China Book Reviews


Mark Leonard, What does China think? Fourth Estate, London, 2008.

ISBN 978-0-00-723068-6

Mark Leonard, What does China think? Fourth Estate, London, 2008.

by Jason Lee

This is a worthwhile read, as it provides a fascinating perspective on the debates that are currently raging within Chinese society. Particularly interesting are the chapters that deal with the issue of democracy. Leonard outlines for example, the views of Pan Wei, a professor in the School of International Studies and Global Affairs at Beijing University. His paper on "Consultative Rule of Law" calls on China to model its political system on Singapore rather than on the Western liberal model. "Pan Wei berates Westerners for misunderstanding their own political systems," observes Leonard, "We assume, he says, that our countries are stable and prosperous because of democracy. But we confuse the benefits we get from democracy with those that we get from the rule of law. Pan Wei argues that democracy and the rule of law do not need to go together - in fact, like 'Ying' and 'Yang' they are in constant conflict with one another." (pp.64-65) For example, democracy is about giving power to the people, while the rule of law is about putting limits on that power. Democracy is about making laws, the rule of law is about enforcing them, and the "powerbase of democracy lies in the officials we vote for - parliamentarians, ministers, prime ministers and presidents. But the power of the rule of law comes from people who are deliberately not elected - independent civil servants, judges and auditors." (p.65)

Pan does not ignores the fact that 'Ying' and 'Yang', as concepts, are binary opposites, and as Leonard informs us, he believes that the West can only afford to enjoy both because "we have reached a level of material wealth and modernity that allows the two to live side by side, balancing each other in permanent tension." (p.65)

Pan certainly does offer some legitimate arguments against the possibility of developing countries being able to successfully enjoy the luxury of both, pointing out that many of those developing countries that have to date chosen democracy without first developing the rule of law have failed, as populist regimes have a tendency to exploit ethnic tensions "to get their hands on power." Citing Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, Rwanda, Angola and Lebanon as examples, Pan, says Leonard, makes the point that "it is the premature introduction of democracy that has undermined the rule of law and modernization, forcing leaders to pander to popular sentiment rather than making painful reforms for the long term." (p.65)

Pan points to Singapore and Hong Kong as examples of developing societies that have adopted the rule of law without democracy, noting that they have "known nothing but success: their economies have grown steadily, they have attracted investment, wiped out corruption and developed strong national identities." (p.65) Despite the fact that Pan overstates his case with his claim that Singapore and Hong Kong have "wiped out corruption", the overall success of these societies cannot be denied, and so it is little wonder that Chinese authorities and policy-makers are taking so much notice of Pan Wei's demythologising of democracy, separating it, as he does, from the rule of law. "Although it is a long way from reality," writes Leonard, "Pan Wei has a vision of a high-tech consultative dictatorship, where there are no elections but decisions made by a responsive government, bound by law, and in touch with its citizens' aspirations." (p.66)

Leonard then goes on to outline the views of two other Chinese political scientists, Wang Shaoguang and Fang Ning, both of whom have developed models very similar to the one espoused by Pan Wei. Leonard does a good job at alerting us to the many creative experiments with democracy that, over the last decade, have been taking place all throughout the China. In Zeguo township, in Wenling City, Zhejiang Province for example, "deliberative polling" has been introduced - the brainchild of Stanford University political scientist, James Fishkin.

Of course, not all Chinese political scientists agree with the model proposed by Pan Wei, Wang Shaoguang and Fang Ning. As Leonard points out, there are some, like Tsinghua University professor, Wang Hui for example, who argue that the rule of law is meaningless without democracy, noting that the affluent middle classes are "lukewarm about democracy" because they fear that their assets would be appropriated by the masses through the forced introduction of fairer labor laws and greater welfare expenditure. (p.75)

This is a truly fascinating and insightful book, shedding much needed light on some of the many important debates that are raging among today's Chinese intellectuals. A must read for all serious China-watchers!