Illiberal China

Josh Freedman reviews two new studies of Chinese political models

The past forty years of economic reform have vaulted China into the upper echelons of global wealth and power, but it has come at a high social cost. China is wealthier than ever, but inequality is rampant, individuals feel unmoored, and there is no sense of public trust.

Where can China go from here? In 2012, the prominent Chinese sociologist and public intellectual Sun Liping summarized the state of China’s intellectual discourse by outlining (in Chinese) four possible directions for China’s future. China’s leaders could return to the recent past, reviving the egalitarian populism of Maoist socialism. On the other extreme, the country could double down on privatizing the economy, “deepening reforms” along the lines preferred by the business class. Alternatively, given the entrenched barriers to any major transition, the Party-state could simply try to preserve the status quo. Or, finally, it could opt for a more comprehensive reassessment of the basic premises of reform, and forge a new path based on some combination of institutions that combine constitutional politics and economic fairness.


The Sincere Indignation of Simon Leys

Josh Freedman reviews Philippe Paquet’s biography of the iconoclastic sinologist

If there is a single climactic moment in Philippe Paquet’s exhaustive, colorful account of the life of the writer Simon Leys, it occurs on a staid French television show about books. It was 1983, and Leys had recently published his fourth collection of acerbic essays on China’s ruling party; yet the host of the popular show Apostrophes had to work hard to cajole Leys into coming to Paris to talk about his book on the air. Leys had no interest in doing publicity for his books, and rarely granted interviews to the media; plus, in this instance, he knew that any discussion on the show would inevitably stir up controversy. Paris had been the epicenter of pro-Maoist sentiment in the 1960s and 1970s, and Leys had spent more than a decade as one of the few critics unswervingly standing up to the tide of revolutionary fervor in the Francophone world. He was, for many Parisian China-watchers, public enemy number one.