The Past, Present and Future of Chinese Studies according to Venture Capitalist Eric X. Li

It is hard to know what to make of Eric X. Li. A Stanford M.B.A, venture capitalist, political scientist and, of all things, a volunteer on Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign, he burst onto the scene with op-eds in The New York Times in 2011 and 2012. The first, a response to a debate between political scientists Minxin Pei and David Shambaugh, was a preview of the strongly worded but ultimately abstract and fuzzy op-ed: Why China’s Political Model is Superior. In this piece, covering the entire history of democracy, natural and individual rights in about 650 words, Li assures us that “History does not bode well for the American way. Indeed, faith-based ideological hubris may soon drive democracy over the cliff.”

It is impossible to write a sentence like that and not get invited to give lots presentations and attend lots of conferences.

Sure enough, he soon gave a Ted Talk entitled “A Tale of Two Political Systems.” Looking beyond Li’s provocative conclusion about the benefits of China’s political model compared to American democracy, Damien Ma correctly points outthat Li has a “thoroughly western style of discourse” as well as an “ability to prod” that make him much different than spokesmen at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He looks, Ma continues, like a “rising public intellectual,” one “who is Chinese but is also highly capable of communicating ideas to the “West.”

Li’s is not a figure easy to dismiss; instead, his ideas need to probed and challenged, just like anyone else’s. Li’s latest missive—Emerging trends in Chinese studies and the role of the party—outlines his interpretations of the past and present of Chinese studies, by which he means mainly academic studies in North American and Europe, as well as his prescription for its future. Each of these sections provides much to think about.

Li sees two main threads in the evolution of western academic studies of China: the historical school and the ideological school. The first, historical school, think Jonathan Spence and Ezra Vogel, used methods that are “deeply cultural” in order to study “modern China in an historical context.” Li rates this group’s accomplishments quite highly. Not so for the second, ideological school. Emerging after 1989 and the end of the Cold War, “historic determinism framed their approach and the entire school was defined by the ideological dichotomy between liberal democracy and authoritarianism.” The ultimately goals of these studies, Li insists, was “to prove the Chinese political system is on an inevitable course towards eventual collapse.” This grouping looks, and smells, like a straw man. Li does not name names of cite books. He presumably refers to Francis Fukuyama (The End of History) and Gordon Chang (The Coming Collapse of China) but two authors does not a school make. Also, this view assumes that the scholars in the historical school were devoid of ideology. A quick perusal of the preface to Mark Selden’s The Yenan Way quickly shows that is not the case.

That is all in the past. Now Li discerns the emergence of two other distinct lines of research. One, coming from a thread of political science occasionally maligned for being too far removed from the real world “seeks to use existing such as constructivism, theory of “rightful resistance”, theory of “social solidarity”, “audience theory”, etc. to analyze and interpret various developments in China.” Li does not believe this research agenda has much of a future. He is much more optimistic about “the empirical school” whose aim is the collection of data in order to facilitate “the objective understanding of Chinese governance in both historic and contemporary contexts.” He places economist Nicholas Lardy, political scientist Tyler Farvel and an anonymous “younger generation” of scholars who are undertaking the approach.

Governance is the key word here. Interestingly, Li uses academic interest in Chinese governance to call on greater openness from the Chinese Communist Party.  Although, he writes, the CCP’s rule over China “is perhaps the most significant experiment in political governance taking place in the world today,” but, unfortunately, few of the details about how it all works “are made known to the world.”

Here Li arrives at the key part that links this current piece with his prior articles on the superiority of the China’s political model. In a world he describes as encountering “unprecedented difficulties in political governance,” the achievements and accomplishments of China, “if properly studied, could provide the world with much needed fresh perspectives.” Li frames his call in a question: “Will the party step forward and offer the world a chance to learn?”

So Li encourages the party to embrace further openness about is strategies and procedures of governance in order to confirm that a China model of governance exists, that is in fact better and more efficient than other system of governance and how these strategies and procedures might  be shared with the rest of the world. The goal ultimately is that, a generation from now, “this process will have facilitated the building of new bodies of knowledge that would contribute to the entire world’s understanding of political governance.” Li has the vision but needs to the specifics. His call for greater openness, then, is a classic case of a theory in search of facts. Li believes that the Chinese system of governance—a pragmatic meritocracy that allows for more popular representation that most people think but still places restrictions on certain freedoms—is superior to other models. He just needs more details to buttress his case. It is easy to talk in abstractions but difficult to deal with details.

Of course, this prescription rests on an important and shaky assumption: a sunshine policy by the party will reveal what Li thinks it will, a system that works. However, shining light on the party’s past and present may ultimately reveal some very dark and unpleasant corners that do not provide many examples of successful governance.

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