In this month’s cover story, Mark Leonard addresses a question that has been largely neglected by even the most ardent admirers of China’s rise as an economic superpower: what exactly are the ideas shaping the growth of this potent challenger to western hegemony; and who are the people thinking them?
China has a very different political and intellectual tradition to those of Europe and America—but throughout history, and since long before Europe began to claim itself a civilized place, it has been at the heart of global technological and educational innovation. As Leonard explains, China’s intellectual class is now growing at an astonishing rate, in tandem with a huge expansion in its universities and think-tanks, whose memberships already outnumber those of any other nation. Free thought in the western sense may remain distant in many areas, but modern China enjoys a level of national debate inconceivable even a decade ago—and one that nourishes a distinctly Chinese model of economic development and political legitimacy which is increasingly proving a global alternative to the attractions of western market democracy. Over 3,000 Chinese-style “special economic zones” are now to be found around the world, for example, in addition to its own expanding multi-billion dollar trade hubs in Africa.
Will the “China model” be to the 21st century what the American way was to the 20th? Mark Leonard presents us with a vivid picture of a nation still in transition, yet determined to bring the results from its formidable laboratory of social experiments to bear on the world. Let us know what you think here (and for those wishing to find out more, Leonard’s book What Does China Think? has just been published by 4th Estate).