There has been virtually no discussion or coverage of China’s intellectual debates in this country. Perhaps the assumption is that there isn’t one; or if there is, then it is of little consequence. This is wrong on both counts. There is an extremely vibrant intellectual debate in China on many questions. This belies the widely-held view in the west that because China is not a western-style democracy, serious argument and debate must be largely absent. In fact, the contrary is true. The arguments among Chinese intellectuals are, I would suggest, more interesting and more novel than is the case in Britain, or even the United States.

The reason for this is twofold. First, China is changing so quickly that it constantly throws up new challenges and problems that require response and solution. In contrast, an economy growing at 2 percent – or these days, of course, barely at all – poses new kinds of problems only occasionally. Second, not only is China changing with extraordinary rapidity, but since the turn of the century it has also been transforming the world with great speed (even if this remains barely recognised in Britain’s insular and blinkered public discourse). Chinese intellectuals are no longer confronted simply with how to handle the country’s domestic development but also with what kind of global power China should become. Far from China’s foreign policy debate being of interest only or mainly to the Chinese, it has enormous import for the rest of the world. If we want to understand what the world will be like as China steadily usurps the US as the dominant global power, then the starting place must be the debate within China about the country’s future foreign policy.

There are many excellent Chinese international relations scholars including Wang Jisi and Wang Feng at Peking University, Yan Xuetong at Tsinghua University, and Shi Yinhong and Jin Canrong at Renmin University. Yan Xuetong is one of the most interesting. His recent book, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, is a study of the main thinkers during the Spring and Autumn Period and the subsequent Warring States period – around 500 years in total – prior to the victory of the Qin dynasty in 221 BC and the birth of modern China. Yan chose this period of Chinese history because the rivalry between the many Chinese states which existed at the time provides a distinctively Chinese cameo of the multi-state world with which China now has to deal. He examines the ideas of Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Laozi and various others, though the thinker that clearly most interests him is Xunzi, a pragmatic interpreter of Confucian philosophy who died in 230 BC. Yan is quite explicit that by examining the ideas of these old sages he is looking for inspiration and guidance for future Chinese foreign policy.

Yan rejects the idea that Chinese foreign policy should mirror that of the US by seeking to exercise ‘hegemony’. He sees the latter as essentially duplicitous: moral towards one’s allies but based on power norms, notably the use of force, towards one’s enemies. He places the former Soviet Union in the same category. That said, he acknowledges that the present era of hegemony has been superior to the ‘tyranny’ of European dominance prior to 1939, which he sees as having been overwhelmingly based on power norms including force. Rather than hegemony, Yan is attracted by Xunzi’s idea of ‘humane authority’, a form of governance based on moral example and leadership rather than power norms. He believes that this ideal is the one which over time Chinese foreign policy should aspire to.

There are two wider implications that should be drawn from Yan Xuetong’s work. First, there is bound to be a major shift in Chinese foreign policy in the coming period. Ever since 1978 it has been based on Deng Xiaoping’s argument that China’s overwhelming priority was economic growth and that, to this end, it should keep a low profile internationally and seek the most favourable external environment, which most importantly meant fostering a friendly relationship with the US. That era is coming to an end as China becomes a major global power. As Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, has argued, Chinese foreign policy needs to be much broader and pay much greater attention to Asia and especially east Asia, rather than always prioritising the relationship with the US. Second, Chinese foreign policy has, during the Deng era, been singularly pragmatic. Yan Xuetong’s book signals what is likely to become a growing tendency to seek inspiration for future foreign policy in Chinese history. It should be borne in mind, in this context, that a unique feature of Chinese politics and culture, reflecting its civilizational roots, is its remarkable preoccupation with its own history, far more than is the case with any other country.

Not surprisingly, one of the most interesting and hitherto most important areas of intellectual debate has been the country’s economic policy. This debate has been more and more preoccupied with how to shift from the present export-oriented, investment-dependent, environmentally exploitative, low-value-added strategy to one based increasingly on domestic consumption and environmentally-friendly, research-based and high-value-added production. One of the most interesting and candid voices in China’s economic debate is Yu Yongding, who until recently was director of world economics and politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and was a member of the monetary policy committee of the People’s Bank of China, the country’s central bank. Yu Yongding has long argued for this kind of structural shift, something which, with premier Wen Jiabao’s recent announcement of a reduced growth rate of around 7.5 per cent and given the thrust of the present 12th five-year plan, now finally seems likely to happen.

Yu has generally been an optimist about the short- and even mediumterm prospects for the Chinese economy, believing that there was still considerable momentum to China’s economic growth and that the government had the competence and foresight to avoid the kind of cyclical excesses, such as high inflation and hard landings, which most western commentators have predicted. His faith and confidence have been well founded. The Chinese economic authorities have done remarkably well in this respect. Yu’s over-riding concern has been that the structural shift would be postponed for too long and that, as a consequence, with the old growth model having almost exhausted its potential, there was a serious danger that economic growth might suddenly decline precipitously. It remains to be seen whether Yu’s fears in this respect will be realised or whether the shift now taking place will successfully forestall this danger.

Yu Yongding has long been a critic of the way in which China has invested its large trade surpluses with the US in dollar-denominated US debt. Contrary to the periodic attacks from Washington on the size of the trade deficit, Yu believes that the present arrangements are inimical to China’s interests and beneficial to the US’s. He argues that China’s continued reinvestment of its current account surplus in US government securities is of great importance for American growth and the country’s financial stability. Meanwhile, as Yu has long recognised, China earns a pitifully low interest rate on its US dollar holdings. In general, he argues that the renminbi should be allowed to float relatively freely, believing that this would hasten the process of structural shift by reducing the economy’s dependence on cheap exports. On the other hand, he is very cautious about rushing the process of renminbi convertibility, warning that the government should not be seduced by the self-interested Hong Kong financial lobby.

There is a frankness and candour about Yu Yongding’s utterances which are both refreshing and revealing. Enjoying the trust of the top leadership, which clearly values his views, he has been granted considerable latitude in his writings and talks. A recent example includes his outspoken attack on corruption and the belief that unless this is tackled in a quite new way it could lead to a serious crisis in governance. He believes that many people are convinced that those who have become rich have done so as a result of illicit deals with party and government officials and that this conviction is corroding and undermining people’s faith in the government and its policies. It is reasonable to assume, given the scale of China’s transformation, that in due course it will to lead to a process of major political reform. However, the extent of political reform since 1978, it must be said, has been greatly underestimated in western circles, as Ezra Vogel has amply demonstrated in his autobiography of Deng Xiaoping. Far from the reform period simply being a process of economic reform, it has been accompanied by profound changes in the Chinese state and system of governance. The reason why western commentators have largely ignored it is because it was not the kind of reform that they favoured and wished for, namely towards western-style democracy. In the same way, we should not expect future political reform to inevitably follow a western agenda.

An influential figure in debates on political reform has been Pan Wei, a professor in the school of international studies at Peking University. He argues, rightly, that the relationship between the state and society in China is very different from that in the west. Like Yu Yongding, he identifies corruption as the biggest political threat but he sees the answer not in terms of democracy but in a cleansing of the state, with the promotion of a neutral civil service and an autonomous judicial system which would act as a check on the civil service in conjunction with independent anti-corruption institutions. In such a system, the rule of law would be fundamental.

Pan Wei’s approach has deep roots in the Confucian tradition. The idea of a state based on benign and virtuous leadership and staffed by public servants imbued with the right kind of ethos lies at the heart of Confucian thinking. As embodied in the Chinese experience, it is the world’s oldest continuously existing state system. To this day, it still informs much Chinese thinking and its influence can also be found in Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, which have all been highly influenced by Confucianism. Singapore provides what is probably the nearest example of Pan Wei’s vision, with a highly competent state, a very strong anti-corruption tradition and a largely ineffective and subordinate democratic system. Although our polity remains overwhelmingly dominated by a westerncentric view of the world, this no longer corresponds with reality. If we are to have any modicum of understanding of how the world is changing and what it will be like in the future, then we must make our intellectual horizons global rather than obsessively Anglo-American. Familiarising ourselves with Chinese intellectual debates will be fundamental to such a new cosmopolitanism.