notre-Dame. Even Victor Hugo, a man rarely stuck for words, struggled to capture its beauty: 'Build a dream with marble, jade, bronze and porcelain,' he said, 'cover it with precious stones, drape it with silk, make it here a sanctuary, there a harem … gild it, paint it, have architects who are poets build the thousand and one dreams of the thousand and one nights, add gardens, basins, gushing water and foam, swans, ibis, peacocks, suppose in a word a sort of dazzling cavern of human fantasy with the face of a temple and palace, such was this building.'
But this edifice, which took 150 years to build, went up in a whiff of imperialist smoke when British and French troops stumbled upon it in 1860. All that is left today are a few desultory fragments and some cardboard scale models which signally fail to conjure up the palace's former glory. These dilapidated remains have been carefully preserved by successive Chinese governments. Like the scar of Ground Zero in New York City, they play a defining role in the Chinese psyche – arguably as great as any building that is still standing. The memory of the Summer Palace, 'Yuanmingyuan' as it is known in Chinese, acts as an open wound that can be salted whenever citizens need to be mobilized, or reminded of how the Communist Party saved China from foreign defeat. Yuanmingyuan is a physical embodiment of the 'century of humiliation' which ran from China's defeat in the Opium Wars of 1840, through the loss of Taiwan, the various Japanese invasions and the civil war right until the Communist Revolution of 1949.
For some intellectuals, the remains of Yuanmingyuan also tell another story about modern China. This story is not about the damage which colonial powers have done to China, but of the destruction which the Chinese have inflicted upon themselves by importing – and misapplying – foreign ideas. In July 2006, Zhang Guangtian, an avant-garde theatre director, staged a controversial play, called Yuanmingyuan, that dramatized the relentless quest to modernize China by importing ideas from abroad, a history that has seen the country leap from one totalizing philosophy to another. Zhang Guangtian's play challenged his compatriots with a heretical question: who really destroyed Yuanmingyuan? Taking the spotlight off the imperial powers, he showed how the Chinese people themselves have been complicit in the despoiling of this national icon which he treats as a metaphor for their dreams and ideals.
The story begins in 1860 with a group of peasants who lounge around, complaining bitterly about the Chinese emperor's neglect of ordinary people. When a British soldier arrives on the stage, the peasants encourage him to attack the imperial palace so that they themselves can loot its remains. The same three actors then metamorphose into idealistic students – part of the 4 May 'Science and Democracy' Movement of 1919 – who desecrate the 'feudal' ruins to show their commitment to Western modernity. In the next scene the same actors return as Red Guards from the Cultural Revolution, turning the ruins into a rice paddy to show off their revolutionary fervour. The guards, in turn, become bureaucrats from the 1980s who line their pockets by converting the holy site into an amusement park. The action then shifts to 2005 when the same actors play local officials who line the lakes of Yuanmingyuan with plastic sheets in a bid to save water, causing such outrage that they provoke the country's first ever public environmental hearing. The second part of Zhang Guangtian's play is an unflinching exposé of the problems caused by China's recent embrace of the market: environmental pollution, official corruption, the growing gap between rich and poor, the appalling conditions of China's mines. The play confronts the audience with the need to take responsibility for China's problems rather than assigning blame on foreign invaders. The playwright's message is subtle: it is not a plea to shut China off from the world, but a call to his fellow citizens to forge their own path into the future, rather than blindly embracing Western goods and ideas. His play gives dramatic form to the question that is mobilizing his native country: what does China need to do to take control of its own destiny?

Under the shadow of globalization

A growing body of Chinese thinkers believe that since their country crawled out of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, it has simply replaced the shadow of Maoism with another fundamentalist philosophy: the cult of the United States of America. They complain that when Deng Xiaoping opened China's doors to the world, it was the USA that burst in. Its market philosophy set the rules for economic development. Its demands for democracy set the standards for political reform. And its foreign policy defined what was acceptable and unacceptable on the world stage. The USA has taken on the role of an all-powerful god whose moods define the weather. In the same way that Chinese peasants of old lived in constant fear of divine retribution, China's most pressing goal has been to avoid the wrath of the hegemon, crafting a foreign policy that hides China's 'brightness' with humble behaviour, while making ritual sacrifices on issues ranging from North Korea to Sudan in order to satisfy US demands.
For good and for ill, modernization became synonymous with Americanization in the 1980s and 1990s. At a superficial level, Communist China shed its red skin, and grew a new one branded with the symbols of mass consumerism – Starbucks penetrated the walls of the Forbidden City, McDonald's and KFC signs lit up the high streets and malls of urban China, and kids learnt to cuss each other with Hollywood-inspired jibes: 'get real!' As the political scientist Yu Keping argues, 'The American dream is the highest ideal for the young generation that grew up since the reforms. Everything in the USA, including American people, institutions, economy, culture and country, is so perfect that the American moon has become more round than the one in China!'
At a deeper level, China was forced to accommodate itself to the rules of a globalized world shaped by American capital and American military power. In this era – christened the 'flat world' by the journalist Thomas Friedman – all nation states are losing control of their fates: pushed out of the economic sphere by privatization, out of the political sphere by a 'Third Wave' of democratization, and out of the foreign policy realm by the stateless forces of capital, terrorism and trade. Many Chinese thinkers worry that by embracing the economic benefits of globalization, China risks being 'flattened' by an accompanying American political ideology.
Wang Xiaodong, one of a new breed of Chinese nationalists, argues that the embrace of American ideas springs from a kind of self-hatred. According to him, many Beijing intellectuals in the 1980s saw the Chinese people as an inferior nation with an inferior history: 'In my opinion, this is not very different from Hitler's racism,' he claims, 'the only difference between them [i.e. Chinese intellectuals] and Hitler was that they [i.e. the Chinese] directed this [hatred] against their own race. This is why I coined the term "reverse racism".' Although Wang Xiaodong's analogy seems extreme and misplaced to many Chinese as well as Western ears, his arguments are symptomatic of a pervasive sense of intellectual insecurity that has driven China's swings from one extreme ideology to the next.


In 1993, Cui Zhiyuan, a Tsinghua University professor who was then teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote a seminal article calling for a new 'Liberation of Thought', arguing that after freeing themselves from orthodox Marxism, Chinese intellectuals should liberate themselves from their unquestioning admiration of Western capitalism. His goal was to break the boom and bust cycle that saw China embrace a new ideology every generation, and to encourage Chinese people to think for themselves. Rather than accepting the mantra that 'there is no alternative' to the neo-liberal agenda, he argued that China should draw on many sources to develop a new way, or as he put it an 'alternative modernity'.
His call initially fell on deaf ears. China was still reeling from the Tiananmen massacre. Most of its intellectuals were cowed by the government's violent response to the protests, co-opted by the Communist Party or living in exile. Party leaders were restarting their economic reforms. And the rest of the elite were too busy making money. But Cui Zhiyuan's ideas are having an impact today, as China's economic growth leads to a new self-confidence.
Even the nationalist Wang Xiaodong acknowledges that his country is outgrowing 'reverse-racism'. In a recent talk, he cited the words of a well-known entrepreneur to make the point: 'In the 1980s I went out of China for the first time, to Singapore…I was shocked by the culture, the technological progress, the urban splendour, the vibrancy of life. Our delegation dreamt "Could our country have a city like Singapore in fifty years time?" We were not hopeful. History has proven us wrong. It took just twenty-five years. Last year I went to Singapore, and in my view, it cannot compete with our Shenzhen, Dalian, Shanghai and Beijing.'


  • Tucson Citizen, August 21, 2008
    “[Leonard’s] excellent new book is essential reading for anyone interested in the changing global landscape of the next century.”

On Sale
Apr 29, 2008
Page Count
176 pages

Mark Leonard

About the Author

Mark Leonard is Executive Director of the Open Society Institute for Europe. He is formerly Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform and the director of the Foreign Policy Centre. A regular commentator in the world’s leading newspapers and journals, he lives in London.

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