We invited the six shortlisted authors for the first Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize to talk to us about their nominated books. Here, Mark Leonard talks to us about his book What Does China Think?:
Why did you write the book?
I wrote the book because I was bowled over by the ambition, energy and excitement of the intellectual debates in China. Everyone in the West knows that China is important but we talk more about its growth rates than the ideas that are changingthe fastest growing major economy in the world. And yet – at a time when politics in the West is as much about style as substance there are lively clashes in China about big ideas that could change the face of the world. I wrote my book to lift the veil on these debates, to give people access to new ideas about the future of capitalism, democracy and power being developed in China that will challenge Western ways of thinking.
What does China think?
Although China is a dictatorship heated debates rage among Chinese thinkers about economics, political reform and foreign policy. On economic policy, for example, a ‘New Left’ is using the financial crisis to push for a gentler form of capitalism with a social safety net that could reduce inequality and protect the environment. They are opposed by a ‘New Right’ who think that freedom will only come when the public sector is dismantled and sold off, and a new, politically active ‘propertied class’ emerges. What impressed you most about the thinkers and artists that you met in China? The ambition of their thinking and the eclecticism of their influences. China’s intellectuals are grappling with problems of a similar scale to the ones encountered by the Western thinkers such as Marx, Darwin, Adam Smith, Weber and Freud – at the beginning of our industrialisation. At the same time, these thinkers – many of whom have studied in the West – have a habit of mixing and matching ideas from traditional Chinese culture, Marxism-Leninism and all the different strands of Western thinking. The results can be invigorating and innovative.
What impact will the global recession have on freethinkers in China?
It will both empower them because a pragmatic Chinese government will look to them for ideas on how to protect Chinese growth and it will threaten them because the same government will become even more paranoid about political discontent.
Who are the most important thinkers in China currently and who is likely to have the most impact internationally?
There are too many to mention. But people should look out for New Leftists like Wang Hui and Hu Angang as well as New Right economists such as Zhang Weiying. They could also look out for China’s thinking authoritarians like Fang Ningand Pan Wei. But the most challenging thinkers internationally may be China’s ‘Neo-Comms’ like Yan Xuetong and Yang Yi who want to create a new world order in China’s image.
Will the 21st century be a Chinese one?
The 21st century will not be a Chinese century. But China will join the USA and the European Union as a shaper of world order, challenging Western influence in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the former Soviet Union with new models of globalisation, capitalism and politics.
Apart from What does China Think? which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
There is much talk about how the world is becoming multipolar in economic, political and military terms. But – looking forwards – the most important kind of multipolarity could be at the level of ideas. The consequences would be massive if each of the poles in the new world had their own distinctive models for political progress:
How can we promote democracy in a world where there are competing ideas of democracy?
How can we manage the global economy with competing models of capitalism? Which idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently? It is George Soros’ idea of reflexivity which is the most persuasive explanation of how we got into the financial crisis. Soros has long argued against the prevailing wisdom that financial markets tend towards equilibrium because they consist of rational actors who are able to discount the future. Soros’ theory shows that financial markets
do not merely reflect the so-called fundamentals of the economy; they themselves can shape the fundamentals by pricing assets in particular ways. That is what creates financial bubbles which themselves can end with dramatic busts. Soros made his billions by starting from the assumption that the market is always wrong, and seeing how he could bet against it. His theory points the way to a new understanding of capitalism, and it shows why we need a state strong enough to stop
markets from destroying themselves.
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
Franz Kafka’s The Castle is probably the greatest book of ideas ever written. Its haunting evocation of alienation, bureaucratic politics, and the transience of human relationships makes it an unrivalled study of the ethical and social dilemmas of modernity. Kafka’s genius shines through so brightly that every generation recognises him as a contemporary. No one can read him without seeing the world differently.