What Does China Think?

What Does China Think?
Mark Leonard
Public Affairs, 2008
164 pp.

What does China think? Americans aren’t known for their international sophistication, especially when it comes to complex foreign issues. And there are few more complicated issues than the so-called rise of China.

Almost everything you read about China is true, one of my friends opines, and he’s right. This ancient and fascinating nation has joined the international community with a dramatic flourish, and no one really knows where the so-called rise of China is going to lead. But without doubt the end of this century is going to look very different from the start, and much of that difference is going to reflect the enhanced influence if not dominance of China – culture, wealth, foreign policy, and military capability.

Mark Leonard has produced a thin but important book. For he asks the question, what are the Chinese themselves saying about China’s rise? He finds no unanimity among leading intellectuals. In an admittedly cursory review of a complex kaleidoscope of views, he explores economic and political philosophies of both "right" and "left," as well as foreign policy views ranging between hard-line nationalist and squishy internationalist.

His work suggests two important conclusions. The first is that the People’s Republic of China is more open and less doctrinaire than often thought in the West. The authoritarian Communist Party rules, but how it rules is not preordained. The existence of an intellectual debate within the PRC doesn’t necessarily mean a more liberal outcome, however. The Chinese left, as it were, looks more traditionally socialist, though without the murderous madness of totalitarianism.

The second point is that similar forces are contending for control of Chinese foreign policy. This obviously isn’t the first time that Beijing has been rife with factions. But just as the West is wondering where China is going, the PRC is debating where it should go. Again, the result won’t necessarily please the U.S., and especially the neoconservatives who imagine permanent American hegemony everywhere, including in East Asia.

Yet these internal differences dramatically demonstrate that China’s era of paramount political leadership is over. A colorless bureaucratic and collective leadership isn’t likely to suddenly implement Westminster-style parliamentary democracy and Western-style free speech, but it also is likely to be cautious in expanding Chinese influence abroad. This could change, of course, but no new Mao Zedong appears to be poised on the horizon.

All of this matters because China matters. It seems like a lifetime ago when the Berlin Wall fell and we were told History Had Ended. The U.S. and the Western model were going to be everywhere triumphant, and the world was about to enter a new halcyon age of democratic capitalism.

Those were the days!

That world has ended. The U.S. and Europe have diverged on key questions. Moreover, writes Mark Leonard, of the European Council of Foreign Relations, "The Russian credo of ‘Sovereign Democracy’ and the Islamist dream of theocratic rule already pose a serious challenge, even if they may yet turn out to be temporary phenomena."

But the big cahuna, the potential peer competitor, the likely world-changer, is "China, with its vast size, its economic dynamism, and the political skill of its leaders that is the most serious contender for the global leadership in the long term," Leonard explains. China the state still faces enormous pitfalls – social unrest, economic instability, political struggle. But China the culture and China the people have before been great and almost certainly again will be great, whatever the national context of their achievements.

What they will achieve, however, is not so clear.

The first major theme, which accounts for the first half of the book, is that the PRC’s acceptance of Western- and American-style globalization is by no means unanimous. Leonard writes: "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."

That might seem unreal to Americans, who criticize China’s human rights practices, worry about Chinese economic competition, and look askance at Beijing’s military build-up. But Leonard talks with nationalists who propagate a philosophy which he terms a "Walled World."

The first part of this view is a return to socialism, or at least a planned economy. So-called "New Left" intellectuals denounce Beijing for being despotic while failing to govern: "almost all of the problems hampering China’s reforms – corruption, overheating of the economy, bad investment, non-performing loans, low levels of domestic consumption and growing inequality – had come about because the central government was too weak, rather than too strong," writes Leonard.

Indeed, he makes an important point often lost in the West. While there were students and intellectuals in Tiananmen Square demanding political reform, they were joined by "a wider group of workers who came to the square with more concrete social and economic demands … triggered by mounting discontent about the radical market reforms of 1988 which had set off rocketing inflation and inequality." These protestors were, if anything, anti-globalization and anti-Westernization, rather like some of the opponents of globalization in Europe and elsewhere.

There have always been intellectuals in favor of economic collectivism. More surprising is the rise of an anti-democracy movement among the intelligentsia. In the early reform years, intellectuals debated the usual political reforms involving multi-party elections and constraints on government. For many intellectuals today, however, writes Leonard, "Reform is less seen through the prism of human rights and freedom, than the question of how to increase the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party. Instead of trying to develop a Chinese variant of liberal democracy, many intellectuals are looking for a different model altogether."

That an expanding urban elite might fear a peasant-dominated democracy should surprise no one, and the equation of democracy with chaos is not unique to China. But just as the PRC might very well fall short of Western-style capitalism, so it might fall short of Western-style democracy. China has changed much and will continue to change. However, it is possible that the world’s dominant power will eventually be proudly authoritarian and modestly collectivist, rather than liberal democratic and largely capitalist. The impact on the rest of the globe of such a phenomenon likely would be profound.

How so is the subject of the final section of What does China Think? What kind foreign policy is China likely to conduct?

The Chinese "must be the most self-aware rising power in history," Leonard writes. This might be why they have worked so hard to underplay their influence, at times sounding almost obsequious in emphasizing the PRC’s "peaceful rise." This, in turn, Leonard contends, "provoked a counter-attack from the assertive nationalists in Beijing’s universities," whom he terms the "neo-comms."

This faction is the equivalent of America’s militaristic neocons. Leonard quotes one Chinese professor as dismissing the internationalists as appeasers. While China should do all it can to avoid war, Yan Xuetong "argues that no great nation in history ever rose in peace." Neither of these ideological camps appears to be ascendant. As in America, there are pragmatists in the PRC as well.

Moreover, Beijing is watching the U.S. and learning from its experience. Ironically, at a time when American neocons dismiss the importance of "soft power," China is ramping up its campaign to gain influence through cultural and economic means.

This doesn’t mean military power is irrelevant to the PRC. Far from it. But while American neocons want to spend whatever it takes, however many trillions of dollars, to preserve America’s ability to rule the globe, the Chinese have embarked on a far cheaper strategy to prevent permanent U.S. hegemony.

Writes Leonard:

"While [Rear Admiral] Yang Yi rarely misses an opportunity to argue for increasing Chinese military spending, he does not want Beijing to get into an arms race with the USA. It has become a truism in Chinese circles that the former Soviet Union spent itself into oblivion by being lured into a competition for military primacy. So rather than trying to match the USA’s military machine plane for plane and bomb for bomb, the Chinese approach is to go for an ‘asymmetrical’ strategy of finding and exploiting the enemy’s soft spots. ‘Asymmetrical warfare’ has been voguish in Western military circles for a long time. It has traditionally been used to describe how terrorists can take on and defeat standing armies, in the same way that David took out Goliath. However, the Chinese have taken this debate far beyond the techniques of terrorism. Chinese intellectuals and military planners have created a cottage industry of devising strategies for defeating a ‘technologically superior opponent’ (their preferred euphemism for the USA)."

This puts the U.S. in an exquisite dilemma. Spend wildly, as proposed by the neocons, to try to maintain the overwhelming military edge necessary to successfully intervene along the PRC’s borders? Or accept that Washington no longer can dictate to Beijing? China is likely to be a particularly effective competitor because it is sophisticated and takes a long view.

Just as the West wants to "manage" the PRC’s rise, Beijing wants to "manage" the West’s decline, argues Leonard. While we don’t know where it will all lead, China’s growing role as an alternative model has helped stall the drive towards Western universalism. The point is not just that one-fifth of the world’s population may be embarked on a very different course. But, suggests Leonard, "The story of the next thirty years will be about how a more self-confident China reaches out and shapes the world."

We already see the PRC’s influence at work in such countries as Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, and the result isn’t pretty. For Beijing does not share the West’s abhorrence of autocracy.

As unsettling as is Leonard’s thesis, it does have at least one positive conclusion – for the West, at least. If the 21st Century is the Chinese Century, that does not mean Chinese dominance so much as shared dominance along with America and Europe. American and European power inevitably will recede, but the West’s influence will live on for many years.

"Beijing’s ascent has already changed the balance of economic and military power, and is now changing the world’s ideas about politics, economics and order," writes Leonard. And it is doing so by offering an alternative geopolitical model.

The rise of this China – as opposed to the China that was supposed to arise, a capitalist and democratic disciple of the West – will pose an enormous challenge to the established order. The outcomes are unpredictable and not necessarily benign. But peaceful accommodation is possible, so long as Washington, in particular, recognizes that the so-called unipolar moment is quickly passing, and there may soon be two "essential" nations.