Intellectual ferment in China

On the development of a new Chinese worldview and seeing China as a powerhouse of ideas that could influence the world.

Published : Jun 12, 2013 12:30 IST

FOR the last few decades, to go no further, China has been a powerhouse of ideas. There is an intellectual awakening of which little is known in India, the one country which ought to know of it, for two good reasons. The common place one is that India’s friendly relations with China are not unmixed with occasional sparring over the boundary dispute. The other, which escapes most, is that the two countries are in the same boat and can learn a lot from each other, especially on America’s drive for global hegemony.

Disagreements on some points notwithstanding, neither country accepts, or should accept, America’s leadership. “Chinese thinkers want to create a world where national governments can be masters of their own destiny rather than be subject to the whims of global capital and American foreign policy. They want investment, technology and market access from the rest of the world, but they do not want to absorb Western values. Their goal is not to cut China off but rather to allow China to engage with the world on its own terms,” Mark Leonard writes.

Is that not what every patriotic Indian would wish for India? But, for a sordid reason, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, instantly and abjectly volunteered facilities on India’s soil to the United States after 9/11. Two years later, some card-carrying hawks urged the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime to accede to America’s requests to send Indian jawans to Iraq in the wake of the U.S. aggression against that country. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee instinctively rejected the idea. Had India agreed, the nation’s name would have been mud in Iraq and throughout West Asia. In both cases, the motivation was obvious—rise to great power status on the shoulders of the U.S. and, in the bargain, get the better of Pakistan. India must rise to that status on its own strength—as China aspires to do.

Mark Leonard, executive director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, interacted extensively with a wide range of Chinese scholars and intellectuals, cutting across the ideological divide, to produce a slim volume packed with rich insights into the intellectual ferment in China. “Although dozens of books have been published about China’s rise, most authors treat it as an economic, political or military bloc rather than seeing it as a powerhouse of ideas that could influence our world. They have little to say about China’s intellectual debates, or the ideological competition they might pose to the European and American worldviews. My work tries to make sense of these ideas which European policymakers will need to understand if they want to successfully promote their own worldview…. This book is about the development of a new Chinese worldview.”

Despite many curbs, “intellectuals in China do count”. But, the author asks, “How many of us can name more than a handful of contemporary Chinese writers or thinkers?” Indians are no better informed, either. But it is of vital importance to study the debate in China in order to better understand world politics.

China’s think tanks are many and are well endowed, as the author discovered: “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 organisation in the fields of philosophy and social sciences. We have fifty research centres that cover 260 disciplines and subdisciplines, 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 … had 4,000 researchers.”

What is more important is that the intellectuals are prepared to discard old ideas and reflect on new ones, trying all the time to arrive at conclusions of their own. At one time modernisation was synonymous with Americanisation. Mass consumerism held sway. “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!’ 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’.” The author remarks, “At a deeper level, China was forced to accommodate itself to the rules of a globalised world shaped by American capital and American military power.”

Liberation of thought In 1993, the leftist Cui Zhiyuan, a Tsinghua University professor, who was then teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote a seminal article calling for a new “Liberation of Thought”. He argued 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 neoliberal agenda, he argued that China should draw on many sources to develop a new way, or as he put it an ‘alternative modernity’.”

The author introduces us to some of the more original thinkers on “Pearl River Capitalism”. Opposed to them are leftists such as Wang Hui, who told Leonard: “China is caught between the two extremes of misguided socialism and crony capitalism, and suffering from the worst elements of both systems. …I am generally in favour of orienting the country toward market reforms, but China’s development must be more equal, more balanced. We must not give total priority to GDP growth to the exclusion of workers’ rights and the environment.”

Cui Zhiyuan is a leading New Left theorist whose intellectual mentors are Machiavelli, Rousseau, John Stuart Mill and James Meade. “In today’s China, the battle of ideas has become entwined with the pursuit of raw power. Behind its monolithic facade, the Communist hierarchy has been caught up in an increasingly rancorous struggle for the soul of the party, with two political gangs associating themselves with the ideas of the ‘New Left’ and the ‘New Right’. The ‘New Leftist’ Cui Zhiyuan draws on a surprising source to explain these shifting political dynamics: medieval Europe. Many Western observers, he says, struggle to make sense of China because they see politics as the relationship between governors and the governed, between the state and civil society. But Cui Zhiyuan claims that the struggles which so baffle modern Europeans would have been immediately recognisable to inhabitants of medieval Europe like Niccolo Machiavelli.”

A good many intellectuals were educated in the U.S., with Berkeley as a favourite. Yu Keping caused waves in December 2006 when he wrote an article called “Democracy is a Good Thing” in the Central Party School’s newspaper. It claimed that “even if people have the best food, clothing, housing and transport but no democratic rights they still do not have complete human dignity.” But he has avoided getting swept up in crackdowns on political dissent by focussing on specific, small-scale projects, rather than indulging in grand rhetoric about freedom and human rights. His big idea is the modest sounding “incremental democracy, which rejects a big bang of political reform in favour of gradualist change from the bottom up. Overnight reform would be as damaging to China as economic “shock therapy”. For many years, Yu Keping has instead promoted the idea of a democratic cascade that would see democracy work its way up gradually from successful grass-roots experiments.

Some others believe that democracy is a dangerous thing. Pan Wei of Beijing University holds that democracy would actually make things worse: “The more electorates politicians want to reach, the more money they need. There are always rich people who want to provide money in exchange for some government support. Therefore, once elected, the public officers are to serve electors on the one hand and money providers on the other.” The pressing issue for most people, he says, is not “who should run the government?” but “how should the government be run?” Democracy conjures up three of the most painful images in the Chinese psyche: the collapse of the former Soviet Union, which followed Gorbachev’s political liberalisation; the so-called “People’s Democracy” of China’s own Cultural Revolution; and the risk of an independent Taiwan. What if Tibet voted for independence? they ask.

However, even the critics favour the rule of law because it puts limits on power. China is one of the only one-party states to allow citizens to sue the government. But the New Leftist Wang Hui ridicules the idea of rule of law without democracy.

China's peaceful rise Of particular relevance to us in India is the debate on foreign policy in which members of the CASS and the Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Relations, which is linked to the State Security Ministry, participate actively. The expression “Peaceful Rise of China” was coined by Zheng Bijian, “intellectual ambassador” for China’s leaders since the late 1970s. China will shun both isolation and hegemony, “liberal internationalists” such as Qin Yaging and Shi Yinhong support him.

“Zheng Bijian prevailed upon his former colleague at the Central Party School, President Hu Jintao, to finance a major research project—largely carried out by PhD students from Shanghai—that looked at forty case studies of rising powers. Their consensus was that rising powers ‘which chose the road of aggression and expression’ have ultimately failed.

“The theory of ‘Peaceful Rise’ immediately provoked a counter-attack from the assertive nationalists in Beijing’s universities. One of the most vocal is Professor Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University. ‘Peaceful Rise is wrong’, he told the author, because it gives Taiwan a message that they can declare independence and we will not attack them. No great nation in history ever rose in peace. While he thinks that China should do all it can to avoid war, he fears that one with Taiwan is probably inevitable if Beijing does not abandon its goal of reunification. He is angry at the influence that liberal internationalists have had on Chinese foreign policy: ‘The basic difference between us and them is that they emphasise appeasement and we want containment. This applies to the USA, Japan and Taiwan. Their basic argument is that because China is weak we should make concessions. We think that if you make concessions, they will just ask for more. The problems we are having with Japan and Taiwan are a direct result of years of appeasement’.” He calls himself a “realist” (vide the writer’s article “China’s rise and the open principle”; Frontline , December 28, 2012).

Soft power It is a measure of his realism that he is alive to the domestic factor. “If you do not have a good political system at home, you cannot attract support from your neighbours. If China wants to increase its soft power, it must have political reform.” He and his colleagues evolved the “New Security Concept”.

It “makes a distinction between ‘traditional’ security threats (the danger of invasion by other countries) and ‘non-traditional’ ones (terrorism, secessionism, environmental destruction, pandemics). Yan Xuetong correctly believed that the military alliances of the future could be arranged around these inchoate ‘non-traditional threats’—bringing states together against abstract nouns such as ‘terrorism’ rather than hostile nations. Behind Yan Xuetong’s ‘New Security Concept’ was a strong impulse that China should abandon its hostility to multilateral institutions. China was starting to benefit from globalisation and preparing to join the World Trade Organisation. And Yan Xuetong argued that it should be possible to recast the relationship with China’s neighbours around similar institutions.”

In 1996, Yan Xuetong persuaded the Foreign Ministry to suggest that the “New Security Concept” be adopted for the Asia-Pacific Region. Qian Qichen, who was Foreign Minister at the time, made a formal approach to the ASEAN Regional Forum, a grouping led by 10 countries of South-East Asia. Since then China has become increasingly keen on deepening its relationships with its neighbours; its leaders even talk about creating an Asian equivalent of the European Union. In 2004, China called for an ASEAN-China Free Trade Area and to help build an East Asian Community complete with a single currency by 2020. Regional integration will put China’s rivals in Asia—the U.S. and Japan—on the back foot.

China will not follow the Soviet Union example, competing with American military might to the point of bankruptcy. Unrestricted Warfare, written by two People’s Liberation Army colonels, hit the bestsellers’ lists in 2001. Soldiers do not have a monopoly on war. Economic warfare and “super-terrorism” are as destructive. “In a prescient passage, the authors predicted attacks like Osama bin Laden’s on the World Trade Centre two years before they took place. They correctly foresaw that the response of the USA to the attacks would be more damaging to the country’s security than the attacks themselves: ‘It often makes an adversary which uses conventional forces and conventional measures as its main combat strength look like a big elephant charging into a china shop. It is at a loss as to what to do, and unable to make use of the power it has’.”

We have yet to engage Chinese intellectuals and scholars in a rigorous and productive dialogue on our respective visions for our future and, indeed, on our perceptions of the present American-dominated world order.

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