China watchers have various opinions over the nation's future course. Many believe China is at a "crossroads" of history, hesitating over whether to veer left or right. They hold that Chinese decision-makers, under increasing pressure from leftist and rightist camps, have to pick a direction out of the two alternatives.
Such analysis simplifies China's reality. In domestic academia, there are indeed debates between leftists and rightists. Generally speaking, leftists advocate a stronger government role to address social injustice issues that have arisen during marketization, privatization and globalization. Rightists stress the transition to a modern civilization via radical political reform.
From the perspective of many Western observers, Chinese intellectuals are either leftists or rightists, and the two camps are conducting an intensifying contest between two choices facing China: Whether to build an egalitarian, populist authoritarian system or to boost transition to a democratic government.
However, most Chinese intellectuals refuse to label themselves as either leftist or rightist. In China, the concepts of "left" and "right" have different meanings at different periods. Most scholars and commentators don't think either of the two camps has given the right prescription for China's practical issues. Conflict between leftists and rightists has existed for decades.
Three decades ago when Deng Xiaoping sought to launch economic reform, China witnessed stinging conflicts between leftists and rightists. China rejected both directions and adopted a pragmatic path.
The Chinese reformists "crossed the river by feeling the stones." They maintained a strong government while stimulating people's passion for a better life. The China path is characterized by its practical rationality, which has allowed the nation to avoid various economic and political traps. Today we should learn from the past.
Understanding a real China calls for transcendence over left-right conflicts. Both leftists and rightists have provided theoretical possibilities and options, and their debates surely have positive intent. But fundamentally, both are imported thoughts. Leftists are inspired by the Soviet authoritarian model, whereas rightists turn to multi-party systems and Western principles of checks and balances.
The future of China's reform belongs to pragmatic centralists that include most social forces. China should boost balanced economic growth and avoid rigid imitation of other countries' economic policies. Meanwhile, the role of the authorities should be reinforced but not abused. Overemphasis of either the market or the government's role may cause an unhappy diversion in the nation's future course.
China is large enough to contain all kinds of thought. But extremes should never become political mainstream. If China's reform is dominated by leftists or rightists, the nation may face disintegration and instability.
The ruling party should draw experience from the United Front tactic it once pursued, and include all kinds of central and even extreme forces to find the best path for the nation's growth.