Book Review

Thinking about What China Thinks


What Does China Think? by Mark Leonard (PublicAffairs, 2008), 164 pages; ISBN-10: 1586484842; ISBN-13: 978-1586484842

Reviewed by Andrew T. Kaiser

I still recall quite clearly sitting in my college Introduction to International Relations class in the spring of 1989 and watching CNN's live video feed from Beijing. The powerful images kept coming, and these were the emotionally loaded tools with which I formed my earliest understandings of how China works.

A year later, I found myself living on a university campus in Beijing. Everywhere I went I was hounded by students eager to know what I had heard and seen while in the West of the "Beijing Spring" events on June 4th. Invariably, each conversation I had with a student or a local resident would circle the topic before plunging into personal stories of frustration and tragedy. At the time, I was powerfully struck by the incongruities between the understanding of China with a capital C that I had learned in the classroom and the intensely local experiences of these individual Chinese citizens. The people I met continually forced me to revise or even discard my "big picture" view of China.

My experiences in China since then have only heightened this sense of disconnect. I know what many particular Chinese people think. But all of them together? Where to start ?

What Does China Think?

A few years ago, journalist Mark Leonard set out to paint precisely this big pictureand to paint it as quickly as possible! With less than 150 pages of text, Leonard's What Does China Think? attempts to give the Western reader a good look at the main concerns and perhaps future direction of China's government.

As I read through the book I found myself more often than not nodding along in agreement. Many of the events he discussesthe various economic and political "experiments" taking place in Chinaare familiar to me. The ubiquitous "Harmonious Society," the up and coming "Scientific Development," even the embarrassingly awkward "Three Represents"all these slogans and others receive fair and, in places, helpful treatment and elucidation in Leonard's breezy prose. Issues that are familiar to anyone who has spent an extended time in China are discussedagain, brieflyin context and used to provide background understandings of where China's new economic and political ideas are coming from. From education to pollution, from energy to populism, Leonard has digested and condensed a tremendous amount of information.

For the basic building blocks of his argument, Leonard musters a bewildering list of Chinese thinkers and politiciansand then moves through them quickly. While admirably using quotes and statistics to give each individual's contribution meaning and context, Leonard is rarely able to grant more than a mere two or three slim pages per individual. The publishers were clearly aware of this limitation, and so they chose wisely to include a section at the back of the book outlining these various dramatis personae.

At its best, What Does China Think? provides a powerful corrective to many of the outdated and simplistic understandings of China that are prevalent in Western discussions today. Here we have a contemporary book on China that eschews the images of Soviet-era apparatchiks and gives us instead a parade of Chinese leaders and influencers who are actively seeking to develop their country in ways that fit neither American nor Soviet categories. In this light, Leonard's limning of the "New Liberals" and the "Neo-comms" is particularly instructive. His elucidation of China's experiments in deliberative democracy should open many Western eyes, and his discussion of China's role in Africa will hopefully draw attention to other more detailed accounts of this potential paradigm shift in development theory.

Clearly intended to be a popular rather than academic treatment of the subject, What Does China Think? would be a tremendous contribution to Western understandings of China if it were to, in fact, become popular. If the understanding of high-level political and economic thinking that Leonard presents in this book were to be accepted and digested by the popular media in the West, I would have to spend a lot less of my time and energy explaining life in China to the people outside of China who support and participate in my work.

Is This What China Thinks?

Despite all this praise, I do see two limitations to What Does China Think? On many occasions Leonard's book left me with the impression that I was reading more of an historical work. In fact, I often had the feeling that I was reading an English review of National Party Congress reports from the last ten years. While this suggests that much of what Leonard records is accurate, it also means that for those of us who follow Chinese newspapers this book should be largely old news. Part of this problem stems from China's blistering pace of development. A book published in 2008 is necessarily based on research from a few years earlier, and in China a lot can change in just five years.

My other concern is more difficult to describe. At its most basic, I suppose I was never really comfortable with just who the "China" in the book's title was supposed to represent. Of course, Leonard's book is unabashedly macro in its scope. I suppose it succeeds in this regard. However, all my years of living and working in China have taught me that China is essentially local, and I am not sure how this work stands up to micro scrutiny.

I have tried to engage some of my government and Party friends on the ideas and individuals recorded in What Does China Think?so far, with very limited success. I have yet to find anyone especially familiar with any of Leonard's thinkers (though with only Pinyin names to work with I am a bit hampered). Some of the general ideas make sense to local politicians, but these are not the concepts that they themselves employ in their own conversations. Provincial officials, university academics, local party cadresI am struggling to find connections between the ideas in this book and the Chinese people I know.

Of course, I can think of many reasons why my concern may be misplaced. In a society where information is controlled, it is not reasonable to expect national, frontline thinking to be instantly and accurately distilled at the local level. I suppose many of these ideas do exist in more popularized forms at the local level. Just yesterday I was talking politics over lunch with an academic and a bureaucrat. They talked about how anyone who is bold enough to publicly curse the top official in their respective offices is guaranteed to earn the respect of all the underlings. Is there a hint of deliberative democracy in this story? Perhaps, but it doesn't sound quite like the kinds of things Leonard is presenting. In fact, what these two men actually talked about was the crisis of identity within the party and the increasing internal pressure for China to adopt more aspects of liberal democracy. I'm not sure how to fit these two topics into Leonard's China, but I know they are common themes in mine.

Part of What China Thinks

Here's the thing. I like this book, and I see a lot of accuracy in the things Leonard records. And yet I'm not sure what to do with it on the ground. At least in my city (a provincial capitol!), no one in government talks in these terms. Sure, the slogans are repeated, but most officials simply use the language of politics to avoid responsibility or to promote their own status. I see China's increasing confidence as a nation, and I see it reflected in new policies and official processes. Yet, just this past week I have been bombarded by requests from anxious parents who are desperate to get their overwhelmed middle school kids out of China as soon as possible. Again, the contrast is striking. One young local volunteer calls for world peace while on the same day a taxi driver cries out for the immediate invasion of Taiwan.

I suspect that these contrasts are the real answer to the question, "What Does China Think?" You can't condense 1.5 billion people's thoughts into a handful of ideas. People are not machines, and over the long march of history they have consistently (sic) shown a stubborn determination to hold fast to ideas that are just not consistent. Put simply, "China" (whoever she may be) may have all kinds of ideas, and be thinking many of them at the same time. Seen in this light, What Does China Think? provides the thoughtful reader with a helpful pair of lenses with which to examine this fascinating country in transition and in particular its future role on the global stage. But the ideas Leonard portrays are not the only lenses availableand they are not always the most useful ones.


For more on how China is winning the hearts of Africans by espousing a philosophy of development that appeals to African leaders across the continent, see the very technical and quite positive The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa by Deborah Brautigam (Oxford University Press, 2009). Reviewed in ChinaSource Quarterly 2012 Summer

Image credit: china by 俊玮 戴, on Flickr

Andrew T. Kaiser

Andrew T. Kaiser, author of Voices from the Past: Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in China and The Rushing on of the Purposes of God: Christian Missions in Shanxi since 1876, has been living and working in Shanxi with his family since 1997. View Full Bio