We are used to China’s growing influence on the world economy—but could it also reshape our ideas about politics and power? This story of China’s intellectual awakening is less well documented. We closely follow the twists and turns in America’s intellectual life, but how many of us can name a contemporary Chinese writer or thinker? Inside China—in party forums, but also in universities, in semi-independent think tanks, in journals and on the internet—debate rages about the direction of the country: “new left” economists argue with the “new right” about inequality; political theorists argue about the relative importance of elections and the rule of law; and in the foreign policy realm, China’s neocons argue with liberal internationalists about grand strategy. Chinese thinkers are trying to reconcile competing goals, exploring how they can enjoy the benefits of global markets while protecting China from the creative destruction they could unleash in its political and economic system. Some others are trying to challenge the flat world of US globalisation with a “walled world” Chinese version.
Paradoxically, the power of the Chinese intellectual is amplified by China’s repressive political system, where there are no opposition parties, no independent trade unions, no public disagreements between politicians and a media that exists to underpin social control rather than promote political accountability. Intellectual debate in this world can become a surrogate for politics—if only because it is more personal, aggressive and emotive than anything that formal politics can muster.