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>Democracy: Chinese whispers, East European echoes

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The long awaited, much heralded but uncompleted but much partially leaked next album by Guns ‘n’ Roses for which fans have been waiting fifteen years is, apparently entitled, Chinese Democracy. This suggests a wry sense of humour and/or an unexpected sensitivity to global politics on the part of the ever changing line up of LA rockers because much of 21st century politics seems likely to be a similarly confused and expectant wait for the real thing.
I have, for once, been reading a book that is not about Eastern Europe – What Does China Think by Mark Leonard, a discussion of Chinese debates about the country’s future by the former head of the Blairite Foreign Policy Centre thinktank, who has since moved on to the European Council on Foreign Relations and become an ‘accidental sinologist’. As one might expect of a leading thinktanker it’s a consise, fluent and readable: I remember when Leonard came to SSEES a few years ago he did an excellent, well practised presentation on ‘Global Europe’ despite a streaming cold.

What Does China Think is interesting and illuminating, but a litle disappointingly holds few real jolting surprises about what China’s wonks, intellectuals and politicians are variously thinking for anyone familair with the political and social landscape of late communist Europe. There is a neo-liberal ‘new right’ suspicious of state power, which wants to make a full transition to a private property-based capitalist economy (and possible democracy, or a form of democracy). More powerful and open than the neo-liberal technocrats squirreled away communist Eastern Europe, admittedly, and, of course, with a powerful private sector to draw on, whose nearest CEE equivalent was probably Hungary’s much smaller ‘second economy’. In China this vies with a ‘new left’ concerned about the socially and ecologically corrosive effects of inequality and untrammelled growth, which it wants to rein in using a more capable modernized and pro-active central state. Although there have been much publicized experiments with multi-candidate elections at local and (rarely) municipal level – sometime with a perestroika style filtering of candidates – Leonard sees the future of Chinese ‘democracy’ in technocratically directed public consultation and input into policy-making. Indeed, as this parallels developments in the West, he even sees it as rather sophisticated alternative to competitive electoral democracy. Possibly, the boot should be on the other foot: if the Chinese Communist Party can use them, then we might worry that experiments with ‘citizen juries’ and the like are simply shoring up elite-dominated political systems. Indeed, Avizier Tucker makes precisely this point in a recent issue of Political Studies.
Leonard is, unsurprisingly, rather more interesting on foreign policy. Chinese thinkers are divided as to whether to openly admit or conceal that China is a rising power and desperate to learn from the mistakes of others. ‘Neo-comms’ want to assert Chinese power, if necessary ultimately militarily against Taiwan, while ‘liberal internationalists’ are genuinely committed engagement with multi-lateral institutions. In practice, China is using multi-national institutions to achieve national interests (holding the USA in check) and to create (what are in form) new regional multi-lateral institutions, which serve to boost Chinese power. There is also the beginning of a projection of ‘soft power’: exporting the Chinese developmental and political model of state capitalism and strong sovereignty to Africa, promotion of Chinese language and culture internationally, sophisticated English language media, a well-trained, soft-spoken diplomatic and academic elites. Here all parallels with CEE – a region always controlled, not controlling – fall away and we have to look to more distant historical paralles with rising powers such as Japan or Imperial Germany.