What It Means to Be a Rising Public Intellectual in China

Last week in the New York Times, venture capitalist Eric X. Li wrote an op-ed arguing that China’s model of governance was superior to the United States’. Li has written equally provocative essays, including one, also for the New York Times, in which he argues against several common perceptions of China. In the Atlantic, Damien Ma profiles Li:

Clearly a provocateur, Li champions Chinese exceptionalism and is likely viewed by some critics as a cheerleader for the Chinese government. Yet having observed his live discussions and op-eds, what strikes me is his thoroughly western style of discourse and his ability to prod, irrespective of how disagreeable or flawed one finds his arguments. All of which is to say that he seems to have adopted the traits of a rising public intellectual, on who is Chinese but is also highly capable of communicating ideas to the “West,” unlike the pro forma statements that the Chinese foreign ministry regularly recycles.

This is a rarity in China, which may explain why Li’s path here was such an unusual one. He is a Chinese returnee (he is a Stanford MBA) who was schooled in American pedagogy to engage an American audience. Indeed, Li has a long roster of credentials, with his successful venture Chengwei Capital available to help fund his varied intellectual and education endeavors. For instance, he founded the Equinox (Chunqiu) Institute, a research shop; sits on the board of governors at the Keck Center of Claremont Mckenna and the board of directors at the China-Europe business school; reportedly serves as an adviser to the Carnegie Endowment; and founded the Dulwich College system in China.

With his hands across the private sector and intellectual realms, I suspect we will hear more from Li, as he pitches a “Chinese idea” to a western audience.

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