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Stephen Marks argues in this extended review of recent publications about China that there are few other important global players whose affairs are so exclusively analysed on the basis of ignorance and stereotype. There is little understanding outside China about the differences of perspectives of Chinese intellectuals - they are far from being a homogeneous group.

China is no longer a topic - it’s a dimension. On every issue, from global warming to the credit crisis, China and its impact can no longer be ignored, not as a subject apart to be left to experts, but as an integral component of the global picture, on which every analyst or commentator has to have an opinon.

And as we all do when we have to come up with an opinion on something of which we know nothing, we reach off the shelf for a ready-made answer. In the case of China, these are easy to find.

There is the cold-war image of China the sinister Communist dictatorship. There is the older racial image of the sinister ‘inscrutable’ Chinese. And for Africa, there is the image of the voracious Chinese imperialist, concerned only to rape the ‘eternal victim, the dark continent’, of its precious resources. (see ‘' by Emma Mawdsley.)

There are few other important global players whose affairs are so exclusively analysed on the basis of ignorance and stereotype. Across the world, those who follow international politics are aware of the major policy debates in Washington between neo-cons, traditionalists and ‘multilateralists’. The ebb and flow of federalist currents in the EU are common knowledge. Even the revival of Russian assertiveness under Putin can be analysed as a modern trend, without invoking the ghost of Stalin or images of the Russian Bear.

But as Mark Leonard, Director of what calls itself ‘the first pan-European thinktank’, asks us in his recent book, ‘how many of us can name more than a handful of contemporary Chinese writers and thinkers?’ Indeed, if we are honest, ‘a handful’ would be generous where most of us are concerned.

The chief merit of Leonard’s contribution [What does China think? Fourth Estate 2008] is to show us what we are missing, and whet our appetite for more. The same feeling of stumbling across a hitherto unknown continent of argument and debate around central issues of our time comes from Zhang Yongle’s summary of the range of ideas in a leading Chinese intellectual journal in his article ‘Reading Dushu’ [New Left Review 49 second series, Jan Feb 2008].

It is no surprise to be introduced to the ideas of ‘New Right’ economist Zhang Weiying, a pioneering advocate of the free-market economic reforms which led to China’s astonishing record of 9 per cent growth year after year for three decades.

But cliches will be shattered by exposure to the thinking of some of China’s ‘New Left’, who have no wish to turn their backs on the market at home or abroad, or to turn the clock back to a central command economy, but instead are grappling with the same issues of combining market institutions with social justice and equity, as their counterparts in the West and South.

Economists Wang Shaoguang and Hu Angang argue persuasively that a central state which was at once stronger and more democratic could curb unaccountable regional power centres which currently waste resources through corruption and duplicated prestige investments. The resulting resources could finance a welfare safety-net which would give the public confidence to consume, thereby strengthening the domestic market and reducing China’s dependence on Western consumer demand.

Other writers such as Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan lament the ‘new enclosure movement’ which is ripping-off public property, and discuss ideas such as an Alaska-style ‘social dividend’ for citizens from the profits of state-owned enterprises, which would provide a ‘social wage’ to replace the largely dismantled welfare state.

Slightly more exposure abroad has been given to the environmental critique of Pan Yue, quantifying the horrific human, ecological and economic cost of the environmental degradation that has accompanied China’s breakneck growth. Though appointed to head the official State Environmental Protection Association, his report has been shelved, and widely ignored on the ground. But its concerns are certainly reflected, however inconsistently, in official pronouncements.

When it comes to political institutions, the Chinese debate is also far from the stereotype of Stalino-Maoist totalitarianism, though still remote from any Western concept of democracy. There have been some widely-trumpeted experiments in village-level democracy, contested inner-party elections, and consultative innovations such as ‘citizens juries’ and public policy hearings. But these remain few, localised and untypical.

Moreover, their champions do not see them as leading to multi-party democracy but rather to a ‘chinese model’ of ‘deliberative democracy’ where the central government allows a range of consultative opinions to be presented to it, supplemented by low-level electoral participation.

However, as new leftist Wang Shaoguang points out, this represents in effect a convergence with the West where the established electoral democratic system is increasingly perceived as ‘hollowed out’ and formal, and is frequently being supplemented by consultative processes, citizens juries and local referendums. Could China and the West be converging on the same destination from different starting-points?

The debate that Leonard reports on issues of global governance is equally stimulating, and shows a keen awareness that Chinas’s interest lies in promoting a notion of ‘soft power’ against the one-dimensional US obsession with hardware.

Many of us are familiar with solemn Western debates about how to ‘manage’ China’s rise, so as to ‘assist’ the new arrival to be a ‘civilised’ member of the ‘international community’ just like an assumed Western ‘us’. So it is a pleasant and amusing surprise to be introduced to the mirror-image debate in Beijing about how to ‘manage’ the West’s decline.

This debate came out into the open in 2006 when Wang Yiwei, a young scholar, asked in a newspaper article ‘how can we prevent the USA from declining too quickly?’ Shen Dingli argued that China’s goal should be ‘to shape an America that is more constrained and more willing to co-operate with the world’.

So however we are to analyse the complex and changing reality of the ‘actual’ China, the cliches of the conventional wisdom – the ‘evil Communist Tyranny’, the ‘inscrutable oriental’, or the new imperialist raping and looting Africa – are clearly more a hindrance than a help.

Which therefore leads us to ask why these unhelpful images persist. One obvious approach would be to ask whose interests are served by portraying China in this way. Less obvious, but also perhaps more interesting, is to make a comparison with the first encounter between the West and China, in which the prevailing stereotypes were not negative but on the contrary, rather idealised.

Leading philosophers of the 18th Century Enlightenment, including such figures as Leibniz and Voltaire, frequently referred to China in the most glowing terms. This followed an explosion, reminiscent of our own days, in the volume of Western publications about China.

According to the German scholar Thomas Fuchs (

Now these utopian images of China did indeed draw on aspects of reality. But their purpose was not so much to understand the real China, as to say something about the society of the West. Could the same be true of today’s negative image?

For example, the ‘neoconservative’ US columnist Robert Kagan goes so far as to argue that China's policy towards Sudan and Zimbabwe is determined not so much by economic self-interest as by political solidarity with their dictatorial regimes, and foresees a Sino-Russian 'League of Dictators'. [Robert Kagan League of Dictators? Why Russia and China Will Continue to support Autocracies Wahington Post April 30 2006.]

Is he really trying to say something about China’s policy? Or is he using a certain image of China in order to say something positive by contrast about US policy – just as the Enlightenment philosophers used their idealised image of China for the opposite purpose?

Likewise when China’s African role is reduced to a supposed re-run of Europe’s exploitative colonial past, is the real purpose a better understanding of China’s role? Or is it to imply, by comparing China’s present to the West’s past, that the West’s present is different to the West’s past?

Of course, just as with the idealised China of the European past, the demonised image of today can also draw on aspects of reality. But perhaps any such correspondence is, also as in the past, purely incidental to other more important functions.

To separate fact from fiction, and disentangle reality from the myths, an indispensable first step must be to acquaint ourselves with the actual and often surprising debate taking place within China itself.

However before we all get carried away we must remember that these debates are taking place within limits which, while far broader than the generally accepted cliches would suggest, are still constrained by a government which does not claim to subscribe to Western concepts of democracy and individual rights.

Paradoxically, the lack of western-style political pluralism enhances the role of ‘insider intellectuals’ and their debates. And as Leonard points out; ‘The Chinese like to argue about whether it is the intellectuals that influence decision-makers, or whether groups of decision-makers use pet intellectuals as infornal mouthpieces to advance their own views’.

But either way, if China is a central component of the issues that we face in every continent, including Africa, so the ideas that contribute to shaping its policies, and those who frame those ideas, should be part of our reality too.

* Stephen Marks is research associate with Fahamu.

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