Chinese thinkers debate their country’s future


Revolutionary China: poster, Shanghai, January 1967 IMAGE/DeAgostini · Getty

As the recent 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) illustrated, President Xi Jinping aspires to equal, if not surpass, the status of Mao Zedong. To some commentators, he’s ‘the new Stalin’. At a time of growing Sino-Western tensions, the West continues to view China through the lens of the cold war, with China in the role the Soviet Union once occupied: the main adversary and pre-eminent representative of autocratic forces in the world.

This view casts Chinese thinkers as the equivalent of Russian dissidents and refuseniks who risked being sent to the gulag simply for owning forbidden books; it makes China out to be a place with no real intellectual life outside the private sphere, or prisons. As a result, although it has become the world’s second most powerful country, the only Chinese intellectuals known in the West are dissidents such as the artist Ai Weiwei or the law professor Xu Zhangrun.

In reality, China today is less like Stalin’s Russia than Japan in the Meiji era (1868-1912), when Japan embarked on its own rise to power, just as China has done since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1980s. There are intellectual similarities too, as both countries, when opening up to the world, embraced Western ideas in their own way and set aside ‘tradition’, which was feudal in Japan’s case, Maoist in China’s. In both nations, this created a vibrant and even pluralistic intellectual scene — within limits.

In China, this pluralism was remarkable in the years before Xi came to power (March 2013); so remarkable that it probably made him want to tighten the party-state’s ideological control. However, despite all his efforts, he has not wholly succeeded, as the intellectual world has retained a degree of independence, albeit relative.

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