What is China thinking?

Society & Culture

How can we understand China if we don’t know what its most prominent intellectuals are saying? A translation project by David Ownby aims to make up for the absence of Chinese voices in Western discussions about the country that nobody can afford to ignore.

What is China thinking?
Illustration by Derek Zheng

The last time a country challenged an established superpower, it was easy to figure out what the newcomer was thinking. That’s because the United States was an English-speaking nation, the same as the one it was slowly supplanting, the United Kingdom. The two countries had frequent contact, read each other’s novels and poems, and shared many of the same political ideas.

But a century later, few outsiders can access the world of ideas found in the new rising power, China. The most obvious problem is language, but that begs the question of why so few Chinese thinkers are translated and why their world of ideas is largely unmapped.

One reason is that many countries around the world seem to have come to the conclusion that engagement with China is pointless. Recent U.S. policy moves, for example, have led to less knowledge about what goes on in the People’s Republic: Washington has curtailed academic exchanges, closed consulates, and helped gut the U.S. press corps in China. (Full disclosure: I was one of those expelled.) The election of Joe Biden as U.S. president may roll back some of those moves, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that many people have written off China as a place worth engaging.

A surprising diversity of thought

Challenging this growing sino-pessimism is a tenacious translation project, “Reading the China Dream,” which every two weeks offers up new essays showing the diversity of thought in today’s China. The essays show a country where — perhaps surprisingly — writers continue to push the boundaries, and several identifiable schools of thought exist, all jostling for attention.

The project’s driving force is David Ownby, a professor of history at the Université de Montréal, who runs the site and has translated the bulk of its roughly 80 essays, representing more than 45 Chinese writers, who run the gamut of apologists to critics.

“It’s obvious Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 wants to stifle plurality, but it’s not clear to me that he’s succeeding in broad terms or can keep it up,” Ownby said in an interview. “There are a lot of smart Chinese out there and they keep generating lots of material.”

Some highlights include a 17,000-word essay by the Tsinghua University historian Qín Huī 秦晖, which argues that the French academic Thomas Piketty’s critique of capitalism distracts from the fact that China is destroying Western prosperity by exploiting its own people; a 42,000-word piece by Qin comparing China’s peasants with blacks in apartheid-era South Africa; a forceful but measured argument by the academic Yuán Péng 袁鹏 that the current pandemic demonstrates the dysfunctionality of the United States, much as World War I highlighted the decline of Great Britain; and a critique of China’s newly bellicose diplomacy.

Others look at the relevance of Confucianism today, the dangers of facial-recognition software, as well as a critique and a defense of the Black Lives Matter movement.

During the election, some of these thinkers surprised U.S. liberals by arguing that President Donald Trump would be a better leader. This seeming paradox — Chinese liberals siding with U.S. conservatives — was also captured on Ownby’s site.

The thinkers are divided into categories according to a schema popularized by the thinker Róng Jiàn 荣剑: classic liberals (those who want a more open political system), Marxists (those defending something like the status quo), and traditionalists (those who look to the past, especially Confucianism, for answers).

The initial concept was to edit a book of some of these essays. That came out last year, Voices from the Chinese Century: Public Intellectual Debate from Contemporary China, which Ownby published along with two other Canada-based historians, as well as a separate book by one of his favorite writers, Xú Jìlín 许纪霖, whom he describes as a “Chinese David Brooks.”

In 2018, Ownby launched the site and began publishing the works. Since then, the other scholars have gone on to other projects, but Ownby has kept translating and publishing the pieces for free because he feels it reaches more people.

As the project has grown, Ownby added a fourth catchall group: “others.” These include the journalist Yuán Líng 袁凌, whose most recent book describes the plight of children left behind by China’s economic successes, such as the story that Ownby translated last year of a family living in a Beijing slum.

“A huge civilizational transformation”

Reflecting the current repressive climate in Chinese publishing, Ownby has turned to social media to find critical voices. Some who were initially published as mainstream critics, such as the former Communist Party School professor Cài Xiá 蔡霞, have been marginalized.

In an email interview, Cai said that Ownby’s work helps foreigners see the gamut of Chinese thought — including those she opposes.

“China is in the midst of a huge civilizational transformation that is violently shaking the world,” she wrote to me. “In this process, various ideologies will naturally compete…[but] only one voice is allowed to speak.”

That’s driven critics outside mainstream publishing. One is the Tsinghua University sociologist Guō Yúhuá 郭于华, who has found herself kicked off most Chinese social media sites due to her tough criticism of the ongoing crackdown. She has still managed, however, to pen shorter but withering critiques of the party and its development strategy.

In an email exchange with me, Guo wrote that Ownby’s decision to include some of her ideological opponents is important.

“China is biased toward ultra-left thinking,” she wrote, “which is helpful for foreigners to understand China’s social reality.”

Ownby’s translation project helps rectify an imbalance in intellectual thought, said Professor Sechin Yeong-Shyang Chien (錢永祥 Qián Yǒngxiáng) of Taiwan’s Academia Sinica and chief editor of Reflexion Journal, which often publishes Chinese thinkers.

Chien said that these kinds of interviews will help balance the nearly one-way flow of intellectual thought from the West to China.

In recent weeks, Ownby has brought in some new collaborators to broaden the site’s scope and reach. To better take youth issues into account, he’s partnered with Matthew Dean and Freya Ge to translate articles by Gān Yáng 甘阳 and Xu Jilin. And to reach Spanish speakers, Cristina Reigadas and Nicolás Cornejo have translated essays by Jiàng Shìgōng 强世功, Jié Dàlěi 节大磊, and Yán Xuétōng 阎学通.

One reason for the lack of translations of Chinese thinkers is institutional bias in the Western academy, Ownby said.

“When academics talk about translation, they usually add the word ‘just’ before it,” he said, adding that tenure is usually issued to works heavy in theory and analysis. At 62 and long since tenured, Ownby says he is free from those pressures.

But Professor Chien from Taiwan said another reason for the lack of translation is that the world has “written China off as a totalitarian monolith.”

“This does not help positive interaction between intellectuals from the two sides,” Professor Chien said. “And the one-dimensional perception will overflow and affect public opinion in the West.”

Ownby said he hopes his work shows that engagement is worthwhile.

“China deserves a lot of bashing, but there are these other voices we don’t listen to,” he said. “I’ve set this as my mission to let those voices be heard.”