China’s “Great Global Thinkers” for 2012

As the season of lists gets underway, Foreign Policy has released its ranking of the 100 Top Global Thinkers of 2012. Fresh from his coronation as GQ magazine’s Rebel of the Year, and leading the Chinese contingent at number 9, is legal activist Chen Guangcheng:

Chen shocked the world in April when he made a daring, next-to-impossible escape, climbing over the wall surrounding his house (breaking his foot in the process) and catching a ride some 350 miles to Beijing, where he took refuge in the U.S. Embassy. After a tense, days-long diplomatic standoff closely involving Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (No. 3), a deal was struck under which Chen would be allowed to travel to the United States to study. Now at New York University, Chen has embraced his new role as an evangelist for human rights, making the case that incremental change — one village or even one person at a time — can eventually transform a superpower. Against all odds, he remains optimistic, believing that China, taking a cue from Japan and South Korea, must “learn Eastern democracy.” He even thinks it’s inevitable: “Nobody can stop the progress of history,” he says.

An interview with Chen Guangcheng by Isaac Stone Fish accompanies the list. In it, Chen discusses how the central government allows abuses by local authorities—see Guizhou journalist Li Yuanlong’s detention last week for a recent example—and the chances of change or even revolution in China’s near future.

The central government definitely knew I was illegally detained at home. As for how the local authorities invented lies to frame me to put me in prison, as for how they persecuted my entire family, [the central government] didn’t necessarily know about the details. Yet now, six months later, I still haven’t seen the central government follow the country’s laws and keep its promise and investigate and deal with those officials who recklessly and illegally committed crimes.

Throughout Chinese history, has any emperor said they want to hand over power? Every emperor wants his power to last generation after generation. But can they? The Communist Party cannot monopolize all of the power in the country forever. This is a reality they must accept.

The possibility of China facing a revolution in 2013 is pretty big. This is something that the powers that be in China understand more than anyone else. It’s a pity that international society still does not understand this and has still not prepared. America should immediately start moving from dealing with China’s powers that be to dealing with the Chinese people. It definitely won’t be like 1989.

Chen does not appear to view the possibility of revolution with any great relish: when asked what the worst idea of the year is, he answered “violence”.

Controversial artist Ai Weiwei, still unable to leave China over a year after his 81-day detention in 2011, is ranked 26th:

[…] Ai has found ways to occupy his time. When one of his Twitter followers asked in May whether he was working on any new artwork, Ai tweeted back, “I am the artwork.” In April, he set up cameras throughout his house, providing a live feed on his website and to his 170,000 followers. (“Twitter is my city, my favorite city,” he told FP this year.) The authorities soon pressured him into removing the cameras, evidently preferring that they be the only ones to watch the rotund 55-year-old work on his computer and play with his cats.

But make no mistake — this performance art is deeply political. Throughout his career Ai has insisted that artists have a duty to humanity that outweighs the obligations of nationalism. Even declaring one’s opposition to “trafficking children, selling HIV-infected blood, [and] operating slave labor coal pits” is enough to get branded as “anti-China” in today’s political climate, Ai once noted on his blog, asking, “If we aren’t anti-China, are we still human?”

Foreign Policy also published a slideshow from Ai’s first North American retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., noting that “the artist was not in attendance.”

British singer Elton John added a concert dedication to Ai’s list of recent accolades on Sunday. While dismissing this “disrespectful” gesture, Global Times took the opportunity to critique Chen and Ai’s inclusion in the Foreign Policy list:

Western society is seriously biased against China. When US magazine Foreign Policy compiled a list of 100 global thinkers from around the world, the first Chinese on that list was blind activist Chen Guangcheng, and the second was Ai Weiwei. Even to Chinese people who have sympathy for these two people, this list may seem ridiculous.

In a diverse era, we don’t hold that the existence of people like Chen and Ai is unexpected in China. Also, we don’t believe that the impact they have brought should be denied completely.

The selection of Chen and Ai makes people wonder whether the word “thinker” in Chinese and English have different meanings. We can just say that some Westerners are increasingly unable to contain themselves over China’s rise. They cannot control China through normal means and they are more likely to rush their fences.

A more nuanced piece of Aiconoclasm came last week from Paul Gladston at Randian:

There are […] significant dangers in the upholding of Ai as our sole representative/mediator of artistic resistance to authority within China. While Ai’s bluntly confrontational and often bombastic stance can be readily digested within Western liberal-democratic contexts where romantic notions of heroic dissent in the face of overwhelming power still persist, it is by no means representative of the critical positioning of most other Chinese artists. Ai may have situated himself admirably behind enlightened westernized ideals of freedom and openness, but the sheer bluntness and reductive simplicity of his critical approach to authority have effectively foreclosed a more searching discussion of contemporary art within China as well as the complex, web of localized cultural, social, political and economic forces that surround its production and reception.

[…] Ai Weiwei is right in drawing our repeated attention to the debilitating injustices of totalitarian power within China. He is also right to upbraid western viewers for their inability to see past what are for them the pleasurable ambiguities of contemporary Chinese art. Less convincing, however, is Ai’s wholly reductive view of the critical possibilities of contemporary art in China. By insisting on his own stridently oppositional approach towards power as the only legitimate game in town, and because we are already highly familiar with that approach, [he] has misrepresented the contemporary Chinese artworld. One might add that Ai is also romanticizing the conditions of criticality in the West.

At 54 in the Foreign Policy list is Yu Jianrong, for his concise but detailed roadmap for reform.

In April, he released a succinct, two-phase plan he called a “10-Year Outline of China’s Social and Political Development.” Despite its bland title, Yu’s blueprint offers a timetable for Chinese reform that for once is as credible as it is ambitious. The plan puts dates and specifics to the task, advocating, for example, a stronger law on private property, the revealing of “information pertaining to government affairs” and “officials’ property,” and the abolition of “speech crimes,” after which China should “open up” the media and political parties. Yu’s short manifesto immediately caused a splash when he released it to his nearly 1.5 million followers on the popular microblogging site Sina Weibo (though the government has maintained a deafening silence). “We’ve already decided to change,” Yu explained in an interview. “The question is: In which direction do we change, and from where do we start?” Sweeping reform in this authoritarian land of 1.3 billion won’t be easy, but Yu’s plan is as good a place to begin as any. The era, he said, of crossing the river “by feeling the stones” is over.

China Media Project’s David Bandurski translated Yu’s plan in March. Soon afterwards, Didi Kirsten Tatlow described it at The International Herald Tribune, together with some criticism from Tsinghua University political scientist Liu Yu:

Master plans like Mr. Kang [Youwei]’s, or Mr. Yu’s are “unrealistic,” she said.

“All Chinese intellectuals, especially the men, they tend to blur the line with being an official and then they’re thinking, ‘How should I design a system for the country?’ and ‘How to make progress?’

“In the West there are intellectuals who make proposals on specific things, but in general they don’t make plans for the whole country,” she said.

What is needed instead, she believes, is a broad debate, among ordinary people.

“A good plan should involve the whole society,” she said. “There should be a big debate on where the country should be going.”

Yu’s nomination for best idea of 2012 is Mo Yan’s controversial selection for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Mo’s chief rival for the award, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, took 49th place on the Foreign Policy list as a consolation prize.

At 69 is environmentalist Ma Jun:

[…] A journalist turned environmentalist who founded the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, Ma applies scientific rigor to exposing such corporate violations (more than 90,000 to date), flagging everything from a small coal-tar factory improperly storing its dangerous waste to Apple suppliers poisoning workers with a toxic chemical used on touch screens — as well as local governments that flout environmental regulations across China. Dozens of major multinationals now consult Ma’s pollution readings when working with suppliers in China. And by documenting environmental violations that had long been obvious but were never compiled in a way the public could easily understand, Ma has given statistical ammunition to Chinese citizens trying to nudge the Communist Party into cleaning up its act.

Wang Jisi, “China’s most respected expert on the United States”, came in at 73:

[…] What does Wang want us to know? That the feel-good stories U.S. officials tell themselves about China’s global ascent are an elaborate form of denial. In an influential monograph co-authored by Brookings Institution senior fellow Kenneth Lieberthal, Wang this year described China’s actions on the world stage as rooted in the conclusion that “America will seek to constrain or even upset China’s rise.” Beijing’s view, he says, is that the United States is “heading for decline” and that China’s development model provides an “alternative to Western democracy and market economies.” The result? “[T]hese views make many Chinese political elites suspect that it is the United States,” Wang says, “that is ‘on the wrong side of history.'”

And at 83 is the Taiwanese-American former head of Google China, venture capitalist Kai-fu Lee:

In an article he published on his LinkedIn page in October, Lee named China’s narrowly focused school curriculum and the risk-averse nature of Chinese students, as well as the country’s chaotic Internet environment, among the reasons China hasn’t yet produced its own Mark Zuckerberg. That may be why he has also started a popular education website encouraging Chinese students to think more creatively. Although none of his companies has exploded yet, Lee’s ultimate contribution may be more fundamental: laying both the intellectual and financial groundwork for a revolution in the world’s largest online community.

Perhaps more significant to China for now than any of the above are Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, who top the list having begun to pilot the formerly reliable Chinese satellite of Myanmar (also known as Burma) into a more open and international orbit:

Aung San Suu Kyi, the soft-spoken, iconic political activist whom devotees call simply “the Lady,” may not seem like an obvious partner for Thein Sein, but she has become one by doing what few legends of her stature can: embracing the messy pragmatism of politics. Although Burma’s struggles are far from over — she has warned that international investment has been too rapid, and ethnic violence is escalating — the willingness of both the Lady and the general to embrace short-term compromise and foster long-term reconciliation in what was only recently one of the world’s most isolated countries is something to celebrate.

Fittingly, Aung San Suu Kyi finally was able to accept her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize in June. She used the occasion to remind the world of those like her, who struggle in the most forlorn places: “To be forgotten too is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity.” It is a sentiment still felt from Aleppo to Havana, Pyongyang to Tehran, but also, as Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein have shown, one that doesn’t need to be permanent.

See more on Chen Guangcheng, Ai Weiwei, Yu Jianrong, Ma Jun, Wang Jisi, Kai-fu Lee and Myanmar/Burma at CDT.