What It Means to Be a Rising Public Intellectual in China

Meet Eric X. Li, a believer in the Chinese model of governance who is pitching it to Western audiences.

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Li speaking at a food security conference in Paris / CEIBS.edu

In a provocative op-ed in The New York Times on February 16, writer Eric X. Li argued that China's authoritarian, hybrid capitalist system is superior to America's liberal democratic system. As if that weren't enough, Li's column even went so far as to declare that the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown was justified:

However, China's leaders would not hesitate to curtail those freedoms if the conditions and the needs of the nation changed. The 1980s were a time of expanding popular participation in the country's politics that helped loosen the ideological shackles of the destructive Cultural Revolution. But it went too far and led to a vast rebellion at Tiananmen Square.

That uprising was decisively put down on June 4, 1989. The Chinese nation paid a heavy price for that violent event, but the alternatives would have been far worse.

Many of Li's critics found his logic here disquieting and distasteful, and rightly so. Yet such a perspective is not uncommon among certain Chinese elites. In fact, what Li articulated here isn't substantially different from the commonly perceived message of Zhang Yimou's hit film Hero -- that a ruthless emperor is justified, that it took extreme measures to achieve national unification. Beyond the simple Machiavellian view, Li's piece contains numerous problems, chief among them the fundamental assumption that there exists a distinct Chinese model with which to compare the U.S.

What are the defining traits of the Chinese model? Li doesn't explain, but that wasn't the point. What's interesting to me is what Li could represent in contemporary China and what that may mean for the U.S.-China discourse.

I have followed Li with some interest for a while now. Ever since his first op-ed in the Times in July 2011, in which he responded to David Shambaugh and Minxin Pei on China's resilience, I wondered how this Shanghai venture capitalist ended up in such prime journalistic real estate. I soon discovered that Li was also a fellow at the Aspen Institute. Here he is debating Anand Giridharadas on a distinct Chinese modernity:

The video is long, but Li reaches two major conclusions. First, that there is Chinese exceptionalism just as there is American exceptionalism. And, second that the American idea is fundamentally borne from Judeo-Christian theological roots, concepts that are entirely alien to the development of China. Ergo, American notions of democracy -- as an end in and of itself -- will not work for a country like China. Without wading into whether these conclusions have merit, I've noticed they are at the core of Li's writings. For example, in this Huffington Post dispatch, he equates America's moral certitude on liberal democracy with the utopian idealism of hardcore Marxists.

The Democracy ReportClearly a provocateur, Li champions Chinese exceptionalism and is likely viewed by some critics as a cheerleader for the Chinese government. Yet having observed his live discussions and op-eds, what strikes me is his thoroughly western style of discourse and his ability to prod, irrespective of how disagreeable or flawed one finds his arguments. All of which is to say that he seems to have adopted the traits of a rising public intellectual, on who is Chinese but is also highly capable of communicating ideas to the "West," unlike the pro forma statements that the Chinese foreign ministry regularly recycles.

This is a rarity in China, which may explain why Li's path here was such an unusual one. He is a Chinese returnee (he is a Stanford MBA) who was schooled in American pedagogy to engage an American audience. Indeed, Li has a long roster of credentials, with his successful venture Chengwei Capital available to help fund his varied intellectual and education endeavors. For instance, he founded the Equinox (Chunqiu) Institute, a research shop; sits on the board of governors at the Keck Center of Claremont Mckenna and the board of directors at the China-Europe business school; reportedly serves as an adviser to the Carnegie Endowment; and founded the Dulwich College system in China.

With his hands across the private sector and intellectual realms, I suspect we will hear more from Li, as he pitches a "Chinese idea" to a western audience. As unformulated and inchoate as such an idea is, Li seems to believe that China has something to offer in terms of values and ideology that could rival the appeal of the American idea. Li appears intent to gradually occupy a space in the public common of ideas and change the China discourse, in part leveraging his unique ability to communicate to a western public. Communicating is one thing, being convincing is another, of course. Nonetheless, Li, and other emerging voices like his, deserve to be watched.