Chapter XXVIII, Part I
‘The tyrannical King Li of Zhou was reviled by the people’
This is the first line in ‘The Minister Counsels King Li Against Suppressing Criticism’ 召公諫厲王弭謗, an account by Zuo Qiuming 左丘明 in Discourses of the States 國語 Guó yǔ (c. 500 BCE), an early classical collection of historical stories and anecdotes compiled during the Spring and Autumn period.
King Li rejects the emollient advice of his minister seeking instead the guidance of a shaman who suggests that he identify and execute the offenders.
‘People no longer dared speak out,’ Zuo records, ‘but it did not stop them from exchanging knowing glances whenever they passed each other on the roads.’
The king is oblivious to this and smugly says to his counsellor,
‘See, I have quashed their criticisms; now none dare speak out.’
‘You have merely suppressed [the complaints],’ the minister replies
‘It is harder to silence people than it is to block the flow of a river. When the river breaches the obstruction many are inevitably hurt. The same holds true of the people.’
He goes on to advise his lord on how wise rulership relies on sagely governance and popular support. The prosperity of the kingdom depends on the support and hard work of its subjects, over time ‘people’s concerns may mount and eventually they will be expressed in open opposition, how can their mouths be dammed shut?’ The minister ends with a warning,
‘If you gag people’s mouths, what do you think will come of it?’
King Li of Zhou ignored this wise counsel and, although the people were silenced for a time, the king was eventually overthrown and fled into exile. (王弗聽，於是國人莫敢出言。三年，乃流王於彘。)
The ancient adage 防民之口，甚於防川 — ‘It is harder to silence people than it is to block the flow of a river’ — has been repeated ad nauseam in essays, works of literature and in conversations throughout the Xi Jinping decade.
The expression 不敢言 ‘dare not speak out’ that is the leitmotif of Zuo Chunming’s story that was immortalised by the Tang poet Du Mu in The Great Palace of Ch’in 阿房宮賦:
The folk of All Under Heaven
Cannot voice their rage.
Ironically, with his penchant for scattering classical references throughout his doughy speeches, Xi Jinping has repeatedly quoted Du Mu’s poem. In practice, however, he has been fixated on 弭謗 mǐ bàng, ‘suppressing criticism’.
We have chosen to end Part One of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium with Zuo Qiuming’s ancient tale of royal hauteur since, not only does it offer sagacious advice for any leader, it also features the term 謗 bàng, ‘to comment on, criticise, advice, revile’. The word 謗 bàng also features in the expression 謗木 bàngmù, a wooden plaque which, according to tradition, dating from the age of the sage-emperor Shun, was set up so the people could write criticisms of the ruler.
The ancient 謗木 bàngmù is featured at Tiananmen Gate in the heart of the Chinese capital Beijing in the form of a latter-day stylised marble column known as 華表 huábiǎo.
We end 2022 with the image of the Huabiao and in so doing we recall Red Rising, Red Eclipse published in 2012. It was the first China Story Yearbook, a series designed to demonstrate the practical application of New Sinology 後漢學.
In this two-part chapter in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, we first recall Li Ao’s observation that the Huabiao is ‘China’s cross’. This is followed by the introduction and the conclusion to Red Rising, Red Eclipse, the first China Story Yearbook, published on the eve of Xi Jinping’s accession to power in 2012. At the time, we offered some background to what would soon unfold; in retrospect it merits re-reading.
[Note: Following the launch of the first China Story Yearbook in Canberra in August 2012, we organised events at the East-West Center in Hawaii, Columbia University and Harvard University to introduce colleagues in North America to the project. Ezra Vogel kindly hosted a meal following our event at the Fairbank Center on Chinese Studies at Harvard. He said that he was doubtful that such an ambitious project could be sustained in the long term. In 2022, China Story Yearbook celebrated its tenth year. I regret that I was unable to share the news with Ezra.]
Part two of this chapter is published separately. Titled As If, it features a letter addressed to the Chinese Embassy in Canberra rejecting official Chinese criticisms of Red Rising, Red Eclipse. We use the opportunity to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Australia’s formal recognition of the People’s Republic of China in December 1972, an addition to Appendix V 朝 in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, the other sections of which are:
蒞 — Nixon’s Press Corps; 迓 — ‘Welcome to China, Mr. President!’; 撼 — A Week That Changed The World; 鞭 — The President & The Chairman in Retrospect; 迥 — Dissing Dissent; 見 — A storied Handshake, an excised Interpreter & a muted Anthem; and, 有目共睹 — Fools with Initiative
We are grateful to Lois Conner for permission to reprint her photograph of a blood-red Huabiao at Qianmen in Beijing, made in 2010. It was used as the cover image of the inaugural China Story Yearbook.
— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Distinguished Fellow, Asia Society
29 December 2022
In Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium:
- Introduction 瞽 — You Should Look Back, 1 February 2022
- A Tally 單 — The Threnody of Tedium, 18 February 2022
- Chapter Twenty-two 官逼民反 — Fear, Fury & Protest — three years of viral alarm, 27 November 2022 (see also Appendix XXIII 空白 — How to Read a Blank Sheet of Paper, 30 November 2022; Appendix XXIV 職責— It’s My Duty, 1 December 2022; and, Appendix XXV 贖 — ‘Ironic Points of Light’ — acts of redemption on the blank pages of history, 4 December 2022)
In China Heritage:
- Prelude to a Restoration: Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun & the Spectre of Mao Zedong, 20 September 2021
- Red Allure & The Crimson Blindfold, 13 July 2021
- Living with Xi Dada’s China — Making Choices and Cutting Deals, 16 December 2016
- Lee Yee 李怡, et al, Deathwatch for a Chairman, 17 July 2018
- Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, A Beijing Jeremiad, 1 August 2018
- Homo Xinensis, 31 August 2018
- Homo Xinensis Ascendant, 16 September 2018
- Homo Xinensis Militant, 1 October 2018
The China Story:
- Civilising China — China Story Yearbook 2013
- Shared Destiny — China Story Yearbook 2014
- China Story Yearbooks
- The China Story blog
Click on a highlighted title to scroll down.
This photograph by Lois Conner was used as the cover image of Red Rising, Red Eclipse, the first volume in the China Story Yearbook series launched in August 2012 (see below).
Li Ao 李敖
On either side of Tiananmen Gate stand two sculpted marble pillars known as Huabiao. These decorative wings represent “notice boards” (feibang zhi mu 誹謗之木), according to legend, they were a place where ordinary people could write their complaints against government injustices:
‘There is a venerable tradition in China of petitioning rulers; and an equally ancient tradition for rulers to punish those who dare petition them. Bi Gan 比干, an argumentative minister of the Shang Dynasty (12th Century BC) so infuriated the tyrant Zhou 紂, that Zhou, saying, “They tell me sages have seven holes in their hearts,” ordered the minister’s chest cut open so he could see for himself.
‘But appeals to the throne were not always so hazardous. From early days a drum was placed outside the court which could be beaten by petitioners who wanted the court’s attention. The marble huabiao pillars on either side of Tiananmen were also a reminder to emperors to accept petitions with equanimity.
‘If Tiananmen Gate has traditionally been the place where the pronouncements of China’s rulers have been read to their people, Tiananmen Square is where in the 20th century the people made their voices heard to the rulers. Just outside Tiananmen Gate stand two huabiao, sculpted pillars. They derive from the practice of leaving a wooden board, the “wood of direct speech” (feibang zhi mu 誹謗之木), outside the palace on which common people could write any complaints they had about the court. This wooden plaque was eventually fixed to decorative columns, but even after they became more ornamental than functional, the huabiao were still supposed to symbolize the people’s right to speak up against official injustice. Reality was often quite different.
‘Walking past Tiananmen Gate as a child I would look up at the huabiao which reached up into the clouds. At the time, I thought only that they were pretty. I had no idea what they stood for. Now, after much reading, I understand. The huabiao are a debased symbol, tools for expression that have lost their function. They are the tears of China; the huabiao is China’s cross.’
Li Ao, a Taiwan-based historian, 1980
— from Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin, New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, New York: Random House, 1992, pp.xxiii-xxiv, reprinted as part of the interactive tour of Tiananmen in The Gate of Heavenly Peace website. Chinese characters have been added
[Note: Given China’s millennia-long autocratic tradition, it is hardly surprising that the ‘wood of direct speech’ 誹謗之木 fěi bàng zhī mù lives on in infamy. It is now found in the modern term 誹謗 fěi bàng — ‘defamation, calumny, slander (in particular that aimed at power-holders, be they in government, business or the media). The modern Chinese and the New China Newspeak endemic to the Communist party-state are replete with ‘carceral language’. See Gloria Davies, Talking (Up) Power, in Power — China Story Yearbook 2018.]
- A Madman’s End 狂人之末日, China Heritage, 1 April 2018
On China Story Yearbook
China Story Yearbook is a project initiated by the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) at The Australian National University (ANU). It is part of a broad project aimed at understanding The China Story, both as portrayed by official China, and from various other perspectives. … The Centre was created to allow for a more holistic approach to the study of contemporary China: one that considers the forces, personalities and ideas at work in China when attempting to understand any major aspect of its socio-political or cultural reality. The Australian Centre on China in the World encourages such an approach by supporting humanities-led research that engages actively with the social sciences. The resulting admix has, we believe, both public policy relevance and value for the engaged public. …
The inaugural Yearbook is titled Red Rising, Red Eclipse, and it covers the period from 2009 to mid 2012. Produced by academics and writers who are members of or who are affiliated with the Centre the Yearbook offers a survey of Chinese politics, law, economics, regional diplomacy, Internet politics, thought, history and culture featuring academic analysis as well as a range of information lists and data compiled by the Centre in coordination with our collaborators at Danwei Media under the direction of Jeremy Goldkorn. The Yearbook took its final form during editorial discussions with Jeremy Goldkorn in March 2012 at Capital M, Qianmen, Beijing. [Note: Envoi for Capital M 別了，前門米氏西餐廳, China Heritage, 18 September 2018.] …
The theme of the inaugural volume in the China Story Yearbook series was the colour red, its title Red Rising, Red Eclipse.
We believe that the red of Party control, of state enterprises, of reformulated Party ideology and culture, the red dominion of the party-state over the individual and the red successors who have been moving onto centre stage are a particular feature of the political transition period that began furtively in 2008. In the years 2009 to 2012, the colour red featured also in the major celebrations of the Chinese state and the Communist Party – the commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on the 1 October National Day of 2009, which was marked by a grand parade in the heart of the Chinese capital, just as the marking of the ninetieth year since the foundation in July 1921 of the Chinese Communist Party led to months of media-saturated celebration in 2011. The red symbolism of politics, society and culture will remain a fixture of the Chinese world for some time to come, but the fall of Bo Xilai in early 2012 and the seeming lack of viable long-term solutions to China’s socio-political problems also cast a shadow over the country’s contentious red traditions.
Long ago, Mao Zedong warned that after his death careerists and opportunists would attempt to use the Party’s ideology to justify a return to what he called the ‘bourgeois dictatorship’. These traitors to the revolution would, he said, ‘wave the red flag to oppose the red flag’ (da hongqi fan hongqi 打红旗反红旗). In recent years China’s ‘new left’ (an ill-defined coalition of mostly armchair Marxists, academics and proto-patriots) and neo-Maoists have criticized the economic reforms for doing just that, and they have supported those populists who would raise once more a red banner to forge a path for China’s future. For them the Asia-Pacific century should be led by a return to the red past. Others argue that only by reforming the political party that Mao helped create and by establishing a modern polity that better reflects the will of the majority of Chinese can the nation enjoy a global status and future worthy of its size and promise.
— from ‘Red Rising’, the introduction to China Story Annual 2012: Red Rising, Red Eclipse, Canberra: ANU, 2012, pp.xv-xvi
Introduction to The China Story Yearbook 2012
Geremie R. Barmé
A Year of the Dragon
The start of 2012 ushered in another Year of the Dragon according to the twelve-year cycle of the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. It also marked a time of pre-ordained political change – over the following year and a half, the leaders of China’s Communist Party and civilian government would hand over power to the next generation.
A son born in a Dragon Year can be a blessing. ‘May the son become a dragon’ (a success) is an ancient benediction: this birth year is associated with enterprise, intelligence and daring. Yet China’s political leaders know all too well that Dragon Years are also fraught with hidden dangers: ambition can easily be frustrated and the best laid plans can go awry. The Dragon Year of 1964-1965 saw the first stirrings of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the form of the Socialist Education Movement in the countryside. The next cycle in 1976-1977 witnessed natural disaster, political upheaval, Mao’s death and the unravelling of his revolutionary enterprise, while the economic and cultural ferment of 1988-1989 called forth a nationwide protest movement culminating in its suppression by massive state violence on 4 June 1989.
Initially, observers both inside and outside China presumed that the years 2012-2013 would see an orderly transition of power and the untroubled retirement of a generation of party-state leaders, from Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and State Premier Wen Jiabao downwards. Even within China’s Communist Party, however, there were already signs of discontent – over corruption, social anomie and the perceived stagnation of the economy and the political system.
The year 2011 had seen a rise in protest against underlying systemic problems. It started out with police clampdowns on protests inspired by the Arab Spring. In the middle of the year, a disaster involving the country’s much celebrated new high-speed rail system at Wenzhou, near Shanghai, killed dozens of people; the accident raised serious questions about the accelerated rate of construction and frenetic change in the country. The year ended with villagers in the southern province of Guangdong revolting en masse against the collusion between local party bosses and unscrupulous developers that had resulted in brutish land-grabs. Increased surveillance of the Internet, which played an ever-increasing and unpredictable role in these unsettled times, was also a sign of official anxiety that social unrest could escalate into violence and trigger wide-scale rebellion.
Meanwhile, continued ethnic tensions in China’s west – Xinjiang and Tibet – led to waves of protest and repression. In its immediate region, China had been increasingly aggressive in pressing its territorial claims over the South China Sea. Since 2009, bellicose statements by several army leaders had alerted the international community to the new realities they faced with a country that was moving away from a former policy of ‘hiding its light’ and biding its time (tao guang yang hui 韬光养晦) to one of asserting its influence on the world stage. Some commentators have chided China condescendingly as demonstrating ‘adolescent behaviour’. Others saw China’s precipitous rise to regional and global stature from 2008 onwards as thrusting the current political leadership into an international role for which it was ill-prepared given the decades of self-imposed isolationism under Mao and the eclectic approaches to ‘opening up’ under Deng and since. Moreover, the unhappy legacies of the past – the bullying conduct of the West and Japan in the colonial era as well as the post-World War II international dominance of the United States and its concomitant hostility to China – together with the fractured interests of the countries of Asia and the Pacific and Japan’s economic sluggishness also contributed to China’s assertiveness.
International leaders welcomed Chinese capital to help stabilize European financial institutions in the ongoing financial crisis of the Eurozone. Several business commentators lauded the Beijing model as a success story about state capitalism married to authoritarian politics. In China, there was growing discontent and alarm over corruption and official brutishness. Some see systemic change – a liberalization of the one-party political system – as a possible way ahead; others on the left are critical of an authoritarian market economy in league with global capital. As the contributors to this volume show, in the years between 2008 and 2012 there are Chinese citizens who regard a return to socialist values, Mao-era egalitarianism and a strong populist one-party state as the solution to China’s mounting social crises. Others believe that the political and media reforms promised at the hopeful start of the country’s transition to a market economy thirty years ago remain the vital remedy. Still others note that following the successful 2008 Beijing Olympics, China has witnessed the reassertion of the party-state (that is, Communist Party control over the civil governmental bureaucracy, the one inseparable from the other) in major aspects of national life.
The result is a series of contentions over the national narrative required to articulate the next stage of economic reform and the country’s modern transformation. ‘Collective vision’ is an integral part of political rhetoric under the Communist Party. In practice, we find in recent years the divided agendas of a cautious, fearful and time-serving bureaucracy with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
An Overlooked Anniversary
At the start of 2012 there were muted commemorations of the 1992 Tour of the South (nanxun 南巡) that Deng Xiaoping, the celebrated ‘grand engineer’ of China’s open door policies, undertook after economic reform stalled in the wake of the Beijing Massacre of 3-4 June 1989. The massacre had brought an end to the ‘chaos’ of nationwide student-led demonstrations in favour of freedom of expression and government accountability. It had also thrown into doubt the reformist agenda of Deng and his allies; for a time, economic conservatives and ideological neo-Maoists held sway and along with a clampdown on all forms of public protest, further economic liberalization was sidelined. Deng realized that China was in danger of going the way of the Soviet Union and that if the welfare and prosperity of the majority of China’s people was neglected, as it had been with disastrous consequences under Mao Zedong, his own attempts to bring the country into the global market economy and to play a major role in world affairs would be thwarted.
In early 1992, during what was ostensibly a family holiday, Deng Xiaoping toured the southern cities where economic liberalization and market economies had been allowed. He warned his fellow Party members that they could not afford the luxury of continued ideological wrangling over whether economic reform and engagement with the international economy was by nature ‘socialist’ or ‘capitalist’. Development, he declared, was an inescapable necessity; ideological and systemic stagnation were the enemies of future prosperity. His words (and behind-the-scenes politicking) ignited a wave of change in China that has since awed the world. His efforts were formally recognized at the Party’s Fourteenth Congress in October 1992, setting an economic course for the country that was maintained for the next two decades.
In February 2012, Premier Wen Jiabao made his own southern trip and in Guangdong he invoked the memory of Deng’s Tour of the South by pointedly repeating his predecessor’s calls for continued reform in China. Quoting Deng he said: ‘Opening-up and reform should be implemented unswervingly, or there will only be a dead end.’ Nonetheless, the twentieth anniversary of Deng’s original tour passed with scant celebration in Beijing. It was a sign, perhaps that, faced with myriad other problems, the country had lost its enthusiasm and will for further, necessary change. Some critics declared that Chinese ‘crony capitalism’ and ‘vested interests’ – long evident in the country, and identified in their nascent form by the protesters of 1989 as a major threat to the country’s future – were frustrating reform of the state sector. ‘The state’, they warned, ‘was on the march and private enterprise was in retreat.’
In 1992, Deng and his supporters in the army pushed for a new agenda of accelerated development in which they sidelined attempts by left-leaning and even Maoist ideologues to slow down the pace of market reforms. Twenty years later, in 2011-2012, left-leaning thinking was again a feature of political infighting. For neo-Maoists and a range of left sympathizers, both inside and outside the Party and army, the status quo was evidence that traitors were pursuing their own economic agenda at the behest of international capitalism and that they were selling out the country to Western (that is, US) interests.
It is against this backdrop that the change of Party and state leadership would take place in 2012-2013. Moreover, this time around, and for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic, true heirs of the dragon, that is the progeny of the founding party rulers of modern China, were jockeying for key command jobs in the Party’s highest decision-making bodies.
The red boomers, or ‘princelings’ (taizi dang 太子党), typified by the deposed Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and president-in-waiting Xi Jinping, are the generation of men and women born either at the war-era Communist capital of Yan’an in Shaanxi in north-west China in the 1940s, or around the founding years of the People’s Republic. For decades the progeny of Party leaders at all levels have been active both politically and economically. Through alliances, marriage and various coalitions of interest they form a complex socio-political strata in the Chinese world.
A group called the ‘revolutionary successors’, that is children of the Communist leaders born in the 1940s up to the time of the founding of the new state in 1949, first made a play for power in the early months of the Cultural Revolution of 1966. As high-school students initially favoured by Mao for their ideological fervour, they enjoyed privileged access to state information due to their parents’ positions in the Party hierarchy. This led them to believe they would play a leading role in shaping the nation’s future, or as the phrase has it, directing China’s ‘rivers and mountains’ (jiangshan 江山). These ambitious high-born adolescents helped create the idealistic and iconoclastic Red Guard movement that gained notoriety for violence. The support they received from Mao was short-lived. They were soon cast aside for their links to Party leadership figures when the old guard itself became the target of Mao’s plan for ‘continuous revolution’. Over the ‘vested interests’ of the Party’s leading bureaucrats and their progeny, Mao advanced a new and unaffiliated cadre of activists that for nearly a decade steered the country on a radical path.
The now displaced revolutionary successors joined countless other former Red Guards in a forced march to the countryside and factories for re-education by the labouring masses. They have bided their time for nearly fifty years, establishing political powerbases and commercial empires throughout the country from the smallest locality to the largest urban megalopolis.
The two revolutionary successors to gain the greatest international name recognition in the transition years were Xi Jinping, son of the general Xi Zhongxun (1913-2002) who helped oversee early economic reform in China’s south, and Bo Xilai, whose father was Bo Yibo (1908-2007), a party planner extraordinaire. Both men were tipped for power, Xi as General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of China, and Bo for possible entry into the Standing Committee of the Party’s ruling Politburo. Their individual machinations – a vast and intricate power play involving in-coming as well as out-going leaders – were pursued under the cover of consensual politics.
Besides Xi and Bo, other members of this group of ‘red boomers’ have also agitated to be recognized as the rightful heirs of the revolution. Among them, many like Bo have flaunted a leftist stance and attempted to act as a loyal opposition to the mercantilist policies of a party they feel had lost its moral and revolutionary moorings. These leaders and others had been jockeying for key posts in the new line up for the Politburo and State Council for years.
What could be dubbed the Chinese party-state’s electoral cycle actually began in the lead-up to the Olympic year of 2008. Numerous events provoked the hyper-nationalism of that time, most notably, the March 2008 uprising in Tibetan China and the debacle of the Olympic Torch Relay the international progress of which was dogged by human rights protesters. The resulting fervour was in part directed by Xi Jinping in Beijing, in patriotic defence of state action against Tibetan protesters and rights activists. Bo Xilai, meanwhile, was championing mass media cosmetic socialism – ‘red culture’ – in the province-size autonomous city of Chongqing in the country’s south-west which he ran as Party Secretary. Other signs of this disquieting shift were China’s harsh demeanour and hard line at the November 2009 Copenhagen talks on climate change followed not long after by the intimidating behaviour on display in relation to territorial disputes with the country’s neighbours in the South China Sea.
Just as the power transition began in February 2012, the mysterious death of an Englishman in Chongqing and the attempt of Bo Xilai’s police chief and right-hand man, Wang Lijun, to seek refuge in the US Consulate in Chengdu threw Bo Xilai’s carefully-laid plans for ascension into chaos. Then, in March, with his wife under suspicion for the Englishman’s murder and his police chief allegedly having revealed all manner of malfeasance related to Bo Xilai’s rule in Chongqing, Bo himself was removed from his post and disappeared from sight. For years commentators had presumed there would be a relatively unruffled leadership handover in China. Suddenly the world gained a glimpse of the fractious nature of the country’s politics, and the ideas and interests that motivate it. For some weeks after Bo’s downfall, the leftist ideology of the Mao era that he had revived in his bid for power continued to be volubly defended by many Party members, army leaders and intellectuals.
One day before the sensational news of Bo Xilai’s fall was announced, Premier Wen Jiabao spoke at what would be his last press conference as the head of China’s government. Twice Wen referred to the 1981 Communist Party decision on ‘certain historical questions’. That document provided the ideological rationale for China’s post-1978 economic reforms. A carefully worded text, it formally negated the socio-economic policies that had underpinned the Mao era, including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Wen referred to the 1981 decision in the following way:
I want to say a few words at this point, since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, under the leadership of the Party and the government, our country’s modernisation drive has made great achievements. Yet at the same time, we’ve also taken detours and have learnt hard lessons. Since the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Party Central Committee [in December 1978], in particular since the central authorities took the decision on the correct handling of relevant historical issues, we have established the line of thinking and that we should free our minds and seek truth from facts and we have formulated the basic guidelines of our Party. In particular, we’ve taken the major decision of conducting reform and opening up in China, a decision that’s crucial for China’s future and destiny.
What has happened shows that any practice that we take must be based on the experience and lessons we’ve gained from history and it must serve the people’s interests. The practice that we take must be able to stand the test of history and I believe the people fully recognize this point and I have full confidence in our future.
Over a year before Bo Xilai was put under investigation for breaching Party discipline, there were signs that ideological contestation and a concomitant power struggle were well under way. The last major public power struggle within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) occurred in 1989, and in recent times commentators on China have pondered the possible forms that jostling for position within the top Party echelon might take in the current iteration of China’s brand of one-party consensual authoritarianism. Such educated guesses, known as Zhongnanhai-ology, remain at best an imaginative art. It is all but impossible to track effectively the backroom dealings, the power plays and the political feints involved in what is a byzantine process. Nonetheless, the media provide some indication of the nature of intra-party tussles.
Regardless of who rises or falls during 2012-2013, the Chinese Communist Party’s nomenclatura, whether they have a family pedigree or not, face a profound dilemma: how do the contending individuals, factions and groups allow this extraordinary nation to flourish locally and globally while dealing with parochial or vested interests and the exigencies of situations requiring immediate solution? How does the Party maintain stable rule and legitimate succession despite having reneged on seventy years of promises to introduce democracy, basic freedoms and oversight of its power? These problems are not unique to China but they are particularly acute at present. China has a political system conceived at the time of the Russian Revolution nearly a century ago. It is a system not open to public debate and despite the appearance of bureaucratic order and functionality, its operations often recall its underground, conspiratorial and mafia-like origins.
China’s labyrinthine politics in which personal alliances and loyalties are tangled with regional alignments and commercial interests complicate the present regime’s aspiration to high professionalism and reasoned idealism. These competing impulses, together with the simple survival instincts needed for success in leadership contests, demand a multi-dimensional approach for any deeper analysis.
China’s prominence in the Asia and Pacific region as well as its increased role on the international stage mean that many aspects of Chinese reality now attract global media coverage. These include: the behaviour of the government both at home and abroad, the country’s rapidly changing urban and rural landscape, the ideas that enliven public and elite debate, influential religious beliefs in Chinese society today and the government’s response to them, the Internet and censorship, the current situation and future prospects of the rule of law and human rights, and many other issues besides.
The China Story
The song-and-dance extravaganza staged on 8 August 2008 for the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics offered an enthralling account of China’s great traditions and its aspirations. It was just after that opening ceremony that I was invited on 9 August 2008 by the then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to join him in conversation with a number of Chinese officials and individuals. They included a leading Party propagandist who emphasized how the events of 2008 brought home the importance for China to tell the world its own story – what he called Zhongguode gushi 中国的故事 that is ‘The China Story’.
As is so often the case with such encounters, this senior bureaucrat was interested in ‘using the foreign to serve China’. Indeed, he enjoined us in the language of friendship diplomacy to act as a bridge between China and the world. Having spent my professional career as an historian attempting to understand, translate and relate ‘Chinese stories’ and not to convey to others a monolithic ‘China Story’, I remarked that it was the plurality of Chinese stories, be they in the People’s Republic or globally, that form the natural bridge to an understanding of China today.
Telling national stories has been part of the creation of nation-states since the nineteenth century, and many history projects have been devised as part of or, at least, under the umbrella of creating a foundational narrative for the political purpose of nation-building. The China Story, as part of the official Chinese narrative, has in recent years served as propaganda for continued one-party rule in a highly unequal society.
If we wish to be critically engaged with China, we must understand the official discourse and its historical and ideological underpinnings. We need to be alert to the highly orchestrated nature of the official ‘Chinese world view’ and to discern the gulf between it and the larger Chinese realities, possibilities and uncertainties that it seeks to obscure. To the extent that the government compels the media to endorse party-state programs and pronouncements, the information approved for publication often reflects something of what I have called ‘China’s Flat Earth’.
Approaching The China Story as scholars and educators requires us to bring an empathetic understanding to the task. We must pursue facts with sensitivity to people’s often-raw emotional reactions to the received history and the political uses made of that history. We should also heed differences and similarities between the values inherent in The China Story and those enshrined in the stories we tell of ourselves, our society and our nation. We also should be alert to the ways in which the official national ‘China Story’ is used to legitimate countless local Chinese stories, ways of leveraging, negotiating and bypassing in provincial China the strictures of Beijing. The approach that frames the writings of this volume, one based on what I call a New Sinology (Hou Hanxue 后汉学), resonates with Clive James’s observation of a form of humanistic inquiry that is distinguished by ‘its hunger, its scope, its vitality and its inner light – an inner light produced by all the aspects of life illuminating one another, in a honeycomb of understanding.’
- Red Rising, the introduction to the 2012 China Story Yearbook. The full version of the introduction contains information boxes and illustrations.
Conclusion to The China Story Annual 2012
Geremie R. Barmé
‘The China Story’ as told by the Chinese authorities is a grand romantic narrative of struggle, progress and socialist transformation. It is a glowing history of how the Party has brought about the ‘great renaissance of the Chinese nation’. On the occasion of the celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2009, China’s President Hu Jintao repeatedly cited this phrase, first used by Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin a decade ago. Hu reprised it when marking the centenary of the 1911 Xinhai Revolution on 9 October 2011.
The state-ordained China Story begins with the decline in power, economic might and unity of the Chinese world from the eighteenth century. It then moves through the century of humiliation (roughly 1840-1949) at the hands of Western and Japanese imperial powers and culminates in the birth of a New China and the two acts of ‘liberation’ (1949 under Mao and 1978 under Deng Xiaoping). It is a story of national revolution, renewal and vigour that, crucially, cleaves to Mao Zedong’s leadership, career, thought and politics.
This univocal, uni-linear story denies the complexity of what would be better described as ‘China’s Stories’ as well as the myriad nature of China’s modern history. In the past the Chinese party-state asserted itself as the sole authority on what was happening on the ground in China. If some individuals or groups claimed that the official version was at variance with their own experiences, the authorities would dismiss such cavils as partial, biased, ill-informed views that pandered to anti-government forces and ‘anti-China’ interests. According to one formula, the party-state could ‘see far ahead from its privileged viewpoint’ (gaozhan yuanzhu 高瞻远瞩): informed as it was by a Marxist-Leninist worldview and perspective on long-term historical trends and in-depth local knowledge, its view alone represented Chinese reality as well as the direction in which the country was moving.
Corruption and Privilege
Although recent commentators have claimed that China has become increasingly corrupt in the last decade, and indeed a ‘mafia-state’ has developed, critics of one-party rule made similar charges from before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. In the early 1940s, the writer Wang Shiwei famously criticized Party leaders at the Communist base of Yan’an for their special privileges, grades of food, clothing and accommodation. He was denounced as a Trotskyite and eventually beheaded.
After the founding of New China, an elaborate system of ‘privileged supply’ (teshu gongying 特殊供应, or tegong 特供 for short) was introduced from the Soviet Union. A network of restricted-access shops and farms was created to cater to the needs of the Party nomenclatura, a vast body of Party functionaries, bureaucrats and their families divided into twenty-four grades. Cars and telephones were among the special privileges limited to the fortunate few. Mao Zedong and other leaders enjoyed these along with (for the time) luxurious villas located at the most scenic places in the country. The central party-state leaders themselves ruled from a former imperial pleasure ground in the centre of Beijing, Zhongnanhai, the ‘Lake Palaces’.
When Mao called on intellectuals and others to help the Party ‘rectify its work style’ in light of criticisms of party rule in the Eastern Bloc in 1956, many spoke out against the secretive privileges and power of Communist Party cadres. In 1966, when Red Guard rebels were allowed to attack the Party they identified privilege, corruption and abuse of power as the greatest enemies of the revolution. Again, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, when there was a period of relatively free criticism of the Party, privilege and corruption were identified as the greatest threat. In 1989, during a nation-wide protest movement, some protesters released a detailed account of the connection between Party bureaucrats, their children and new business ventures that had sprung up during the early stages of reform. One of the Party leaders directly blamed for the corrupt nexus between Party power, private enterprise and global capital was Zhao Ziyang, later ousted as Party General Secretary.
China’s Party leaders echo Mao Zedong’s old refrain that corruption can lead to the collapse of the Party and the nation when they bewail the rampant corruption of recent years. In the 2012 attacks on Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai, a system of cronyism and corruption endemic in the Chinese one-party state has been protected while the couple were made an object of national vilification.
Party leaders and their families, be they in Beijing or in the provinces, continue to enjoy food produced at special organic farms, dedicated water supplies, luxurious accommodation, clubs and villas and a range of other perks. As in other areas of its activities, the Party is unaccountable. None of its self-allocated privileges are open to public scrutiny and budgetary allocations are a carefully guarded state secret.
In the 2009 film ‘The Founding of a Republic’ (Jianguo Daye 建国大业) produced to celebrate to sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, Chiang Kai-shek says: ‘If we fight corruption, we’ll destroy the party; if we don’t fight corruption, we’ll destroy the nation’ (fan fubai jiu wangdang, bu fan fubai jiu wangguo 反腐败就亡党；不反腐败就亡国). The party he was referring to was the Nationalist Party not the Communists, but many viewers of the film posted comments online saying that the words were perfectly applicable to contemporary China.
Officially, at least, the party-state authorities ‘oppose corruption and espouse frugality’ (fanfu changlian 反腐倡廉).
Dissidents argued against this mainstream view. But until the advent of the Internet, their opinions didn’t travel far beyond their own circles and a few engaged outside observers. While they might be published in a sensation-hungry media (Hong Kong, Taiwan, or international) their ability to reach wider audiences was limited by a strictly controlled media and publishing industry at home. The rise of the Internet, blogs and, more recently, microblogs, has democratized information (as well as misinformation), which can circulate in new ways that both challenge the Chinese state and our understanding of this vast, complex and ever-changing country. The China Story is now more accessible, nuanced, detailed – and out of control – than ever before.
The China Story, as presented in this volume, is that of a formerly underground political party that recast itself, first as a revolutionary national leadership in the late 1940s and then as a legitimate government in power (zhizhengdang 执政党) some three decades ago. For all the paraphernalia of state power, to this day its internal protocols and behaviour recall its long history as a covert, highly secretive and faction- ridden organisation. Even under Mao, some commentators called China a ‘mafia-state’.
This aspect of the party-state was thrown into sharp relief in February 2012 when the former Deputy Mayor of Chongqing, Wang Lijun a man previously famed for having led the attack on that city’s own ‘mafias’, was ordered to undergo an extended period of what was euphemistically termed ‘therapeutic rest’ (xiujiashi zhiliao 休假式治疗) following his appearance at, and subsequent disappearance from, the US Consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan province. (Soon after, ‘treatment’ came to include detention and investigation.) Then, on 15 March, his erstwhile boss and local Party leader, Bo Xilai, was dismissed from his various positions and put under investigation himself.
A Two-track Story
Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, approximately once every decade cataclysmic events in China have led to a clash of views about the country and its rapid transformation. In 1979, the closing down of the Xidan Democracy Wall, where people had aired complaints against the Party and the Chinese government (including those who, like the electrician Wei Jingsheng, warned that to be a modern nation China need democracy), marked the beginning of the bifurcated or ‘two-track’ understanding of contemporary China. Ever since, even as the country’s remarkable economic growth has been hailed locally and internationally, the country’s persistent and often draconian one-party rule has elicited constant criticism.
The nationwide protest movement of 1989 and its violent suppression on 4 June entrenched this two-track understanding of China. The Chinese authorities’ version of the story is that demonstrators in dozens of cities were witless tools in the machinations of plotters and schemers, themselves serving US-led international efforts to undermine the Communist Party, weaken China and thwart its re-emergence as a major global power. Others call it a pro-democracy movement that was brutally suppressed by an armed dictatorship.
It is not only the Chinese party-state, but average Chinese and patriots of all persuasions, however, who are prone to attack ‘the West’ for its ignorance of Chinese reality in that case and others. The constant flow of negative stories about mainland China in the non-mainland Chinese press in Hong Kong and Taiwan is harder for the party-state to dismiss. Harder still is it to deny the lived realities and self-told stories of people who can increasingly speak out for themselves and have their voices heard in no small part thanks to the Internet.
Two other notable manifestations of the two-track story of China occurred in 1999. The first happened on 25 April when thousands of practitioners of the Falun Gong religious sect surrounded Zhongnanhai, the seat of the Chinese party-state. This was followed later in the year by repression of the sect and resulting international disquiet about religious freedom and human rights abuses. The second happened on 7 May, when NATO forces bombed – mistakenly it was claimed – the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. And then there was March 2008, when protests and a riot in Lhasa led to an uprising throughout Tibetan China. This was another moment when mainstream international media reporting in particular clashed with China’s official account of reality.
More recently, in February-March 2012, speculation and rumour about the fall of Bo Xilai were rife. The Chinese authorities resorted to their default mode of high dudgeon to aver that Western accounts of Bo’s fall alleging unprecedented levels of corruption, nepotism and Party cronyism, lacked objectivity. But the speculation was hardly limited to ‘the West’. The ambient political hysteria and rumour-sharing sparked by ructions in China’s political life is the by-product of the secretive Chinese party-state itself and are also common in China. The opaque Chinese political system and its censorious vigilantism with regard to the guardianship of The China Story are facing unique challenges from the People’s Republic’s new-found prosperity, global role and international heft.
Writing in June 2012, the activist artist Ai Weiwei, a man who has featured in the pages of this Yearbook, saw in the fate of three very different public figures, a shared condition:
Reflect on Bo Xilai’s case, [the blind lawyer] Chen Guangcheng’s and mine. We are three very different examples: you can be a high Party member or a humble fighter for rights or a recognised artist. The situations are completely different but well have one thing in common: none of us has been dealt with through fair trials and open discussion. China has not established the rule of law, and if there is a power above the law there is no justice.
A Cyclical History
Critics of the Communist Party-centric China Story often decry it as being politically bankrupt. Many countries and their governments strive to create a unifying narrative that transcends quotidian realities related merely to economics, wealth creation and financial markets. China is no different. Now that country has achieved many of the formal goals of a revolutionary century and China has become a strong and relatively wealthy nation, Chinese from all walks of life have increasingly questioned the rationale for the continuation of the one-party state. They question its ability to oversee a restive nation encompassing divergent needs and interests. Maintaining the status quo while pursuing economic and social transformation by the old methods of police force and political coercion is a fraught, and hugely costly, exercise, as we have noted throughout this volume.
On 4 July 1945, Mao Zedong asked the educator and progressive political activist Huang Yanpei (1878-1965) what he had made of his visit to the wartime Communist base at Yan’an in Shaanxi province. Huang lauded the collective, hard-working spirit evident among the Communists and their supporters. But he expressed his doubts about whether the wartime frugality and solidarity could last. He predicted that the revolutionary ardour of the Communists could well wane if they ended up in control of China, and wondered out loud whether the endemic political limitations and blemishes of earlier Chinese regimes would return to haunt the new one, despite the best efforts of its committed idealists. Would autocracy, cavalier political behaviour, nepotism and corruption once more come to rule over China? Huang said he could see no way out of the ‘vicious cycle’ of dynastic rise and collapse, though he certainly hoped that Mao and his followers would be able to break free of the wheel of history.
In response, Mao declared unequivocally:
We have found a new path; we can break free of the cycle. The path is called democracy. As long as the people have oversight of the government then government will not slacken in its efforts. When everyone takes responsibility there will be no danger that things will return to how they were even if the leader has gone.
Following the 4 June 1989 suppression of a protest movement that had been characterized by inchoate demands for democracy and greater freedom, Mao’s remarks on breaking free of the vicious cycle of the past were dutifully recalled by pro-Party mass media historians. During Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations in February 2011, a group calling itself the Fellowship of the Children of Yan’an recalled Mao’s 1945 declaration that the Communists would lead China away from the tradition of autocracy and the cyclical history of the past. At what had become an annual gathering, the Fellowship warned that the party-state faced a momentous task, that of realizing the promise of Yan’an made some seventy years earlier. At their meeting they canvassed a document in which they called for major structural changes including the implementation of substantive democratic reform within the Communist Party.
The Children of Yan’an believed that they were well within their rights to offer their policy advice to the Party, an organization which many of their parents had contributed to building both before and after 1949. The members of the Children of Yan’an were predominantly descendants of men and women who had lived and worked in the Yan’an Communist Base in Shaanxi from the 1930s to the 1940s, as well as the progeny of the Party who were born and educated in Yan’an. Their outspokenness was a sign that China had entered a new era of ideological uncertainty, social anomie and open political contestation reminiscent of that which had lead to the chaos and suppression of 1989.
Hu Muying, daughter of Hu Qiaomu, a Party wordsmith par excellence and Mao Zedong’s one-time secretary (Deng Xiaoping called him ‘The First Pen of the Communist Party’) has led the group since 2002. In 2008, the Fellowship expanded its membership to include others without any direct link to the old Communist base. Henceforth, the Children of Yan’an would include anyone who wanted to collaborate under its banner and support its vision: ‘to inherit the revolutionary tradition, glorify the Yan’an spirit, build camaraderie with the children of the revolution, sing the praises of the national ethos and to work in various capacities for the old revolutionary areas, ethnic regions, the nation’s frontiers and impoverished areas.’
The Children of Yan’an
Yan’an is a once-isolated town in the barren mountains of northern Shaanxi province. Celebrated as the ‘cradle of the revolution’, it was the last station on the Long March, becoming the Communist Party and Red Army’s base from 1936 to 1948. Many of the policies and systems that the Chinese government employs to this day were first articulated by Mao and established at Yan’an. Much early Communist iconography relates to Yan’an, where the leadership, soldiers and camp followers, including some prominent urban intellectuals, film stars and foreign fellow travellers like Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley, lived and worked in the cave dwellings common to the locality in an atmosphere of austere but sociable egalitarianism.
In 1984, some of the children of Communist Party members who were born or grew up there set up an organization that now calls itself ‘Children of Yan’an’. The group is dedicated to realizing the ideals that their parents devoted themselves to in the heyday of the revolution.
At the 2011 Lunar New Year meeting, Hu Muying declared:
The new explorations made possible by Reform and the Open Door policies [inaugurated in 1978] have, over the past three decades, resulted in remarkable economic results. At the same time, ideological confusion has reigned and the country has been awash in intellectual currents that negate Mao Zedong Thought and Socialism. Corruption and the disparity between the wealthy and the poor are of increasingly serious concern; latent social contradictions are becoming more extreme.
We are absolutely not ‘Princelings’, nor are we ‘Second-generation Bureaucrats’. We are the Red Successors, the Revolutionary Progeny, and as such we cannot but be concerned about the fate of our Party, our Nation and our People. We can no longer ignore the present crisis of the Party.
Hu went on to say that through the activities of study groups, lecture series and symposiums the Children of Yan’an had formulated a document that, following broad-based consultation, would be presented for the consideration of the authorities in the lead up to the Communist Party’s late-2012 Eighteenth Party Congress. She said:
We cannot be satisfied merely with reminiscences nor can we wallow in nostalgia for the glories of the sufferings of our parents’ generation. We must carry on in their heroic spirit, contemplate and forge ahead by asking ever-new questions that respond to the new situations with which we are confronted. We must attempt to address these questions and contribute to the healthy growth of our Party and help prevent our People once more from eating the bitterness of the capitalist past.
In essence, the document drafted by the Children of Yan’an and publicized by them in the lead up to the politically momentous 2012 Party Congress, called for a revival of the legacy of the revolutionary past and for the recognition of a left-wing faction within the Communist Party itself.
Since 2008, the Party has expended considerable energy on silencing or sidelining liberal ideologies in China. The sentencing of the writer Liu Xiaobo, later Nobel laureate, on Christmas Day 2009 and the detention of the artist Ai Weiwei in April 2011 are the two highest-profile examples of these efforts. As the contributors to this volume have noted, it has also expended considerable energy in containing civil unrest, NGO activism, Internet agitation and a range of demands from dissenting thinkers advocating western-style democratic reform (in particular during 2011 as a result of the Arab Spring). So it is significant that those inside the Party who still identify with its Maoist leftist heritage were also actively agitating for reform and for a kind of internal Communist Party ‘democratization’, even if this particular version of populist democracy within an autocratic oneparty schemata may appear to be less than attractive.
Also noteworthy, if not unsettling, was the fact that among the key speeches and documents produced by the Children of Yan’an in recent years there has been scant importance placed on China’s burgeoning global influence, its enmeshment with the international economic order or awareness of regional concerns about the country’s rapid military build-up and the impact of its intermittent bellicosity.
The Red Chorus
The Children of Yan’an declared that China’s new political talent could be found among the masses, in particular among the enthusiastic Party faithful. They claimed, for instance, that the ‘Sing Red’ campaign of Chongqing that was subsequently encouraged by the Party nationwide, had led to the discovery of the kind of enthusiastic younger Party stalwarts who would ensure the continuation of the Communist enterprise long into the future. In the 1960s, Mao Zedong had warned that after his demise people would inevitably ‘wave the red flag to oppose the red flag’. Now it would appear that the Children of Yan’an were using their very own red flag to oppose the red flag of economic reform that, since 1978, had itself been employed to oppose the red flag of Maoism.
Red culture has formed the audio-visual backdrop to mainland Chinese history since the 1950s, and to some extent since the Japanese War period of the 1930s and 40s. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, it was reduced to little more than a disco-fication of Revolutionary Model Operas until after the 1989 protest movement. Following the suppression of that nationwide mass uprising against one-party rule and media control, the Communist Party used police force, indoctrination, re-education and cultural ‘soft power’ to reassert its authority, reviving Red Culture in the process. For a period, the momentum for further economic and social change of the 1980s was lost. Then, with his inspection Tour of the South in 1992, Deng Xiaoping encouraged further radical change that led to unprecedented opportunities for people to improve their living standards, and the Red Culture movement subsided once more. When, in early 2012, Deng’s Tour was recalled, commentators remarked that China again faced a stark choice: to carry out further systemic reforms that would unleash greater creativity and future prosperity, or to maintain the satus quo allowing thereby entrenched interest groups to advance a form of crony capitalism under the umbrella of party-state protection. Others would argue that a hyper-cautious collective leadership served China well, allowing the country to maintain stability and steady growth in a period of global fiscal uncertainty.
As we have noted in this book, in early 2012, the complex negotiations surrounding the power transition of 2012-2013 were thrown into sudden relief when Wang Lijun, until then a key ally of Bo Xilai in his ‘Sing Red, Strike Black’ campaign from 2009 fell from grace and made an abrupt and mysterious visit to the US Consulate in Chengdu, where he unsuccessfully sought asylum. Wang’s fall led to wild speculation about the fate of Bo Xilai and the role of ‘Princelings’ in Chinese politics. Some commentators believe that the ‘Red Culture’ campaign itself would be imperilled by this latest shift in the country’s power politics. Yet, while other forms of resistance to the Party’s current policies remain effectively outlawed, the red heritage of the Maoist era can provide another means by which to challenge the status quo.
The Children of Yan’an concluded their February 2011 plea for Party reform by referring back to Mao Zedong’s July 1945 exchange with Huang Yanpei in Yan’an. They reminded their readers of Mao’s belief that the Party had identified the final solution to China’s historical trap:
We have found a new path; we can break free of the cycle. The path is called democracy. As long as the people have oversight of the government then government will not slacken in its efforts.
In no uncertain terms the Children of Yan’an now declared:
We are calling on the whole Party to take a substantive step in this direction.
Not only had the Children of Yan’an formulated a manifesto and begun agitating for political reform, for in their pursuit of a Maoist-style ‘mass line’ they reportedly made tentative contacts with grass-roots organizations and petitioner groups in and outside Beijing. For left-leaning figures in contemporary China to engage in such pragmatic, and non-hierarchical, politics was highly significant, and alarming for the authorities.
In the wake of the events of February-March 2012, the Children of Yan’an gradually fell silent. Even before Bo Xilai’s March ouster, when they had met again to welcome in the Year of the Dragon at Chinese New Year in February 2012, they refrained from making further calls for internal Party reform, although in private some of their members expressed despair about the fate of the Party and the future of the nation.
Even in power, Mao Zedong frequently spoke about the dangers of bourgeois restoration and revisionism. He declared a number of times that he would have to go back into the mountains to lead a guerrilla war against the power-holders, indeed that rebellion was justified. In contemporary China heated discussions about the legacy of revolutionary politics continue in the cloistered security of academic forums; but Mao’s guerrilla spirit of rebellion, the active involvement with a politics of agitation, action and danger, are part of a red legacy that seem long forgotten. Restive farmers and workers may cloak themselves in the language of defunct revolution, but the evidence suggests that their metaphorical landscape is a complex mixture of traditional cultural tropes and an awareness of modern rights.
One of the most abiding legacies of Red Culture is the paradigm of the Cold War. Cold War attitudes and rhetoric are easily applied to the tensions between the People’s Republic of China and its neighbours as well as other nations with which it finds itself in conflict. The use of such rhetoric by the party-state and those in its thrall (from state think tank apparatchiki and a swarm of left-leaning academics to semi-independent media writers) of course encourages a response from the other side in any given stoush.
Since 2009, rhetorical clashes of this kind, some quite aggressive, have revolved around such topics as climate change, US arms sales to Taiwan, the valuation of the Renminbi, Internet freedom, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Sino-Australian relations, as well as ongoing disturbances in Tibet and Xinjiang. In regard to these issues – and here we are concerned with Chinese rhetoric, not the substantive matters involving different national and economic interests – the default position of the Chinese party-state remains that of the early Maoist days when conspiracy theories, class struggle and overblown rhetoric formed the backdrop to any official stance. This is not to underplay the importance of real and ongoing clashes of national interests, worldviews, or political and economic systems, but simply to make the point that the way in which the party-state responds is very much dictated by the official parameters of The China Story.
Many questions remain as yet unanswered. Have revolutionary politics and ideology lost their traction in The China Story as the fall of Bo Xilai and the eclipse of red culture might indicate? Has the neo-liberal turn of Chinese statist politics in the decades of reform reshaped The China Story around a concocted and self-interested ‘Chinese race’, in which the main narrative is that of a nationalistic rise to superpower on the world stage? Or, do the various red legacies that date from China’s Republican era (be they communist, socialist or social-democratic) still contribute something to the ways in which thinking Chinese, in and out of power, contemplate that country’s future direction? Can a left-leaning legacy distinguish itself from a failed Maoism or Red Culture as entertainment? Or is Maoism and its panoply of language and practices the only viable source of resistance to the continuing spectre of Western imperialism? How do the discourses of universalism, as well as of economic and human rights fit into The China Story today?
This book has attempted to account for some aspects of The China Story over recent years. It is inevitably a limited and narrowly focused effort. We hope this first China Story Yearbook does, nonetheless, make accessible to a broad and engaged public some of the key issues, ideas and people important in China today.
For the Children of Yan’an and those of a more general leftist persuasion – those who were intellectually or sympathetically retro-Maoist or neo-Marxist, the red rising of recent years seemed to offer a glimmer of hope, a chance to recapture some of the lost ethos of China’s socialist possibility. Despite their objections to party-state policies that helped enrich the few, there was within this disparate group a broad endorsement of state power. The strong state, or what we call throughout this volume the party-state (dangguo 党国) was seen as being the essential guarantor of Chinese unity and economic strength.
We have noted the concern expressed by economists and journalists, thinkers and web activists that the social and economic transformation of China has, in recent times, been bedeviled by an increasingly assertive state and the vested interests represented by a nexus of party-state-business concerns. This situation is summed up in the expression ‘the state has advanced while the individual has been in retreat’ (guo jin min tui 国进 民退).
Xu Jilin, a prominent Shanghai-based intellectual historian, has called this version of Chinese cultural-politics a form of ‘statism’ (guojiazhuyi 国家主义). He has noted its previous, malevolent incarnations in twentieth century Europe, and warned that behind the vaunted ‘China Model’ lurks an unaccountable form of authoritarianism. Gloria Davies, a contributor to the present volume, has noted that: ‘In his robust critique of statism… Xu Jilin has argued that because it privileges an ideal scenario of responsible governance, statism is constitutively skewed toward legitimizing authoritarian rule. As a consequence little consideration is given to protecting individual rights and freedom of speech and association as guaranteed in the Chinese constitution.’
Among a myriad of dilemmas facing China in its post-transition age, it is that of the polity itself that remains contested. At the same time, the contemporary unitary party-state of the People’s Republic of China confronts the liberal market democracies of the world with the reality of a resilient state, a liberalized guided economy and a form of harsh paternalism. It is this particular Chinese ‘national situation’ (guoqing 国情) and what it means domestically, regionally and on a global scale that will be the focus of China Story Yearbook 2013, the title of which is: Civilising China.
- Red Eclipse, the conclusion to the 2012 China Story Yearbook. The full version of the introduction contains information boxes and illustrations.
A Gallery of Rogues — The Coronavirus Propagandists
The catastrophe of the coronavirus began in late 2019 when those who tried to speak out about the looming crisis were silenced by the system. Their constructive suggestions were repressed or, to use the expression with which we began this chapter, they were subjected to 弭謗 mǐ bàng, ‘the suppression of criticism’. The following video compiled by GouGe 狗哥, an independent commentator on Chinese affairs, is a digest of permitted speech that offers an audio-visual aide-mémoire:
- Uncle Roger, GouGe 狗哥, Wang Gang 王剛, et al, ‘Celebrating the Egg-fried Rice Festival in West Korea’, China Heritage, 1 November 2020