By Erik Crouch
It’s that time of year again – Foreign Policy magazine has published its list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers, giving us the chance to see who made the cut for 2012. The top two spots were won by Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein of Burma/Myanmar, and included the annual shout-outs to the Clintons, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Barack Obama. Foreign Policy’s list also includes a number of Chinese thinkers, and notably skips a few others.
Only two spots after Obama, coming in at #9 on the list, is Chen Guangcheng. After a daring escape from house arrest and tense diplomatic negotiations, the blind lawyer made it to the US last May. Chen is now living in New York University faculty housing and was featured as GQ magazine’s Rebel of the Year. Chen Guangcheng established himself in China as a fighter against sterilizations and abortions linked to the nation’s one-child policy, and has since become a frontrunner in the fight for legal reform throughout China. In a recent interview, Chen expressed his belief that the US should not let its economic interests dictate all of its relations with China, saying “Democracy, rule of law, constitutionalism, human rights, especially human rights — they should make that number one!”
Number 26 on the list is Ai Weiwei: artist, dissident, twitter-addict, and friend of Elton John. After being released from prison in 2011 and losing a $2.4 million tax-evasion lawsuit in September of this year, Ai has remained in Beijing: he claims the government still has his passport, and he cannot leave the country. This confinement, however, hasn’t stopped him from appearing in an award-winning documentary, editing an issue of the New Statesman, or having his work displayed throughout the world. While appearing in court earlier this year, Ai (a perpetual tweeter) let the world know that, “In the courtroom, the idiot judge went so far as to say ‘Comrade Ai Weiwei’…I puked.”
Coming in at number 54 is Yu Jianrong, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who gained recognition in March for posting a “10-Year Outline of China’s Social and Political Development” to his 1.5 million followers on Sina Weibo. The plan includes proposals for household registration reform, education reform, the creation of judicial checks and balances, freedom of speech, and the development of civil society.By 2022, Yu hopes to see political democratization, the full opening of press and media, and the creation of multiple political parties. While many Chinese politicians and academics are willing to talk about immediate reform (i.e. anti-corruption) very few have articulated a plan like Yu’s “10-Year Outline.” Whether his proposal has any lasting effect on Chinese society will wait to be seen, but he says that China has “already decided to change. The question is: In which direction to we change, and from where do we start?”
Environmentalist Ma Jun ranks #69 on the list, noted for “attempting not only to hold the government accountable but, first, to get it to tell the truth about just how dire China’s pollution problem really is.” Ma Jun’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs has been working overtime since its founding in 2006, and has documented more than 90,000 corporate violations of environmental sustainability. A former journalist for the South China Morning Post, Ma has become the country’s leading advocate for environmentally-conscious factories, urbanization, and resource management.
Number 73 on the FP list is Wang Jisi, the dean of International Studies at Peking University. Wang was noted this year for publishing a document from the Brookings Institute titled “Addressing US-China Strategic Distrust,” a 50-page text that outlines the largest challenges associated with China’s rise on the global stage. Foreign Policy credits the document with revealing that “the feel-good stories U.S. officials tell themselves about China’s global ascent are an elaborate form of denial.” It’s not a particularly cheery outlook for the Americans: Wang say that “many Chinese political elites suspect that it is the United States that is on the wrong side of history.”
Kai-Fu Lee rounds off the Chinese thinkers on FP’s list, coming in at number 83. Lee isn’t strictly Chinese: he was born in Taiwan and spent much of his life in the United States. Now, however, he is living in China and is helping to revolutionize the Chinese internet. Lee founded Google’s China branch in 2005, and is now the CEO of Innovation Works, an investment company that hopes to create China’s first generation of tech start-ups. Lee has also been a critic of China’s educational system and social conformity, saying that they squash the genius necessary for innovative start-up companies. In comparison to American tech entrepreneurs, Lee says that the Chinese “are more resilient and dependable, but perhaps less innovative and passionate. They desire success, but may not “think different”. They are a different breed of entrepreneurs from the Silicon boys.”
Notice anyone missing? Mo Yan didn’t make the cut, despite winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Also no love for Xi Jinping (or any of China’s new leaders) or for the Dalai Lama. At the very least, they could have thrown in Liu Xianping.