The "Say 'No' Club" doesn't require dues, members are more likely to meet in Internet chat rooms than over tea, and their mutual support isn't against personal vices, but economic globalization in China.
Amid China's eagerness to join the Word Trade Organization (WTO), the group's ideas are a daring counterpoint to official government views on becoming a player in world trade. They are wary of what China will give up by being more integrated with the global economy, yet are in favor of more democratization - just not necessarily when the terms are dictated by the US.
The "club" is not yet being targeted for arrest for their opinions. But they are attracting more attention and making their views a hot topic among ordinary people - a sure test of the Communist Party's tolerance of dissent.
Led by co-authors of the best-selling book, "China's Road: Under the Shadow of Globalization," a small group of high-profile academics, writers, and ordinary, well-read people are espousing a kind of nationalism that says China's basic interests put it on a collision course with the West.
"Just like [George W.] Bush says, China and America are antagonists in a competition," says Wang Xiaodong, co-author of "China's Road." He and Fang Ning first made their arguments in the bestselling "China Can Say No," published in 1996. Their position is similar to that of other developing nations, where there's a concern that globalization will force the third world into serving as a cheap labor pool for the West.
Mr. Wang and Mr. Fang say that even where foreign companies have set up local research and development centers, or - as in the case of McDonald's - they buy locally, sell locally, and even mostly hire locally, China gains little.
"The profits all go to America," says Fang, a political scientist at Beijing Capital Normal University, who studied at California's Whittier College. "The investors are living in Beverly Hills, not the alleys of Beijing." While not reflexively anti-American, he and Wang warn that economic competition could lead to more-serious conflict.
Fang and Wang, who studied economics and math in both Japan and Canada, say Latin America shows that the free movement of capital and goods facilitated by the WTO lines the pockets of foreigners, while stripping the countries of their resources and increasing their dependence.
Both think that China will have to compete with the West over natural resources as it grows richer. Something as prosaic as fish could be a problem if one-fifth of the world suddenly develops a craving for crab, Fang says. "If the Chinese wanted to eat as much seafood as the Japanese, there would be no more fish left," he jokes.
Observers say the club's advocacy of nationalism and democracy is a perplexing mix. "Despite popular belief, democracy might actually make China more demanding and nationalistic, and thus harder to incorporate into the world order," argues Fei-Ling Wang, an assistant professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in a recent Washington Quarterly article.
"On one hand, [the club is] critical of the Chinese authoritarian state," says political scientist Zhao Suisheng of Colby College and Washington College. "On the other hand, they held a very defensive attitude toward the Western countries that imposed ... pressures on the Chinese government."
Despite the apparently rigorous sales and Internet copying of the books, it's hard to gauge how widespread is the club's philosophy in the government and among average people. While China's top leadership has committed to joining the WTO, many mid- and low-level officials are ambivalent. In that atmosphere, Wang and his crowd have some sympathizers in the regime. "They wouldn't be publishing this sort of thing without support within the system," says a Western diplomat.
But although "China's Road" was published by the influential Chinese Academy of Social Science Press, it was later banned in Beijing. Wang says he has been forced into an obscure nonteaching job. While nationalism might be OK, talk of democracy is still a highly sensitive topic.
Wang and Fang say the cure for corruption is the checks and balances and legal system of a democratic system, and only through the accountability of elected leadership can China hope to have leaders competent enough to lead it through the difficult transition to a liberalized economy. "I used to believe enlightened despotism could work, but now I see we need democracy," Wang says.
The debate continues on numerous Web sites and Wang is still able to lecture. Recently, he spoke at the People's University in Beijing, thanks to a little subterfuge by the student union that invited him. Two years ago, his talk drew barely 30 students, but this year about 200 packed the auditorium.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society