Spectres & Souls
‘Yet again people throughout China — including the entire bureaucratic class — are suffering from uncertainty and they are experiencing a mounting sense of anxiety in relation both to the direction the country is taking as well as in regard to their personal security. These anxieties have generated something of a nationwide panic. … [W]e now seem to be heading in the opposite direction from the one that we have previously been taking.’
Thus begins the preamble of ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’, a lacerating analysis of the policies of Xi Jinping’s China released online by Xu Zhangrun, a prominent professor of jurisprudence at Tsinghua University in Beijing, on 24 July 2018.
In publishing an unsparing critique of the Chinese party-state Xu Zhangrun knew that he was courting disaster and over the past three years China Heritage has chronicled how that disaster has unfolded, one that has affected not only Professor Xu, but also his family, friends and colleagues. The grim fate that has befallen that outspoken academic illuminates a far greater tragedy for China itself. (For details, see the Xu Zhangrun Archive.)
China Heritage is marking the third anniversary of the release of ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’ by publishing a revised translation of the text. We are doing so in tandem with the publication of a new essay by Xu Zhangrun titled ‘Alarms and Excursions Permit No Peace’ 笳鼓悲鳴遣人驚, an edited translation of which is published as ‘Xi’s China, the Handiwork of an Autocratic Roué’ in The New York Review of Books on 9 August 2021.
We are also celebrating Xu Zhangrun’s latest book, Ten Letters from a Year of Plague 《庚子十劄》, published by Boden Books in New York on 4 August 2021. For a translation of the introduction to Ten Letters, and selected chapters, see ‘Introducing Xu Zhangrun’s Ten Letters from a Year of Plague’, China Heritage, 11 February 2021.
‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’ formed the central chapter of Xu Zhangrun’s previous book — China’s Ongoing Crisis: Six Chapters from the 2018 Year of the Dog 許章潤著 《戊戌六章》— which also appeared with Boden Books, in May 2020.
The material in this chapter of Spectres & Souls is divided into the following sections (click on a section title to scroll down):
- Introducing the revised text of ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’
- Xu Zhangrun’s Sublime Madness of the Soul
- Another Lesson in New Sinology
- ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’, a revised and annotated translation with the original Chinese text
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
8 August 2021
Xu Zhangrun’s Fears and Hopes
‘…since I published “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes,” everything I feared might happen has come to pass, and new evidence in support of my case emerges every day. The “Eight Fears” that I identified in July 2018 are now a reality. … As for my “Eight Hopes,” they remain nothing more than wishful thinking.’
— Xu Zhangrun
24 July 2021
That China’s party-state is: 1. undermining private property rights; 2. reviving an emphasis on all-consuming politics touching every sphere of life; 3. re-engaging with class struggle; 4. pursuing a new closed-door policy; 5. indulging in wasteful and grandiose gestures of foreign aid; 6. continuing to repress the intelligentsia; 7. engaging in a new arms race that will contribute to another cold war; and, 8. abandoning substantive economic reforms while returning to totalitarian methods of social control.
That: 1. the government will put an end to wasteful international projects; 2. it will curtail diplomatic extravagance; 3. the authorities will eliminate the secret privileges of the Party gentry; 4. will abolish the pervasive system of special provisioning that serves the nomenklatura; 5. government officials will divulge their assets; 6. the new personality cult of Xi Jinping will be dropped; 7. term limits for state president will be restored; and, 8. there will be a formal re-evaluation of the events around June Fourth 1989.
Introducing the revised text of
‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’
As part of ‘Over One Hundred Years’, the ongoing commemoration of the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (1921-2021) in China Heritage, we offer a revised translation of ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’ 我們當下的恐懼與期待, released by Xu Zhangrun (許章潤, 1962-) on 24 July 2018.
Written in a succinct and powerful form of literary Chinese, Xu’s jeremiad analysed the authoritarian revanchism of what the Chinese media were hailing as the New Epoch of Xi Jinping Thought. Following a lengthy analysis of China’s political woes, Xu also offered a number of concrete policy suggestions that were aimed at ameliorating what many liberal thinkers and constitutional activists in China have long identified as being at the heart of China’s systemic crisis following the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912 and part of the core dilemmas of Chinese modernity.
‘Fears, Hopes’ extended arguments that Xu Zhangrun had been making since at least 2016, and it was followed, in December 2018 and January 2019, by three interconnected essays in which he further outlined his view of modern Chinese history, the role played in it by the Communist Party, and the threat that the party-state now posed not only to the continued modernisation of the nation but to the international community as a whole.
China Heritage published a draft translation of Professor Xu’s jeremiad on 1 August 2018. Here we pause to commemorate the third anniversary of the publication of that translation of ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’ and to celebrate Xu Zhangrun’s contribution to a multigenerational struggle focussed on modern China and its civilisation, one that has raged for nigh on one-hundred and fifty years.
In July 2018, the international media reported on a long essay that had just been released by a professor of law at Tsinghua University. Initially, commentators focussed on the author’s appeal to the Beijing authorities to reconsider the official verdict on the Beijing Massacre of June Fourth 1989, the thirtieth anniversary of which was coming up on 4 June 2019.
Having spent long years working on The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a three-hour documentary film related to the 1989 Protest Movement, as well as having published various academic studies, articles, translations and an edited volume on the subject — not to mention the fact that I had been embroiled in litigation against the independent film making group I worked with in Boston launched by Chai Ling 柴玲, a former Tiananmen activist turned business woman and latter-day Christian zealot — my eyes glazed over when reading those initial short accounts about the outspoken Beijing professor.
After a day or two, I decided to scan the full text of this latest ‘petition to the throne’, as such documents are generally known, and discovered that not only was it written in a particularly elegant, if challenging style of hybrid literary Chinese, but that its concerns ranged far beyond the disaster of 1989. In fact, the author touched on a number of issues to do with dissent, privilege and systemic Communist Party corruption that had intrigued me from my student days in China in the mid 1970s (when I experienced my first political campaign — ‘Study Thirty-three Quotations from Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin-Mao on Bourgeois Rights’, in February 1975 — and later learned about Wang Shiwei, the tragic Yan’an dissident). So, I translated three passages that paralleled those early interests and published them in ‘Other People’s Thoughts, XII’ (China Heritage, 29 July 2018).
Subsequently, my friend Chris Buckley told me that he was working on a report on the Xu Zhangrun case for The New York Times and he asked me whether I was working on a full translation of Xu Zhangrun’s ten-thousand character text. Over the next few days, with the help of my old friend Warren Sun 孫王國, I rushed out a 15,000 word translation that Chris’s was able to provide links to in his report in The Times (see Chris Buckley, As China’s Woes Mount, Xi Jinping Faces Rare Rebuke at Home, The New York Times, 31 July 2018).
As I wrote at the time in a note to readers of China Heritage:
‘This is a Draft Translation of a long and intricate document. Due to the level of interest in Xu Zhangrun’s outspoken views among English-language readers, the following has been produced in a matter of days, whereas in the normal course of events a work that is the result of deep thought and reflection (and informed by a lifetime of experience) on the part of the author would require weeks of dedicated effort for any translator to do it justice.’
Subsequently, events and other tasks took precedence over revising that draft text, for which I am making amends here.
— 8 August 2021
‘Over One Hundred Years’
(a section of Spectres & Souls — China Heritage Annual 2021)
- Liang Hongda 梁宏達, et al, ‘5.16 — Sorry, Not Sorry’, China Heritage, 16 May 2021
- Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, et al, ‘In Memoriam — 4 June 2021’, China Heritage, 4 June 2021
- G. Barmé, ‘Beijing Days, Beijing Nights, May 1989’, China Heritage, 4 June 2021
- Isaiah Berlin, et al, ‘Xi Jinping’s China & Stalin’s Artificial Dialectic’, China Heritage, 10 June 2021
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘Apple Daily, ‘The Four Noes’ & the End of Chinese Media Independence’, China Heritage, 24 June 2021
- Geremie R. Barmé, A.M. Rosenthal, et al, ‘Beijing, 1st July 2021 — ‘It was a sunny day and the trees were green…’, China Heritage, 1 July 2021
- Geremie R. Barmé, ‘Red Allure & The Crimson Blindfold’, China Heritage, 13 July 2021
- The Xu Zhangrun Archive, China Heritage, 1 August 2018-
- Xu Zhangrun’s Fears & Hopes, July 2018-July 2020, China Heritage, 26 July 2020
- Xu Zhangrun, ‘Xi’s China, the Handiwork of an Autocratic Roué’, The New York Review of Books, 9 August 2021
- Liu Xiaobo interview with Bai Jieming (Geremie Barmé), December 1986, subsequently published under the title 中國人的街坊在自我覺醒——與個性派評論家劉曉波一席談 in The Nineties Monthly 九十年代月刊, March 1987
- G. Barmé, Confession, Redemption, and Death: Liu Xiaobo and the Protest Movement of 1989, 1990 & in Chinese at: 忏悔、救赎与死亡：刘晓波与八九民运, 石默奇译
- Liu Xiaobo, ‘The Tragedy of a “Tragic Hero” ‘ and ‘At the Gateway to Hell’, translated by Barmé in Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin, eds, New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, New York: Random House, 1992
- Joseph Brodsky, A Commencement Address, 16 August 1984, collected in Joseph Brodsky, Less Than One, Selected Essays, London: Penguin Books, 1987, p.385, quoted in Barmé, ‘Confession, Redemption and Death: Liu Xiaobo and the 1989 Protest Movement’, 1990, n.5
- G. Barmé, China’s Promise, China Beat, 10 January 2010
- G. Barmé, ‘Mourning’, China Heritage, 30 June 2017
Xu Zhangrun’s Sublime Madness of the Soul
Geremie R. Barmé
‘Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy the forces of repression “a sublime madness in the soul.” Niebuhr wrote that “nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’ ” This sublime madness, as Niebuhr understood, is dangerous, but it is vital. Without it, “truth is obscured.” And Niebuhr also knew that traditional liberalism was a useless force in moments of extremity. Liberalism, Niebuhr said, “lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It is too intellectual and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history.”
‘This sublime madness is the essential quality for a life of resistance. It is the acceptance that when you stand with the oppressed you get treated like the oppressed. It is the acceptance that, although empirically all that we struggled to achieve during our lifetime may be worse, our struggle validates itself.’
— Chris Hedges, ‘The Price of Resistance’
Truth Dig, 18 April 2017
In September 1953, the modern Confucian thinker and rural reformer Liang Shuming (梁漱溟, 1893-1988) famously clashed with the Communist Party Chairman, Mao Zedong. Liang was mildly critical of how, following the Liberation of 1949, Party policy favoured the urban working class to the disadvantage of the countryside. Until then, Mao had regarded Liang as a zhèngyǒu 諍友, ‘a principled friend who dares to disagree’. Liang now took it upon himself to speak truth to power. During a heated exchange at a meeting of the Central People’s Government Council power spoke back. In response to a series of biting remarks that Mao directed at the scholar, Liang asked the Party Chairman if he had the ‘magnanimity’ 雅量 to allow him now to voice his views at length. Mao famously replied:
‘I very much doubt that I’ll indulge you with the kind of magnanimity that you want!’
Mao did, however, say that he’d be magnanimous enough to allow Liang a seat on the National Consultative Congress; he wouldn’t even have to perform a ritual self-criticism. But, Mao added, ‘The only thing that you have coming your way is denunciation [批判].’ Subsequently, the Party Chairman published a scathing attack on the scholar who, having been thus dismissed, only resurfaced because he had managed to outlive his nemesis.
Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, a professor of law at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the author of the following cri de coeur, has praised Liang Shuming as a dàrú 大儒, a Great Scholar of Principle — here the term rú 儒, often clumsily translated as ‘Confucian’, means ‘a man whose learning and actions are grounded in Confucian principles of righteousness, fearlessness and probity’.
On the eve of the 120th anniversary of Liang Shuming’s birth on 18 January 2018, Xu had even offered the following appraisal of the long-dead paragon in an interview:
‘Liang tirelessly traversed our nation for the betterment of all. True Confucian scholars [rúzhě 儒者] like him put Confucian thought into practice; they do so in their own lives and through their actions. They have a near religious devotion to working for the salvation of the world.
‘Nowadays “New Confucian Academics” 新儒家學者 might claim that they are Confucian Scholars but they head off to sing karaoke at the drop of a hat. Mr Liang was always mulling over issues to do with our Family-Nation-All-Under-Heaven. You must include these words when you write up your report. What’s the use of blathering on in the abstract if you don’t possess an all-encompassing perspective 眼界 and true insight 眼光. Most people simply don’t get it.’
On 24 July 2018, Xu Zhangrun published a lengthy online critique of China’s present political and social dilemmas. In issuing his Jeremiad, Xu, who is something of a latter-day rú 儒 himself, located himself in the Grand Tradition by in effect addressing a Memorial to the Throne, 諫言 or 上書. Given the relentless police repression and intensifying ideological clamp-down in Xi Jinping’s China, this was a daring act of ‘remonstrance’ 諫勸.
Although composed for the most part in highly erudite modern Chinese, Xu’s appeal also employed numerous turns of phrase and formulations inspired by a two-and-a-half millennia literary tradition. Among other things Xu’s petition evoked both the Way and Heaven, as well as eternal principles of governance.
Reading Xu’s petition, students of Chinese history will readily recall the outspoken scholars of the Eastern Forest Academy 東林書院 who, in the late-Ming dynasty, railed against the rule of eunuchs and imperial corruption (it was a group that, in the early 1960s, critics of Mao recalled); or the ‘Scholars’ Memorial’ movement 公車上書 starting in 1895 that contributed crucially to the short-lived One-hundred Days Reforms 戊戌變法 under the emperor Dezong 德宗 (Aisin-Gioro Dzai Tiyan 愛新覺羅 · 載恬, 1871-1908). But Xu’s essay addressed a far wider audience since, in effect, he was also ‘cautioning the world’ 勸世, that is, warning China as a whole of the incipient dangers that would threaten the nation if its modernising trajectory, dating from the mid-nineteenth century, was to be frustrated once more. It is here that his work is reminiscent both of similar analyses and writings produced by his contemporaries, as well as of Zheng Guanying’s 鄭觀應 celebrated 1893 tract Words of Warning to a Prosperous Age 盛世危言.
Of course, Xu Zhangrun’s Petition also recalls the most famous ‘Memorial to the Ruler’ of the Communist era, that addressed by the Minister of Defence Peng Dehuai 彭德懷 to Mao Zedong. Known as the ‘Ten-thousand Word Appeal to the Ruler’ 萬言上書, it was written during a crucial Party meeting at Lushan in south China in July 1959. In it, Peng warned his old comrade-in-arms and fellow Hunanese revolutionary of the unfolding disaster of the Great Leap Forward. He backed up his advice about the unfolding disaster of Mao’s radical policies with details recorded during his own investigations in the countryside. For his troubles Peng was denounced, not only by Mao but by other Party leaders including the State President Liu Shaoqi 劉少奇 and Party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping 鄧小平. The tragedy of the Great Leap unfolded inexorably, leading to the death by starvation of tens of millions of people (including one of Xu Zhangrun’s brothers), and Peng lived out his days in ignominy. Peng’s outspokenness and Mao’s obsession with weeding out all support for it would later be used as a pretext to launch the Cultural Revolution in 1966. The sweet irony of the cataclysm is that both Liu and Deng were themselves early victims of what soon became a nationwide purge.
Xu Zhangrun’s Jeremiad also brings to mind the 1974 Big-character Poster of Canton — ‘Concerning Democracy and the Rule of Law under Socialism’ 關於社會主義的民主與法制. That 26,000-character critique of the Cultural Revolution was written in calligraphy on multiple large sheets paper in the form of a ‘big-character poster’ 大字報. The work of a writing collective that signed itself Li Yizhe 李一哲 (the nom de plume of Li Zhengtian 李正天, Chen Yiyang 陳一陽, Wang Xizhe 王希哲 and Guo Hongzhi 郭鴻志, as well as a number of others), the poster appeared on the walls of buildings at the intersection of Beijing Road in the heart of Guangzhou on 10 November 1974. As Simon Leys wrote at the time:
‘In Canton at the end of 1974 three courageous young revolutionaries wrote under the pen name of “Li Yi-che” a political manifesto of historical importance. On the occasion of the anti-Lin Biao campaign, then in full swing, they dared to ask the only relevant question: what is the point of attacking a dead person if we do not attempt to identify the mechanism by which he came to power — what is the point of denouncing Lin Biao, if we do not endeavor to denounce the Lin Piao system?’
— Simon Leys, ‘Comrade Chiang Ch’ing’,
Broken Images, London 1979, p.77
The lead authors were detained for having published a ‘reactionary big-character poster’ and they were subjected to dozens of mass denunciations, although on occasion they were also permitted the right of reply to the countless accusations hurled at them. Supporters surreptitiously put up their own posters in defense of Li Yizhe although in late 1975 the group was formally arrested charged with having formed a ‘Counter-revolutionary Clique’ 反革命集團. When Xi Zhongxun 習仲勳 — the father of China’s present ruler and the main object of Xu Zhangrun’s digital ‘big-character poster’ below — took charge of the Guangdong Party Committee following Mao’s death, he ordered the case against Li Yizhe to be re-examined.
In February 1979, the Li Yizhe collective was exonerated and formally rehabilitated at a mass rally in Guangzhou.
Posters, petitions and pleas directed to the authorities, both by single authors and by groups of writers and signatories, have been a hallmark of China’s era of Economic Reforms and the Open Door. Starting with the public outpourings pasted up on the Democracy Wall at the Xidan intersection in Beijing from November 1978 to December 1979, posters continued to appear throughout the 1980s, reaching a crescendo with the petition movement that unfolded both before and during the Beijing Protests of April-June 1989. At that time they were accompanied by various powerful gestures, including one that saw students kneeling outside the Great Hall of the People to petition the rulers 跪諫. Some petitioners even declared that they were willing to advance their pleas at the cost of their own lives 死諫.
It is well over ten years since over 300 Chinese men and women of conscience signed Charter 08 零八憲章, a manifesto calling for the peaceful evolution of China’s authoritarian system towards democracy. And it is just over four years since the Charter’s most famous signatory, the imprisoned writer and Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波, was murdered by state neglect. And, since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, prominent critics of Xi Jinping’s misrule have also met a plangent fate: the rights activist Xu Zhiyong 許志永 was detained in February 2020 and Ren Zhiqiang 任志強, a prominent business figure and member of the elite, was sentenced to eighteen years in prison in September 2020. As we have noted over the years, Xu Zhangrun’s supporters have also been harassed, interrogated and, in the case of Geng Xiaonan 耿瀟男, a cultural activist who was his most outspoken champion, jailed (sentenced in February 2021, Geng is serving a three-year sentence for ‘irregularities’ related to her successful publishing company). As Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s executioner, famously put it: ‘Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.’
Xu Zhangrun’s powerful plea is not a simple work of ‘dissent’, as the term is generally understood in the sense of samizdat protest literature. Given the unease within China’s elites today, its implications are also of a different order from liberal pro-Western ‘dissident writing’. In writing his Jeremiad, Xu Zhangrun issued a challenge from the intellectual and cultural heart of China, or 文化中國, to the political heart of the Communist Party.
The author daresay sees himself within the ‘tradition of Confucian continuity’ 道統, the age-old stream of cultural becoming with which certain intellectuals identify. It is a tradition that long pre-dates Communist rule, and it is one that will flourish long after they quit the historical stage. The content and powerful literary style of Xu’s ‘remonstrance’, as well as its tone of ‘moral outrage’ 義憤, not to mention the author’s scathing humour, will resonate deeply throughout the Chinese party-state system, as well as within Chinese society and among concerned citizens and observers more broadly.
If, as some scholars have previously observed, many Chinese men and women of letters revere ‘China’ 中華 as something akin to a religion — that is, an all-embracing system of identity, personal salvation, values and beliefs — then the author of this extraordinary petition, himself a sincere devotee, has offered his advice as an act of sacrifice on the Altar of State 社稷. One could say that Xu’s gesture is both that of conscientious objection and of martyrdom for China 殉國.
In his reflection on the third anniversary of the publication of ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’, Xu Zhangrun wrote ‘吾曹不出, 奈蒼生何’, literally, ‘If people like me do not take a stand, what hope is there for our fellows?’. It is the reworking of remark made by Liang Shuming in October 1917. That lament on the state of China during internecine warfare that marred the early years of the new republic contained the following lines:
‘It is up to people like me to do something about the situation, and action must be taken immediately. As others dither, some of us must step forward, and I am willing to speak out. We all have a sense of self and everything must start with our selves. Thus, if I do nothing, how can I expect anyone else to do anything? Alas: if people like me shy from speaking out, what hope is there for China?
Writing nearly a century later, Xu Zhangrun echoed Liang’s anguish.
— Geremie R. Barmé
1 August 2018 (revised 8 August 2021)
Another Lesson in New Sinology
In China Heritage we celebrate the vital aspects of the Chinese tradition both by introducing readers to Nouvelle Chinoiserie 奇趣漢學, as well as by adding to our long-term advocacy of New Sinology 後漢學, which we first articulated in 2005. We have previously illustrated this approach to engaging with the contemporary Chinese world in the context of the tradition in the form a series titled New Sinology Jottings 後漢學劄記. Over the past five years, we have also published translations related to contemporary Chinese politics and culture. To date, these have included political commentaries by the noted Hong Kong writer Lee Yee 李怡 (see The Best China), an annotated translation of series of critiques from the People’s Daily and an introduction to Deng Tuo’s 鄧拓 Evening Chats at Yanshan 燕山夜話. The following translation is the latest addition to this growing body of material.
What’s useful about New Sinology? As we have remarked previously:
‘Today’s corporatised education system too often leaves students of China well versed in the professions, but unable to understand with ease and fluency the wellsprings of what China is today. Deprived of the broader linguistic and cultural context, they are ill-equipped to understand, translate or engage with such daily essentials as online discussions, coded commentaries or sometimes even newspaper headlines, let alone the myriad traditional concepts used by Chinese thinkers, politicians, economists and strategists in articulating China’s sense of itself and its new place in the world. …
‘New Sinology advocates an approach to contemporary China that appreciates the overculture of the dominant Chinese Communist Party and what, through ideology, its policies, the mass media, the education system and its internal and global propaganda efforts the Party promotes as Official China. It also inducts those engaged with China into the particularities of Translated China, that is the versions of China advocated by the Party authorities through their selective approach to and interpretation of the Chinese world, be it in the contemporary context or that of the tradition or the twentieth century.’
Today, the Xi Jinping-era version of The China Story claims to be the sole legitimate way to understand China, both present and past. Many writers, journalists and academics, be they inside China or overseas, strain to hear, report, create stories or translate the polyphony of voices, the jostling of ideas, aspirations and the melding of the traditional with the contemporary that can inform an engaged yet independent appreciation of the Chinese world unencumbered by Communist Party dogma. It is the task of China’s Communist Party organs like People’s Daily to corral a Chinese multiverse that is constantly threatening to break out of the official prison of words. Through our advocacy of New Sinology we hope to aid and abet people in their efforts to appreciate better the limits of that party-prison.
Xu Zhangrun’s essay ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’ 我們當下的恐懼與期待, offers words of warning to China’s leaders, as well as a series of practical (although presently unrealisable) policy suggestions. Xu’s style is a heady admix of the most dense kind of writing that combines the vernacular with various literary registers of written Chinese. Despite the sometimes knotty circumlocutions, it is an incisive, amusing and sarcasm-laden work. It does not spare its reader literary references, quotations from important traditional and modern works, the use of historical analogy, or indeed contemporary jokes and vulgarities.
Although the author’s message is clear, his layered and nuanced prose may well be overlooked by the careless reader or dismissed by those ignorant of Chinese discourse as mere affectation, nothing more than an effort to appeal to sanctified tradition, a kind of pedantic footnoting or a flashy display of scholarship. However, for those familiar with modern Chinese prose more generally, such rhetorical devices are par for the course. This kind of literary-historical-intellectual 文史哲 usage adds both cultural validation and strength to prose that appeals both to the heart and the mind of the Chinese world. Merely to mine such writing for transient and ill-conceived political purposes, or to fail to appreciate the broader cultural, social and political mindset that it reflects — one far beyond the limited purview of the Communists and their immediate critics — is to overlook an essential part of Chinese cultural expression.
— The Editor
Reading Xu Zhangrun:
- The Xu Zhangrun Archive, China Heritage, 1 August 2018-
- Chris Buckley, As China’s Woes Mount, Xi Jinping Faces Rare Rebuke at Home, The New York Times, 31 July 2018
- Jeremy Goldkorn, Peak Xi Jinping? Two Essays, Six Years Apart, Offer Perspective On Chinese President, SupChina, 2 August 2018
- Jerome A. Cohen, Xi Jinping sees some pushback against his iron-fisted rule, The Washington Post, 2 August 2018
- Contentious Friendship — a decade of zhengyou 諍友, China Heritage, 29 April 2018
- Mendacious, Hyperbolic & Fatuous — an ill wind from People’s Daily, China Heritage, 10 July 2018
- Deathwatch for a Chairman, China Heritage, 17 July 2018
- It’s Time to Talk about Evening Chats at Yanshan, China Heritage, 20 July 2018
- Mao Zedong 毛澤東, Criticism of Liang Shuming’s Reactionary Ideas 批判梁漱溟的反動思想, 14-15 September 1953
- Li Yizhe 李一哲, On Democracy and the Rule of Law under Socialism — Offered to Chairman Mao and the Fourth National People’s Congress 關於社會主義的民主與法制, November 1974 (Chinese)
- From the Li Yizhe Big-character Poster to the Tiananmen Incident of 1976 從李一哲大字報到天安門事件, 30 May 1976 (Chinese)
- Guy S. Alitto, The Last Confucian: Liang Shu-ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity, UC Berkeley: Centre for Chinese Studies, 1979
- He Xin 何新, A Word of Advice to the Politburo, translated, annotated and introduced by Geremie Barmé, The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No.23 (January 1990): 49-76
- Geremie R. Barmé, ‘Screw You, Too’, which features a discussion of contemporary Chinese ‘memorial literature’ 奏摺文學, in my In the Red, on contemporary Chinese culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, p.365ff
- Editorial, China’s Prosperous Age (Shengshi 盛世), China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 26 (June 2011)
- Gloria Davies, Fragile Prosperity, China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 26 (June 2011)
- Deng Yuwen 鄧聿文, Ten Grave Problems Facing China 十大問題, trans. Eric Mu, The China Story, 8 September 2012
- Geremie R. Barmé, The Five Vermin 五蠹 Threatening China, including a translation of an advice paper by Yuan Peng 袁鵬 addressed to leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, The China Story, 4 November 2012
- Deng Yuwen, Civilising China: China Story Yearbook 2013, G.R. Barmé, Jeremy Goldkorn, Gloria Davies, eds, Canberra: Australian Centre on China in the World
- Rong Jian 榮劍, Thinking China, The China Story
This Translation is Dedicated to
Wu Zuguang (吳祖光, 1917-2003)
Playwright, essayist and inspiring friend
A True Gentleman with boundless contempt
for Mao Zedong and his Cult
(See A Disaffected Gentleman)
‘As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the only morally reliable people are not those who say “this is wrong” or “this should not be done,” but those who say “I can’t.” …
‘ “You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career,” [Vaclav] Havel wrote [in The Power of the Powerless]. “You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society. … The dissident does not operate in the realm of genuine power at all. He is not seeking power. He has no desire for office and does not gather votes. He does not attempt to charm the public. He offers nothing and promises nothing. He can offer, if anything, only his own skin—and he offers it solely because he has no other way of affirming the truth he stands for. His actions simply articulate his dignity as a citizen, regardless of the cost.” ’
— from Chris Hedges
‘The Price of Resistance’
‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’
A revised and annotated translation
with the original Chinese text
Xu Zhangrun 許章潤
Translated, with Notes and Elaborations, by Geremie R. Barmé
Yet again people throughout China — including the entire bureaucratic class — are suffering from uncertainty and they are experiencing a mounting sense of anxiety in relation both to the direction the country is taking as well as in regard to their personal security. These anxieties have generated something of a nationwide panic. This is primarily due to the fact that in recent years our National Orientation [立國之道, or ‘the underpinnings of the state’, an expression that has been popular among Confucian-oriented thinkers from the Republican era (1912-1949). Today, the Communists claim sole proprietorship over the term, its articulation and its definition. By using this and other expressions related to modern Chinese history, Xu is announcing his apostasy] has betrayed the Basic Principles that I outline below. In fact, we now seem to be heading in the opposite direction from the one that we have previously been taking. In my opinion, these Basic Principles should not be compromised, and under no circumstances should they be undermined. For these are the Principles that inform the policies formulated by the Communist Party following the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and during the long years over which it slowly and painstakingly regained a measure of political legitimacy. Throughout the three decades of the Open Door and Reform era [c.1978-2008], these Principles proved to be the most appropriate political approach; they also reflected the substantive consensus arrived at by the entire populace on the basis of which the country could henceforth enjoy a form of peaceful co-existence. Under no circumstance should they be called into question or undermined.
1. Four Basic Principles
So, then, what are the Four Basic Principles?
The First Basic Principle:
Security and Stability
The present system has enjoyed a measure of legitimacy because it has been able to ensure that our society has enjoyed basic security and stability. And, that is why, in the wake of the Catastrophe [of Mao’s rule and the Cultural Revolution] hundreds of millions of Chinese have supported the Communist Party’s policies of Economic Reform and the Open Door for nigh on four decades.
What is required now is ongoing social order and a clear vision for the nation’s future. That is why it is imperative that the government abandon its obsession with ever-new ‘Political Movements’ [that is, mass mobilisation and voluntarist campaigns driven by short-lived political aims] and to give up its inherent proclivity for ‘Lawlessness’ [here Xu uses a well-known two-part pun or double-entendre: 和尚打傘 (無髮/法無天) ‘A monk in the shade of an umbrella (no hair/law 髮/法 and no sky above 天/ limit to power)’. This saying was famously used by Mao to describe his limitless power and authority to Edgar Snow on 18 December 1970, but Snow misunderstood him completely. By using this expression he is comparing Xi Jinping to Mao]. This includes putting an end to the repeated cycles of ‘Strike Hard’ campaigns [that have been launched variously in 1983,1996, 2001 and 2010] in the name of targeting criminals and underworld gangs. It is important [for the government] to confront increasing signs of social anomie and maintain social order, while at the same time promoting substantive social reconciliation. Only by so doing can the party-state vouchsafe a level of social normalcy that will enable the Common People to go about their daily business.
Admittedly, such public goods, as ensured by the government, have a legitimate role to play; indeed, they are essential if the state is to respond to the broad spectrum of needs that constitute normal life, such as: fundamental social order, a fair society, adequate employment opportunities, as well as vouchsafing people’s right to live with dignity. It is inevitable that, with the passage of time and in light of changing circumstances, people’s aspirations are bound to evolve. In the absence of ‘high-tier public products’ [that is, freedom of expression and an independent judiciary, let alone a meaningful democratic system], the people of China, who have experienced so much turmoil and suffering in the past, require minimum, base-line guarantees of personal safety and social stability.
Generally in years past the Basic Principle of Security has been assured and even seen as being desirable. After all, people just want to have a peaceful life, make enough for food and clothing and enjoy a measure of prosperity. All of these are premised on individuals being able to live in a functioning and reasonable society. Nonetheless, the kind of stable environment [that we actually have] and the ‘Stability Maintenance’ policies that have been developed to ensure it have generated problems of their own, revealing their own limitations in the process. In fact, they have produced deadly lesions throughout society that threaten the political legitimacy [of the party-state] itself.
[Note: ‘Stability Maintenance’ 維穩, short for 維護國家局勢和社會的整體穩定, ‘Protect the Overall National Situation and Maintain the Stability of Society’. Although this policy evolved in the wake of the Protest Movement of 1989, and was a particular feature of the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiaobao decade of ‘Harmonious Society’ building from 2003 to 2012, its origins go back to the early reform period when, faced with political challenges and pressures, Deng Xiaoping declared that ‘Stability Comes First’ 穩定壓倒一切.]
Moreover, for over three decades, in particular following [Deng Xiaoping’s Tour of the South, during which he re-invigorated the process of economic reforms that had stalled following 4 June 1989 and become bogged down in the ideological squabbles that ensued, in] the spring-summer of 1992, the ruling Communist Party has pursued economic growth. Or, as the official formula puts it: ‘Devoted Itself to Development and Focussed Its Energies on Construction’. Such a policy was pursued for twenty years and for the most part it enjoyed the active support of officialdom and the wider society. Despite a few clashes over the years, the average Chinese began to feel that, no matter who was in power, or who fell from grace, given the orderly succession of bureaucrats, the country as a whole would be able to continue focussing on substantive efforts of nation building.
When it came down to it, most people were willing enough to put up with the existing political arrangements. In other words: ‘You hold onto the reins of power; and just let me get on with enjoying my life’. This official-popular consensus resulted in an overall environment of social stability and security that I have been discussing here. That’s to say, people’s aspirations have not been really about ‘This Dream’ or ‘That Dream’, rather they have been concerned with growing the economy and developing a society that supports longterm nation building. The sentiment can be summed up simply as: ‘Don’t launch any more political campaigns; let us continue to have a peaceful life.’ This Basic Principle is the starting point for the [generally held] view that overall [the power-holders] were fulfilling their moral duty [to the people]. And it has been on this basis that the vast majority of Chinese people have accepted Your Rule.
The Second Basic Principle:
A Measure of Respect for Property Rights
Respecting private property and tolerating the desire of people to pursue wealth creation is the Second Basic Principle.
We went from a time when private property and ownership were regarded as the source of all social evils [during the era of ‘High Maoism’, from 1956 to 1976] and entered a period that tolerated hundreds of millions of Chinese legitimately pursuing greater personal wealth, and then on to a time when there was the prospect that property rights would even be recognised constitutionally — or as the common short-hand expression puts it, ‘private property would be allowed into [recognised by] the Constitution’ [私產入憲].
This new approach liberated the natural propensity of people to seek the ways and means to achieve prosperity for themselves and their families. The politics of China [finally] embraced the natural human desire for a better life. As a result, not only did the State enjoy massive economic growth it also became possible to allocate appropriate funding for Science and Technology, Education, Culture, National Defense and the Military. Importantly [for the Power-Holders], it crucially underwrote the massive expenditures of the Party-State itself. Of course, average Chinese benefited as standards of living improved. This is the legal and legitimate basis upon which China has enjoyed such rapid development; it is also the underlying economic rationale behind why the existing political legitimacy [of the regime] has been tolerated by All-of-China. After all, this is what people regard as fundamental: Touch whatever you must, just leave our wallets alone. This is a principle universally accepted by humanity at large for, in the modern era, the idea of private property is wedded to the concept of human nature.
After [the Party implemented a raft of policies in the late 1970s in the wake of the Cultural Revolution as a result of which] ‘Wrongs were Righted and Order replaced Chaos’ China was converted [皈依, a Buddhist expression that denotes conversion to the tenets of faith and the foreswearing of one’s sinful past] and able to take up once more the journey along the Broad Way of Universal Human Existence. And, lo and behold!: ‘Verily, There is No Greater Virtue than to Realise the Error of Your Ways’.
[Note: ‘Wrongs were Righted and Order replaced Chaos’ 撥亂反正 was the official expression that summed up a series of significant policy adjustments, including the rehabilitation of hundreds of thousands of cadres, intellectuals and individuals, along with the implementation of new quality-oriented educational policies and the encouragement of basic positive social values, among other things. The conceit of the Communist Party was that for a time — 1957 to 1976, or 1966 to 1976, it had strayed from its core mission to build a united, strong and prosperous China. Such a ‘confabulated history’ has been central to the Party’s post-1976 self-mythologising, as well as to The China Story that it now tells.]
The Third Basic Principle:
A Measure of Tolerance of Personal Freedoms
Over the past decades, civil society has not evolved in China. Whenever there’s been an outbreak of anything approaching normalcy, it has been crushed. This has had a profoundly negative impact on the individual growth and political maturation of our citizenry. Politically speaking, at present things are dire and, as a result, the Chinese Nation as a whole continues to be seriously diminished. Regardless, personal ethics have, by and large, enjoyed a considerable revival; in the economic and private realms there has even been a measure of positive growth.
Today, although people can enjoy various liberties of social actors they do not have full rights as citizens; this is particularly so in the case of the more economically advanced provinces and it has been so for quite some time. What I mean by ‘the liberties of social actors’ is that in the private sphere people can enjoy limited personal freedoms, in particular in relation to such everyday pleasures as eating out, going about one’s daily business and personal intimacy behind closed doors. There is also a certain latitude permitted when it comes to a range of individual choices that have no immediate political dimension. For example, if nothing else, people don’t have to be worried about official invigilators interfering with their hairstyles or fashion choices [as they did for years from 1966]. You can also enjoy massage parlors and public baths, travel freely, eat yourself silly and even indulge in extra-marital affairs [Note: the tone of these remarks is, to put it mildly, ‘male-centric’]. It’s all very comfy and petit-bourgeois.
People have for some time been able to enjoy a general sense of social normalcy and everyday ease. Given the brutal monotony of the Maoist years when everyone had to be careful to keep it in their pants, you can’t be all that critical that these days people prefer settling for everyday pleasures rather than perilously demanding their true rights as citizens. Again, this [relative non-interference in the private sphere] is a major contributing factor to why people are willing to tolerate the political status quo.
It is in this context that we should nonetheless note how the police use the pretext of, say, cracking down on prostitution to target certain individuals [as in the case of the environmental activist Lei Yang 雷洋 who died in custody after being detained by the police for allegedly soliciting a prostitute at a foot-massage parlor in Beijing in May 2016. Note: In July 2020, Xu himself was detained for a week on supposedly for ‘soliciting prostitutes’ while on a trip to Sichuan in late 2019]. This kind of policing contributes to an overall atmosphere of paranoia. Although you might think you’ve achieved what you want in one particular case, [since these stories are reported both in the official and the unofficial media] you actually end up undermining people’s general sense of personal security. In other words, you lose more than you gain.
Or take the policy to clean up Beijing [launched by Cai Qi 蔡奇, mayor of Beijing and one of Xi Jinping’s protégés, in late 2017, ostensibly aimed at ‘urban renewal’, but for all intents and purposes it was a putsch against what was derisively referred to as the city’s ‘low-end population’ 低端人口 of itinerant workers and their families]. The forced closure and destruction of small shops, convenience stores and bars was a typical example of ‘Vanity Politics’ [that is, political actions that are more for show than practical effect; policies that are aimed either at pleasing other bureaucrats or at currying favour with one’s superiors] that allowed the Authority to demonstrate His power over the common mass and to impose an ‘aesthetics of suffering’ in the process. — Don’t urban planners in international metropolises like Hong Kong, London and Paris allow spaces for open-air trading and business as a matter of course?
In a market economy, people all too readily despise poverty, but they tolerate prostitution; some even chose to amuse themselves to death. There are people who might put on a big show and come across all coy, yet [behind closed doors] they indulge in the boundless possibilities afforded to them by their obscene wealth; they do so in the most immoral [無德], mindless [無識] and shameless [無恥] fashion. Very well, [we admit that] such debauched phenomena are the price one pays for the existence of a consumer society. In the eyes of ordinary people who enjoy a quotidian existence, such things are part and parcel of what could be called the ‘modern comedy’ — or even the ‘post-modern farce’. The majority of people have no choice but to live according to the logic of the market, one that has turned everything into a commodity.
The Fourth Basic Principle:
Maintaining Term Limits for Political Appointees
Despite the fact that there seemed to be evidence of a modicum of social pluralism and a measure of political tolerance, over the past three decades China has in reality seen no substantial political reform. The Chinese Party-State is essentially founded on dictatorial political principles which at their rotten core are bolstered by a philosophy of pitiless struggle and factional infighting. On the surface, this would appear to be a political modality whose ugly maw can only be sated by ruling over and consuming the wealth of the nation. However, due to a Constitutional Provision [introduced following Mao’s death and in consideration of the depredations resulting from his lifelong tenure as Party Chairman] that limited the highest power-holders to two five-year terms in office — and that includes both the state president and the premier — since 2003 [when Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao came to power], and with the peaceful transition of leadership [from Jiang Zemin, who was personally appointed to lead the party-state by Deng Xiaoping following the ouster of his predecessor Zhao Ziyang following the Beijing Massacre on 4 June 1989], the country finally got to enjoy ten years [2003 to 2012] during which the leaders actually seemed to be satisfied with two five-year terms in power. Finally, it was as though we were coming to think of that situation [involving the regularisation and peaceful transition of political power] as akin to a ‘constitutional convention’.
For once, it was as though the Law and our Reality were in sync; it appeared that, finally, we might now be able to advance along a set path [of regular political turn-over]. This situation afforded the Chinese people a measure of political certainty and it bolstered international confidence in China as our country looked as if it was on the way to becoming a modern polity.
Here we should emphasise that this point, and this alone, has been the only tangible instance of substantive political reform and progress in China over the past thirty-five years. Regardless of all that vacuous hoopla about various other kinds of political reform initiatives, China’s Party-State system had otherwise remained immobile.
So, everyone came to believe that now, no matter who you are or what you do [that is, regardless of how bad or incompetent Party and State leaders might prove to be], at the most you’ll only be in power for ten years. For the blameless masses of Chinese — they who are as humble and as numerous as ants, the people who till the yellow earth tirelessly, their sweaty backs bent beneath the sky, those who live laboring to the end of their days just to keep their families fed, people who are absolutely powerless to resist the might of a highly organised state machine — now, finally, they had [come to appreciate the concept of] a ‘ten-year rule’. There actually seemed as though a [quasi-legal] measure had been instituted that would prevent the outbreak of yet another period of political instability [resulting from a succession crisis within the Communist Party leadership]. Finally, the Masses could go about their everyday lives with one less thing to worry about.
[Note: From 1937 to 2012 — the seventy-five years from Mao’s taking over the helm of the Chinese Communist Party up to the retirement of Hu Jintao as Party General Secretary — there had been only a single case in which control over the Party was handed over peaceably. In 2003, Party leader Jiang Zemin handed over the reins of power to Hu Jintao after nearly fourteen years in power. Xi Jinping’s rise in 2010-2012 involved a power-struggle with Bo Xilai and the latter’s purge, something that was more in keeping with the Party’s political tradition.]
Reviewing the above, it is evident that social control based on the maintenance of public order, something that overall is a public good, is still effective. However, in its expansion to become a system of ‘Stability Maintenance’ the methods that are now employed to achieve social control have in effect put entire areas of the country under quasi-martial law [in particular, the Tibetan and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Regions in West China and, from 2020, Hong Kong]. This system has become unwieldy and economically unviable. I would argue that this is evidence that this approach to dealing with public order has exhausted its potential and that it is in urgent need of renovation and upgrading.
The recent Sino-US Trade War has, in particular, revealed the underlying weaknesses and the soft underbelly of the Party-State system. This has served to fuel further the widespread sense of insecurity in the society at large. Prior to this, at a high-level meeting [of The Chinese Communist Party in Dialogue with World Political Parties 中國共產黨與世界政黨高層對話會, from 30 November to 3 December 2017], our Highest Authority declared that ‘political legitimacy cannot be fixed at once [neither can it be taken for granted]’. This seemed to indicate that the Concerned Authority [that is, Xi Jinping] is indeed aware of a legitimacy crisis. However, more recently there has been a definite lack of sensitivity in regard to this issue coupled with a tendency towards overweening self-confidence. This [attitude] has found expression in such things as the Party’s anti-poverty programs which approach policy issues by using dated methods from the era of old-style mass mobilisation campaigns [which pursued short-term political goals at great cost but for scant long-term benefit]. This undermines confidence in policy continuity and sustainability.
The limited protection of property rights, along with a basic tolerance of people devoting themselves to getting rich, has without doubt contributed to economic growth and enhanced the living standards of countless Chinese. But [over the last decade], both of these things have come up against policies that allow the ‘State to Advance while the Private Sector is Forced to Retreat’ [國進民退, that is, policies aimed at protecting state-owned enterprises (SOEs), not on the basis of fiscal viability, but rather to guarantee the political role and power of official ideology and the cadre-ocracy. These policies became more prevalent during and after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2010 and calls for the reform of SOEs as part of a push for China’s further economic transformation had for years been common among reform-minded economists, business leaders and thinkers].
In the private sector, people have also witnessed repeated cases of official rapaciousness and the [state-sanctioned] plundering of private property and wealth. As a reaction, people have increasingly urged the government to ensure the ‘Sanctity of Private Property’. There is now a public awareness that the logic lurking behind all of this is that ‘Power Cannot be Privately Held and Property Should Not Be Public’ [a line devised by the economist Mao Yushi 茅于軾 which was inspired by the ideas of John Locke]. It should be the case that the division between the public and the private are regarded as the basis for enduring social peace, for both are intrinsic to the politics of the past and of the present. Only if China manages to work through this stage [of conflict between the public and private realms] will there be true peace in our country. However, in recent times people have been both pointedly critical and fearful of the significance of the revisions made to the Chinese Constitution [in March 2018] which included the abandonment of term limits on political leaders [a move that, in effect, opened the way for State President/ General Secretary/ Military Commission Chairman Xi Jinping potential to enjoy lifelong tenure in power]. There is a widespread feeling that this move actually signifies the negation of the last thirty years of the Economic Reform and Open Door policies. People fear that, in one fell swoop, China will be cast back to the terrifying days of [one-man rule under] Mao. We have witnessed along with this Constitutional revision a rising clamour related to the manufacturing of a personality cult [for Xi Jinping], something that has in particular provoked the Imminent Fears that I outline in the following.
2. Eight Imminent Fears
Below I offer an overview of the major causes of anxiety and panic in contemporary China, arranged under eight topics.
Fear One: Property Tremens
Is anyone certain that they will be able to protect the personal wealth that they have amassed over the past few decades, regardless of the amount? Will they be able to maintain their standard of living? Will property rights as outlined by the law really prove to be protected under the relevant legislation? Will you be bankrupted or your family destroyed if you happen to fall foul of one of the Power-Holders (a stratum that includes bureaucrats as low down as the Committee Head of a village)?
Over time, especially in the past few years, people have become less certain about the answers to these questions and this has contributed to a widespread sense of panic at all levels of society. Those with the greatest concerns are the people who ‘Got Rich First’, during the initial wave of economic reforms [in the 1980s]. In many cases, these wealthy individuals have responded by immigrating. As for average members of the middle class, even though they don’t have to worry about being able to cover such basic necessities as food and clothing — in fact, they enjoy a surplus of both — like everyone else who is just trying to live a normal life, they are now fearful of the unexpected. In particular, they worry both about inflation and devaluation; either way their money could end up being worthless.
The wealthy immigrate for a host of different reasons: some do so in pursuit of a better quality of life; others slip away to launder money; while members of the Party nomenklatura want to put themselves beyond the reach of the law. The most common reason that people have for immigrating is that they are worried about the safety and security of their private wealth.
Overall, the greatest winners in the decades of the Economic Reforms and Open Door have been a particular [and peculiar] stratum: the Party bureaucrat-cum business tycoon. They have milked the system with consummate skill and, in recent years, they have made up the lion’s share of the migrating uber-wealthy. The official media carefully limits information [about all of this], but popular grumbling is widespread; added to that, the propagandists still time and again strum the old tune about ‘the ultimate goal of Communism being the abolition of private property’ to which hysterical populists add [the old early revolutionary slogan] ‘Overthrow the Wealthy, Divide the Spoils’. Such [mixed messages] simply exacerbate the sense of anxiety [among property owners].
In the midst of all this widespread sense of anxiety it was been truly breathtaking to witness the Pinnacle [that is the members of the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo] sitting themselves down for a collective study session devoted to The Communist Manifesto. [On 23 April 2018, the fifth collective study session of the Politburo elected by the Nineteenth Party Congress the previous October devoted itself to this topic.] It’s only here and now in China that a dazzling work written by two wildly talented young authors [Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels], one that completely unsettled the status quo of its day, can truly be appreciated as it both explains things and profoundly disrupts the equanimity of just about everyone in our nation.
Fear Two: Putting Politics Back in Command
[For the Authorities] To emphasise yet again policies that effectively ‘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; this strategy was put in practice by means of mass political movements and class-based purges] and abandon the Fundamental National Policy [of economic reform] in favour of developing the economy is what I mean by Fear Two.
In recent years, the gunpowder 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 shout down 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 the intellectual world of China experiencing a sense of universal dread. 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 reveal openly and critique 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 more serious 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, a flagrant violation of normal familial and ethical relations. Such an approach that puts politics over everything else is a betrayal both of our traditions and of our present aspirations. In this day and age one would have thought this to be unthinkable; confronted by such a vile totalitarian visage, however, one cannot help but recall the barbarism of the Cultural Revolution.
The influence of such propaganda is seeping throughout the society. Even some university lecturers have been singled out and repeatedly punished for what they say [in lectures]. Many 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 being accused of political wrongdoing, are frightened 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 the strategy of development. While over there the remnants of the ‘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 eventually 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, a term that denotes the various 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 — although these categories of extremists were denounced by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, in many cases they went unpunished for their misdeeds] in the tertiary education sector. With a sleight of hand and consummate skill they have become a burgeoning force that disguises itself as a form of ‘New Leftism’, and they are baying for blood.
Painful memories of ‘political movements’ still linger in the minds of the average citizen [of a certain age]. Younger people are engrossed in urban life and have long become accustomed to a modicum of economic comfort. They have absolutely no interest in or awareness of the lurking totalitarian tendencies undergirded by the illogicality of the Communist Party’s new push to ‘Put Politics in Command’. If you force them to pay attention to such things, it will most probably have the opposite of the desired effect and end up repulsing them.
In reality, in recent past decades people have developed a shared view of things, and [as noted previously] the reason why the present Political System is tolerated is because it has focused on the economic, it has promoted development and has by and large set aside its previous obsession with a quasi-movement mentality that was always trying to impose its brand of ‘Political Proselytising’ on everyone. That [had eventually seemed to] come to an end or [at least] its interference in the private sphere had been significantly 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 efficiencies and benefits of the market-oriented policies]. Ultimately, [the slogan promoting] ‘Economic Development as the Core’ should by all rights have begun to evolve towards creating a core desire to pursue a constitution-based rule of law. It would be on the basis of such a legal order that politics and the economy could work in tandem to build a truly modern nation; thereby the two could be like joint handmaidens at the birth of modern China. However, given the present circumstances, the most we can hope for is that the former [that is, economic development] will be pursued unstintingly. By all rights, it should be unthinkable that some other plan should be afoot or that anyone could seriously be considering a policy volte-face.
Fear Three: Class Struggle, Again
Starting a few years ago the official media and Party ideologues began to talk again about Class Struggle [that is, imposing artificial socio-political categories on individuals and groups and demonising, ostracising or otherwise scapegoating perceived enemies for political and economic ends]. By now, people have become increasingly anxious about this. The general thrust of politics in recent times has led people to speculate about the possible revival of the farrago of Class Struggle-based Politics of the kind pursued by Stalin and Mao Shaoshan [Mao Shaoshan is a classically styled derogatory name for Mao Zedong. Here the author has substituted Shaoshan in Hunan province, the name of Mao’s birth place, for his personal name]. Even worse is that, given the continued pursuit of the Anti-Corruption Campaign [initiated by Party leaders under Xi Jinping from early 2013], and in particular with the establishment of this new and all-powerful National Supervisory Commission [formally inaugurated in March 2018] — a party-state institution with authority over all government employees and teachers [and that is empowered to use politically determined goals to exercise nationwide control] — people have little confidence in being able to protect their legal rights. Quite the opposite, in fact — people can’t help but think that all of these developments are a dark augury that foretells the advent of a new form of KGB-style control [pursued by a secretive Party bureaucracy] that will invariably become embroiled in the factional politics of the Communist Party. That is why people are panicked about the possibility that we may be witnessing a return to the long-gone days of Class Struggle. Understandably then, many people increasingly feel alienated from our nation’s political life; the general social ambience of relative peace and harmony is thus under threat. After all, memories of a political model that was based on constant and pitiless Struggle [repeatedly from 1949 to 1978 and then again during a series of purges in 1980, 1983, 1987 and 1989, and beyond] remains fresh in people’s memories and the concern that such a regime could well be imposed on China again is very real.
Given the two-term limit imposed on state leaders [formerly stipulated by the Constitution, a regulation that would normally have resulted in a defined ten-year period of rule for Xi Jinping, but which was abandoned in March 2018] and the promise of a process of orderly political succession within the Communist Party itself, people were hopeful that China would continue to evolve towards becoming a normal, and normalised, country, one in which both property rights and human rights would, over time, be granted appropriate expression in, and protection by, the Constitution.
It was assumed that the old mantra of ‘Ceaseless Struggle’ had lost its power. In recent years, however, it seems as though, yet again, we are moving in the opposite direction [from the one in which we were previously headed]. It is no surprise that there is widespread alarm.
Fear Four: A New Closed-Door Policy
Just as we are at loggerheads with the United States — the representative of the [civilised] Western World — China is pursuing renewed intimacy with heinous regimes like North Korea. China’s economic development and social progress are part and parcel of this nation’s self-advancement as a civilisation. This is a continuation of the logic of a process of Civilisational Transformation that has been taking place for over 150 years, one that has seen a backward nation being able once more to participate in the unfolding global system. It is not a process simply authored or directed by external forces. But in terms of practical policy, [from the late 1970s] China reinvigorated policies [and ideas] related to Economic Reform and the Open Door [which had been integral to previous efforts to modernise the nation from the mid-nineteenth century, dating from the years of the Tongzhi Restoration 同治中興 (1861-1874), and again during the Self-Strengthing Movement that was related to that restoration].
Concomitantly, relations with the West had improved and were moving in a progressive direction so much so that China would [as the slogan of the Jiang Zemin era when China worked to join the WTO in 2001 put it] be able to ‘be integrated within the global community’ [and in the process acclimatise to its norms and practices]. This was possible because of the nation’s fast-tracking development helped globalise economic activity. If it were not for the fact that the ‘Open Door Forced [Ever Greater] Reform’ [meaning that the pressures brought to bear on the Chinese system by its global trade policies were constantly putting pressure on the party-state to extend, often reluctantly, its internal economic and structural reform agenda], China would not enjoy the economic, social and cultural prosperity that it does today.
Now, for China to buddy up to failed states and totalitarian regimes like North Korea and Venezuela not only goes against the popular will, it flies in the face of the tide of history. Indeed, it lacks political vision. [Given the anomalies of the present situation,] Ordinary folk are understandably scathing as they mock what they have been witnessing: large swathes of the cadre-ocracy and their progeny long ago squirreled away considerable amounts of their ill-gotten wealth in those very foreign climes [that are now officially being attacked, that is, North America]. That is why so many people are not overly concerned about rising tensions in the Sino-US relationship.
However, if by chance there is some major slip-up [in the Sino-US relationship] China as a whole will surely suffer, as will the nation’s wealth, something that, in theory at least, rightfully belongs to all the people. Regardless, the effects will be felt by ordinary Chinese men and women; they will feel it in the hip pocket. What really lies at the root cause [of hubristic official behaviour that has permitted tensions with the United States to escalate while Beijing embraces North Korea] is that the requirements of One Political Party [that is, the Communists] outweigh the reasonable and rational needs of the nation. [To disguise this reality,] a twisted statist logic is employed [by the party-state propaganda machine] to repress and pervert popular common sense. With no real will to pursue [the reform process] in a positive fashion, yet harboring a dogged determination to indulge in their own willfulness, [The Powers That Be] have been failing to keep up with the currents of modern thought. And so the present folly is pursued as if it is the most natural thing to do.
Fear Five: Excessive International Aid
Over-investment in international aid may well result in deprivations at home. It is said that China is now the world’s largest source of international aid; its cash-splashes are counted in the billions or tens of billions of dollars. For a developing country with a large population many of whom still live in a pre-modern economy, such behaviour is outrageously disproportionate. These are policies born of ‘Vanity Politics’; they reflect the flashy showmanship of the boastful and they are odious. The nation’s wealth — including China’s three trillion dollars in foreign reserves — has been accumulated over the past four decades from the blood and sweat of working people, in fact, it has actually been built up as a result of successive policies and countless struggles dating back to the Self-Strengthening Movement [launched during the Tongzhi Restoration during the 1860s when, following its defeat in the Second Opium War, the ruling court of the Qing-dynasty adopted the first modernising reform agenda in Chinese history. By saying this Xu is rejecting the Communist narrative of modern Chinese history and its soteriology]. How can you have squandered this bounty so heedlessly?
The era of fast-paced economic growth will come to an end; surely such wanton generosity can not be tolerated, for it is generosity which, in many ways, is a copy of [the vainglorious Maoist-era policies when China boasted that it was the centre of world revolution to] ‘Support Asia-Africa-Latin America’ [meaning, in essence, that an impoverished China was generously giving aid to Third World countries in an effort to gain political advantage and counter the influence both of the American imperialists and the Soviet revisionists]. In the process that policy forced countless millions of Chinese to tighten their belts simply so they could survive. Revolutionary generosity overseas even led to the corpses of those who had starved to death being scattered in the fields.
Following the recent outbreak of the Sino-US Trade War, the official state media has called on the nation to ‘Overcome the Present Difficulties in a Spirit of Unity’ [共克時艱], a slogan that has been widely mocked. [Note: The slogan 共克時艱 is a reformulation of the older expression 共濟時艱, although it was immediately recast by online jokers as 艱時克共: ‘times are tough so we should all oppose the Communists’]. Added to this propaganda push, there’s all that grand pontificating [expressed by using a common quote from an essay by the Song-dynasty writer Fan Zhongyan 范仲淹] about how ‘One should put the cares of the nation ahead of the enjoyment of the individual’. Well, in their wisdom the Masses have responded to such nonsense with merciless derision: ‘Fuck you!’, you hear people say, and, ‘What the hell does that have to do with anything?’ Such sentiments reflect popular sentiment; today people can’t be duped in the same way that you fooled the hapless and uncomplaining subjects of yesteryear.
Fear Six: Repression of the Intelligentsia
There has been a leftward [that is, repressive, Mao-era-like] turn in policies related to the intelligentsia, along with a renewed imposition of Thought Reform [replicating a movement launched by the Party in 1952 when university professors, employees and people in the state bureaucracy were required to confess to their ideological backwardness, unquestioningly accept Party dogma and learn to parrot it both in dedicated study sessions and publicly]. Although it has long been said that intellectuals [a broad category including many who are educated, as well as educators] are part of the working class [this was Party policy until the High Maoist years of 1957-1976, during which intellectuals were regarded as dangerous ideological enemies; from 1977, Deng Xiaoping championed the role and status of the educated, technocratic elite], but at the first hint of a slight policy tremor the educated are unfairly targeted again, or indeed treated like the enemy.
The most reliable political barometer of the regnant dynasty has been its treatment of intellectuals and those policies directly reflect the tenor of the nation’s life. In recent times, the Ministry of Education has repeatedly called for the intensification of Ideological Education among educators [so that they in turn can be equipped to inculcate the correct political ideas and attitudes among their students]. Online speculation holds that returnee teachers who have studied overseas are regarded as being a particular threat. Meanwhile, a small clutch of Remnant Leftists [‘New Leftists’ and anti-humanists who support various aspects of a revived Maoist ideology, some of the most famous of whom are celebrated by the ‘performative-leftists’ of the international academic world] in the tertiary sector are jumping for joy; it’s as though they have been given a new lease on life [如打雞血般, literally, ‘it’s as though they’ve been injected with chicken blood’ — a satirical reference to late-Cultural Revolution-era quackery. See Joel Martinsen, Injecting Chicken Blood]. They are virtually bounding about in a blood-thirsty frenzy. All of these phenomena contribute to a general atmosphere of fear, a trepidation among intellectuals that enforced Ideological Reform [that is the demand for intellectual conformity] is now making a comeback. The leftward turn in educational policy and a mooted Thought Reform movement may indicate that even more extreme developments are on the cards.
[The old expression] ’Inappropriate Discussions’ is once more being bandied about with a deadening effect; the result is that people are being intimidated into silence [Note: a ban on ‘Inappropriate Discussions of the Major Policies of the Centre (of the party-state)’ 妄議中央大政方針 came into force from late 2015, when the Communist Party Central and its Disciplinary Commission issued warnings against, and stipulated the punishment of, idle speculation about Party leaders, policy and factional infighting]. In an atmosphere such as this, how can there be any true freedom of speech? Without Intellectual Freedom and the Independent Spirit [自由思想與獨立精神, an expression taken from Chen Yinque’s 陳寅恪 famous 1929 epitaph for Wang Guowei 王國維, and a long-cherished formulation embraced by China’s liberal intellectuals from the 1980s, one with roots in the Republican era when it was celebrated in particular by academics at Tsinghua University] what hope is there for people to explore the unknown, for the advancement of scholarship or for intellectual creativity?
Up until recently, given the positive legacy of the last four decades — one that should be further enhanced by the concerted efforts of the next few generations — there was good reason to believe that [in the future] Chinese Civilisation could well enjoy an extraordinary peak of achievement in terms both of its intellectual richnesss and its scholastic heft. However, if the policies clamping down on free speech continue, or are extended even further, such hopes will remain unrealised. China will end up as little more than a cultural backwater of intellectual dwarfs.
Fear Seven: A New Arms Race and the
Danger of War, Including Another Cold War
Over the last decade, Asia as a whole has for all intents and purposes entered an arms race. Fortunately, the probability of war has so far been restrained within acceptable parameters. A pressing issue for China is that we cannot afford to disrupt our developmental trajectory or further frustrate the Great Modern Transformation [that has been unfolding for nearly two centuries] just as it is within sight of being realised. Over the past two years, I have written two essays — ‘Don’t Let Civil War Break Out in China’ and ‘Protect the Reform Policies and the Open Door’ [both collected in Xu Zhangrun’s book The Rational State and Superior Politics: a Chinese Understanding of China’s Problems 國家理性與優良政體：關於中國問題的中國意識, Hong Kong City University Press, 2017] — in which I argued that China has added a System of Military Preparedness to its existing Stability Maintenance Regime [mentioned above]. I did so in an effort to point out the inherent dangers in such a development and to forewarn people of its negative consequences.
At the moment, as the political atmosphere in China becomes increasingly repressive and the country continues to be entangled in a foreign trade dispute, there is an heightened possibility of an economic downturn, something that could lead to things that are beyond control and that may have a raft of unintended consequences. In such a situation it is not unreasonable to be fearful that tensions could spark some kind of military conflict, be it either a hot or a cold war. We should be ever alert to the urgency of preventing such a development.
Popular wisdom holds that a trade conflict between China and the United States should not be used as a pretext [by the propagandists and policy advisers] for heightened ideological contestation, nor should there be a competition over which side has a superior political system. However, I fear that my earlier concerns have been justified by the evidence of just such consequential developments.
Fear Eight: The End of Reform and a
Return to Totalitarianism
Even though the word ‘Reform’ is somewhat tarnished now and, despite the fact that even rather reprehensible polities use it as camouflage, nonetheless, given the discursive environment of contemporary China and the fact that we are at a time in the country’s life when our long-term Great Transformation requires a major final push, and as we are wary of some explosive revolution or a regression to a form of extreme leftism breaking out, I would argue that Reform remains the most prudent and promising way forward for China. The engine of the nation’s reform, however, has been idling for the last few years; [now,] if it isn’t used to propel us forward we will inevitably go into reverse. In fact, this state of affairs was already the hallmark of the last term of government [that is, Xi Jinping’s first term in office, from 2012 to 2017]. Given the overall direction being taken by the Party-State people are entirely justified in asking whether the Economic Reform Policies and the Open Door have run their course and will a return to totalising politics replace them? Who knows? At the moment, this question is of the greatest concern to the largest number of Chinese.
During the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao decade [from 2003 to late 2012] it seemed as though the Totalitarian was transitioning towards the Authoritarian; that’s why some dubbed the resulting arrangement a ‘Post-Totalitarian-360-Degree-Authoritarian Political System’. Over the last two years, however, we have seen things moving in the opposite direction once more, ergo there is a widespread anxiety that we may all be witnessing a ‘Thorough-going Return to Totalitarian Politics’.
Modern Chinese history teaches us that first, because of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, and then, with the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance starting in 1937 [and continuing until 1945], China’s advance towards modernity was repeatedly interrupted. Modernity was derailed and those wars put paid to hopes that the country might enjoy a normal political life.
We are presently approaching the final stages of a profound Transformation that has unfolded over nearly two centuries [starting with the political and military disruptions of the Daoguang era of the Manchu-Qing dynasty and the First Opium War in 1840]. We need a final push to achieve our goal [, a point that the anxious author has already made a number of times]. Under no circumstances can the nation be derailed again by yet more military conflict. If that were to happen we must ask: when will history present us with another opportunity? Heaven only knows!
3: Eight Immediate Hopes
In outlining the above anxieties and limning the broadly felt sense of panic in China today, I have focussed on the domestic political realm — I have not expanded my considerations to consider matters related to the economy or trade (including the issue of massive tax cuts), nor have I touched on the provocative themes of democracy and rule of law. Below, I further confine myself by offering a series of concrete policy suggestions that I believe are of immediate relevance.
The First Hope: Put a Stop to Empty Grand Gestures and
Wasteful International Largesse
Average Chinese are most often outraged by the way in which the State splurges large sums of money through international aid to little or no benefit. China is still slowly making its way up the steep slope of development. In terms both of basic infrastructure and social facilities, as well as in regard to people’s ability to access limited forms of social welfare, we are confronting massive problems; our burden is great and the road forward stretches far. Here I am making this point without even mentioning the crisis in aged care, or issues related to employment opportunities and education.
Rural destitution is a widespread and crushing reality; greater support through public policy initiatives is essential. Without major changes, half of China will be stuck in what is little more that a pre-modern economic state. That will mean that any hope to create a truly modern China will remain frustrated, or half-hearted at best. If this situation continues what’s the use of all that talk about the Great Revival of Chinese Civilisation?
At the recent China-Arab States Cooperation Forum [on 10 July 2018] the Chinese Leadership [that is, Xi Jinping] announced that twenty billion US dollars would be made available for ‘Dedicated Reconstruction Projects’ in the Arab world. On top of that, [Xi Jinping declared that] ‘a further one billion yuan will be offered to support social stability efforts in the region.’ Everyone knows full well that the Gulf States are literally oozing with wealth. Why is China, a country with over one hundred million people living below the poverty line, playing at being the flashy big-spender? People will be grumbling in astonishment: What can the Supreme Bureaucratic Authority possibly be thinking? Don’t They care about our own people?
Furthermore, Those who indulge in such grand and expensive gestures evince no respect for existing budgetary procedures or institutional formalities; in the process They shunt aside a National People’s Congress that is constitutionally empowered to maintain budgetary oversight. As a result, existing institutionalised bureaucratic mechanisms are, for all intents and purposes, paralysed. To act in this way is like declaring on the authority of the Constitution and the Rule of Law.
The Second Hope: Put an End to Diplomatic Extravagance
Even the most commonplace international meeting organised in China today involves extraordinary levels of expense. There is no regard for budgets; fiscal waste and the heedless loss of human work hours is considerable. Even worse: most of these activities are completely content-free and vacuous. They are all about pursuing ‘Vanity Politics’ rather than ‘Practical Politics’, let alone ‘Hard-edged Politics’. Such events have nothing to do with the so-called ‘venerable traditional of warmth and hospitality demonstrated by the Chinese people from ancient times’; only the most vain and self-serving [leaders and bureaucrats like to] indulge in such things. If foreigners were to copy what we constantly do here, then the VIP-filled headquarters of the United Nations in New York would be on police lock-down 24/7, and the headquarters of the numerous international organisations based in Geneva and Paris would perforce have to stage nightly fireworks displays, with their personnel expected to be decked out in all their finery all of the time.
As independent entities countries should aim for validation by means of their actual national strength [實力]; thereby they will be able to pursue their own national interest [實利] through regular international activities, exhibiting in the process certain values and moral probity [道義]. All of these things can co-exist and they can indeed have a net benefit for one’s people. Glory and respect will come naturally as a result. — To lack this breadth of understanding and instead devote considerable energy to the kind of political grandstanding I’m talking about here, even though the Host himself might feel very smug about it, is simply a waste of human resources; it is the behavior of a wastrel who is heedless with the public purse.
Moreover, it is more often the case that such excessive displays actually generate cloaked contempt among the foreign guests and they merely serve to excite popular outrage among one’s own people. Even our Lard-Arse neighbour — Kim Jong-un, a loathsome dictator ostracised by the international community — was welcomed to Beijing with an extravagant motorcade; you can see the reports in all of in the print and electronic media. Gossip even has it that top-tier Special Mou-tai valued at 1.28 million yuan a bottle [sic] was served at the official banquet. To be quite frank, this single gesture offended and alienated untold numbers of people in China. So, as for the so-called China Dream, all I can say is: Dream On!
The Third Hope: End the Privileges of the Party Nobility
Elite privileges for retired high-level cadres should be eliminated. The system of the present ‘dynasty’ [國朝, a dynastic-era term for ‘court-as-country’] allows for the state to provide inclusive retirement-to-grave care for high-level cadres on a level far and away above that possible for the average citizen. These cadres are allowed to retain the extravagant privileges that they enjoyed during their working lives, including premium health care and special access to luxury resorts for recreation and holidays. Everyone is aware of the financial burden this places on the people, although details are never released for fear of sparking public outrage.
This system replicates the kinds of prerogative that were provided to the ruling Imperial Zhu Family during the Ming dynasty [founded by Zhu Yuanzhang in 1368CE], as well as the emoluments permitted to the families of the Eight Banners [八旗 jakūn gūsa, the exclusive Manchu military and administrative groups that were crucial to the founding and rule of the Qing dynasty in 1644; those privileges continued until the abdication of the Royal House in early 1912].
For this secret system to continue to exist is not merely a betrayal of the self-advertised ‘Revolutionary Spirit’ [of the Communist Party], it is also in breach of modern standards of civic life. Why bother with all that talk about ‘the dangerous remnants of feudalism’? This is a perfect example of it! People are outraged but powerless to do anything about such institutionalised privilege and it is one of the main reasons why people regard the whole party-state system with utter contempt.
On one side of the hospital Commoners face the challenges of being able to gain admission for treatment, while everyone knows that luxury suites are reserved on the other side for the care of high-level cadres. The people observe this with mute and heartfelt bitterness. Every iota of this bottled up anger may, at some unexpected moment, explode with thunderous fury.
The Fourth Hope: End the System of Luxury Provisioning
Eliminate the system of Special Needs or Luxury Goods Provisioning [特供制度]. Starting in [the wartime Communist guerrilla base] Yan’an some seventy years ago, this system [whereby Party cadres/ government bureaucrats — the nomenklatura — have been permitted privileged access to goods and services depending on their rank in a multi-tier network] continued unimpeded even during times of mass famine and deprivation. And it continues even now as the Vast Masses express ever greater concerns about [the quality of and access to] dairy products for their babies and the hygiene and safety of their everyday foodstuffs.
The Special Needs Provisioning system allows the high-level Party nobility access to a vast range of specialty products far beyond the dreams of the average person. Apart from a few totalitarian polities, there is no other country that does this on such a prodigious scale as China. Without doubt this is a case of what was traditionally excoriated as ‘luxury in the extreme and shamelessness that defies description’ [豪奢之至，而無恥之尤].
Of course, inequalities exist in all societies and disparities in ability and wealth are a reality, but they are a result of various practical differences, not due to the fact that the ideal playing field imagined by our citizens simply does not permit a level starting point. And I’m not even talking about the outrage people feel because they know that an elite group of Party grandees is continuously mollycoddled by [their political party] dipping into the coffers of the state. As long as this system and ‘No 34’ [a code word for the regulations covering special access to necessities and luxury goods provided to the Party nomenklatura which was set up after 1955. See ‘Providing for the Leadership 特供茶’ in Barmé, More Saliva than Tea 口水多過茶, 2012] remains unchecked, real food safety in China can never truly be assured. As a result, neither side will really be certain of its own long-term security.
The Fifth Hope: Require Officials to Divulge their Personal Assets
People have been calling for a law that requires officials to gazette their assets for many years, without result [Note: this was also an early demand of student protesters in 1989]. It is obvious that this is where the real skulduggery takes place and that is why the truth cannot be revealed. As cadres and government bureaucrats scale the ladder of officialdom there is a complete lack of transparency about how personal assets are accrued by their children and their families. This closely guarded secret is hidden deep in the Party’s personnel files. Normal people have no knowledge of what is really going on and everything is clouded in obfuscation.
In terms of the state’s ability and economic wherewithal, let alone in terms of technical ability, all is in readiness [to reveal the truth about who owns what], the only thing necessary is for the system to be activated. If that were to happen then, via the national Internet, and with the oversight of 1.4 billion pairs of eyes, everything would immediately become clear. Despite all of the ongoing anti-corruption activities [which are a key feature of the Xi Jinping era], egregious new instances of corruption are constantly being generated. That is because both [the anti-corruption push as well as the corrupt activities themselves] take place internally (and secretly), none involve a legal process based on the principles of open and transparent politics. What is missing is a ‘Sunshine Policy’: if you really have nothing to hide, then implement such a policy and finally everything be out in the open! If you want to demonstrate the sincerity of your statements, then join the majority of other countries who have signed up to the anti-money laundering Egmont Group of Financial Intelligence Units. Why conceal yourself in the obfuscating mists of rhetoric and treat the Vast Multitudes of China like simpletons?
The Sixth Hope: Put an Immediate End to the New Personality Cult
An emergency brake must be applied to the unfolding Personality Cult. Who would have thought that, after four decades of Economic Reforms and the Open Door, our Sacred Land would witness a new Personality Cult? The Party media is going to extreme lengths to create a new Idol; in the process it is offering up to the world an image of China as a Modern Totalitarianism. Portraits of the Leader are now hoisted on high throughout the Land, as though they are possessed of some Spiritual Mana. This only serves to add to the absurd situation. On top of that, the speeches of That Official — things that were previously simply recorded by secretaries in a pro forma bureaucratic manner — are now painstakingly collected in finely bound editions, printed in vast quantities and handed out freely worldwide. The profligate waste of paper alone is enough to make you shake your head in disbelief.
All of this reflects the low IQ of the Concerned Official and His craving for fame. More importantly, we need to ask how a vast country like China, one that was previously so ruinously served by a Personality Cult [that of Mao Zedong], has no resistance to this new cult, and this includes the droves of ‘Theoreticians’ and ‘Researchers’ who acquiesce to it. In fact, they are outdoing themselves with their sickeningly slavish behaviour [舔癰吸疽, literally ‘licking the carbuncles and sucking liquid from the ulcers’ (of the Power-Holder to gain favour and solicit reward)]. It’s as though hundreds of millions of Chinese are oblivious; people tolerate the New Cult and allow it unfettered freedom; they are powerless in the face of the arse-kissing bureaucrats.
This just goes to show that China’s Enlightenment is far from over. Every generation must champion rationalism in public affairs and continue painstakingly to forge a way ahead into the future. This New Cult is proof that China faces a very long struggle before it can lay claim to being a modern, secular and rational nation-state.
The Seventh Hope: Restore Term Limits for the National Presidency
International opinion was astounded by the decision made earlier in this year [March 2018] to revise the Constitution and abandon the term limits set for the State Presidency. In China, this move led to widespread and profound anxiety. Overnight it seemed ‘As though we were shocked awake after a four-decade-long dream.’ Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, we had a ‘Supreme Leader’ with no checks on his power. How could people not give in to all kinds of strange imaginings and new fears?
That is why I suggest as a matter of urgency that, at an appropriate time during this or the coming year — say, for instance, at a Special Meeting of the National People’s Congress this autumn or at the scheduled annual convocation of the Congress in March 2019 — a further revision of the Constitution be made to reinstate the term limit on the presidency. To do so would vouchsafe the policies of the Economic Reforms and Open Door era while frustrating any slide towards the totalitarian politics of the Cultural Revolution.
China has a Constitution and, regardless of its quality, it is, after all, the nation’s Basic Law. It should not be revised willy-nilly. I would, however, note that it is actually still a Temporary Constitution formulated as the result of a particular political arrangement during what has in effect become a crucial transitional period in the nation’s life; therefore it cannot but be repeatedly subject to revision. Hopefully, this will be the final necessary revision of the Constitution before an eventual transition [to substantive democracy] is achieved.
The Eighth Hope: Overturn the Verdict on June Fourth
Overturn the Verdict on ‘June Fourth’ [, the 1989 Beijing Massacre]. Over this and next year China will mark a series of sensitive anniversaries. It will be: the fourth decade since the launching of policies [known as] the Economic Reforms and the Open Door; the centenary of the May Fourth Movement [of 1919, a major feature of which was modern student activism and strident patriotism; the movement was a contributing factor behind the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921]; as well as the thirtieth anniversary of 4 June 1989. The upshot of the Sino-US Trade War will extend through this period and will only serve to add to the uncertainty of things.
In pursuit of the usual posture of Stability Maintenance [the authorities will doubtless] ‘use policing methods to deal with political issues’, in the process of which they will ‘deploy the mechanisms of the state machine [政制] to clamp down on [鉗制] the political situation [政治]’. It is expected that the party-state system would rather pursue extreme repression rather than approaching things by ‘dealing with politics by employing politics [for the resolution of things]’ [as we witness in the West when they confront difficult issues].
Back in the day, the ‘5th of April’ [1976 Tiananmen Incident when protesters flooded into Tiananmen Square to mourn the recently deceased premier Zhou Enlai and denounced Mao and his coterie, later known as the ‘Gang of Four’] was officially re-evaluated and, since then, what was a problematic date has no longer been one of any particular political sensitivity. This was precisely because [following Mao’s death, the authorities] ‘confronted a political problem by employing a political solution’ — as the old saying puts it: ‘when an army approaches a good general knows how to block its advance; when the waters rise we know how to sandbag against flooding’. Everyone was able to take from that [decision regarding the 5 April 1976 Tiananmen Incident] what they wanted, and all were satisfied.
That’s why, in light of the upcoming thirtieth anniversary of 4 June [in 2019], I would encourage Those In Power to find a suitable moment either this or next year to rehabilitate ‘4 June’ publicly [that is, to re-evaluate an event which is still officially classified as a necessary military action launched to quell a ‘counter-revolutionary rebellion’ by hooligans in Beijing, supported by inimical American and other foreign forces, against the Chinese state with the aim of toppling the Communist Party]. This would not only demonstrate a sincere and wise application of the principle of ‘politics embracing the political’, it would also mean that from then on there would be no need to treat 4 June every year as though it were a political emergency. [The authorities, that is Xi Jinping] Would clear the way for all Chinese to enjoy a peaceful coexistence, it would uplift people psychologically and benefit [the party-state] by adding political capital to its legitimacy.
The Eight Hopes outlined here merely give expression to what one would call contemporary political commonsense; they also sum up widespread appeals and desires [regularly expressed] within the populace at large. Herein I am — to use an old expression — ‘Putting My Life on the Line Simply to Say What Everyone Already Knows and Thinks’.
In this vast world of great disorder, if there is no reasonable way to express such views [說法] there can then be no [reasonable way to legitimate them through appropriate] legislation [立法]. If that is the case, neither I nor the Masses can find a way to live [活法] [without fear]. What to do? Alas and Alack indeed!
4: In What is a Period of Transition
Don’t panic just yet since, although over the past two years the world has entered a mini-cycle of political adjustment, the dust has far from settled. For China to get through this period it is of crucial importance for the nation to continue along its chosen path of sustained internal reform and focus on raising the standard of living and ameliorating the wellbeing of the people as a whole. What matters for China and the world is that this particular Grand Ship of State continues to catch the wind in its sails as it peacefully steers a course on the way to continued political normality.
Conflict and warfare are part and parcel of the inherently violent nature of the human animal. The Sacred Duty of politicians living during a period of historical opportunity such as today is to delay or avoid entirely the outbreak of hostilities. Such a moment is a crucial test for the wisdom and moral probity of the Meat-Eaters [肉食者, an ancient term from pre-dynastic times that refers to the social and political elite who, according to court regulations, were permitted to eat meat].
Human beings are, above all, political animals, and politics is the ultimate expression of human ingenuity. What is necessary in the here and now is that, no matter what the present situation happens to be, we cannot allow ourselves to deviate from the grand course of Peaceful Development. We are enjoying a sustained period of historic opportunity that only the wise can truly take advantage of. We don’t need heedless antagonism and we must make every effort to make sure that we do not cast aside the good hand that we have been dealt.
The Great Powers on either side of the Pacific [China and the United States] now find themselves by chance ‘Under the Rule of Old Red Guards’ [this is a somewhat baffling description, first in regard to Donald Trump, a roué whose tone is more tangerine than red and, secondly, mystifying in the case of Xi Jinping who was more of a ‘Blackguard’ 黑幫, that is from a family under attack in the early Cultural Revolution, than a ‘Red Guard’ 紅衛兵, although he is very much a product of Mao’s Cultural Revolution]. This is and can only something that happens in a transitional moment; it’s the typical kind of unruly coincidence that occurs during periods of heightened historical drama.
On this side of the ocean we have One who has no real historical awareness or truly modern political sensibility, let alone a moral vision that reflects an appreciation of the principles of universal civilisation. The One is blind to the Grand Way of current affairs and is scarred indelibly by the political branding he suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Overweening pride and official competence leads this One to bend his efforts to serve the wrong ends; talented enough to play the bureaucratic game, and doubtlessly masterful at achieving high office, but as for Guiding the Nation along the Correct Path, [what the One does] is worse than arrant time-wasting, for there is something perverse at work in him.
And there, on the other side of the Pacific, a crowd of the Ghoulish Undead nurtured on the politics of the Great Game and the Cold War have taken the stage. Certainly, they have their own analysis of world affairs and a particular understanding of the cultural upheavals of today, but like their opposite number here, they lack a truly historical perspective; they are shortsighted and avaricious. Since their diagnosis is faulty, the prescriptions they offer are completely off the mark. Trained in a mercantilism that favoured the capitalist elite, with a personality amplified by bloated self-regard and the lifetime habits of rapaciousness, the result is [Donald Trump, a person possessed of] a prideful quasi-imperial mindset that is coupled to heinous vulgarity. We now have [to deal with] the crudest of blackmailers, a person who knows no shame. What, therefore, [in the case of the United States today] we are presented with is but a degraded civilisation under the tutelage of a flailing and desperate imperialism that is itself in terminal decline. Their boastful and vainglorious patriotism stokes the fires of national disaster; we know them all too well as ‘Patriot-Scoundrels’ [愛國賊, literally ‘patriot thieves’; the kind of shyster who boastfully promotes themselves while sullying everything else in the guise of loyalty].
Be it in China or abroad, in the present or in the past: we’ve seen their kind before. One is reminded of those [recent] jokes about how ‘Bad People Have Gotten Older’ [a reference to a popular comic observation that: ‘It’s not that old people have suddenly turned bad, it’s just that bad people have gotten older’ 不是老人變壞了，而是壞人變老了].
Everyone is the product of the education they receive. So [for the ‘Old Red Guard’ on that side of the ocean, that is, Donald Trump] there’s no way he can break out of those self-made shackles; he simply doesn’t give a damn, on top of which he’s completely lacking in self-awareness. Dealing with new problems within the framework of an out-of-touch mindset while nonetheless exuding supreme confidence, he inevitably makes all the mistakes of the willful. Their ideas and policies are, as Alexis de Tocqueville said [of the Ancien Régime], nothing more than a load of musty debris. [Note: Like autocrats elsewhere, Chinese Communist Party leaders are fascinated by the history of regime collapse. Shortly after joining the Standing Committee of the Party’s ruling Politburo in late 2012, and as head of the Central Disciplinary Commission charged with oversight of Xi Jinping’s ‘signature’ anti-corruption campaign, Wang Qishan 王歧山 recommended that his underlings study de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution.]
At this moment, taking stock of the general tenor of discussion in the Chinese-speaking world, and the mentality that it reflects, it is evident that a kind of political awareness based on civilian rationalism has grown to maturity; nor is it lacking in proud righteousness. What would appear to be deficient, however, is a cultural self-awareness based on national rationality. In particular people seem to have difficulty identifying National Rationality as it relates to the political relations between nations, and National Rationality in terms of how citizens engage with their own political lives [that is, a mood of dangerous emotionalism readily leads people to act against their own, and their country’s actual self-interest]. The confusion between the two, with neither besting the other, in some cases leads people to admire that Old Red Guard reprobate on the other side of the Pacific [Note: many soi-disant liberals in China became ‘Trump fans’ 川粉 out of a belief that his disruptive tenure would benefit their anti-Communist cause in China]. These tyros end up being little better than those rednecks from the Rust Belt. To apply a famous line from a famous person, they are ‘Too Young, Too Simple’ [this is a jocular reference to former Party leader, Jiang Zemin, who once berated a young Hong Kong journalist for their naïveté. Here the Chinese transliteration of ‘too young, too simple’ — tǔ-yàng-tǔ-suī-pɑo 土樣土尿泡 — is a play on Jiang’s Yangzhou-accented English pronunciation. In the original, Jiang also said ‘sometimes naïve’]. At the same time, the appeal of [our own] political system is lacking, resulting in an insufficient or weak sense of identity. The upshot of all of this is a strange contradiction between Citizens and Civic Awareness. But then again, although the ‘Great Qing’ 大清 [dynasty ruled by the Manchus] was enmeshed with ‘China’ 中華, they weren’t really one and the same thing at all.
You [Communists] ‘Rule the Rivers and Mountains’ [坐江山, a traditional expression that indicates control over the geo-political and civilisational realm of China]; you ‘Gorge Yourselves on the Rivers and Mountains’ [literally, ‘Eat/ consume the Rivers and Mountains’ 吃江山] but, when Your Rivers and Mountains are in trouble [江山有事了], suddenly we are all expected to pull together and [help you] ‘Protect the Rivers and Mountains’ [保江山], as well as ‘Join as One to Overcome Present Difficulties’ [that have resulted from the trade war]. What utter nonsense!
There is discussion in the non-official media that although certain figures are seemingly busying themselves [in negotiations] they are really acting as they though they aren’t Chinese; instead they devote their real energies to coming up with ways to convenience the other side. Oddly enough, this is not all that surprising. After all, this is the kind of scenario you should expect in a nation that lacks a coherent and unifying focus.
Putting aside debates about identity and what ‘Being Chinese’ really means, given the present situation, there are those Prophets who each say their piece and in their proud justifications end up finding no common ground for compromise.
Allow me to reiterate my previous observation: a nation’s maturity relies on the nurturing authority of its intellectual elite, and for their wisdom to have full sway they require a freedom of spirit. All the hullaballoo produced by red noise and the attempts to silence independent voices cannot in the long run detract from the realities of shared human ideas. It is necessary to reject the misguided folly and pridefulness of any and all Absolute Authorities. In China it is necessary to call for an end to the present state of ever-increasing censorship and to give freedom of expression back to the intelligentsia [讀書人, literally, ‘those who read books’]. For only then, and only with the painstaking work of generations, can the motherlode of Chinese Civilisation truly be regenerated and nurtured, its role protected and its relevance strengthened. Only then will it be possible to confront the full range of unfolding possibilities with clear-sightedness; only then will it be possible to respond calmly to immediate challenges in such a way that we can apply ourselves to playing a practical role society and in the world.
At present, the Authorities repeatedly claim that despite the Trade War they will not reverse China’s national policy of Economic Reform and the Open Door; they will not slacken their efforts in pursuing economic development via continued open-door exchange; and, they reaffirm their determination to work collectively to protect the multilateral international system. A series of relevant policies have been announced that seem to reflect this official stand that would seem to offer a measure of certainty. This should probably be regarded as further evidence of the view that the ‘Open Door [to the outside world] Forces [Further substantive] Reform [in China]’. This is a particularly Chinese kind of ‘developmental path dependence’. Yet despite [all the talk], we have yet to see any meaningful internal reforms being mooted. As the old saying puts it: ‘Though the heavens may crackle with thunder, only a few drops of rain are falling’; despite all the expressions of sincerity [from the Authorities], the lack of practical results leaves people cold and with no choice but to look on from the sidelines impotent and unconvinced.
It is for this reason that I have offered here my Eight Immediate Hopes — a series of concrete policy suggestions that I believe are of timely relevance. Let’s see what happens.
Forget all the pretty talk about You being willing and able to take action. We’d be delighted if you managed to implement even one of these Eight Hopes. If you carry out three or four, we’ll sing your praises and bless you in our hearts. However, if you manage to implement all eight then the whole of China will erupt in rapturous rejoicing.
Earlier this year, the Supremo said a series of impressive policy measures would be launched to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Economic Reforms and the Open Door. Well, we’ve already passed the six-month mark and, although we are still wanting to believe, we’re also still waiting. [Note: In the event, no substantive new policies were announced.]
And, while I’m at it, let me take this opportunity to say: there are only fifty to sixty households in Liangjiahe Village in Shaanxi, and the place only has a population of over a hundred people [where Xi Jinping spent seven supposedly formative years; nowadays, as part of the state-manufactured Xi Cult, Liangjiahe is accorded the status of a ‘sacred site’]. Yet, despite such modest statistics the place now boasts a representative office in Shanghai that features an exhibition space for showcasing local agriculture produce. It is more than obvious that the unassuming and frugal farmers [of Liangjiahe] didn’t come up with any of this themselves. Rather, one imagines that the whole performance is being stage-managed by a duet of bureaucrats and businessmen, each in hot pursuit of their own ends [by hoping to curry favour with Xi Jinping].
Then there was a report informing us that the Supreme People’s Procuratorate was creating the 12309 Disciplinary Investigative Service Centre. The Party Secretary of Liangjiahe — a place that has absolutely nothing to do with that initiative — was even invited to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony [for the new centre, held in late June 2018]. On the day, a scrum of eunuchs was on hand, all eagerly hoping to pursue their own agendas and kissing arse as they flaunted their shamelessness. And, as for the Academy of Social Sciences in Shaanxi announcing that it was pursuing a research project titled ‘The Profound Wisdom of Liangjiahe’ [announced on 21 June 2018, although disbanded on the orders of Beijing in early July], along with all of the research topics devoted to the Personality Cult and Leader Worship, I have this to say: they are antediluvian; they fly in the face of progress and are an affront to credulity; they are grotesque, cringeworthy and much, much more. As for all of this to do [over Liangjiahe]: it’s simply too much, too excessive, over the top, as those involved vie to outdo each other.
Such behaviour merely serves to drag us back into the Dark Ages of fearfulness and deprivation. [觳觫苟存 in the original: the expression 觳觫 húsù appears in the ancient text Mencius where it describes the trembling of an ox being being led to slaughter; 苟存 gǒucún means ‘to live in dire circumstances, barely able to survive’.]
That’s all I’ve got to say now. We’ll see what Fate has in store; only Heaven can judge the nation’s fortunes.
— July 2018
- 許章潤，《我們當下的恐懼與期待》, 天則觀點, 24 July 2018, published by the Unirule Institute of Economics