Thoughtless China

The following excerpt is from a lengthy essay on the hapless state of intellectual and academic life in China today. For readers of China Heritage, given the plangent state of affairs in international scholarship and academia, the intellectual and political landscape the author describes, and castigates, might not seem to be particular unfamiliar (see my 2006 meditation on this ‘harmonic convergence’: Shared Values).

The full translation of this essay, ‘A China Bereft of Thought’ 没有思想的中国, appeared in The China Story on 5 February 2017. It is rendered in an English adaptation of what the famous essayist (and dogged translator) Lu Xun 魯迅 called ‘hard translationese’ 硬譯, that is a style that faithfully follows the original, in all of its verbosity and over-argumentation. It is reproduced here in part and with changed section titles, with the kind permission of the translator, Gloria Davies 黃樂嫣, a leading specialist in Chinese critical inquiry, thought and modern Chinese culture. Over the years, through her writing, editing, conversations and friendship Gloria has powerfully contributed to the articulation and advocacy of New Sinology.

As Gloria points out, the following translation is part of ‘Reading and Writing the Chinese Dream’. It was my pleasure to introduce that project to readers of The China Story Journal in January 2016. It was my final contribution to that journal, and to The China Story Project as a whole, both as its creator and its founding editor from 2012.

The following material also accords with our efforts in China Heritage to mark the centenary of the New Culture Movement (c.1917-1927), and its impact on Chinese thought as well as on the written and spoken language of the Sinosphere, that is the world that uses Chinese to think and communicate. We previously featured Victor Mair’s Hu Shi and Chinese Language Reform; the present contribution will be followed by The Man With the Key is Not Here, a humorously insightful guide to living Chinese and, later on, a revised version of my study of New China Newspeak 新華文體.

Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage

Recommended Reading

Other Work by Rong Jian (in Chinese)

Translator’s Preface

It takes some nerve to title one’s essay ‘A China Bereft of Thought’ 没有思想的中国 for this is, surely, an extravagant claim. Yet, as we will discover in Rong Jian’s essay of this title below, he is utterly dogged in his ambition to make the claim stick. He knows he is being deliberately polemical and as he points out early on, the title is likely to trigger a reaction in people before they have even started on the essay. The reaction, in turn, begs the question as to what the author means by ‘thought’ sixiang 思想.

In mainland China, sixiang refers to two quite different modes of thinking. As part of the term ‘Chinese thought’ 中国思想 or Zhongguo sixiang, sixiang refers to key ideas and arguments constitutive of what we might best describe as ‘intellectual inquiry’ as it has been practised in the Chinese-speaking world. Hence, ‘modern Chinese thought’ or ‘contemporary Chinese thought’ would include ‘philosophy’, ‘theory’ and other varieties of conceptual thinking as these have developed in the Sinophone humanities and social sciences. However, as ‘Party thinking’ 党的思想 and ‘thought work’ 思想工作, sixiang 思想 is synonymous with ‘ideology’, specifically the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Because China’s Party leaders are accustomed to presenting their ideas as the nation’s ‘guiding thought’ 指导思想, they also pretend to occupy the forefront of ‘Chinese thought’ as its vanguard. Doing so allows them, among other things, to justify censorship in terms of protecting the nation from the harm of dangerous and subversive ideas that are at odds with their own.

Rong Jian does not distinguish between these divergent senses of sixiang 思想 in his essay, preferring instead to highlight the interdependence of intellectual inquiry and Party thinking. His attention-grabbing title serves as an answer of sorts for the big question he tacitly poses and around which his entire essay revolves: namely, ‘What has Chinese Communist Party rule done for Chinese thought?’ He argues that the CCP’s authoritarian power and the makeshift ideas it calls ‘Party thinking’ have so handicapped China’s capacity for independent inquiry as to render the country ‘bereft of thought’.

The question as to how authoritarian power has affected scholarship and inquiry in China is seldom openly discussed but the effects of authoritarian power are everywhere evident, among other things, in the exercise of self-censorship and the resulting characteristically oblique nature of mainland intellectual discourse. If the need to not attract unwanted state attention is particularly important for those who write and publish for their living, Rong’s unusual candour perhaps reflects his independence from both the university sector and academic publishing in mainland China. Censorship of his sixiang would not deprive him of his main source of income.

Rong Jian photo

Rong Jian, March 2013. Source: 财经文摘

In the 1980s, he attracted favourable notice in Marxist scholarship. However, the purge on 4 June 1989 of the student-led protest movement at Tiananmen Square and the prolonged crackdown that followed stymied his academic career. In the 1990s, he chose to work instead in China’s burgeoning art business, establishing a successful career as a collector and curator of contemporary Chinese abstract oil paintings. Rong owns and runs the well-known art gallery Beijing Jindu Art Centre 北京锦都艺术中心 in the Chinese capital’s 798 Art District.

The timing of Rong’s essay is interesting. He first presented it at a seminar in January 2013 at the Unirule Institute of Economics 天则经济研究所 in Beijing. It was then published on Consensus 共识网 on 26 March 2013 and has since appeared on many other websites hosted in and outside China. The first half of 2013 was a time of intense speculation in mainland intellectual circles about the newly incumbent Party General Secretary, Xi Jinping, who had taken up this top leadership role in November 2012. Many had hoped that the plain-spoken Xi, unlike his ineloquent predecessor Hu Jintao (who spoke mostly in Party slogans), would implement reforms that would make the party-state system not only more accountable but also more hospitable to constructive criticism. It was in this generally positive ambience that Rong presented his seminar at the Unirule Institute.

However, all such expectations of greater intellectual freedoms would be dashed by mid- to late 2013. Xi revealed his determination to control and shape public culture to be stronger than Hu’s in August 2013 when his administration introduced new harsh penalties for ‘rumour mongering’. The arrest and televised humiliation of self-styled ‘liberal’ social commentators whose observations about quotidian injustices had offended the party-state, and whom it now identified as ‘rumour mongers’ soon followed. From then on and up to the present, mainland universities have been subjected to increasing political restrictions and outlets for independent inquiry have been shut down. Consensus, which published Rong’s essay and on which he kept a blog, was arguably the last leading online forum for intellectual debate standing by mid-2016. The bold and influential magazine Yanhuang chunqiu 炎黄春秋 was silenced in July 2016 via the ousting of its editorial board. By October, Consensus too had ceased to operate.

Rong Jian’s essay has fared somewhat better. As of 28 January 2017, it was still accessible on several mainland-based blogs, including Rong’s Jian’s column on the Caijing website. The Unirule Institute which hosted Rong’s seminar is also renowned for its defence of intellectual independence. Founded by three economists Mao Yushi 茅于轼, Sheng Hong 盛洪 and Zhang Shuguang 张曙光 who are widely regarded as leading liberal intellectuals, this think tank has, so far, survived Xi’s continuing crackdown. When I wrote this preface on 21 January, I checked the Unirule website to see if it included Rong’s presentation, the 469th in the Institute’s fortnightly seminar series. It did not and the omission was neither noted nor explained. (The Institute’s 2012 list ended with seminar 468 and the 2013 list began with seminar 470.) On 23 January, however, officials at the Cyberspace Administration of China in Beijing had shut the website down for allegedly breaching Internet regulations.

At a two-day meeting on ‘political and ideological work’ at Chinese universities on 8 December 2016, Xi demanded that mainland educators redouble their efforts in disseminating ‘advanced ideology and culture’ 先进思想文化 so as to instil students with Party thinking. Educators, he said, must show ‘resolute support for the party-state’s governance’ 党执政的坚定支持者.

All of this bodes ill for the already perilously diminished circumstances of independent inquiry in mainland China. In this ominous climate, Rong Jian’s ‘A China Bereft of Thought’ bears re-reading. I have taken the liberty of translating this engaging essay into English to help it reach a wider audience.

This translation is part of the ‘Reading and Writing the Chinese Dream: A Collaborative Research, Reading and Translation Project’, funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and supported by the Australian Centre on China in the World at ANU and the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University. Rong Jian’s essay was the subject of a 2015 translation practicum undertaken by students enrolled in the Master of Translation course at Monash University. I thank the students for sharing their views on the challenges of translating this text. Rong Jian’s original Chinese essay can be read here.

Gloria Davies

A China Bereft of Thought

Author’s note

The text below forms part of my research on the history of modern Chinese thought. It is my personal perspective on the production and dissemination of thought in China since the Hundred Day Reform of 1898. The essay is thematically rather than chronologically organised and the focus of my analysis is the mind-set of Chinese intellectuals, in different historical periods, toward revolution, reform and scholarly discourse.

At the start of this year [2013], I was invited by the Unirule Institute of Economics to speak at their 469th fortnightly discussion forum and I presented what I had uncovered to date from researching this topic. I would like to thank my host, Professor Zhang Shuguang, and Professors Zheng Yefu 郑也夫, Xu Zhangrun 许章润, Lei Yi 雷颐, Ma Yong 马勇and Fang Deling 房德邻 for their excellent and inspiring comments on that occasion.

Rong Jian 荣剑

  • Appendix: Responding to Expert Critiques
  • Translator’s Notes

 Thoughtless Reform

This topic concerns our evaluation of China’s history of the past thirty years. First, let us consider the political and intellectual contexts against which the reforms took place. The nature and significance of China’s reforms during the 1980s can be likened to the ‘Duke of Zhou’s institutional reforms’ 周公改制 [eleventh century B.C.E.] and ‘Shang Yang’s Legalist reforms’ 商鞅变法 [fourth century B.C.E.]. The Duke of Zhou’s ‘system of rites and music’ enabled the fengjian 封建 [‘feudal’] system to be established.[1] It allowed the emperor, as Son of Heaven, and the regional rulers 诸侯 to control All Under Heaven 天下 [the known world]. This brought about the first historical transformation of Chinese society. Most historians today share this view. On the fengjian system of the Western Zhou period, Wu Jiaxiang 吴稼祥 has provided an analysis in his 2013 book Public State 公天下. Qiu Feng has also written on the legacy of the Western Zhou fengjian system. In 2008, I wrote a lengthy article on ‘the problem of Chinese “feudalism”’ 论中国 ‘封建主义’问题: 对中国前现代社会性质和发展的重新认识与评价 which was published in Literature, History & Philosophy 文史哲 [volume 4, 2008].

The first social transformation occurred in the Western Zhou period [traditionally dated 1122-771 B.C.E.] and was completed under the Duke of Zhou. Essentially, the federation-style system of Xia [traditionally dated 2205-1766 B.C. E] and Shang [traditionally dated 1766-1122 B.C.E.] times in which different [autonomous] tribes formed alliances [with a central authority] gave way to the [more organised] feudal system of Western Zhou in which there was both a horizontal and a hierarchical distribution of power. This power system was both binary and multi-centered. Shang Yang’s Legalist proposal for change furnished the Qin state with the foundational basis for unifying China. This became the second historical transformation of Chinese society which established a centralised system of autocratic rule. This unitary power structure was vertically defined so that power moved upward toward greater centralisation.

In fact, the reforms that occurred in the 1980s had their roots in the Self-Strengthening Movement of the late Qing as did the whole series of institutional reforms that grew out of this movement over a century or more. These interrelated developments constitute the third historical transformation of Chinese society. The goal of the late Qing reforms was ultimately to turn imperial China into a modern democratic republic. A system of constitutional democracy had to be established to integrate nation and state. A federal system had to be built to integrate central and local relations. A cultural system of universal values had to be instituted so that Chinese culture could become integrated. Thus, when we consider the reforms that were launched in the 1980s, we must remind ourselves that it is a model of change within the history of the third transformation of Chinese society and we should recognise its deep historical implications.

How then did the momentous reforms of the 1980s begin? What were the ideas that guided and brought them into being? Under what conditions did these reforms, which were to have completed the third historical transformation of Chinese society, occur? First, we must see that they began with de-Maoisation 非毛化. The term ‘de-Maoisation’ is very general and one which the ruling party clearly does not recognise. However, during the 1980s, most of the Party membership saw that Mao’s Cultural Revolution had already collapsed. Expressions related to the Cultural Revolution such as ‘taking class struggle as the key link’, and ‘continue the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat’ had lost their legitimacy and had fallen outside the scope of what the party found acceptable. Within the Party, people were keenly aware that if they continued along this path, the party and the country would be doomed.

‘De-Maoisation’ began with critical evaluations of the ‘Two Whatevers’ 两个凡是.[2] Then came the theoretical conference of 1979 理论务虚会 and the great debate over ‘practice as the criterion of truth’ 真理标准大讨论 as well as the burgeoning Movement to Liberate Thinking 思想解放运动 that spread across the whole of Chinese society.[3] These activities amounted to a settling of accounts with the legacy of Mao Zedong Thought and they constituted a liberation of thinking within the Party and reflective engagement with the inner logic of Marxism. We can also see it as a struggle between two different varieties of Marxist discourse.

Previously, only people like [leading Maoist ideologues] Chen Boda 陈伯达, Kang Sheng 康生, Zhang Chunqiao 张春桥 and Yao Wenyuan 姚文元 had the right to interpret Marxism. Moreover, the power of interpreting Marxism ultimately belonged to Mao alone. Consequently, the Movement to Liberate Thinking meant taking the power of interpretation back from Mao. However, contestations over how to understand Marxism soon produced divisions within the Party. The debates which ensued over humanism and alienation were in effect a struggle over who had the authority to explain Marxism, with [influential Party theorist] Hu Qiaomu 胡乔木 assuming this authority belonged unquestionably to him. His dispute with [the Party’s cultural czar] Zhou Yang 周扬 should be understood as a contest over authority. To occupy a position of authority in relation to Marxism was of crucial importance because Marxism remained the Party’s primary tool for unifying Party thinking. Marxism also furnished the primary evidence for the Party’s legitimacy to govern.

This is also why Deng Xiaoping made Marxism the first of the ’Four Cardinal Principles’ 四项基本原则 he proposed [and had written into the Chinese Constitution]. The legitimacy of Communist Party rule comes from two sources. The first is violent revolution and the second is Marxism. Deng Xiaoping was basically uninterested in theory and thought and his defense of Marxism was pragmatically motivated. He was concerned to maintain the stability of the regime. Whether he believed in Marxism is another matter altogether.

Second, let me propose the following basic view: the reforms of the 1980s began with the people lower down ‘feeling for the stones’.[4] Once they had felt the stones they sought approval for their findings from the people higher up.  Once a given finding was approved, it was allowed to be widely disseminated. Consequently, the reforms were launched in the complete absence of a given theory or a given set of ideas. What there was, was the slogan of reform itself. During that time, there was a certain breakthrough in Deng’s thinking. Theoretically speaking, the 1980 programmatic document ‘On the Reform of the System of Party and State Leadership’ 党和国家领导制度的改革 [a speech Deng delivered on 18 August 1980] was the most thoroughgoing statement of the Party’s existing ideological framework in the thirty years of the party-state’s existence up to that point in time. Nothing since then has come close to the importance of Deng’s words in this document.  However, once it was released, the document was put away on the top shelf as even Deng was not keen to implement his own proposals.

He felt that the proposals were difficult to achieve as the resistance to them was too great. To attempt to implement them by force would lead to many unintended consequences. Thus, I consider the reforms of the 1980s as occurring in a situation where practice produced a dramatic theoretical change — by exceeding the limitations imposed by the existing theory – as opposed to one where practice was guided by theory. What was the greatest limitation? It was Marxism, the first of Deng’s Four Cardinal Principles. Clearly, this was a highly dogmatic Marxism. The substance of reform was the opening of a very small space in the planned economy by means of which the people lower down could ‘cross the river by feeling for the stones’ 摸着石头过河. In other words, during the reforms of the 1980s, theory trailed practice while also constraining practice. The reforms were bereft of theory and were indeed a process of ‘crossing the river by feeling for the stones’. Accordingly, there was nothing to serve as theoretical guidance for a methodical approach to the implementation of the reforms.

Third, let us consider the theoretical genealogy of reform once debate was no longer allowed. In Deng’s speeches during his Southern Progress in 1992, besides affirming the economic reform path of marketisation, he made the momentous decision that there was to be ‘no debate’ 不争论 [about socialism vs. capitalism], which effectively ended theoretical discussion [on the relative merits of socialist and capitalist modes of development]. As I see it, Deng stopped debate because, on the one hand, he was unable to overturn the theoretical edifice of Marxism which provided Communist Party rule with its sole source of legitimacy, which was why he had to make it the very first of his ‘Four Cardinal Principles’. On the other hand, Deng saw clearly that Marxism was a huge obstruction to the smooth implementation of China’s economic reforms.

I think Deng understood that the Marxism of the party-state was a huge impediment for its own progress. The Party could not abandon the deity of Marxism, and its members were not well-versed in the Marxist classics and even if they were, the Marxist classics were not helpful for the present realities in China, Deng thus chose simply to sidestep Marxism altogether and to insist that there be ‘no debate’.

In this, we see Deng’s cleverness at work, but it was also his only option. His pragmatism came in handy here. Deng said he wanted to blaze a trail for China but the trail he took was shaped by the obstructions put in the path of China’s reforms by Marxism. That said, Deng’s ‘no debate’ directive had a positive effect on non-official and local reforms. It allowed people, as it were, to use the left indicator to turn right, which reflected the divergence between theory and practice. This divergence has dogged the entire process of reform in China such that progress needs to be measured in terms of the degree to which practice has effectively exceeded the limitations imposed by theory.  Deng’s ‘no debate’ directive can be said to have produced three versions of Party theory. The first is the theory of Socialism with Chinese characteristics中国特色社会主义理论 credited to Deng, and an updated version of his [1962] black-cat-white-cat 黑猫白猫 remark.[5]

The second is the Three Represents proposed by Jiang Zemin, which sought the backing of universal values for Party theory but failed to develop further once it encountered resistance. The third is the Scientific Outlook on Development advanced by Hu Jintao. Each of these three versions of Party theory prevailed for a period of ten years and represented the approach of the respective administrations led by Deng, Jiang and Hu. Deng’s pragmatism meant that his theoretical propositions lacked a value orientation. Development was the hard truth that preoccupied him. When Jiang promoted the Three Represents, he wanted to introduce social values and concerns but did not proceed. By the time of Hu’s Scientific Outlook on Development, values had taken a huge step backward for this was a concept that was purely instrumental. Hu’s Scientific Outlook was absent of social values and concerns. Overall, these three versions of Party theory lacked clarity.

Fourth, in relation to intellectual debates, the party-state adopted a position that was neither left nor right. Within the Party, there have been two factions, the conservatives and the reformists, since the 1980s.  Because these two factions stopped debating each other in the 1990s, disagreements came to be seen in terms of siding with the left or the right. The policy orientation and decisions of this period as well as divisions between left and right emerging in society all contributed to this development.

For example, people saw the economic reforms implemented under Deng and the complete expansion of these reforms under Jiang as the work of the right. Conversely, Hu’s subsequent move to advance the state sector at the expense of the private sector was considered as having a leftist complexion. The point is that while these top Party leaders all tended left in their theoretical outlook in the strategies they adopted, they were neither left nor right.  When they felt it necessary to assert their power, they suppressed the left and the right alike. What they sought was a form of theoretical equilibrium.

The foregoing, I believe, indicates a fundamental lack of theoretical thinking on the part of the governing party 执政党. It lacks a guiding ideology that is genuinely aimed at unifying theory and practice. To this day, the governing party confines itself to the utilitarian and opportunistic mode of thinking that prevailed under Mao. This one-thread-running-through-everything mode of thinking has proven to be a serious intellectual hindrance to the deepening of reforms in China.

Genuine reform requires the clarification of one’s guiding ideas, for such clarification would indicate that the mooted reform has a theoretical goal to which one has made a clear commitment.  To properly determine the path and policies of reform, one needs to have a clear idea of the direction one is taking and the kind of value-perspective one must defend. In other words, the principles of social development or the universal values to which one subscribes must be clearly articulated. One simply cannot afford to be vague or adopt an ambiguous attitude where everything is contingent on the needs of a given moment. We have now reached the terminus of a process of reform that is bereft of thought. It’s time for reform to be equipped with an unequivocal guiding ideology. At present, no such guiding ideology can be discerned and we are still relying on vague statements such as ‘Don’t take the old road, don’t travel a deviant path’.[6]

What road then should we take? So far, we’ve been given neither a definition nor a sufficiently clear theoretical outline to assess. Consequently, we’re all speculating, the left and the right alike, as to what the governing party has in mind. No one knows for sure. All that we can be sure of is that, without a properly stated position, China’s reform path will remain unclear.

Thoughtless Academia

Let me now consider academic production from three angles.

In the Reform Era

I would summarise post-Maoist intellectual inquiry as follows: intellectual production in the 1980s, academic production in the 1990s and the production of ‘isms’ in the 2000s and since. These three phrases are sufficient to encapsulate the production, dissemination and effects of ideas in China of the last three decades or more. I did not coin these phrases. In the 1990s, people used the expression, ‘The thinkers retreated and the academics came to the fore’ 思想家退场,学术家出场, to signal the difference between the 1980s and 1990s. We need to establish what people understood by ‘thinkers’ and ‘academics’ in this expression.  What did inquiry or thinking mean in the 1980s?

As I see it, inquiry 思想 took two forms in the 1980s: one involved thinking about Marxism in self-reflective, self-critical and self-renewing ways. A new kind of Marxism was used to attack the old approach to Marxism. What was this new Marxism? It took the form of what people referred to as humane and practical Marxism. It was an innovative way of reworking Marxism from within. The other line of inquiry in the 1980s was the whole range of things people were saying about liberalism and democracy derived from Western formulations. In short, self-reflection on Marxism and the renewed acquisition and interpretation of liberalism were the two main endeavors of the 1980s. Marxism and liberalism both belong to Western thought. They have not developed out of Chinese experience nor have they undergone theoretical refinement and innovation in China. This is important to bear in mind when we consider the intellectual legacy of the 1980s. Marxism and liberalism dominated academic inquiry in China at the time to the extent that I cannot think of a distinctive area of inquiry outside these two domains.

In the 1990s, a process of academic professionalisation began where, as mentioned earlier, ‘the thinkers retreated and the academics came to the fore’. [The philosopher] Li Zehou 李泽厚 has written about this. The main feature of this academic professionalisation was a burgeoning variety of disciplinary specialisations. The meta-narrative of Enlightenment, no longer sought-after, was displaced by discipline-based research and important academic achievements in fields such as economics, history and law were soon evident. As my training was in philosophy, I had an interest in developments within it. Previously, Marxism was the dominant discourse in departments of philosophy and it was a discourse produced by rereading and repeating existing arguments presented in various philosophical textbooks. By the 1990s, however, different varieties of Western philosophy had entered China. Every few years, China’s philosophical journals would feature a range of new terms and notable thinkers. The 1990s also provided a prime opportunity for Confucianism’s revival. Formerly attacked when anti-traditional forces held sway, Confucianism now prospered as tradition gained authority. Should we consider the 1990s to be a decade in which scholarship flourished? At the very least, we can say that compared to the 1980s, the 1990s appeared to be a scene of academic flowering across different disciplines.

By the twenty-first century, debates in mainland intellectual circles, whether over ideas or academic issues, had deteriorated into ideological contests. Everyone sensed that inquiry was once again becoming politicised. All manner of ‘isms’ appeared of which the most influential were liberalism, social democracy, statism, neo-authoritarianism, neo-conservatism, nationalism, populism, patriotism, classicism and Confucian constitutionalism. These varieties of ideas all took a side — whether on the left or on the right — and made an impact on how people saw China because of this. The opposition between left and right had become irreconcilable. ‘Left’ and ‘right’ were no longer considered merely differences of opinion or perspective. Instead they had become strongly held positions and clashes between ideological opponents were increasingly intense.

‘Left’ and ‘right’ now marked two opposing sides in society with a clear boundary between them such that people can make out straight away from what you’ve said whether you’re on the left or the right. On social media, bloggers with a large following also made their positions very clear and were utterly uncompromising when waging verbal war with their rivals. This is a new phenomenon in China that has appeared only in the last decade. When I say that academic production in China is bereft of thought, I am referring to this shift from academic endeavours of the 1990s to the ideological contests of the 2000s and since. Let us now consider how the mechanisms and inner workings of academic production in China have led to this situation.

The Academic Industrial Complex

With academic production in the 1990s located mainly in state-run institutions, the state could exercise a great deal of control over it. The scholars who are present here seem to have evaded the state’s control. They are the few who have survived despite the system. The state exercises control mainly through its bureaucratic management of mainland Chinese universities. Moreover, the institution of publishing in China lacks independence and every form of knowledge production must satisfy the standards set by the state. If the intellectual content of a given manuscript fails to meet the state’s standards, it will be excluded from the normal publishing channels.

The state has provided massive subsidies for academic production within its system.  It has basically taken control of academic production by determining which topics are of national importance. The state has made a clean sweep of things by restricting university professors and research personnel to work only on these topics. Those who accord with the state’s Diktat will reap varying levels of benefits for their academic production.  This is the basic mechanism of exchange between the state and the academy. The rapid expansion of the state’s financial resources has resulted in an unprecedented level of state control over intellectual and academic endeavour, exceeding what the dynastic regimes of premodern China achieved. Today, power has corroded academic production across the entire nation such that thought and scholarship — considered as a national product —  are ultimately ideologically constrained to serve the state as its tool.

Under these conditions of strict control, however, the market-led process of reform, especially from the 1990s onwards, had opened a new channel for marketable academic products. This is a development outside the [party-state] system and one that led to the publication of several good works of intellectual inquiry and scholarship.  That said, this market for academic products was and remains unable to fully free itself from state control. To run a profitable business, publishers had to avoid a clash with the authorities. They used inventive strategies to publish their academic wares. In the 1990s, these publishing practices produced a modest change in the ecology of mainland intellectual life, as did the emergence of non-official academic institutions such as Unirule Institute.

The productive capacity of this non-official academic sector is severely limited as it receives neither state nor commercial support. This sector is in a situation of negative growth. Many of its academic institutions have encountered difficulties making it impossible for them to continue. Having to fend for themselves has already led several to run out of steam. How can academic institutions, beholden to state power, produce works of intellectual independence?  Even thinkers and intellectuals operating on the fringes of or outside the [party-state] system are unable to fully escape it.  One can either stop doing intellectual work or revise one’s work to accord with the standards for publishing laid down by the state. In this regard, the academic flourishing of the 1990s was hollow for it obscured the deficiencies of intellectual life in China.

Vacuous Production

Let’s begin by noting that state control over academic production in China has meant that academics must be ever-mindful of the types of products the authorities favour. We may describe the state as well-disposed, at best, to the expansion and renewal of those forms of knowledge that serve a functional, methodological, practical or technological need: the kind of knowledge that is devoid of both ultimate concerns and intellectual creativity. Academic publications that have resulted from state-funded research are mostly garbage. These publications not only provide no assistance whatsoever for China’s intellectual advancement, they have had the opposite effect of destroying people’s capacity to think and to defend the values they hold dear.

The growing vacuousness in mainland intellectual life is also the result of ideological clashes among academics. These are clashes over the use of Western ideas in China rather than home-grown Chinese theories. The war of words between China’s left and right essentially revolves around Chinese understandings of the differences between the left and the right in the US. Both sides draw on Western intellectual resources to discuss Chinese issues yet their arguments are a clear departure from Western thinking, value-perspectives and approaches. Consequently, many people have become at a loss for words. These Chinese debates over isms are neither centred on China nor faithful to the Western ideas they employ, which is why Chinese academics have found themselves unable to make any progress.

Finally, let us consider the Confucian revival Mr. Qiu Feng has been studying. On the surface, it would appear to be the reconstruction of a knowledge with China at its very core. At present, however, its prospects of becoming the intellectual mainstream in China are dim. The Confucian narrative contains elements of constitutionalism and can lend itself to politicisation. However, the important thing for us to observe is whether and the extent to which it has any impact on present-day society in China. In this regard, Jiang Qing’s so-called political Confucianism and Qiu Feng’s constitutional Confucianism appear to me, even at their very best, as incapable of surpassing Kang Youwei’s re-reading of the early classics to promote a New Text revival.

Academic production that is bereft of thought is cut from the same cloth as revolution and reform pursued without thought. Together, they reflect a China that is bereft of thought. Following the total eclipse of traditional Chinese thought centered on Confucianism, the production and dissemination of Chinese thought has had to draw on the intellectual resources of the West for a century or more. This process occurred alongside the subjection of Chinese thought to systematic state control. Thus, Chinese thought was reduced to a useful tool. It became a loincloth for covering up the state’s imposed ideology. If we reflect on the situation and development of Chinese thought over the last century, we are bound to ask ourselves the question: Can we rebuild a thinking China?

Building a Thinking China

Based on the foregoing analysis, let me reiterate that the Chinese Revolution and the reforms undertaken since 1978 have both lacked an intellectual soul. Neither revolution nor reform has benefited from clear theoretical guidance. Neither was motivated by ultimate concerns.  Instead people espoused conflicting forms of theory and practice that were riven with contradictions and this was because pragmatism and opportunism guided the actions that were taken. The stated theoretical programs and guiding ideas have been merely rhetorical and a form of strategic discourse. The future of China lies in rebuilding a China rich in thought, in restoring the unity of theory and practice and in the development of values that accord with human justice.

The first thing we must do is to build proper mechanisms for producing thought. These mechanisms require freedom of speech and an independent publishing system. They are also contingent on the demise of the present system whereby the state controls the production of thought.  These mechanisms also require the abolition of state-imposed standards on intellectual production and a clear distinction to be drawn between thought and ideological propaganda. The producers of thought must be allowed the freedom to discuss, write and publish their arguments as they see fit. This would ensure that thought can be independently produced and disseminated. State funding for intellectual production should be based on academic measures and the system must ensure equal treatment for all academics. Only when there is freedom of speech and freedom of publishing will Chinese thought genuinely flourish. Only then will China become a great civilization and a country rich in thought.

Next, we would need to establish a market for ideas. The Nobel laureate in economics Ronald Coase once gave China this piece of advice: ‘A vibrant market for ideas is both a precondition for scholarly excellence and an indispensable moral and epistemic foundation for an open society and a free economy.’[7] A market for ideas implies that intellectual products can circulate freely; that there are no restrictions on their dissemination. This is especially pertinent in the era of the Internet in which an open market for ideas is the precondition for the flourishing of ideas.

From a market perspective, the dissemination of ideas requires us to invalidate the idea of [the state’s] power [over the market]. To a certain extent, thought is power’s natural enemy for thought both criticises and defines power. Ideas that have relied on people in power for their dissemination may enjoy preferential treatment during a period of authoritarian rule but such ideas lack the vitality to endure beyond the period of authoritarian patronage. The credibility of a given theory cannot be sustained by power. Rather, it rests on the capacity of that theory to solve real problems. Moreover, the dissemination of ideas within the market for ideas is propelled by demand. Only those ideas that satisfy the spiritual needs and ultimate concerns of ordinary citizens can exert an influence on their actions and behaviours. People will surely reject those ideas that go against their normal needs.

Third, this market for ideas implies the fullest exchange of ideas with all varieties of ideas jostling for attention. It allows a system capable of accommodating a plurality of ideas to be established, to produce a true situation of a hundred flowers and blooming and a hundred schools of thought in contention. The flourishing of thought alone ensures that intellectual products will be diverse and innovative.

Fourth, we must establish thought that is anchored in Chinese subjectivity 建立中国主体性思想. This is a huge topic. In saying that we need thought anchored in Chinese subjectivity, I am not proposing a departure from the broad road of world civilisation, nor am I calling for a rejection of universal values. Rather, we need to build discursive system suited for discussing China’s past, present and future, premised on a world civilisation and universal values. This is an issue of abiding interest to me. The two journals I have distributed today contain articles I have written on the concept of a Chinese historical perspective. As I see it, there are four aspects to consider in relation to thought that is anchored in Chinese subjectivity:

  • First, this form of thought must take a Chinese historical perspective as its principal guide. What I’m calling a Chinese historical perspective is essentially a way of discerning how Chinese history differs from European history in terms of its developmental features and human experience. On this basis, we would develop a Chinese yardstick to re-discover and rewrite Chinese history as a history which has long been obscured by European history. This would thus allow us to distinguish between Chinese and European historical perspectives.
  • Second, Chinese thought that is anchored in Chinese subjectivity must accord with Chinese experience past and present.
  • Third, awareness of real-life Chinese problems must guide our thinking.
  • Fourth, our goal is to advance universal justice and happiness for the whole of humanity.

These are the four aspects of what I am calling thought that is anchored in Chinese subjectivity.

The issues I have raised here today are underdeveloped and require more work. For a long time now, the governing party has enjoyed a monopoly on ideology and the production of thought. It has turned Marxism into the key source of its political legitimacy. However, the Party leaders are well-aware that there is no market demand for Party thinking, and that Party thinking is in fact useless. Yet they continue to rely on the formulations that make up Party thinking to justify their being in power. This is a problem for the Party leadership. Non-official thinking produced within society is critically-oriented and resistant to the Party’s formulations. Most of non-official thinking draws on Western knowledge paradigms and liberalism and social democracy should be considered, in this regard, as belonging to the same knowledge system.

At present, many people are asking if we can resolve the opposition between non-official and official modes of thinking. Is Qiu Feng’s constitutional Confucianism an attempt to provide us with an alternative path? Is this a third path that would serve as an intermediary between Western-informed non-official thinking and Party thinking? Methodologically, this is an advisable path to take but the question of what formulations we would use to understand and explain Chinese problem requires much more work. For scholars, the present situation of Chinese thought and the problems it faces have become increasingly clear. Everyone should be able to analyse these problems from their own perspective and propose solutions to these problems. The production of independent ideas of positive value is contingent on free and open debate among thinkers and on their capacity to exchange their ideas to the fullest. It is by this means alone that together we can advance Chinese thought.

Appendix: Responding to Expert Critiques  

The comments from my fellow-scholars were most relevant. As Lei Yi and Ye Fu have both pointed out, I have yet to address such questions as what is Chinese autonomy 中国的自主性; what is thought that is anchored in Chinese subjectivity and what is Western discourse as a system. I am also aware that if we want to depart from Western formulations and concepts, then we would have no way of expressing ourselves and no words with which to form our thoughts. I mentioned the need for us to construct a Chinese historical perspective. Is it valid to speak of a Chinese as opposed to a European historical perspective? This will also require more work. When my presentation was published, someone criticised me for producing a statist narrative and using statist rhetoric.

China’s development for the last two thousand years has indeed been state-led. We cannot deny this. China’s state-led structure, understood as an organisational system 国家主导的体制 has remained intact to this day. This enduring state-led structure is the object of my inquiry. The question is, should it be regarded as a form of statism?

This is where we must consider the differences between Chinese and Western understandings of the concept of the state. The Western concept of the state entails a narrative that includes the ideas of constitutionalism, democracy and liberty as these ideas have emerged and developed in the West, reflecting the history of their usage over time. If we now choose to assign a ‘universal value’ to these ideas and transplant them in China’s discursive terrain, we will, indeed, encounter a whole raft of enormous difficulties arising from the shift of these ideas from a Western to a Chinese discourse.

Professor Zhang Shuguang mentioned just now that in proposing a need for thought that is anchored in Chinese subjectivity, I seem to be ignoring the fact that the work of scholars such as Qiu Feng is already premised on the idea of a Chinese intellectual tradition extending over two thousand years. He thus finds my attempt to establish a new way of exploring Chinese thought as anchored in Chinese subjectivity unconvincing. What I am calling thought anchored in Chinese subjectivity or a Chinese historical perspective is merely an abstract proposal at present. I am still uncertain as to how to develop these concepts intellectually or to reach an empirical conclusion about them. It would be absurd to treat Qiu Feng’s work as our only source of information on what constitutes China’s intellectual tradition. At present, there is little new thinking besides the accumulated Western and Confucian intellectual resources already available to us. This is the predicament of intellectual production in China today that I have tried to address in my lecture today.

When I pointed out we don’t seem able to take a step without leaning on the crutch of Western thought, I am including myself as someone for whom Western thought is indispensable. My critics have pointed out my reliance on Max Weber’s concepts of procedural justice and instrumental rationality, which are clearly Western in origin. On this point, we need to ask the question as to whether we are up to the task of productively transposing Weber’s concepts into Chinese intellectual discourse.

The bigger issue, however, and this is what Ye Fu raised, is whether our existing range of theories are adequate for explaining China’s present-day problems. The criteria and measures we use must be able to explain Chinese realities. Otherwise these theories would lack vitality. When we consider the ideas that have flooded into China for the past century, we should judge them for their effectiveness. Whether it be liberalism, Marxism or other isms, we should be asking whether and how effective they have they been in solving Chinese problems. To assess liberalism in this way, would not make us feel optimistic about its prospects in China, of that I am certain. This is because liberalism would and has encountered restrictions from the political system in China. However, we should also consider whether theories of liberalism create their own limitations on the concept. I dealt with this question in my article, ‘The third wave of Chinese Liberalism’ 中国自由主义第三波 in which I reflected on the types of changes that liberalism would have to undergo and the types of discursive adjustments that would need to be made before a liberal argument could provide an effective response to the problems in our midst.

I find myself in agreement with Ye Fu’s comment that I am ultimately asking only one question. My question in fact goes beyond asking why it is that China lacks great ideas and great thinkers. There are many thinkers in China and many excellent thinkers are present at this seminar here. My question is in fact a criticism of the system in which we find ourselves. For several years now, I have devoted my energies to promoting the social critical tradition in Marxism, with the aim of critiquing the existing power structure in China. This is a power structure unlimited in any way by institutional and legal restraints, let alone by moral constraints. Indeed, we would not be able to find an enduring set of ideas, beliefs, meanings or values within this power structure.

Thus, if this power structure continues to develop, it will gravely endanger China. Hence my question should not be read as asking what tasks we have yet to complete within Chinese scholarship, or that I am implying that Western critical discourse is not effective in explaining Chinese problems. Instead, I want us to be alert to the fact that the political system and institutions that have developed out of the Chinese Revolution and the process of [post-Maoist] reform are the result of pragmatic, opportunistic and strategic actions taken in response to the problems of a given time. There really are no theoretical norms or a program, no ultimate concerns or a general direction to speak of. My main goal is to provide a critique of the flaws of the system. In this regard, I have focused on the structural and intellectual causes of these flaws.

Translator’s Notes

[1] Fengjian 封建, an important political concept in pre-modern China, has been used since the early twentieth century to translate ‘feudalism’ as a Marxist concept, both complicating what fengjian means and making ‘feudalism’ an always inadequate translation. For an account of modern uses of fengjian, see Viren Murthy, ‘The Politics of Fengjian in Late Qing and Early Republican China’, in Kai-wing Chow, Tze-ki Hon and Hung-yok Ip, eds, Modernities as Local Practices, Nationalism, and Cultural Production: Deconstructing the May-Fourth Paradigm on Modern China, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008, pp.151-182.

[2] The ‘Two Whatevers’ refers to the following official statement which appeared in a 7 February 1977 joint editorial of the CCP’s three leading outlets, People’s Daily, Red Flag and People’s Liberation Daily: ‘We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave’ 凡是毛主席作出的决策,我们都坚决维护;凡是毛主席的指示,我们都始终不渝地遵循. The term was a derogatory reference to Mao’s immediate successor, Hua Guofeng, used by Deng Xiaoping and other critics of Hua to highlight his unsuitability to lead post-Maoist China as an unthinking Mao loyalist.

[3] On these developments, see Xu Jilin, ‘The Fate of an Enlightenment — Twenty Years in the Chinese Intellectual Sphere (1978-98)’, translated by Geremie R. Barmé and Gloria Davies, East Asian History, Issue 20 (December 2000): 169-186, reprinted in Merle Goldman and Edward X. Gu, eds, Chinese Intellectuals between the Market and the State, London: Routledge 2002, pp.183-203.

[4] To ‘cross the river by feeling for the stones’ 摸着石头过河 was an expression coined by Chen Yun (1905-1995), an influential Party leader who, following Mao’s death, helped facilitate Deng Xiaoping’s rise. In the post-Maoist 1980s and 1990s, Chen and Deng became hailed as the two leading members of the CCP’s ‘Eight Elders’ 八大元老 responsible for developing the reformist party-state system. Because Deng quoted and popularised Chen’s expression, it has often been wrongly attributed to him.

[5] Deng’s remark was: ‘It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice it’s a good cat’ 不管黑猫白猫, 捉到老鼠就是好猫.

[6] In his final political report to the CCP Congress in November 2012, Hu Jintao, as the Party’s departing General Secretary, stated: ‘We cannot take the old road of seclusion and stagnation, and we must not change our banner to travel along a deviant path.’ 既不走封闭僵化的老路, 也不走改旗易帜的邪路. See also David Bandurski, ‘CCP Congress Enters the Weibo Era’, China Media Project, 8 November 2012, at:

[7] The original statement appears in Ronald Coase and Ning Wang, How China Became Capitalist, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011, p.203. Rong appears to have quoted from Deng Yuwen, ‘Coase’s Warning: A market for ideas is the crux of China’s successful transition’ 科斯的忠告:思想市场是中国转型成功的关键, at: