Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University
Voices of Protest & Resistance (IV)
Wang Changjiang (王長江, 1956-) is a noted thinker and researcher at the Chinese Communist’s Central Party School in Beijing. Although the focus of a controversial incident involving off-the-cuff remarks about the long-term viability of Marxism in China, Wang has been an important innovator involved in theoretical advances that have contributed to the Party’s claim that it has, can and should enjoy sustained political legitimacy in the People’s Republic.
On 31 March 2019, Wang circulated online his meditation on the actions taken by the Party authorities of Tsinghua University in dealing with the controversial work and person of Professor Xu Zhangrun 許章潤. (Some of Xu’s work has appeared in these virtual pages from August 2018. For a list of these, see here).
In November 2017, we noted that as the incumbent party-state-army ruler of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, amassed titles in 2014, I took to calling him China’s CoE, or ‘Chairman of Everything’. At a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo on 7 January 2016, Xi reiterated an underlying political reality of Chinese life, but with a new formulation. He said: ‘Everything in China is under the direction of the Communist Party: party, state, army, civilian life and education, and at all points of the compass’ 黨政軍民學，東西南北中，黨是領導一切的. (Xi’s ‘new thinking’ was little more than a rephrasing of a 1942 dictum on the monolithic nature of Party leadership 黨的一元化領導. For more on this, see here.)
At the Nineteenth Party Congress held in Beijing in October 2017, this principle was written into the Communist Party’s Constitution which, in effect, completed CoE Xi Jinping’s apotheosis, further elevating him to become Chairman of Everyone and Everywhere. From 24 October, commentators in the international media repeated their own new formulation declaring Xi to be the ‘most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong’ (see, for example, here and here). In titular terms alone, however, Xi easily outstrips the Great Helmsman and, because of his hands-on political, bureaucratic, policing and military power, he could well be seen as the most powerful leader in Chinese history. As for power beyond the farrago of the propagandists and the mechanisms of the party-state — that is in the hearts and minds of the bureaucracy, the business community and the populace at large — it is too early to essay an independent judgement of the chairman’s reach.
The resurgence of Party control, domination and civil incursion has followed in the wake of Xi Jinping’s irresistible rise. The Party rules all and, concomitantly, it is responsible for everything. In an ideal Party world, well, there is no such thing, so Xi and his comrades in Party Central simply have to work with the sprawling organisation that they run, and the uneven talents of those who manage the on-the-ground affairs of the nation. One such group is the Party Committee of Tsinghua University. Wang Changjiang felt that the mishandling of what could be termed ‘The Xu Zhangrun Incident’ in late March 2019 does more than reflect badly on an international prestigious university like Tsinghua, it is symptomatic of a new wave of Party zealotry that threatens to undermine the hard-won political achievements of the one-party system over the past forty years.
In his now-famous Jeremiad of July 2018 — Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes 我們當下的恐懼與期待 — Xu Zhangrun warned of the heightened atmosphere of political paranoia and repression. He also presciently spoke about the increasing ideological vigilantism on university campuses. Using a Cultural Revolution-era slogan he gave voice to a widely held fear that the country’s ideologically driven leaders were once more attempting to ‘Put Politics in Command’ 政治掛帥:
[For the Authorities] To emphasise yet again policies that ‘Put Politics in Command’ [政治掛帥, a Mao-era strategy dating from the Great Leap forward in 1958 that required the nation to orient itself entirely according to Party policies; it was put in practice through mass political movements and class-based politics] and abandon the Fundamental National Policy in favour of developing the economy is what I mean by Fear Two.
In recent years, the gunpowder-like stench of militant ideology has become stronger. It reeks of what is [fashionably termed] ‘Taking the Lead to Achieve Discursive Hegemony’ [that is, the right of the voices of those in power to speak over all others], although in reality it is a perverse use of the public to impose ideological punishment [on private citizens]. This has already led to a universal dread being felt in the intellectual sphere. Given this situation, coupled with an ever-increasing emphasis on Self-Criticism [that is, formulaic rituals in the work place during which people are pressured to repudiate openly what are deemed to be private failings and then pretend to measure all of one’s thoughts, words and deeds against the Party’s ever-changing ideological catechism], the publishing industry has already experienced severe contractions and the silencing of the media more generally is becoming worse by the day. This state of affairs is also increasingly hindering exchanges between China and the outside world. We are even seeing examples of official propaganda in which children are encouraged to report on their parents, in flagrant violation of normal ethical relations. Such an approach is a betrayal both of our traditions and of our present aspirations. In this day and age one would have thought it to be unthinkable: but this vile totalitarian mien brings to mind the barbarism of the Cultural Revolution.
The influence of such propaganda is seeping throughout the society, and some university lecturers have been singled out and repeatedly punished for what they say [in lectures]. They now live in trepidation, ever fearful that Party ideological watchdogs [in their institutions] or Student Spies will report them. Even more serious is the fact that local bureaucrats, afraid of making political mistakes, are being forced into passivity. In reality, China’s economic development is dependent on the political engagement and achievements of just such local cadres, men and women who are dedicated to and believe in development. While over there the remnants of the [highly politicised] ‘Chongqing Model’ [promoted by Bo Xilai 薄熙來, former Party chief of Chongqing who in 2011-2012 was in competition with Xi Jinping to lead the Party, and then subsumed by Xi’s own gimcrack policies, was a socio-political formula that encouraged political revanchism in tandem with harsh policing as part of a strategy to mobilise, manipulate and control the population] are working hand-in-glove with the ‘Three Types of People’ [三種人, or types of opportunists active in the Cultural Revolution era: Red Guard Rebels 造反派, Factional Opportunists 幫派分子 and Violent Thugs and Thieves 打砸搶分子 — these categories of extremists were denounced by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s but in many cases they went unpunished for their deeds] in the tertiary education sector. With a sleight of hand and consummate skill they have become a burgeoning force that disguises itself as ‘New Leftism’, and they are baying for blood.
Painful memories of ‘political movements’ still linger in the minds of average citizens [of a certain age]. Younger people are engrossed in urban life and are accustomed to a suitable modicum of economic comfort. They have absolutely no interest in or awareness of the lurking totalitarian tendencies undergirded by the illogicality of a new, manufactured push to ‘Put Politics in Command’. If you force them to pay attention to such things it will have the opposite of the desired effect and repulse them. In reality, over the past decades people’s thinking has been fairly unified, and [as noted a number of times] the reason that the present Political System has come to be tolerated is because it has focused on economic construction, been devoted to development, and has no longer been obsessed with a constant quasi-movement mentality that forever tried to impose ‘Political Proselytising’ on everyone. That [had eventually] come to an end or [at least] its interference in the private sphere was reduced; people knew there would be no more crazy talk about ‘preferring the weeds of socialism over the sprouts of capitalism’ [the ‘Gang of Four’ member Zhang Chunqiao’s 張春橋 1975 slogan that promoted a tolerance of the wastefulness and irrationalities of the socialist command economy over the iniquities, efficiencies and benefits of the market]. Ultimately, ‘Economic Development as the Core’ should by all rights evolve towards a core desire to pursue a constitution-based rule of law, and it is on that basis that politics and the economy should work together to build a truly modern nation; thereby the two will be like joint handmaidens at the birth of modern China. However, in the present circumstances, what is necessary is for the former [that is economic development] to be maintained unstintingly; it is unthinkable that other plans should be afoot or that anyone could be considering a volte-face.
My thanks, as ever, to Reader #1 for pointing out typographical errors in the draft of this text.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
31 March 2019
- As in the case of previous essays in our series ‘Xu Zhangrun and Tsinghua University’, Wang Changjiang’s text is reproduced here as it first appeared, despite our ongoing distaste for the ‘Crippled Characters’ 殘體字 of the People’s Republic. This bilingual translation is archived both in The Best China as well as in the Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 sections of China Heritage, under Projects.
On Xu Zhangrun and Tsinghua University (March 2019-):
- Chris Buckley, ‘A Chinese Law Professor Criticized Xi. Now He’s Been Suspended’, New York Times, 26 March 2019
- Guo Yuhua 郭於華, ‘J’accuse, Tsinghua University!’, China Heritage, 27 March 2019
- Zha Jianguo 查建國 et al, ‘Heads or Tails — Criticism and Xu Zhangrun‘, China Heritage, 29 March 2019
- Anon., ‘Silence + Conformity = Complicity — reflections on university life in China today’, China Heritage, 30 March 2019 (updated 2 April 2019)
- Wang Changjiang 王長江, ‘Tsinghua University Gets a Lecture on Leadership from the Central Party School’, China Heritage, 31 March 2019
- David Bandurski, ‘Law Professor Suspended for Critical Writings’, China Media Project, 31 March 2019
- David Shambaugh, ‘Training China’s Political Elite: The Party School System’, The China Quarterly, No. 196 (Dec., 2008): 827-844
- 王長江, 黨危則國危，有些國家政黨合法性逐步動搖教訓慘痛, 《學習時報》, 14 September 2015
- Lotus Ruan, ‘China’s Communist Party Hails Its Own Legitimacy Amid Online Skepticism’, Foreign Policy, 17 September 2015
It’s Time to Rethink
‘How the Communist Party Can Best Lead China’s Intelligentsia’
需要对 “如何领导知识分子” 进行深度反思
Wang Changjiang 王长江
CCP Central Party School 中央党校
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
There’s been quite a furore on social media concerning Professor Xu Zhangrun and Tsinghua University of late. Tsinghua is aware of it, all Chinese institutions of higher education are watching on and our society as a whole is also paying attention. In fact, this business is of such moment that it has become what you could call ‘An Incident’. At the very moment that there is widespread discussion about such policy settings as ‘The Party Must Pursue All-Encompassing Leadership’ and ‘The Party Rules Over All’, an incident like this invariably falls under the heading ‘How Does the Party Lead the Intelligentsia?’. I’ve come to believe that the value of this incident may well lie in the fact that it will result in a more profound reflection on the broader question of Party leadership.
What then, exactly, is ‘leadership’? It’s not the same as mere administrative management. Simply put, that kind of governance is about requiring people to implement government orders. Their failure to do so is tantamount to breaking the law and contravening regulations; that’s why such an approach to governance inherently involves a measure of compulsion. Now, ‘leadership’ per se is of a different order. The word itself says it all. [In Chinese the word] ‘Leadership’ [领导 lǐngdǎo] is made up of two components [or word-concepts]. The first, 领 lǐng, means ‘to lead’, and for if one is to lead effectively then it follows to reason that there have to be ‘those who are led’ 被领 bèi lǐng, in other words, people who want to follow you or who willingly submit to your lead. As for 导 dǎo, the second part of the word ‘leadership’, it means ‘to direct along a certain path’ and, here too, this requires that there are ‘those who follow’ 被导 bèi dǎo, or people who are willing to go in the direction that you indicate.
Thus, the very concept of ‘leadership’ [领导 lǐngdǎo] is about the mutual interplay between Leaders [领导者 lǐngdǎo zhě] and Those Who Agree to be Led [被领导者 bèi lǐngdǎo zhě]. It places a particular emphasis on the need to secure people’s conscious and voluntary agreement. It therefore follows that to exercise meaningful leadership it is necessary to have the wherewithal to determine if a certain kind of leadership is both rational and efficacious, and whether its manifestations enhance or undermine the requisite effectiveness. Of course, in any given practical situation, it is quite easy to make such adjudications: all you need to do is to observe how much people relate to and support particular leaders and their actions. So, you want to lead others, others indicate that they are willing to follow your lead and thereby, naturally enough, we may conclude that you are an effective leader. If, under the aegis of your leadership, increasingly large numbers of people flock to your support and demonstrate a willingness to follow your lead, that too is clear evidence that your leadership is successful, as opposed to being found wanting. Of course, the obverse is just as true.
One of the notably regrettable things about the present ‘Xu Zhangrun Incident’ at Tsinghua University is that one finds it very hard to consider it to be a successful example of enhanced or effective Party leadership. The whole business has been muddied by administrative fiat from the very start. For instance, the school decided to take unilateral action by stripping Xu Zhangrun of all of his teaching and other professional responsibilities. An uncharitable view would surmise that these actions reflected a failure of meaningful ‘leadership’, even though the aim of those self-same acts was avowedly to enhance the university’s ability to exercise leadership over Tsinghua faculty.
At this point, I should make it quite clear that it’s not that I concur with all of Professor Xu’s stated views, moreover, I believe that he could have well have chosen a more modulated fashion in which to express at least some of those views. However, generally speaking, the crux of the matter relates to ideological awareness. Now, of all things, ‘ideological awareness’ is one specific area that can only be dealt with adequately by means of the application of thoughtful and competent leadership. The pursuit of administrative fiat, or worse, compulsion when attempting to resolve such matters invariably produces results at variance with those desired. That is why I feel compelled to point out just how crucially important it is at this juncture to recall with all due regard the tragic lessons that we drew from that [Cultural Revolution] movement of some sixty years ago [during which Tsinghua was a hive of extremist agitation and murderous violence].
Furthermore, we all witnessing the ongoing and negative after-effects of the ‘Xu Incident’. As news of it has spread, popular doubts and uncertainty have increased just as mistrust and fear have burgeoned. Any teacher with classes to teach or research work to undertake is asking themselves: could such a thing happen to me one day? People’s thinking follows particular kinds of rules and logic. It is hard to be sure that views formed on the basis of such predilections and logic are entirely free of bias. But it is only through the challenge and interplay between particular points of view and theoretical propositions that can one minimise such biases in a reasonable manner. I’m not aware of any instance in which official sanctions or force have been used successfully to generate useful ideas or meaningful ideological outcomes; on the contrary, I have heard of more than a few cases in which innovative ideas have been killed off prematurely due to the coercive mishandling of things.
The healthy exchange between different intellectual perspectives is the motivating force behind both intellectual development and theoretical innovation. That’s why even Bourgeois Thinkers appreciate the significance of the statement: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Shouldn’t we be aiming higher than the Western bourgeoisie? [This famous dictum about free speech is generally mis-attributed to Voltaire. See here.]
Added to all of this is the fact that if, as it is being widely rumoured, things were indeed handled [in ‘The Xu Incident’] the way most people believe, the outcome is diametrically opposed to what was hoped for. To wit: the Incident has undermined rather than enhanced the Party’s Leadership.
At present there is a near-universal phenomenon evidence of which can be found in the provinces as well as in government organisations. That is to say, that in the effort to prove that they are [successfully pursuing the Party policy of] ‘effective rule’ as they implement the various directives and requirements issued by their superiors, [Party cadres] are engaging in a frenzy of competition. They are trying to outdo each other by showing off how hard-headed or fast off the mark they are. They’re thinking up ways to demonstrate their ‘unswerving loyalty [to the Party]’ and are even going so far as to employ the old techniques of mass mobilisation and vacuous formalism [familiar from the Cultural Revolution era]. Despite their actions exacerbating the sense of popular disillusionment and increasing the deficit of trust, they persist regardless. So, here too we see that an intention to ‘lead’ has, due to the negative impact of actual ‘leadership’, is time and again producing exactly the opposite of the desired result: you’ve done what you’ve decided to do but you’ve only managed to increase people’s sense of alienation. The ‘Tsinghua Incident’ is an example of just this kind of inescapable vicious cycle.
Let me be brutally honest: if this situation does not change, I fear that sooner or later we really will fall into the ‘Tacitus Trap’ — the very thing that Party Central has declared to be one of the leading risk factors facing the Party and something to be avoided at all costs. [The ‘Tacitus Trap’ is a Chinese-manufactured tidbit of Western political wisdom summed up as follows: ‘Neither good nor bad policies can mollify the people if the government itself is unwelcome.’ Xi Jinping, a man with a notoriously authoritarian bent, is rightly obsessed with traps. He first publicly warned his colleagues about the ‘Tacitus Trap’ in March 2014.]
I don’t want to be too critical of Tsinghua, after all it is also partly an alma mater of mine. But I do hope that, in dealing with this Incident, the leaders of Tsinghua University will show due regard for their university’s reputation, as well as for its future. They need to put far more thought into how they can meaningfully enhance the leadership of the Communist Party at Tsinghua.
So, I urge you: before taking any further action, just think about it, then pause and think some more and, when you believe that you have done enough thinking, Think Again!