Book reviews – ‘What Does China Think?’ by Mark Leonard
We asked six Bristol Festival of Ideas fans to review some of the books shortlisted for this year’s Book Prize. Here are their responses to Mark Leonard’s What Does China Think?:
Review by Hilary Finch:
Published in 2008, What Does China Think? is a fascinating read in these fast changing economic times. It is a comprehensive insight into the thinking of a multitude of Chinese intellectuals in the forefront of China’s development politically, economically and with regard to its foreign policies.
Mark Leonard is a director of a foreign policy think tank in London. He has also worked at the Centre for European Reform. He undertook a sabbatical to follow through his realisation that things were changing more rapidly and comprehensively in China than he at first thought. He spent time there to read, meet and talk to many of the influential thinkers, many of whom have grown up since the cultural revolution and were affected deeply by the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The questions Mr Leonard has in mind are: Will China’s rise change the nature of the world? Could China also change our ideas about politics and power? He manages to write the many angles that China holds on global and domestic issues in a readable whole, helping me to get a grasp on massive investment in intellectual thought that is going on in China. What I found interesting is the relative freedom of thought and speech that is now possible in that huge country in this new millennium. The Chinese government finances institutions itself to open greater scope for considering China’s place in the world. Most of the intellectuals who appear in the book are well travelled and many gained academic qualification in American universities in addition to their home ones.
I feel more informed now and found the information about developing Chinese thoughts on their world position, development in Africa and other third world countries an eye opener. Power at present is massively shifting and it is fascinating to see how other countries are dealing with the huge problems of poverty, power and growth – we can all find fault with all sides of these delicate issues. Mr Leonard deals with different sections and with a light touch and some humour. I was able to read without reaching for a dictionary. As a complete lay person as regards economics and politics – retired, a grandmother who paints pictures – I was relieved that I could absorb the large canvas that China offers the world and Mr Leonard’s treatment of its people and ideas. It is a concise book with a useful Dramatis Personae following the notes at the back. Useful given there are so many wonderful sounding Chinese names to recall.
Review by Dimitris Christopoulos:
Mark Leonard provides a brilliant overview of political and social thinking in the most populous state on the planet. Western audiences are exposed to a number of internal debates that underlie the recent transformations in Chinese politics and economics. Public intellectuals are broadly classified into ‘New Right’, ‘New Left’, ‘ultra-nationalists’ and ‘neo-comms’. An analysis of their respective influence is grounded on personal interviews and examples of policies. A number of historical insights guide readers through the emergence of these intellectual trends in China.
Arguments from the ‘New Left’ centre on a need to shift the state from despotic to governing power with the introduction of wider social welfare. Government is seen as too weak, since it has a limited control over the economy. ‘New Right’ thinkers are arguing for the dismantling of the planned economy and the creation of a propertied middle class that will provide the impetus for democratic politics. As in classic political thought the arguments centre on whether political innovation should follow economic liberalisation or the other way around. Predictably, the debate centres on the distribution of power within Chinese society. The Chinese state has repeatedly abused the rights of individuals or groups every time it feels threatened by their potential to gain power. In spite of such abuse Leonard finds evidence of a number of important innovations in political participation that demonstrate that local and regional institutions have some leeway in introducing reforms. A remarkable application of direct democracy is through ‘deliberative polling’ where a large citizen jury make policy recommendations after a thorough briefing on policy options. Challenges to the supremacy of representative democracy among contemporary Chinese thinkers would most interest Western readers who rarely acknowledge democracy as a power distribution mechanism. Leonard in that respect follows classic political thought by assuming that elections provide the necessary legitimacy of Western political systems.
Chinese thinkers claim they project an alternative to power politics in world affairs. This ‘Chinese model’ echoes Confucian principles by challenging classic hegemonic leadership. Yet, the support of autocratic regimes in Asia and Africa from the Chinese state demonstrate at best a lack of moral values. This makes it difficult for the Chinese to project ‘moral power’ into world affairs and claim they represent a model for others to emulate. Crucially for the rest of the world even if the motives of the Party and those at the reins of power were assumed benign, the priorities of those likely to hold power in the future cannot be safely predicted. This book offers a timely and deserving insight into the many layers of the political psyche of China.
Review by Charles Freeman:
I was disappointed by Mark Leonard’s What Does China Think?, partly because there are so many fine studies of Chinese politics and recent politics from native speakers (see Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, for instance, which appears to be much more sophisticated and wide ranging.) There was no sense that Leonard had grasped the enormous power of China’s past, especially in this last tumultuous century. Instead Leonard limits his interviews to a number of Chinese intellectuals, the vast majority of whom are Western educated. (Glenny perceptively notes that Chinese go to the States to have their children born there and thus eligible for US passports.) It is not clear what impact these figures might have in political circles and it appears that in any case the pattern of Chinese politics will be driven by deep-rooted economic and social forces well beyond the control of the intellectual class.
Review by Barry Ramshaw:
Leonard’s fascinating book steps beyond the standard overview of China, and instead analyses competing ideological perspectives within the country. The author argues that whichever viewpoint triumphs the effect on the world could be immense, and he asks if China’s rise will ultimately erode the dominant Western consensus concerning the relationship between democracy and global success.
Leonard charts the struggle for influence between China’s ‘New Left’ and ‘New Right’, and then looks more broadly at the country’s attempt to forge its own version of modernity, moving away from the standard model of liberal democracy. He also details experiments in local politics designed to provide greater accountability without significantly reducing the monopoly of power held by the Communist Party.
Finally, the book considers China’s attempts to carve out a distinctive foreign policy.
Can China reshape the global system in its own image? With the democratic project under strain worldwide, and many developing countries looking admiringly to a China achieving success on its own terms, it does not seem impossible.
Review by Gina Sargunar:
This is a timely book, one that opens up and exposes the reality of modern China to our eyes. It allows us to look beyond the hype and misconceptions to discuss democracy, human rights and China’s participation in world affairs.
The language is clear and the book is laid out in a format which addresses specific issues, allowing the reader to think about how these issues influence and shape each other.
It is both reassuring (that China does engage and address issues of global concern) and thought-provoking (that China will arrive at her own independent answers to these issues).
Click here to read an interview with Mark Leonard.
Read more about the Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize here.Jump to top 1 Comment »
If you would like to subscribe to our RSS Comments feed, please click on the orange XML logo below (click here to read more about our RSS feeds).
** Should you wish to retract a comment, or if you experience technical difficulties, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. We reserve the right to delete posts containing offensive language or content.