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.