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Mark Leonard: What China Thinks

New America Media, Interview, Mary Ambrose Posted: Aug 10, 2008

Editors Note: Mark Leonard Executive Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, sees the rise of China as one of the seminal events of our lifetime. His book "What Does China Think?" is the result of long conversations with leading members of Chinese intelligentsia. He spoke with New America Media's, Mary Ambrose. This is an edited transcription of the conversation which aired in full on UpFront on KALW 91.7

One of the biggest events in recent Chinese history is the uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989. In your book you outline two very opposing views, tell us about that.

You're right. It [was] an absolutely seminal time in China's political and intellectual development. In the west what we saw was a group of students longing to join the west and overthrow the socialist economic and political system.

What is very interesting about the Chinese intellectuals now, is the revisionist account of what was happening in 1989. In many ways it was the moment when the reformist camp split in two.

One group, mainly students, wanted to join the west, looking for political and economic reforms and another group [was] workers, trade unionists whose reasons for coming to the square were very different. They were protesting the economic reforms that had taken place within China that had caused hyper-inflation, that had made their lives a lot tougher.

After the protest, when the government cracked down on the protesters, people went into exile, into prison, and you saw the reformist camp split. On the one hand you had a group of people who wanted to continue the economic reform and saw that as the absolute priority for China. They were mainly economists and people who had been very influential in the decade before Tiananmen Square. Many people talk about the 80s and 90s as 'The Dictatorship of the Economist'.

[The other] group [was] quite aware of the social damage and environmental destruction that this economic growth was causing in China. They wanted a different kind of capitalism, one that was gentler, better able to deliver to the people at the bottom and less disrespectful of the environment.

While the new right - sort of the Chinese equivalent of the aficionados of Reaganomics - have been willing to make political compromise in order to drive economic reform, the new left - who look more like social democrats - tend to be less willing, partly because they think the only way the state will be able to take on the vested interest of capital, is [with] greater political liberalization. If not, the interest of corrupted leaders will always win out over the interest of the mass of people.

How do you treat society as a whole and open it up in steps towards democracy?

This debate about what model of capitalism China should have -- an embrace of the market [or] charting a more distinctive Chinese cause -- is mirrored in the political realm as well.

A famous political scientist, who is supposed to be close to the Chinese president, has gathered all sorts of experiments in grass roots democracy; elections on the local level, villages, townships, even experiments within the Communist party.

In China I went to a township in Sichuan Province where all of the township party sections were elected by their members. The group says elections have nothing going for them, from the Chinese perspective; they won't solve any of the problems that China faces. They believe China would be much better going for greater rule of law and supplementing that with different ways of finding out what the public wants. They talk about using focus groups, using opinion polls, using public consultations.

Even texting is used to gather opinions.

Yes, I went to Chongqing, an enormous town in Southern China, where they've started implementing that. They had a big public consultation on what price they should charge for a ticket on the light railways system. They reduced it massively when the public showed that they thought it was over priced. They also had a public consultation on whether to ban fireworks and came up with a licensing system. What's emerging is a different way of thinking about political reform, moving towards a one party state that's more responsive and better able to predict what the public wants. I call it deliberative dictatorship.

You write about how China is seeking innovations of capitalism tempered with the consistency of good government.

The Chinese government is acutely aware that if it's going to stay in power it's going to need to be seen to deliver for the majority of people in China. It's a country with enormous problems. There were 87,000 protests last year, so 300 protests everyday. Some of which were quite large, involving thousands of people.

It has no basic welfare state. If you are old and sick you are basically left to your own wits and the support of your family, because the state isn't there to help you. So, they need to show that they're going to be delivering greater social protection for ordinary people.

At the same time they need to be seen to be tackling corruption.

You note that China has very carefully watched Russias evolution.

One of the most discussed debates in China is: what went wrong with the Soviet Union. [During] the Cold War, Russia had the technological edge, more advanced and sophisticated than China.

The idea that Russia was going to collapse and be an abject failure and disintegrate and that China would become a poster-boy for economic growth is something no one would have believed a generation ago.

So, they looked into what went wrong in Russia and one lesson was it was wrong to put political reform before economic reform. Another was they think Russia moved to quickly into its economic reforms, they went for economic shock therapy. What [China] did instead was they created lots of little pockets of the market, and tried different ideas before expanding it to the rest of society rather than just doing it in one go.

A third lesson, which haunts them, is that the Soviet Union ended up in an arms race with the United States. So they vowed never to go down that route. Though they're increasing their spending on military equipment, they're not trying to match the U.S. dollar for dollar. What they're trying to do is to neutralize America's political advantage. They're going for an asymmetric strategy.

They are also terrified of the way the Soviet Union split up in its constituent parts when people were given greater political rights. It's one of the reasons they are so sensitive about Taiwan and Tibet. They associate democracy with the disintegration of the Soviet empire.

Its interesting that both [the United States and the Soviet Union] have a powerful impact on the way Chinese intellectuals think about themselves

How is China getting along with its Asian neighbors?

The Chinese have put an enormous effort in trying to reassure their neighbors they are not going to be a threat.

They understood that after World War II Germany managed to regain the trust of its neighbors by binding itself into a regional community, the European Union. The economic recovery of Germany was something that drove the recovery of the whole of Western Europe. It also meant that Germany was constrained so that they didn't worry that as they became richer that they would re-arm, and threaten their welfare.

The Chinese have actually gone from being very skeptical about regional integration to driving it.

In East Asia they have been creating a new body called the Shanghai Corporation with the Russians and the central Asian republics. This has been remarkably successful.

It's put U.S. allies like Japan on the back foot because they are less keen on regional integration because they fear that it will undermine their relative power and they know that it upsets the United States.

They want to have a world that works in a way that's comfortable for the Chinese, but they're not going to do it through overt confrontation. They're going to work around the existing structures. You can see these regional bodies as pockets of a New Chinese World Order.

Was Steven Spielberg saying "I'm not going to be part of the Olympics because of China's involvement with Darfur" a waste of time?

No. I think it was both a brave and a very positive thing to have said. But, what we need to understand is that we do have a limited impact on how China behaves in the rest of the world because China is trying to balance a number of different interests.

China is completely obsessed with the idea of soft power, and China's image abroad. I think where Steven Spielberg comes in, is that this paranoia in China as being seen as a threat. It did lead to some tactical changes in Chinese behavior.

Any predictions for the Olympics?

China has discovered what it's like to get prime time attention. [They] thought for a long time if they didn't talk about their rise the rest of the world might not notice it. But here they are, in the glare of international publicity, [and] people are asking really difficult questions; both about what they are doing at home and also what they are doing abroad. They have to completely change the way they deal with the media, with the international community in all sorts of uncomfortable ways and all bets are off as to how this will play out.

Interview transcribed by Laurie Simmons


UpFront is now available as a podcast through KALW and National Public Radio, so you can listen to the show on your MP3 player. Click here to subscribe.

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