China, the idea-hungry nation

China's restless intellectual energy carries an echo of Austria-Hungary in the pre-1914 years.

Kerry Brown
17 March 2015

The centenary of the first world war has led to many parallels being made between the global situation on its eve and the way the world is now. The work of Christopher Clark and fellow historians has shown that there are some areas where the parallels chime, and others where they definitely don’t.

The most evident similarities lie not where they might be expected, in the practical world of geopolitics and material diplomatic alliances, but rather in the less tangible one of ideas. The great account of pre-1914 Vienna, Robert Musil’s epic The Man Without Qualities, captures this when he writes - and it is a motif of this massive novel - of the profusion of ideas and visions that existed at this time. In many ways, it was a golden age of concepts, notions and philosophies, with figures like Einstein, Freud and Lenin radically redrawing understanding of the world and humanity’s role in it.

"An idea", one character in Musil’s novel muses, "is the most paradoxical thing in the world. The flesh in the grip of an idea is like a fetish." And yet, he goes on, "ideas can never maintain themselves in the state in which they are most powerful; they’re like the kind of substance that, exposed to the air, instantly changes into some other, more lasting but corrupted form."

Thus a central theme emerges in The Man Without Qualities; the search for a "one great redeeming idea" - the idea everybody can agree with and live within. From the war of all the different and contending views, a single one had eventually to dominate and be sustained. The implications are clear: for only in the realm of physical actions was this tension finally sorted out, and at immense, terrifying cost. Competing ideas led to the Great War. Violence resolved that.

Wanted: a big idea

A recent conversation with a Chinese observer hinted at the relevance of Musil's world to today's China. While we were talking about China's current situation, he defined what he saw as the main issue. "In the west, at least there is some sort of public and elite consensus on politics, a common framework people work within and are pragmatic about, places where people draw boundaries." In China, he went on, "there is no consensus, no boundaries. We have the institution of the party, and the concept of government, but no real idea of what it stands for and where its limits are. Everyone goes their own way and draws their border where they want to."

Perhaps this explains why China prompts such immense outpourings of commentary and analysis, inside and outside the country, every day of the year. There is no real dominant idea, no accepted framework - no neat boundaries. The most basic things - like the role of the party, of politics, and of civil society - are contested. Trying to spell out the zone where government ends and the private begins in China is next to impossible. It is not just that outsiders don’t know what to make of it. Even the people right within are beset by different notions of what they are doing and why, and obliged constantly to press and question everything.

In this context, China now really does have a similarity to pre-1914 Europe, for it is a theatre of clashing ideas. There are contradictory ideas about the market, the role of the state and the public, the function of authority and its relationship to moral behaviour. These arise simultaneously from inside China's own intellectual traditions and from the outside world. Hybridity dominates the airwaves. This gives China an energetic feel and dynamism that so impresses visitors who on arrival can touch this atmosphere of vibrant discussion. But it also means that the tone of public debate can quickly descend, resembling a situation of warring clans trying to take each other down. 

The search for consensus over the "one big redeeming idea" that might pull everyone together, however, is proving hard - especially because, in contemporary China, it has to be the right idea. The difficuly can be gauged by taking even a cursory look at the work report delivered by prime minister Li Keqiang to the national people’s congress (NPC) in March 2015. The document betrays a level of hybridity which borders on the incoherent. The policy announcements are all reasonable. But the underpinning intellectual rationale veers wildly: asserting Chinese exceptionalism in one moment, talking of Marxist state control for the people in the next, before slipping into language which would be perfectly acceptable to capitalist fundraisers and investment bankers in the west.

Markets, Mao, Marxism, Mercantilism - the whole heady mix can be stimulating, but its net effect is confusion and uncertainty. Perhaps that explains the demand for books addressing the simple question: "What do Chinese leaders think?" The problem is that, judging by their public statements, they seem to be thinking contradictory and competing things at the same time.

Robert Musil again strikes a modern chord. His central character, Ulrich, in a discussion about how best to celebrate the jubilee of Emperor Franz Ferdinand, remarks that "the world's successful political moulders have a lot in common with hacks who write for commercial theatre". His reasoning? "The lively scenes they create bore us by their lack of ideas and novelty, but by the same token they lull us into a sleepy state of lowered resistance."

That indeed might be one motivations of elite leaders in China today - to bore their audience so they just get on with humdrum daily life and leave the thinking to the government. But it is surely a doomed quest. China now is in an age where its people swallow up ideas with an inexhaustible hunger. From architecture, to education, to technology and entrepreneurialism, to social and financial experimentation, under the rigid behemoth of the party-state, the place is awash with ideas. The energy they create, the competition and fight, is sometimes slightly terrifying. In response, China's leaders are searching urgently for that "one great redeeming idea" able at least to calm people down.

Creating even a minimal consensus of this kind will prove the toughest thing they have ever had to do. There's only one thing to be certain of: how the Austro-Hungarian empire finally resolved this battle is not an example they will want to repeat. 


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