January 6, 2013 9:08 pm

On the cusp of China’s third revolution

A collection of essays edited by Mark Leonard in ‘China 3.0’ offers fresh insights into the country’s evolving political culture

China 3.0: Understanding the New China, edited by Mark Leonard, European Council on Foreign Relations

China is a one-party state, where the media remains tightly controlled. But do not make the mistake of assuming that has killed off intellectual debate. On the contrary, there is a ferment of discussion there today about the future of the country and its role in the world.

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Gideon Rachman

In some ways, these debates are more interesting than their equivalent arguments in the west. That is because the debates in Europe or the US are dominated by a broad mainstream acceptance of certain basic principles about democracy, capitalism and the international order.

By contrast, Chinese intellectuals are still arguing about really fundamental issues. Is liberal democracy the way forward – or should the country seek its own political settlement, rooted in Confucian values? Did it go too far in its embrace of liberal capitalism or not far enough? If it becomes a superpower, should it try to reshape the world system or should it accept the existing institutions?

The great virtue of China 3.0 – a short collection of essays by Chinese intellectuals – is that it gives an insight into the vigour and variety of some of these debates. According to Mark Leonard, the editor of the volume, China 1.0 was Mao Zedong’s communist revolution, China 2.0 was Deng Xiaoping’s market revolution – and China 3.0 is yet to emerge, but could be just as revolutionary.

Sensitive readers should not be put off by the whiff of sensationalism, and the slightly hackneyed “3.0” formulation. In his introduction, Leonard provides a useful categorisation of the debates featured in the book. On economics, he sees a dividing line between a “social Darwinist New Right” and an “egalitarian New Left”. In politics, he argues that the main divide is between “political liberals” and “neo-authoritarians”. And in foreign policy, he identifies a split between “defensive internationalists” and newly assertive nationalists.

This categorisation may well be too simple. Nonetheless, it provides a different way of understanding some of the dramatic political and economic news coming out of China.

Such broad categorisation inevitably involves a degree of simplification. For example, many economists would argue that Beijing needs both to press ahead with liberalisation and to do more to combat inequality – and that the two goals need not be incompatible. Nonetheless, Leonard’s categories and the essays he introduces offer a fresh way of understanding some of the dramatic political and economic news coming out of China.

The downfall of Bo Xilai, the charismatic party boss of the southern municipality of Chongqing was the political story of 2012. It had everything – a poisoning, corruption, intrigue, an attempted defection. But, as this book makes clear, there were also important ideas at stake.

Indeed, Leonard argues that the debate about China’s economic future can be understood as a battle between the Chongqing and Guangdong models. He writes: “Guangdong, a prosperous coastal region, stood for a quest to move up the value chain economically while using a free media, civil society, and political openness to quell social tensions. Chongqing, by contrast, was about turning a backward inland province into a laboratory for egalitarian social policies and domestic consumption.”

Despite the fall of Bo, the Chongqing model still has its defenders. In China 3.0, Cui Zhiyuan, a professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, argues that while much media coverage has focused on Bo’s encouragement of “red songs” – and interpreted this as a dangerous effort to restart the cultural revolution – in fact he was pursuing a much more laudable agenda. In particular, Cui argues that the Chongqing model greatly improved the rights of the millions of migrant workers from the countryside who have fuelled China’s industrial revolution.

Many Chinese liberals, by contrast, were deeply suspicious of Bo, whom they regarded as an unprincipled and dangerous populist. Yet an essay by Michael Anti (the pen name of a prominent reformist blogger) argues that the downfall of Bo also revealed how the internet can be a double-edged sword in the struggle to enlarge political freedom in China.

While there is little doubt that the rise of social media – in particular Weibo, the Chinese micro­blogging services similar to Twitter – has opened up political debate, Anti argues that the authorities skilfully manipulated the social networks to engineer the downfall of Bo. “Weibo became a marketplace for rumours about Bo,” he writes. “Suddenly you could say anything ... It was almost like living in the US. But if you dared to tweet or retweet anything about a fake coup in Beijing, you would have been arrested.”

Despite the censorship, limits and manipulation, however, political debate is opening up in surprising ways. The essays in China 3.0 are testimony to that fact.

The writer is the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist

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