Yehuda Elkana, Rector of Central European University, gave me a book he liked — Mark Leonard’s What Does China Think?, fresh off the press (Fourth Estate, London, 2008). The book is concise and not bad, for someone who is a casual observer. Leonard heads the European Council on Foreign Relations, and is the author of a Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, which has apparently been translated into 18 languages. So apparently a rising US-style European think tank star.
Most of the book is about the policy thinking of China’s leading intellectuals, whom Leonard divides into New Left, “New Right” (neoliberal economists with few scruples about the government), and “neo-comms” (“realist” nationalists). This division is surely somewhat inaccurate, but perhaps not more so than the usual Left/liberal/nationalist divide. The main difference is that Leonard, unlike most authors, neither favours the “liberals” over the others, nor sees them as really liberals; politically, they have, he thinks, the least interest in reforming the system. His main point is that the West should give up the idea that there is any significant desire or force among Chinese intellectuals to move towards so-called Western-style liberal democracy, and reconcile itself with the fact that a “Chinese model” will spread across the world. Ultimately, this is the idea most famously mooted by Leonard’s friend Joshua Cooper Ramo. In contrast to Ramo’s bombastic claim of a “Beijing Consensus”, Leonard does not pretend to represent more than the opinion of a few groups of key Chinese intellectuals, but he does that credibly, and with attention to the divisions between the groups.
I think Leonard’s reminder that political liberalism, or pro-Western thinking, are not forces to be reckoned with in today’s Chinese elite is useful, even though it underestimates the influence of liberalism beyond that circle. The main limitation of the book is that it is, in essence, “Kremlinology”: it is concerned with the thinking of intellectuals who are part of, or close to, the ruling elite. The failure of the original Kremlinologists to even indicate the possibility of the disintegration of Soviet power, or of Indonesia watchers to anticipate the demise of Soeharto, illustrates the dangers of this approach.