Turn, Turn, Turn — The Lugubrious Merry-go-Round of Chinese Politics

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Chapter Three, Part II

Communist Chinese politics are a lugubrious merry-go-round … and in order to appreciate fully the déjà-vu quality of its latest convolutions, you would need to have watched it revolve for half a century. The main problem with many of our politicians and pundits is that their memories are too short, thus forever preventing them from putting events and personalities in a true historical perspective.

Simon Leys, quoted in Watching China Watching


This is the third chapter in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium is divided into two parts:

Although the books The Tyranny of History and New Ghosts, Old Dreams can both be read online via Internet Archive, we encourage readers to seek out print versions of these texts.



xuán, ‘to march under a fluttering banner; to travel in circles’, also written as 旋



Thirty-five years since June Fourth 1989
Seventy-five years since 1st of October 1949

The 6th of January 2024 marked the beginning of China’s alternative anniversary season. On that day 35 years ago, Fang Lizhi addressed an open letter to Deng Xiaoping. The outspoken astrophysicist, who had been denounced for ‘bourgeois liberalism’ that threatened one-party rule in early 1987 and expelled from the Communist Party, reminded Deng Xiaoping that the year 1989 not only marked the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, but also the seventieth year since, during the May Fourth Movement, patriotic students in Beijing and other Chinese cities had called for democracy and rational politics.

Fang Lizhi urged Deng Xiaoping to grant a nationwide amnesty for political prisoners, in particular Wei Jingsheng, a pro-democracy activist jailed ten years earlier. Fang suggested that such ‘a humanitarian gesture … would contribute to a healthy social atmosphere.’

Furthermore, Fang reminded Deng that 1989 was also the bicentenary of the French Revolution, long an inspiration for China, and he said:

No matter how one views it, the slogans of liberty, equality, fraternity, and human rights have gained universal respect.

Fang ended his plea by suggesting that a magnanimous act on the part of Deng Xiaoping would also earn him ‘even greater respect in the future.’

The 6 January 1989 open letter gathered widespread support and it inspired numerous other pleas and petitions to the Chinese government from writers, scholars and scientists who were emboldened by the government’s reluctance to retaliate against Fang. Generally, the petitioners sought safety in numbers as they echoed Fang Lizhi’s call for an awakening of conscience, for fairness and justice. Many also warned that China’s dictatorial political system was stymying social and economic progress.

The spontaneous Petition Movement of early 1989 contributed directly to a mass protest movement that exploded following the death in mid April of Hu Yaobang, a purged liberal Party leader. Initially led by students, those protests were supported by a nationwide response of students in other cities, workers and people from all walks of life. On 4 June 1989, Deng Xiaoping and his comrades, having purged Zhao Ziyang, yet another liberal Party leader in a quasi-coup, ordered troops who had besieged the capital for nearly two weeks, to retake the city, regardless of the cost in human lives.

The Beijing Massacre of June Fourth 1989 not only marked the bloody end of the popular uprising and a historical denouement for hopes of political change, it was also the beginning of China’s Cold War with the West.


1989: When the New Cold War Inherited the Old

This storm was bound to come sooner or later. This is determined by the major international climate and China’s own minor climate. It was bound to happen and is independent of man’s will. It was just a matter of time and scale.


This is what Deng Xiaoping said when addressing to leaders of the PLA five days after they had imposed martial law under force of arms on the Chinese capital on 4 June 1989.

Deng’s speech reaffirmed the message of the front-page Editorial published by the People’s Daily on 26 April 1989, at the beginning of what would be six weeks of unrest in Beijing and dozens of other Chinese cities. That editorial, written on the basis of the directives of Deng and his elderly comrades, had been broadcast on the evening of 25 April and was published the following day.

The Editorial declared that student-led protests sparked by the death of former Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang were actually led by a secretive group — ‘an extremely small number of people’ — who were fomenting ‘turmoil’ 動亂 dòngluàn ‘to sow dissension among the people, plunge the whole country into chaos and sabotage the political situation of stability and unity. This is a planned conspiracy and a disturbance. Its essence is to, once and for all, negate the leadership of the CPC and the socialist system.’

Talk of a secretive cabal engaged in a conspiracy to ‘once and for all negate’ the Party harked back to dark warnings about foreign interference in Chinese affairs that dated back to 1949 and which had been repeated on numerous occasions, not only during the Mao-Liu era (1949-1966) and the High Maoist years of 1966 to 1976 but also throughout the first decade of the Open Door and Economic Reform (1978-1988).

[Note: For the relevant background to the Sino-Western conflict, see The Harmonious Evolution of Information in China, March 2010; and, White Paper, Red Menace — Watching China Watching (VII), 17 January 2018.]

In his remarks on 9 June 1989, Deng reiterated and expanded on the message of the 26 April Editorial when he said that:

The incident became very clear as soon as it broke out. They have two main slogans: One is to topple the Communist Party, and the other is to overthrow the socialist system. Their goal is to establish a totally Western-dependent bourgeois republic. The people want to combat corruption. This, of course, we accept. We should also take the so-called anticorruption slogans raised by people with ulterior motives as good advice and accept them accordingly. Of course, these slogans are just a front: The heart of these slogans is to topple the Communist Party and overthrow the socialist system. …

In declaring that the aim of the backstage managers of the 1989 protests was to overthrow the Communist Party and turn China into ‘a totally Western-dependent bourgeois republic’ 一個完全西方附庸化的資產階級共和國, Deng acknowledged a decades-long conflict. By publicly identifying the plot against China, first on 26 April and again on 9 June 1989, Deng Xiaoping warned of the scale and significance of China’s clash with the US-led Western order. (For more on the historical context of this contestation, see We Need to Talk About Totalitarianism, Again.) And when, years later, China was encouraged to become a ‘responsible stake-holder’ in the ‘international rules-based order’ under the aegis of America, Deng’s remarks about the danger of the People’s Republic ending up as a ‘Western-dependent bourgeois republic’ resonated once more.

Deng had repeatedly warned against Western values, political ideas and cultural infiltration since early 1979. Advised by Party thinkers like Hu Qiaomu and with the support of a coterie of Mao-era colleagues, in 1979 Deng declared that ‘to achieve the Four Modernizations it is imperative to adhere to the Four Cardinal Principles in the realm of ideology. These principles are:

  1. Adherence to the socialist road;
  2. Adherence to the dictatorship of the proletariat;
  3. Adherence to the leadership of the Communist Party; and
  4. Adherence to Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.

‘As you all know,’ Deng told Party members, ‘none of these principles are new; our Party has been resolutely adhering to them all along.’ In June 1989, Deng would remark:

There is nothing wrong with the Four Cardinal Principles. If there is anything amiss, it is that these principles have not been thoroughly implemented: They have not been used as the basic concept to educate the people, educate the students, and educate all the cadres and Communist Party members.

The nature of the current incident is basically the confrontation between the Four Cardinal Principles and Bourgeois Liberalization. It is not that we have not talked about such things as the Four Cardinal Principles, work on political concepts, opposition to Bourgeois Liberalization, and opposition to Spiritual Pollution. What we have not had is continuity in these talks, and there has been no action — or even that there has been hardly any talk.

Although the Four Principles had been written into the Chinese constitution in June 1979 and were imposed during a series of fitful ideological and cultural purges (see, for example, The View from Maple Bridge, Part I, 5 February 2023), Deng and his colleagues were also cautious not to let the pursuit of ideological purity interfere with their desperately ambitious economic policies.

Following the destructive Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign of late 1983, Deng had even called for an embargo on ideological wrangling for three years. However, student protests in Shanghai and calls for media freedom and democracy in late 1986 put a momentary end to that spat of liberalisation. The subsequent purge of Party leader Hu Yaobang and prominent Party members presaged the denouement of 1989.

Readers will be familiar with the fact that my own doubts about the limits of change in post-Mao dated from early 1979. Although the Party urged people to ‘liberate thinking, seek truth from facts and look to the future’, by frustrating the reappraisal of the past it laid the groundwork for the radical historical denialism of the Xi Jinping era. Similarly, the Four Cardinal Principles, announced in March 1979 and subsequently written into the Chinese Constitution, were an affirmation of the party-state, just as the arrest of Wei Jingsheng was a warning about those who spoke out of turn or advocated an alternative future for the country.

In Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, a culture-focussed account of post-Mao China published in 1986 which we expanded in the second edition, published in 1988, we chronicled Deng’s repeated warnings about liberalism. We suggested that further clashes between Party ideology and the social forces encouraged by China’s open door and reform policies were inevitable. Our account was also informed by the skepticism of leading Hong Kong critics of Beijing, independent thinkers in China itself and famously insightful writers like Simon Leys. Nonetheless, I found my own bleak view of events repeatedly dismissed by a raft of diplomats, journalists and academics who preferred a narrow and simplistic view of Deng Xiaoping’s economic pragmatism instead of undertaking the hard work to appreciate the ways in which Party ideology not only shaped policy but offered a holistic worldview and means by which China’s power holders made sense of themselves and the world.

In November 1988, between courses at the state dinner held for Chinese Premier Li Peng by the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, I suggested that the power struggle between Li and Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang — a topic of white-hot speculation both in- and outside China — was, for all intents and purposes, resolved. All that remained was social upheaval and the denouement. Before long, Zhao would indeed take the fall for Beijing’s economic missteps, the Party’s ideological drift and even China’s social anomie. (See Supping with a Long Spoon — dinner with Premier Li, November 1988). The consequences of Zhao Ziyang’s fall proved to be cataclysmic and we are still living with the aftermath of those momentous events.

In the above, I have drawn on Back When the Sino-US Cold War Began, written in the days before the thirty-foruth anniversary of the June Fourth Beijing Massacre in 2023 for the series, Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium. In that essay I also noted that:

In June 1989, Deng had unerringly identified the reason why, with the exception of Zhao Ziyang and some of his younger colleagues, the Communist Party’s leaders had been unified in their approach to the ‘turmoil’ of 1989. ‘What is most advantageous to us’, Deng said,

is that we have a large group of veteran comrades who are still alive. They have experienced many storms and they know what is at stake. They support the use of resolute action to counter the rebellion. Although some comrades may not understand this for a while, they will eventually understand this and support the decision of the Central Committee.

It was this group of elders — the Eight Gerontocrats 八大元老 —  a coterie of Mao-era Party bosses who had ruled China from 1949 up to the mid 1960s with draconian ferocity, who proved to be the key to the Communist Party’s post-Mao political stability and systemic intransigence. Even as China had launched an ambitious program of reform from 1978, the Party gentry, which had tentacles and connections of fealty that extended to every corner of China, jealously protected the privileges of their caste and the vision that justified it. Having reluctantly contemplated late-Soviet-like constitutional reform (see Dai Qing’s 《鄧小平在1989》 and Dai Qing at Eighty), the Elders remained true to form in framing 1989 as part of a decades-long Cold War. They felt further justified by the collapse of the Soviet Union in late in 1991 (when, as Xi Jinping put it decades later, no ‘real man’ had defended the cause in Moscow) and they were reassured that the Cold War had never really ended. Soon, the threat of ‘peaceful evolution’ — a multi-pronged strategy of ‘The West’ dating from the 1950s to white-ant Party rule — was back on the agenda, and everything from ideas to colour revolutions would be framed as inimical. As we argued in Prelude to a Restoration, Xi Jinping is heir to the legacy of the Eight Gerontocrats.


‘It’s a very old game’ 古老的遊戲, by Liu Dahong 劉大鴻, 2006



From Prosperity to Contraction

In 2011, we devoted an issue of China Heritage Quarterly to the topic of the ‘Prosperous Age’ 盛世 shèngshì. As I observed in my editorial introduction:

In the late 1980s, as a decade of China’s Reform and Open Door Policies proffered a transformation of the country, anxieties over social change, economic inequalities, environmental degradation, weakness on the global stage and a sclerotic political system generated a national ‘crisis consciousness’ (youhuan yishi 忧患意识). To use Gloria Davies’ expression, ‘worrying about China‘ was widespread. As events would prove, people had good reason to be worried, and they still do.

From even before the 2008 Beijing Olympics a new wave of ‘China worry’ has been swelling in the People’s Republic. At the same time, and despite its awareness of the multiple problems besetting the country, the party-state has advertised the state of the nation as being one reflective of a ‘Prosperous Age’ (shengshi 盛世), or ‘Harmonious Prosperity’ (hexie shengshi 和谐盛世).

Shengshi is an ancient expression and it has been applied to a precious few periods in Chinese history. Such ‘golden ages’ have varied in length and content, but it is commonly recognized that during the Han 漢, Tang 唐 and Qing 清 dynasties there were remarkable periods of social grace, political rectitude and cultural flourishing. The self-proclaimed Prosperous Age of today’s People’s Republic has been nearly a century in the making; its achievement is far more contentious.

I want on to comment that ‘General wisdom, or common sense, would suggest that to declare a particular period or an era to be a Golden or Prosperous Age before it is over may be ill advised.’

It is often a fraught proposition to determine whether a renaissance is underway in the midst of a period of rapid socio-cultural change. And that begs the question whether frenetic economic activity is the ne plus ultra of human endeavour.

As is so often the case with heroic figures, pivotal historical moments, crises, tipping-points and so on, the passage of time, a greater understanding of the complex interaction of politics and society, as well as culture and economics, individuals and mere happenstance, all contribute to more nuanced, if not ‘correct’, evaluations of a certain epoch. In China’s modern history, however, enlightenments, rebirths and revivals have often been hastily announced and hailed in a mood of anxious exuberance. This often happens long before conclusions based on temperate reflection following a decent interval, measured understanding and deep reflection, can be drawn.

The dynastic term ‘prosperous age’ was revived in 2005 and it has now been in common use for nearly two decades ago. Now, in the second decade of Xi Jinping’s rule, however, with the Chinese economic slowdown, demographic decline and political stagnation, both that ancient term and its contemporary relevance are hotly contested once more. Some would argue that the revival of the nation’s fortunes during the three prosperous decades of the Deng-Jiang-Hu era have been squandered, even as Xi Jinping calls for the unleashing of ‘new productive forces’ 新質生產力 as part of the relentless march towards realising the China Dream.


A Spectre Still Prowles the Land

In The Tyranny of History, Part I of this chapter in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, we referred to the poet Sun Jingxuan 孫靜軒 who had warned about the ‘spectre prowling the land’ as early as 1980. Using the famous metaphor of The Communist Manifesto, the opening line of which was ‘a spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism’, Sun was referring to what he called ‘feudalism’, a Marxist term that in the Chinese context meant autocracy and, in his poem, stood in both for Mao Zedong and Party autocrats like him. Beyond political autocrats, however, Sun was also referring to ingrained social and cultural habits that evolved over millennia and which were reinforced since the Song dynasty by an increasingly narrow State Confucianism. Familial and bureaucratic hierarchies, the attitude towards status, class and power, disdain for independent thought, were all characteristics of dynastic society against which men and women of conscience had rebelled since the late-Qing dynasty and in particular during the May Fourth Era (c.1917-1927.

[Note: For more on the state’s manipulation of Confucianism, see Between Master & Student in The Tower of Reading.]

Sun Jingxuan’s poem featured in Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, mentioned above. New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, from which most of the material below is drawn, appeared in 1992. It was a sequel to Seeds of Fire that updated our earlier cautionary tale. (See 新鬼舊夢— More New Ghosts, Same Old Dreams, 1 January 2023.) The present material, like Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium as a whole, is also a part of what, for me, has been half a century of work related to China, its culture, history and politics. — On 15 October 2024 I will commemorate the fiftieth year since I went to Beijing.

As a twenty-year-old exchange student who had studied classical and modern Chinese, as well as some history and Buddhology during my undergraduate years in Canberra, Australia, I had gone to in pursuit of my dual interests in revolutionary modern history and traditional thought and culture. I arrived in China during the latter stages of the Criticise-Lin Biao, Denounce Confucius Campaign and my studies — initially in Beijing, then in Shanghai and Shenyang — straddled the last years of Mao, his Cultural Revolution and the first year of post-Mao China. Later, from a perch in Hong Kong where I worked for a Chinese-language current affairs journal, I was able to closely follow both the unravelling and the reconstitution of the Maoist world and the era of the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’ 文化大革命, as it was often called.

Half a century later, it is sobering to hear the era of the Chairman of Everything Xi Jinping called by some independent commentators the ‘Minor Cultural Revolution’ 文化小革命. Like that terminology, it feels as though I, too, have come full circle; having witnessed the last years of the tragic past and the remarkable decades of transformation that followed, I, like so many of my old friends, associates and colleagues both in China and overseas, now contemplate the gradual slide of that country into the ignominy of the present.

In The Tyranny of History, the first part of this chapter, we illustrated our thesis concerning the weight of the Chinese past in the company of Yuan Li, Wang Lixiong and the historian W.J.F. Jenner. Here, in The Lugubrious Merry-go-Round of Chinese Politics, we continue by reprinting an interview conducted by the China writer and editor Jeremy Goldkorn in April 2022. Then, in an essay titled ‘They Can’t Burn All the Books’, we discuss the Chinese obsession with the short-lived Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE). Although it lasted a mere fifteen years, the Qin has exercised an influence over Chinese thought, politics and culture for well over two millennia. It continues to do so today. Following that, we reproduce a mini anthology of material from ‘Wheels’, the part of New Ghosts, Old Dreams in which a range of Chinese thinkers and writers wrestled with the topic of the cycles of history.

In the conclusion we offers three perspectives on that topic. The first is a somewhat upbeat message from Tiananmen, an eight-part TV documentary produced in Beijing in 1991 that was censored even before it could be screened. This is followed by another excerpt from Li Yuan’s conversation with Wang Lixiong in which the novelist discusses what will happen to China if and when monolithic Party control falters. In ‘Time’s Arrows’, the denouement of this chapter, I revisit a speech that I made at a conference convened in 1999 to discuss the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.


In his role as head of the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department in the mid 1980s, Zhu Houze (朱厚澤, 1931-2010) promoted cultural liberalism and intellectual tolerance. When Hu Yaobang was purged and Fang Lizhi cashiered from the Party in January 1987, Zhu Houze was also removed. Demoted to a minor official role he was forced out again when Zhao Ziyang fell in June 1989.

Zhu remained a staunch advocate for political reform and the need for historical truth. In his later years, as the centenary of the Xinhai Revolution and the founding of the Republic of China approached, he made an observation about the cyclical nature of Chinese history, with a few caveats:

[In the century] from the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 to now, we have come full circle and return to where we started: autocracy. Our present autocracy, however, is far worse that anything in the dynastic past. The harsh way in which it controls is simply unprecedented and the means it uses to suffocate thought exceeds any earlier age. The cultural purges of the past are insignificant in comparison to it.


And that was in 2010!


My thanks to Linda Jaivin for graciously supporting the use of material from our book New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices here and to Reader #1 for reading the draft of this material and offering timely corrections.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
15 March 2024

Ides of March


Further Reading

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium


On Chinese History

‘Ugh, here we are’

‘Ugh, here we are’ — Q&A with Geremie Barmé


Australian sinologist, author, translator, and filmmaker Geremie R. Barmé first went to China in 1974. He’s seen a thing or two.

He’s written and edited a number of books on modern and traditional China, and held a variety of prestigious academic positions, most recently as the founding director of the Australian Centre on China in the World in Canberra. He is also an occasional contributor to The China Project, and an old friend of mine.

Geremie is the founding editor of China Heritage, where he is currently publishing a series of his essays on “Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium.”

We spoke by video call on April 7 [2022]. This is an abridged, edited transcript of our conversation, part of my Invited to Tea interview series.

— Jeremy Goldkorn, 8 April 2022


JG: Earlier this week, we published a translation of yours of a rant by a Shanghainese man captured on video, that circulated virally in China for a couple of days before being censored. The man looks to be in his late sixties or seventies, and he rails at quarantine workers in hazmat suits about the lockdowns in Shanghai, comparing them, unfavorably, with earlier periods of crisis in China’s 20th-century history.

Can you talk a little bit about why somebody would talk about the death of Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 and Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平 now, and compare it with the way he’s being treated in Shanghai in the lockdown?

GRB: Well, it’s a fairly typical way to frame things for people of that generation — he says he’s in his late 60s and he’s labeled as an ‘old man’. Guess we belong to the same era as I’m 67 myself and the way he puts things resonates with me, as much of my “China life” overlaps with aspects of his generation.

So, since he is of that vintage, it’s hardly surprising that hardline government control today immediately brings to mind other periods when the government has intervened in daily life in an outrageously invasive fashion. For example, the fellow starts off by mentioning sparrows. This is a reference to policies of the Great Leap Forward era of his youth when, since the nation was starving due to Mao’s botched “leap” in Communism, the call went up to eliminate sparrows and other pests that threatened already-depleted food stocks. Then he mentions other events, like the Cultural Revolution. He scoffs at the “Big Whites” in hazmat suits for trying to outdo the extremism of the Cultural Revolution, to put on a show of being more revolutionary than everyone else.

He also makes reference to the official histrionics surrounding the death of Mao — ‘the red sun’ — in 1976 and the demise of ‘the son of the people’ Granddad Deng’s in 1997. Listeners attuned to the political codes of China will immediately pick up what he’s saying about those two very different leaders. The speaker is mentioning these moments in history in a rhetorical way to make the point that even during those times of extreme national anxiety the authorities did not go over the top as they are in Shanghai right now. Sure, people behaved badly in the Cultural Revolution, but he’s saying what’s happening now seems even more extreme.

His ad lib comments are a reflection of what I think of as “totalitarian reflux.” A political acid reflux or an autoimmune response. He’s literally had a gutful and suddenly the memory of all those other stomach-churning meals comes welling up, the bile fills the mouth, you feel grossed out and you just have to vent.

This is what he’s doing; it’s a coping mechanism of a kind familiar to anyone who has experienced the policy cruelties of the past. What he’s saying to anyone who will listen is that we’ve all been through this kind of thing before, but you lot really are making a fist of it this time.

JG: Right. Right. Totalitarian reflux!

GRB: Here’s this guy, and from the video it looks like he’s in a fairly modest part of the city, and he’s probably not part of the booming Shanghai middle-class. But nonetheless, he lives in a place that’s proud of being China’s most hypermodern city and a global metropolis, and as he vents he makes it clear that he feels that it’s an incredible affront to be under the control of what he refers to as mere peasants — that is, the people brought in from outside of Shanghai to manage and control the outbreak, because the central government doesn’t trust the local authorities to act in an efficient fashion.

He refers to them in terms of the peasant army, the People’s Liberation Army, that surrounded Shanghai during the civil war that then forced its way in and “liberated” Shanghai from the Republican government.

He makes the comparison in a fit of pique because he’s affronted by what is going on; that Shanghai is being brought to heel once more. Throughout his comments, history provides immediate points of reference as he “uses the past to mock the present”(借古讽今 jiè gǔ fěng jīn), as the saying goes.

It’s common for people to use historical allusions and analogies to frame their views of the present. He’s also saying we’ve been here before and I’m making these comments to shame you and to express my outrage: You’re handling things as badly or even worse than in the past. It’s a rhetorical ploy; after all, he knows he’s being filmed and he’s playing to the camera as he vents. He probably also feels that he’s speaking out on behalf of many who are forced to remain silent and, from the fact that this clip circulated so widely so quickly in China, he’s probably right. One of the things about education under the Chinese Communist Party is that people are trained to perform, to be articulate and also to give voice to outrage; however, for the Communists it’s very unsettling when all of that training is used against them.

Anyone who has lived in China will have friends who have the gift of the gab and, in their mashups of contemporary life, can readily draw on history, contemporary politics, economics and what have you to entertain with a monologue.

By saying this, I don’t want to distract from the fact that this guy is frustrated and furious. He’s got a heart condition and, despite the anomalous fact that he takes a break to light up a cigarette, he remains furious; in part it is because he knows that countless others are also furious.

JG: Let’s put this in the context of what you’ve been writing about recently, a series for your website, China Heritage, on “the empire of tedium” of Xí Jìnpíng 习近平. Can you describe what you mean by that phrase?

GRB: The idea of tedium has to do with repetition, a return to the past, the obvious; it sums up the sense of boredom and monotony that to my mind has been a major feature of the Xi Jinping decade. It’s what in my student days we were taught about Engels and the historical dialectic: how chance and necessity are interwoven.

My ongoing series on Xi-era tedium reflects the sense I’ve had for many years that something like Xi and his reign were inevitable, even if that inevitability depended on a particular contingency, that is, the appearance of the kind of mission-driven, messianic ruler that we find in Xi Jinping.

After 1978, people tended to focus on how many policies of the High Mao era were re-evaluated or negated. I was always aware, however, that the Mao-Liu-Deng era policies of 1949 to 1966 were, apart from the Great Leap Forward, generally re-affirmed. The Maoist past saw the dual suppression of the working class (workers, peasants, etc) by the Party nomenklatura, and the suppression of the urban elites (managers, bureaucrats, business people, educators, the legal profession, media, etc), as the Communists expanded their power in Leninist-Stalinist style to invade every aspect of society.

For all of the cosmetic changes to China’s party-state, its essence, its modus operandi, though marginally challenged and even reformable, remained; as a result, what had happened in the autocratic past could happen again. “Dual suppression” has also been a feature of the Xi Jinping era. The laboring masses serve at the pleasure of the Party nomenklatura, which has been greatly strengthened, and once more the elites have been goose-stepped into complying with prerogatives of the party-state.

Now, this is all part of the ambience of tedium that I have been investigating; it is a handy term that I use to sum up a sense that many of my friends in the Chinese world, not just in China, but internationally, also have, a foreboding that had been welling up for years prior to the advent of Xi Jinping. Personally, I had little doubt about the glum future as soon as Xi got into power; it was also a shared sense among many people who, ten years ago at the advent of this tired old new era of Xi, were in their 50s or above. So many felt, “Damn it, here we go again!” Here’s the ugly desire to dominate, to control, to patronize, to manipulate, to repress and to silence.

Not to be too “China boomer” about this, but anyone who had lived through the last sixty years or so, will have seen the partial reforms from the late seventies, the potential and failures (as well as the lessons) of the 1980s, then the fitful repressions in the 1990s, followed by more circumscribed opening up and so on. It was easy to be dazzled by material changes and many found it boring to take all that Party palaver seriously. I did and, for the past decade, my sense of ennui has been paired with the sentiment that, “Ugh, here we are.”

This same old stuff, more extreme, more over the top; we will witness this for years to come and, as we all do, be it in China or outside, the old addiction to hope, hopium, part of the last four and a half decades of the “hopioid crisis” of China, will mean that huge amounts of time and effort will be devoted to ferreting out every sign of change, every possibility of transformation, reform and opening up, every scintilla of difference that can be detected in the obsidian surface of Party control. It’s boring; it’s understandable; it’s forgivable. And, for all of the ingenuity of scholars, analysts et al, it is also mind-numbingly tedious.

If the Chairman of Everything gets his third term in office, people will constantly be on the lookout for any hint that Xi might be aging, his hair whiter, his girth larger, his pallor paler; every burp and fart will be the subject of conjecture. It really takes me back, even as a teenager reading the papers in Sydney in the mid 1960s, there was constant speculation about Mao’s whereabouts and his health. There was a perpetual China crisis related to Mao and his inner circle. And it mattered because Mao had power over a huge and mysterious nation.

Now nearly 60 years later, speculation has been rife since 2018 regarding Xi Jinping’s plans, his status and his possible successor. Today, due to the economic heft and geopolitical ambitions of the Chinese party-state, the systemic instabilities that Xi Jinping and his courtiers have re-introduced to the country’s political life are of profound consequence.

[Note: See Wu Guoguang, Lessons from the black box of Chinese politics, The China Project, 3 October 2023.]

All the while, the Communists present this façade of unbelievable unanimity and monolithic unity. A decade ago, some Party thinkers and leaders tried to edge their way towards substantive change that would allow China to develop a kind of social maturity that was more concomitant with its impressive economic achievements. Instead, Xi et al prefer a state of paternalistic infantilization. Now, the whole world is also held hostage to the tedious panoply of the past.

The Shanghai debacle is but another example of Xi Jinping’s modus operandi, something that the Beijing academic Xǔ Zhāngrùn 许章润 analyzed in his February 2020 essay on the COVID crisis. China’s authoritarian leader who cosplays as a highly competent genius is an egotist who believes that he is History incarnate. The whole world has a front seat to the next crisis, the next round of instability. But, Xi has lots of company; as Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times has pointed out, this is after all “the age of the strongman.”

I began thinking about Xi’s empire of tedium around 2017. By then it was pretty clear that he would hope to enjoy term-less tenure. The veteran Hong Kong writer and political analyst Lee Yee (李怡 Lǐ Yí), who was my boss in the late 1970s, saw what was coming, as did Xu Zhangrun in Beijing. I followed and translated their work as part of my own endeavors to come to grips with the unfolding scenario. They, along with many others, were painfully aware that succession politics has bedeviled the Communists since they were founded in 1921.

JG: Beijing did seem to me to have, if not solved the question, at least found perhaps a more reasonable path forward from Jiāng Zémín 江泽民 and Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛. The way those two leaders came to power seemed to be both orderly.

During their rule, there seemed to be some responsiveness in the system, if not to the ordinary person on the street, at least to large parts of the Communist Party, rather than just a tiny group of people operating in a completely black box. Whereas now, we’re back in the old times. Is that the way you’re thinking about it?

GRB: There has only been one orderly transfer of power in over a century — that of Jiang Zemin’s hand over to Hu Jintao in 2003. Jiang Zemin himself got into power as the result of a coup against Zhào Zǐyáng 赵紫阳, just as Deng had been elevated to power as a result of an army led coup against the “Gang of Four.” Even Xi’s rise involved a power struggle with Bó Xīlái 薄熙来 and the purge of enemies. The politics of succession has been the bane of autocracies throughout history.

For people who are concerned about stability, whether it’s the stability of the markets, the economy, the real estate market, the stability of society, the succession issue is of outsize importance. Messianic self-belief has meant that Xi Jinping has re-opened the Pandora’s box of succession.

In 2017-18, the Communists collectively decided to throw China back into the cycle of uncertainty, one that has dogged the Party’s political history for a century.

That infuriated many but, for someone like me, I just feel ho-hum, here we are again. In 1992, in the wake of June Fourth in 1989, Linda Jaivin and I co-edited a book titled New Ghosts, Old Dream: Chinese Rebel Voices which looked at 1989 in the context of the previous century. One chapter, “Wheels” focussed on what Chinese thinkers and political activists had to say about the prison of history and cyclical return.

JG: How do you place China’s attitude toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its tacit and sometimes explicit support for Putin, in the context of the Chinese Communist Party’s early support from the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union being China’s “big brother,” and then the Sino-Soviet split?

Here we are again, again, except this time, China’s the big brother, it would seem, but unable to articulate any kind of independent position on the war in Ukraine. It’s all about blaming America. Does this bring up for you any historical echoes?

GRB: Well, indeed. As you know recently, I published the first formal chapter in the series Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, “We Need to Talk About Totalitarianism, Again.

It’s a long rambling discussion of many issues to do with the problem of the Big T, totalitarianism. I frame the whole discussion in terms of the 100-year-long relationship between Russia/Soviet Union and China/the Chinese Communist Party.

Of course, most commentators rightly focus on what China is doing and saying right now, and why it’s doing and saying so in relation to Ukraine and Moscow. But I’m not a current affairs analyst, a journalist, nor am I an international relations expert. These transitory things are of current interest and, like most people, I follow them. Equally, like most others, I’m not equipped to comment on the why and wherefore of Beijing’s decision making. I am, however, interested in the broad historical context of contemporary events and, in that context, Beijing’s prevarications and calculations make a sense of their own, an internal and historical logic.

In discussions both of Russia and of China, it is popular to revisit Samuel Huntington’s views on the “clash of civilizations,” which had enjoyed considerable popularity following 9/11. I’ve never particularly agreed with Huntington’s caricatures of culture, civilization or history, but they have been used in significant ways. In China, they were quite modish after the events of 1989 in the context of China’s renewed cold war rhetoric and Communist-engineered “spiritual civilization.”

In the context of the Russia-Ukraine situation and China’s position, one is drawn back to the geopolitical, nationalist and ideological clashes that date back to the 1910s and the collapse/ reformation of empire following the violent termination of the Romanov dynasty in Russia and the abdication of the Manchu-Qing rulers of China.

In simplistic terms, both the Russian and Chinese empires, as well as the “transitio imperium,” that is, the legitimate transfer of power over former imperial territories, has been a process that has been underway for over one hundred years now. Of course, this is not limited to Russia or China, it is a process that continues to unfold among other former empires as well. This is the long tail of the twentieth century. To see contemporary events only in terms of the post-WWII world is to miss out much of the story. Both Putin and Xi Jinping have, in their very different ways, made this fairly obvious.

The Russia, China, America clash at the moment is one that has its origins in particular in that period. It’s a clash that’s an odd melange of the ideological, economic, cultural and racial. All that stuff about the Spiritual East and Decadent West — regardless of whether it comes from Putin’s coterie of fascist philosophers or Xi Jinping’s retrograde viziers — goes back to debates highlighted at the time of WWI and thereafter.

Of course, people are easily bored by all of this; if not, then they readily give in to what is known as historical or cultural determinism, a kind of lazy intellectual fatalism that is inherently static. However, when you see the Tsar-like Putin in his glorious isolation at the end of his priapic white conference table, or Xi Jinping in the guise of the Supreme Leader, it’s hard to ignore the shades of the past. Anyway, to do so is foolish.

In my work, I have over the years tried to explain that some of the tensions and ideas that seem merely to be of the moment have, in many cases, long historical roots; that political leaders, advised by a clutch of servile thinkers, are canny in manipulating long term grievances, ideological differences, and economic and social approaches to organizing life, not only to justify what they’re doing, but as a way of finding meaning for themselves and their regimes in the contemporary world. Again, this is by no means unique to Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia or, for that matter, Trumpian America.

All of this can be somewhat confounding for people who spend their time glued to screens obsessively following the second-by-second ructions of the market. It’s disconcerting, even rather retro and old-fashioned for these authoritarian leaders to be fixated on deep history and to believe somehow that their time has come. It somehow seems tacky and dated. Tough luck.

For some years Putin has been talking about reintegrating Russia and reviving holy mother Russia. For years Xi Jinping has been rabbiting on about “witnessing major changes unfolding in our world, something unseen in a century” (当今世界正经历百年未有之大变局). He’s used this expression over 40 times now; it’s actually a reference to the 1917 October Revolution that led to the creation of the Soviet Union.

JG: Which I think you pointed out in one of your essays. He first used that in 2017, right? The 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution!

GRB: He used it in 2017. I remember at the time and, oh my God, this is what he’s talking about.

He’s used it again and again and again.

It is part of an integrated worldview. Whether one agrees with it and says that, oh, he’s just using it for a convenience, or whether this is a bit of historical showmanship, is to misunderstand that these are the ways that the Chinese Communist Party has painstakingly created a narrative for itself. It’s important to understand it, even if you find it abhorrent.

In the case of Putin, you need to read his July 2021 essay on Greater Russia and Ukraine. When he talks about holy mother Russia, the integrity of its geopolitical territory, the spirituality of its Orthodox Christian tradition and so on and so forth, you are in the land of the totalitarian. These are not merely the flights of fancy of an isolated autocrat. Similarly, Xi Jinping’s China Story has been crafted over many decades and it is underpinned by a form of revolutionary romanticism that melds elements of dynastic tradition with Stalino-Maoism.

JG: One last question, then. I’ve also been thinking about the filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, who went to China in 1970, 1971. He made a documentary film at the invitation of the Communist Party, and then was completely condemned for it after the film came out. Part of the reason I’ve been thinking about these things is that The China Project itself has been the subject of attacks by some young patriotic blogger nationalist thugs.

It seems to me there’s sort of an atmosphere in China, something that has been absent or at least has been toned down for the last 30 years or so, but it is coming back. It’s a certain particular type of hostility to the outside world, or perhaps it’s a hostility to anyone who tries to look at China and interpret it through a lens that is different from the way the Communist Party wants to see it. Does that make sense? How would you understand Antonioni and his treatment in China? Does that have any — not lessons — anything, any echoes today?

GRB: This is a question that really does take me back… Antonioni is never too far from my thoughts. The Italian director was invited to make a documentary in China in 1972, during the precursor of the country’s opening to the West. The film he produced — Zhongguo or Chung Kuo, Cina — was attacked by the enemies of the new Mao-Zhou policy and it was widely denounced, sight unseen.

In mid 1974, in my Chinese class in Canberra, we read the lead denunciation of the film that had been published in Red Flag magazine, the leading outlet for what passed as Communist Party theory back then. When the film was broadcast on Australian national TV shortly before I went to China as an exchange student in October 1974, the newly established Chinese embassy in Canberra went into rabid hyperdrive.

It was, to say the least, a “learning experience.”

Today’s wolf warrior diplomats still have quite a way to go before they can match the levels of high dudgeon and outrage perfected by the Maoists.

Anyway, the denunciation of Chung kuo stayed with me because many of the terms used at the time are trotted out, albeit without the past level of gusto, by the likes of Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 and Huà Chūnyíng 华春莹 today. Their tired lexicon is delivered with a kind of snide, curled-lipped hauteur that I find to be less than convincing. As for Antonioni’s film, it is still worth watching. It captures the rhythms and color of life in China that I experienced at the time. It is meditative, caustic and remains surprisingly moving. The people in it, sallow, malnourished, reticent and quiet, haunt the screen like ghosts.

Antonioni expressed a discordant view at a time when such a thing was absolutely verboten. In many ways, a similar situation exists in Xi Jinping’s China, although the masses haven’t been bludgeoned and starved into resentful submission; many revel in their subjugation to the Communists.

Nonetheless, the Xi Jinping New Era is a doleful time. Here is China, having achieved in the terms of its own modern history, unprecedented riches, hard-won (if draconian) social stability, extraordinary achievements in every major field of pursuit, yet it is as brittle, bitter, self-absorbed, and neurotic a nation as it has been at any other time since the end of the Qing dynasty.

The result is an incredible tragedy for humanity as a whole.

China cannot celebrate its achievements without at the same time denigrating anyone who might in any way question the means that have been used to realize these ends. A vast and majestic land is reduced to the sorry and pathetic scale of noxious self-regard. In many ways, the Cultural Revolution was a quintessential expression of the personality and worldview of Mao Zedong. Similarly, the pusillanimous, mean, reactive, bitter, aggrieved China of today reflects the personality of Xi Jinping and his fellow Politburo comrades, all of whom are creatures nurtured by High Maoism.



‘They Can’t Burn All the Books’

A Decades-long Obsession with the Qin Dynasty and its First Emperor


‘There still are books that they haven’t managed to burn’, a line from ‘On Reading Sima Qian’s Account of the First Qin Emperor’ 讀秦紀, a poem by Chen Gongyin 陳恭尹


This work by a contemporary calligrapher features a line from a poem by Chen Gongyin (陳恭尹, 1631-1700), who composed it during the Ming-Qing cataclysm, the decades-long transition from the Ming dynasty to the Manchu-Qing empire. In full, the poem reads:


It may be easy to quell voices of protest,
But grievances are much harder to eliminate;
No matter how merciless its rule the Qin still missed some things.
Late at night by the bridge that young rebel still kept reading,
They can’t burn all of the [seditious] books.

Chen Gongyin was the son of Chen Bangyan 陳邦彥, a famous Ming loyalist who led the resistance to the Manchu-Qing invasion of South China in the 1640s. Captured in 1646, Chen the Elder was dismembered — 寸磔 cùn zhé — in public by his captors. Chen the Younger continued to support the Southern Ming resistance and, following its collapse, lived out his days in seclusion in Guangzhou.

The poem ‘On Reading Sima Qian’s Account of the First Qin Emperor’ 讀秦紀 has been quoted by rebels and resistance fighters ever since. In the Xi Jinping era, the line ‘they can’t burn all the books’ brings to mind ‘manuscripts don’t burn’, a famous line from The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s celebrated novel about the devil’s visit to Stalinist Moscow. Bulgakov’s line inspired Manuscripts Don’t Burn, a 2013 Iranian film about an attempt to kill a busload of Iranian writers. Artworks are more readily destroyed than the spirit of resistance.


China has been obsessed with the First Emperor Qin Shihuang and his short-lived dynasty ever since it collapsed in 206 BCE.

In The Tyranny of Chinese History, Part I of this chapter, Bill Jenner observed that ‘the Qin had inherited a very old notion — that there could and should be only one legitimate central government — and taken it a lot further. This view has survived to the present day.’

As Jenner also notes about Mao Zedong, who would later be described as ‘Karl Marx plus Qin Shihuang’ 馬克思加秦始皇:

In one of his most revealing poems [‘Snow’ 雪 — ed.] he compares favourably the personalities of his age — by implication, himself — with the great emperors of the past: Qin Shi Huang, Han Wu Di, the founders of the Tang and Song dynasties and Genghis Khan. The final message of the piece is that none of them combined martial prowess with culture and sheer style in the way he did. This poem was written in 1936, when the Communists controlled only a small and backward corner of China, far from the centres of wealth and power. Yet already he was thinking like an emperor.

[Note: For more on ‘Snow’ and Mao’s imperial style, see For Truly Great Men, Look to This Age Alone, China Heritage, 27 January 2018. And, on Qin Shihuang and Xi Jinping, see The Heart of The One Grows Ever More Arrogant and Proud, 10 March 2020]

Mao expressly, and repeatedly, identified with China’s history of rebellion, and in particular with upstarts who founded dynasties (Qin Shihuang was an exception). He declared that this latest uprising, led by a proletarian vanguard and directed by visionary revolutionary leaders with a modern anti-feudal political philosophy like himself, would break the dynastic cycle forever and found a new government that would outshine in achievement all the greatness of the past.

On 4 July 1945, Mao Zedong asked the educator and progressive political activist Huang Yanpei (黃炎培, 1878-1965) what he had made of his visit to the wartime Communist base at Yan’an in Shaanxi province. Huang lauded the collective, hard-working spirit evident among the Communists and their supporters, but he doubted whether their wartime frugality and solidarity could last. He predicted that the revolutionary ardour of the Communists would inevitably wane if they ended up in control of China and he wondered out loud whether the endemic political limitations and blemishes of earlier Chinese regimes would return to haunt the new one, despite the best efforts of its committed idealists.

Would autocracy, cavalier political behaviour, nepotism and corruption once more come to rule over China? Huang said he could see no way out of the ‘vicious cycle’ of dynastic rise and collapse, the ‘historical cycle’ 歷史週期率 lìshǐ zhōuqīlǜ, though he certainly hoped that Mao and his followers would be able to break free of the wheel of history. Mao responded unequivocally:

We have found a new path; we can break free of the cycle. The path is called democracy. As long as the people have oversight of the government then government will not slacken in its efforts. When everyone takes responsibility there will be no danger that things will return to how they were even if the leader has gone.


‘The Answer in the Yan’an Cave’ 延安窯洞對, a sculpture by Wu Weishan 吳為山, unveiled at the Central Socialist Academy, Beijing, on 1 March 2016. Wu’s work was inspired by Xi Jinping’s celebration of the Mao-Huang exchange in Yan’an during a speech on what the Communist Party dubs ‘democracy’ in December 2012


The popular 1988 television documentary River Elegy 河殤, which was pointedly critical of the inward-looking legacy of the Qin dynasty, was followed in August 1990 by an official made-for-TV riposte, On the Road: A Century of Marxism 世紀行.

On the Road was the first mass media work of propaganda to introduce Chinese audiences to the Mao Zedong-Huang Yanpei exchange at Yan’an in 1945. It did so at the height of the Counter-Reform Era of 1989-1992, a period that in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium we repeatedly refer to as the Prelude to the Xi Jinping Restoration.

In December 2012, shortly after becoming Party General Secretary, Xi Jinping first referred to what was now called the Mao-Huang ‘cave reply’ 窯洞對 yáodòng duì himself, and it has been a feature of his remarks on Chinese history, corruption and China’s future ever since. The First Emperor of the Qin also enjoyed renewed prominence in the nation’s political discourse.

In 2018, seventy-three years after Mao met with Huang Yanpei in Yan’an, Xi Jinping was acclaimed the unquestionable leader of the People’s Republic of China; his role was hailed as 定於一尊 dìng yú yī zūn, ‘The Ultimate Arbiter’ — an ancient imperial epithet famously used to describe the unchallenged power of Ying Zheng (嬴政, 259-210 BCE), Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor of the Qin. Only months earlier, Xi had been bestowed with the equivalent of lifetime tenure as chairman of the country’s party-state-army. Mao’s bold claim that the Communist Party would break the cycle of Chinese history was now up for debate.

As we noted in China Heritage Annual 2019, the theme of which was Translatio Imperii Sinici — ‘the transhistorical nature of Chinese imperial power’ — ever since the collapse of the last dynasty in 1911, ‘Empire’ — or 帝業 dì yè, ‘the imperial enterprise’ in traditional terms — has been a source of anxiety for China’s political leaders, revolutionaries, thinkers, business people, journalists and citizens. Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary leader who became first president of the Republic of China, warned that even some of the revolutionaries around him regarded the restoration of dynastic rule and empire was inevitable. Sun said:

In China there has for the last few thousand years been a continual struggle around the single issue of who is become emperor! 中國幾千年以來,所戰爭的都是皇帝一個問題。

For his part, Mao Zedong, regardless of his own imperial airs, was obsessed with the possibility of a restoration, 復辟 fù bì, of the ‘semi-feudal and semi-capitalist’ past. After the Communist state of the People’s Republic of China, history, and how it was recounted according to Party dogma, was a central feature of national life.

Documents related to the failed coup in 1971 referred to Mao as ‘Qin Shihuang’ and one of the most striking lines that featured during the mass protests in Tiananmen Square in April 1976 was:

China is not the China of the past and The People are not irredeemably ignorant. The era of Qin Shihuang has gone forever. 中國已不是過去的中國,人民也不是愚不可及,秦皇的時代已一去不返了。

Since Mao’s death in 1976, Party leaders, thinkers and historians have recalled the Chairman’s 1945 exchange with Huang Yanpei, and they have been increasingly obsessed with the issue of 興衰 xīng shuāi, ‘the rise and decline [of rulership]’, an expression famously used by Sima Qian (司馬遷, 145-? BCE), the Grand Historian of the Han dynasty, to describe the waxing and waning of political fortunes.


The obsession with the Qin dynasty and the First Emperor has by no means been limited to Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping. Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping’s successor, is said to have urged Zhang Yimou to make Hero (英雄, 2002), a cinematic blockbuster and an unabashed paean to the founder of China’s first dynasty. The film ends with a panoramic view of the rising sun and the Great Wall winding over undulating mountain landscape. A subtitle declares:

‘In 221 BC, after the King of Qin unified China he put an end to warfare and constructed the Great Wall to protect the state and the people. He was China’s first emperor and is known to history as Qin Shi Huang.’


Jiang reportedly saw himself as something of a latter-day grand unifier and we should remember that it was under Jiang that the People’s Republic began its informal ‘imperial reorientation’. As the economy boomed, the capital Beijing was redesigned to emphasise once more the north-south axis of the Ming-Qing imperial city, something that featured in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in August 2008. Jiang also had symbolic structures like the Altar to the New Century 中華世紀壇 built that imitated design motifs of the Forbidden City.

During Jiang’s tenure as party-state-army leader the topic of the rise and fall of empires were discussed during the in-house seminars on history and the future of China at which hand-picked scholars addressed members of the ruling Politburo. The tombs of legendary rulers and sage leaders were lavishly reconstructed and annual ceremonies held to commemorate the eternity of Chinese governance. In a myriad of ways, Jiang who, like Xi Jinping, was advised by the Party theoretician-historian Wang Huning, wove mythology and dynastic history into the fabric of contemporary China. It was a process that continued apace, and with ever greater official largesse, during the Hu Jintao decade (2003-2012).

Opponents of imperial revivalism also used old tropes to criticise Party leaders who would combine the dynastic past and Stalino-Maoism with the economic exuberance unleashed by Deng Xiaoping. Over the years, writers frequently referred to an essay by fourth-century poet Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 in which he described a secluded idyl created by people who had ‘fled the chaotic rule of the Qin’ 避秦時亂 bì Qín shí luàn. Hong Kong critics of Beijing reminded people that generations of mainland refugees had escaped from ‘the harsh rule of the Qin’ 避秦苛政 bì Qín kè zhèng and contributed to making the British colony into a place where they could enjoy economic and personal freedoms unknown in the People’s Republic.

As he rose to power in 2011-2012, some of Xi Jinping’s old friends who acted as something of a ‘kitchen cabinet’ are said to have frequently discussed dynastic history with the new leader — the reasons behind the longevity of certain imperial houses, the fate of particular emperors, the intermeshing of China’s millennia-long history with Marxist-Leninist views about historical inevitability, and so on. Speculation centered on Xi’s upcoming reign and his place in history. It is impossible to ignore the imperial reverberations in Xi Jinping’s bloated oeuvre of speeches, remarks and essays. It is said that Mao’s mindset was determined by 帝王思想 dìwáng sīxiǎng, an emperor’s frame of reference. Only time will tell whether Xi Jinping, a man who would outshine Mao, has can be as successful in ‘the art of autocracy’ 帝王之術 dìwáng zhī shù as his predecessor.

Throughout the Xi era, both ruler and ruled have repeatedly drawn on the lessons of the Qin and the First Emperor to castigate the present and warn about the future. And, apart from the ruler and his dissolute successor, the man who led a rebellion against the Qin has also haunted Chinese leaders. For decades, the uprising of Chen Sheng 陳勝 was even part of the school history curriculum. Until February 2019, that is, when it was reported that the famous account in Han-dynasty historian Sima Qian’s Historical Record had been removed from text books. No reason was given.

Elsewhere we have noted that both Xi Jinping and Xu Zhangrun, his most intractable critic, have been given to quoting The Great Palace of Qin 阿房宮賦, a famous account of the destruction of the legendary Epang Palace of Qin Shihuang written by the Tang poet Du Mu (杜牧, 803-852). Arguably the best-known poem on the cycles of Chinese history, it contains the immortal lines:

The Rulers of Ch’in had not a moment
To lament their fate,
Those who came after
Lamented it.
When those who come after
Lament but do not learn,
Then they too will merely provide
Fresh cause for lamentation
From those who come after them.





Both Xi Jinping and Xu Zhangrun have quoted these lines as a warning — those who do not learn from history will be condemned to repeat it.

1. Wheels & The Mysterious Circle of Mao Zedong

In the mini-anthology below, we feature material drawn from ‘Wheels’, Part IV of New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices. In our editorial introduction Linda Jaivin and I wrote:

The traditional Chinese worldview saw history as a cyclical development: dynasties were founded, flourished, and then, growing corrupt, fell into decline, to be overthrown and replaced by a new imperial house that would then repeat the cycle.

Although historians have shown this to be an overly simplistic, even fallacious, view, the notion of cycles still has a potent grip on the Chinese imagination, one further strengthened by the television series River Elegy and the “historical” writings of authors like Jin Guantao.

There are all kinds of cycles, or wheels. They can be found in the supposedly immutable alternation of order and chaos [or, as Liang Shuming put it: 循環於一治一亂而無革命], in the traditional calendar, which represents time as a series of sixty-year cycles (with years of danger and calamity, such as the Year of the Dragon [in 1988-1989, and again in 2024-2025]), and in the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation within the Wheel of Life. (A common pre-May Fourth curse was “May you fall into the wheel!”) In “Wheels” we attempt to illustrate several cycles related to the events of the late 1980s; cycles to which many of those involved in the r989 Protest Movement felt themselves bound.

The wheel of protest, denunciation, and self-flagellation has been revolving in China since 1949. Each new political movement—and there have been dozens of them, as Wu Zuguang comments in his speech “On China’s National Characteristics”—represents another turn of that wheel. …

The 198os also saw the recycling of the old debate concerning China’s “national characteristics” and the revival of interest in China’s “national essence” …

In applying the heavy hand of “order” to quell what it perceived as unbearable “chaos” in 1989, the party was itself following a pattern thousands of years old. Just as the first Qin emperor, Qin Shihuang, had responded to criticism by killing his critics and burning their books, so too did the government of Deng Xiaoping, Yang Shangkun, and Li Peng react to the petitions and pleas for dialogue with bloodshed and censor­ship. …

In Part II, “Bindings,” we saw how both reformers and individualists have tried to break free of the cycle of history, sometimes with fatal consequences. Often they have ended up “rediscovering the wheel”: The essays and polemics of Li Ao, Bo Yang, Liu Xiaobo, and others repeat and reformulate the concerns of leaders of the 1898 Reform Movement and the May Fourth generation. …

The attraction of the wheel—these cycles of history—is both subtle and insidious. It causes people to think that change is impossible, that progress is a dream, and that the future is reflected in nothing so much as the past. After all, the traditional aim of each revolution, each turn of the dynastic wheel, was not to progress into the future but to pursue a dream of returning to the Golden Age of the past. The belief in the cycles of history itself is tyrannic, for it feeds a gloomy fatalism that serves the status quo.


On 26 December 2023, Xi Jinping and his politburo colleagues commemorated the 130th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth. Here they are pictured on the day paying respects to Mao at the Chairman’s mausoleum in Tiananmen Square. Photograph by Ju Peng 鞠鵬


The Mysterious Circle of Mao Zedong

Liu Yazhou


It was three days before his death, and Mao Zedong could no longer talk. He put his thumb and forefinger together to form a circle and showed the doctors and nurses. Then, afraid they hadn’t understood, he lifted his arm with great effort and traced a circle in the air.

But what did it mean? Was this some mysterious cipher? A prophecy? In the last days of his life, he bequeathed a riddle in the shape of a circle to his empire.

The doctors panicked. Hua Guofeng, Wang Dongxing,* and the rest rushed to his bedside. They tried to work out what he meant, like chil­dren playing a guessing game. Jiang Qing came as well, but not even she knew what her husband’s gesture signified… .

* Hua was to be Mao’s successor as party chairman, Wang was head of security.

I don’t understand what he meant, either. No one will ever know for sure. But if you ask me, I’d say he was describing his own history.

History is circular.
Everything is circular.
Isn’t that so?

He began in Tiananmen Square, and that’s where he ended up. He had traveled in a big circle.

He returned to Tiananmen Square, never to leave again. He became the square’s resident in perpetuity, its only resident… .

The largest tomb in the modern world was erected on Tiananmen Square. But it’s not really a tomb. It’s a spacious, resplendent villa. It has a white marble armchair inside. You can see it when you enter the main hall. There’s a bed, too, and that’s where you’ll find him. The place is air-conditioned and has an elevator. In the morning the elevator takes him up to the hall where he works, and at night it lowers him to the depths where he sleeps.

Mao Zedong presides over Tiananmen Square. He is forever observing his people, and the people are forever watching him, ever mindful of his Thought. No matter how you look at it, he is immutable.

Mao Zedong, male, from Xiangtan County, Hunan Province, 1.78 meters tall, born of a rich peasant family.

This passage concludes the book The Square — Altar for an Idol by Liu Yazhou [廣場——偶像的神壇], which was published in Hong Kong in early 1990. The thirty-seven-year-old novelist is the son-in-law of Li Xiannian, China’s former state president.

Another popular explanation for the “mysterious circle of Mao Ze­dong” is that the dying chairman was trying to tell those around him to work together and not to purge one another after he was gone. If so, no one paid any attention.

[Note: Liu Yazhou (劉亞洲, 1952-) also features in 蔭 — Shadows of 1644, Chapter Five of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, which focusses on another historian obsession of the Communists, the failed peasant rebellion of 1644. Liu was a well-connected army writer who suddenly disappeared in 2021. Known to be an outspoken opponent of Xi Jinping within the Party elite, people were not surprised to learn that he was secretly tried on charges of corruption and supposedly handed a suspended death sentence, which in practice is the equivalent of life imprisonment. In early 2023, Party Central reportedly ordered the withdrawal of Liu’s work from circulation and the elimination of his ‘malign influence’ within the army.]


2. Never Say Never

Bo Yang

The violent suppression of the Protest Movement took many observers by surprise. For years, the Chinese had been assuring one another— and foreigners — that the Cultural Revolution, or any similar regime of repression and terror, could never recur in China. Bo Yang, however, thought differently, as is shown by what he wrote after his return to Taiwan from a trip to the mainland in 1988.

[When traveling on the mainland] we often heard people say that a violent upheaval like the Cultural Revolution could not occur again in China. They reasoned that people had suffered more than enough and would be on their guard in the future.

I hold precisely the opposite view. I believe that an upheaval could erupt at any moment, even though it might go against the trend of the times—indeed, against human nature itself—just like the Cultural Rev­olution. What people really mean when they say it “couldn’t happen again” is that it’s impossible for the old actors to take to the stage again: Madame Jiang Qing reappearing on the rostrum to harangue the crowds, Mao Zedong popping up on Tiananmen Gate to egg on the Red Guards. Of course that couldn’t happen. History doesn’t replay itself like that. But the crux of the matter is that any soil in which poisonous weeds have flourished in the past can surely produce more poisonous weeds; as long as the factories for manufacturing Cow Demons and Snake Spirits [An expression used in the Cultural Revolution to describe counterrevolutionaries and other political criminals] still exist, they will be able to produce more Cow Demons and Snake Spirits. In Mainland China the soil and the factories are intact. It’s just that they’re temporarily out of order due to extreme overwork. But the mo­ment ambitious men are once again inspired, disaster will revisit the land.

The government’s policy has been to encourage forgetfulness, and, indeed, the people themselves have already pushed the Cultural Revolu­tion out of their minds. The most chilling phrases one hears on the lips of Chinese people are “Just forget it!” and “Let bygones be bygones!” These sayings will be the downfall of the Chinese people. Superficially they would appear to be the voice of a generous spirit; in fact, they cloak profound fear. At the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, there’s a plaque on which is engraved the following warning [by George Santay­ana]: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.”  The same is true of Mainland China: As soon as people forget the calamity of the Cultural Revolution, it will be sure to happen again! We won’t have to wait until the 1990s either—the eighties have already given us the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign and the Anti-Bourgelib Campaign. Even the television newscasters felt compelled to put on Mao jackets during those movements. Those two campaigns petered out only because the leaders exercised some self-restraint, not because the people opposed them.

Ba Jin once proposed the establishment of a “Cultural Revolution Museum,” [see Seeds of Fire, pp.381-84], a suggestion that elicited an enthusiastic response from peo­ple around the country and energetic opposition from officialdom. In any standoff between the people and the officials, the people always lose. The goal of the authorities has been to make people forget the wounds they’ve received. This is just another example of the curious workings of the official mind.

What’s even stranger is that right up to the present day, the People’s Government still insists on upholding Mao Zedong Thought, but be­cause even they have some sense of shame, they hasten to explain that “Mao Zedong Thought has nothing to do with Mao Zedong himself!” This is the sort of absurd logic to which only the Chinese dare resort— the officials who came up with this twisted logic, however, are probably convinced that other people are as stupid as they are.


3. On China’s National Characteristics

Wu Zuguang

Wu Zuguang made the following speech on March 22, 1989, at the National People’s Political Consultative Congress in Peking.* Wu had been forced to resign from the party in 1987 as part of the campaign against Bourgelib, although he retained his non-party posts such as the vice chairmanship of the China Dramatists’ Association. His outspoken criticism of censorship in the arts and political purges had for many years infuriated such leaders as Vice President Wang Zhen . After his resignation, Wu became even more critical of the government and began addressing such basic issues as the political system itself.

I wonder how many comrades attending this congress have ever really delved into the daily life of the nation? How many of you have ever come into close contact with the people, been jostled on public buses, for example, or elbowed your way into the shops and markets, squeezed up to the bookstalls, or crowded into restaurants—really tasted the whole range of flavors that makes up Chinese life? How much do you know about what concerns people today? Of course, the people have no end of concerns: inflation, students’ lack of interest in their studies, the hardships suffered by teachers, the enviable fortunes made by official and private speculators alike. They are perturbed by the rapid decay of public morality and the ever-increasing corruption of the privileged class…. They are also concerned as to whether leaders in the Center are really capable of understanding popular sentiment. Popular sentiment is, in short, the sentiment of the nation.

But what I want to talk about today is the subject of guoqing [國情], “na­tional characteristics.” This is because I have heard the expression used three times recently. The first was when Fei Xiaotong, the vice chairman of the National People’s Political Consultative Conference [and a famous sociologist], used it a few months ago. The second time was last month in a comment by General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. Most recently it was used in mid-March by Yuan Mu, the spokesman for the State Council. On all three occasions the speakers were using the term “national characteris­tics” to deny that the Western multiparty system and parliamentary politics could be imported to China. They all gave the same reason: the Western political setup is not suited to China’s national characteristics.

I was born after the elimination of feudal rule from China. I have lived through the internecine warfare of the warlords, the success of the Northern Expedition, the autocratic rule of the Nationalists, the eight years of the Anti-Japanese War, the three years of the War of Liberation, and the appearance of a liberated New China.

The birth of the People’s Republic of China was the glorious achieve­ment of the Communist Party of China. It saved the people of China from the distress and suffering of the past century, leading them into a new, peaceful, and happy world. During the exhilarating days that fol­lowed the establishment of the People’s Republic, I was so intoxicated with joy that I would even wake up in the middle of the night laughing. The nation seemed the picture of prosperity, and I contemplated the future of our great motherland with boundless optimism. Comparing the past with the present, the people of China were so grateful to the party and Chairman Mao that we worshiped them to the point of fanaticism. …

The atmosphere of renewal and the energy and enthusiasm of those days made it possible to recover speedily from the wounds of war. The whole country was in a state of constant excitement; it was thriving. China even took upon itself the internationalist duty of supporting Korea in its war against American imperialism, forcing the world’s mightiest war machine back to the Thirty-eighth Parallel. This stunning victory dispelled in one stroke the woeful impression that China was the Sick Old Man of Asia and won for China the praise of progressive people everywhere. It made every Chinese proud.

After this, however, Chairman Mao Zedong adopted an autocratic style of rule, and from the early 1950s on he launched continual political movements on every front as well as mass movements in industry and agriculture. These included:

  1. The criticism of the film The Life of Wu Xun
  2. The criticism of [Yu Pingbo’s] Researches on The Story of the Stone
  3. The criticism of the “Hu Feng Anti-Party Clique”
  4. The Anti-Rightist Campaign
  5. The Great Leap Forward, which began with communization, the mass movement to produce steel, and the insanity about entering [the final phase of] Communism
  6. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

There is no need for me to enumerate the numerous other minor political campaigns of these years. The campaign against Hu Feng initi­ated the odious practice of jailing and banning intellectuals and famous writers. In the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957, nearly one million peo­ple were made into rightists; many died before being rehabilitated, and innumerable families were split up. The Great Leap Forward led to peasants falsifying production statistics to satisfy local bureaucrats, thereby deceiving themselves and everybody else. This led to the “three bad years” that left the countryside destitute …. In 1966 [Mao Zedong] personally initiated and led the Cultural Revolution, a disaster that blighted the country for ten long years. During that time the nation was so badly abused it nearly collapsed. It created the greatest tragedy and horror China, and indeed mankind, has ever known.

The facts show that none of these movements was justifiable. After the Cultural Revolution, the party was forced to clean up the mess, which it did with the utmost difficulty, correcting past errors and bringing order out of chaos. Yet it could do nothing about those who had been killed, the damaged environment, the economic waste, the cultural relics that had been destroyed, or the squandered wealth of the nation.

Then there is a question that clouds the future of our children and grandchildren: the population explosion. In the 1950s Chairman Mao Zedong not only ignored the specialists who wisely counseled that the population must be kept under control, he actually punished the scholar Ma Yinchu for his outspokenness on the issue …. This led to the situa­ tion today whereby even with population control in place, the number of people in China has increased wildly to eleven hundred million. What can possibly be done in the future, when things will only get worse?

The above are the actual national characteristics of China. Although we have made progress, the shadows and tragic consequences of the past four decades will stay with us forever. I’m sure many people would agree with me that if none of these disastrous political campaigns had taken place, China would be a very different country today.
 In my opinion it is just because of China’s national peculiarities—the stubborn persistence of feudal thinking—that a great effort must be made to study the democratic systems of the West.

In the half century since World War II, the capitalist countries have generally enjoyed prosperity and stability while the socialist nations have remained in a depression, the obvious losers on the economic front. The facts speak for themselves: The crux of the matter is the political system. Nothing could be clearer. With the fate of the nation at stake, we cannot allow ourselves false pride. We cannot permit the disasters of the past to be repeated, and for this reason we should in a spirit of humility and in all seriousness ponder the question of our political system.

The main reason for such endless suffering was the authoritarian rule of one party and one man; it was a lack of democracy. Those in power are still unrestrained by public opinion; they can do as they wish, they can even run wild.



The Dinosaur: ‘I’m the only reality in all of your myths.’ From Huang Yongyu’s Can of Worms, in New Ghosts, Old Dreams, p.366

[Note: See also Wu Zuguang: A Disaffected Gentleman, China Heritage Quarterly, No.25, March 2011.]


4. Recurring Nightmares

Qian Liqun

In my research into modern Chinese intellectual, cultural, and literary history, I find myself increasingly terrified by “historical cycles.” I often have nightmares about the future.

I have found, for example, that on one level China’s modern history is a record of intellectuals engaged in mutual destruction. I had a “dream” that in the not-too-distant future the famous intellectuals who are pres­ently most active in the intellectual and cultural spheres, people who have differing “strategies for national salvation,” will finally draw up battle lines and fight to the death … .

Of course, it’s only a dream, perhaps a premonition. But it is based on historical precedent.

In their investigations of the history and conditions of Chinese intel­lectuals and writers, the brothers Zhou Zuoren and Lu Xun came to a similar conclusion: Zhou Zuoren lumped “intellectuals,” “the emperor,” and liumang [流氓] together; Lu Xun said that in the Chinese intellec­tual world there were only “official souls” and “bandit souls.”

While contemplating today’s famous intellectuals—regardless of whether they are my seniors, my peers, or my juniors—I always find in them something of the “imperial air” (hegemony) or a “touch of the liumang” (a breath of the bandit). It is there in all of them, be it to a greater or lesser extent, obvious or disguised, consciously recognized or unconscious.

Furthermore, I find the very same thing in myself.

There have always been intellectuals who have been the accomplices or handmaidens of the rulers. When feudal authoritarianism saturated the national spirit as a whole, intellectuals got a big dose of it. Thus, in China we have not only autocracy and the autocracy of the ignorant, we even have the autocracy of the intellectuals. People say the role of the ignorant is fearful because it means that an “unbridled mass” goes wild; but the terrifying thing about the dictatorship of intellectuals is that it is “scientific” and “legitimate,” precise and exacting. In its respect for power and unity of thought, its opposition to individualism, freedom, the minority, heretics, dissonance, and pluralism….its purpose is at one with the rule of the kings or the ignorant. Be it the autocrats or the masses in control, their dictatorship invariably leads to bloody murder—China is a nation with a tradition of “killing heterodoxy.”

May 20, 1989

[Note: Qian Liqun’s essay was part of a section in ‘Wheels’ related to the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and how it has been commemorated in China over the years. That material featured Xu Jilin’s discussion of what he called ‘the vicious cycle of May Fourth’ 五四怪圈. We previously featured Xu’s remarks in May Fourth at 100, China Heritage, 4 May 2019.]


5. I Us’ um Fork Now

Li Ao

The question of Westernization has been central to Chinese debates on reform and modernization for over a century. In the May Fourth period, Hu Shi was a leading proponent of “wholesale Westernization” as was Li Ao in Taiwan in the early 1960s, when the debate raged once again. Again on the mainland in the late 1980s, Fang Lizhi and Wang Ruowang were bitterly denounced for advocating this approach.

If we have any sense at all, first and foremost we must admit that we have never wholeheartedly attempted to modernize. We’ve always been opportunistic, taking whatever appeals to us but never trying to learn from the “spiritual civilization” of others, their scientific attitude or spirit, the fair play that goes with political democracy, the attitudes born of an economy of abundance, or dynamism. In fact, we’ve never even learned the easygoing sincerity that goes with the greeting “Hi!” We’ve only ever learned, ever wanted to learn, the most pathetically superficial stuff. When it comes to modernization, we’re all still in kindergarten. And though we’re at school, we can hardly boast that we’ve covered the whole curriculum.

A British explorer once came across a cannibal. He was astounded to discover that the cannibal was a graduate of an English university. “And you still eat human flesh?” he asked in surprise. The reply was brilliant: “I us’ um fork now.” [Li uses English in the original.]

This may be only a joke, but you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Just take a look at our own society. How many people with 1691 minds are driving around in 1961 model cars? How many people use the latest printing presses to produce paper money for the dead? How many mod­ern plastics factories are churning out mah-jongg sets? How many people use their refrigerators to store the pork used in sacrifices to Confucius? How many people use microphones to spread the Buddhist dharma? Confucius’s descendants done up in Western suits, and smoking the most expensive foreign cigarettes, sit in halls dedicated to the Sage Teacher, writing Chinese characters with a brush… .

In our fetid “use of Chinese learning as the basis” [以中學為體] and wondrous “adaptation of Western technology” [以西學為用] are we any better than our canni­bal friend? Isn’t this the most superficial type of Westernization? It’s pretty weird, if you ask me. Everything about it indicates a decay of both the national nervous system and digestive tract; it’s all typical of a pack of sick-minded people who are satisfied with a smattering of knowledge.


[Note: For more by and about Li Ao, see The Art of Survival in the Age of Xi Jinping and A Madman’s End, also in China Heritage.]


With each new dynasty and each new reign throughout Chinese history, the throne has never changed, only the ass that is on it.

Bo Yang


6. A Lesson from History

Luo Beishan

Luo Beishan is the pen name of a writer and scholar in his seventies who survived the Cultural Revolution. He went into exile in June 1989 and writes satirical essays for the Hong Kong press.

In 212 B.C., the two “intellectuals” Hou and Lu criticized the emperor Qin Shihuang. They were afraid of informers (though I don’t know if back in those days sisters informed on their brothers for a 500-yuan reward), and as there were no foreign embassies where you could take refuge, they simply ran as far as their legs could carry them.

Qin Shihuang was furious and took his revenge on all the other schol­ars in the capital. The Historical Records state that he “had the censors interrogate all the scholars.” As a result they fell about accusing one another and the emperor ordered more than 460 “counterrevolutionary hooligans” to be buried alive in a massive pit in the capital of Xianyang. It is recorded: “This was announced throughout the empire as a warning to others” and “The remainder were sent into exile in the border re­gions.”

Actually, they began persecuting intellectuals in China two years be­fore this, in 214 B.C., the thirty-third year of Qin Shihuang’s reign. Premier Li Si presented a vicious report to the emperor stating that “scholars today have no respect for the present and emulate only the past” (translated into modern Chinese, “They don’t study Marxism-Leninism but go on and on about democracy and the rule of law”). Li said, “They negate your rule and create confusion and chaos among the common people …. If this is not stopped, power will fall away from you and opposition parties will develop. I suggest immediate action.” This led to the emperor ordering the burning of the books with an instruction that “those found discussing the Book of Poetry or the Book of History [both Confucian classics] are to be executed, and those who criticize the present by using examples from the past will have their families annihilated.”

But this is the old story of “burning the books and burying the schol­ars” [焚書坑儒], which everyone knows from Sima Qian’s Biography of Qin Shihuang. To update it, all that is required are a few cosmetic changes: Use tanks to crush people to death instead of burying them alive, introduce machine guns to shoot people at random, employ masses of troops, carry out arrests at night, close all the borders, use the media to terrorize the nation, make up phony crimes… . When socialist modernization is im­possible, go for fascist-feudal modernization.

The cycles of history show that China has stagnated for two thousand years. This is the tragedy of our nation.

But there are also a few encouraging historical precedents. Only two years after Qin Shihuang burned the books and buried the scholars, he died at Shaqiu, and five years later the Qin dynasty was overthrown by a military mutiny. Li Si, the running dog premier who had devised the means of dealing with the scholars, fell victim to an internal party power struggle and was sliced in two in the marketplace of Xianyang. Shortly before the sentence was carried out, he blubbered to his son: “We’ll never again be able to chase rabbits at the east gate of Shangcai!” [吾欲與若復牽黃犬俱出上蔡東門逐狡兔,豈可得乎] They both burst into tears, and his family was wiped out to the third genera­tion.

I wonder if at some time in the future Yang Shangkun, Li Peng, and Chen Xitong will have cause to recall the delights of “chasing rabbits at the east gate of Shangcai”?

[Lin Biao interjects: “Qin Shihuang burned the books and buried the scholars.”] So what’s the big deal about Qin Shihuang? He buried only 460 Confucians alive; well, we’ve buried 46,000. When we suppressed counterrevolutionaries, we also killed some intellectuals, didn’t we? We’ve debated with the democrats: They attack us for being just another Qin Shihuang. Well, they’re wrong. We’re a hundred times greater than Qin Shihuang. They say we’re dictatorial like Qin Shihuang. Certainly, we’ve never denied it. It’s a pity they never get it right; they need us to fill in the details for them [laughs loudly].

Mao Zedong, 1958


‘Sacrifice’, by Zhang Pingjie. New Ghosts, Old Dreams, p.387


7. A Knowing Smile

In a long prose meditation on the enigmatic smile of the terra-cotta warriors interred at the tomb of Qin Shihuang near Xi’an, published in mid-1990, one writer speculated on the reasons for the frozen bemuse­ment of the statues in a thinly disguised comment on China’s modern rulers:

They smile at collapse and extinction: the proud Empire of Qin was brought low in an instant.

They smile at the greed and ambition of an emperor who, having schemed to enjoy an eternal reputation, was doomed to a short-lived reign.

They smile at feebleness and impotence: History reveals that there has never been an emperor capable of enslaving his people forever.

They smile, contemplating these fly-by-nights who believe they are the masters of history, and who do not realize that by forcing the people to bow their heads in submission they become objects of scorn….

— Han Xiaohui


8. A Long-term Struggle

Jiang Zemin

The new regime aimed to do more than merely “sweep away” porn and Bourgelib. The following excerpts from Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin’s National Day speech in 1989, required study material for the whole nation, show that despite lip service to Reform and the Open Door, the party was also intent on recycling a number of the political aims of the Maoist era—and the rhetoric of that time as well. Jiang’s comments on “national nihilism” were aimed at Liu Xiaobo, Fang Lizhi, and the authors of River Elegy.

… The tendency toward extreme democratization and anarchism has a broad social basis in China. It is very destructive to our cause and is liable to exploitation by a small handful of reactionaries. We must main­tain sharp vigilance and resolutely prevent this trend from running ram­pant. We do so precisely to guarantee the democratic rights of the majority and to guarantee the healthy development of socialist democ­ racy and the socialist legal system. Democracy toward the People and dictatorship toward hostile elements and antisocial elements are closely linked and complementary. So long as class struggle exists in some areas of life the function of dictatorship cannot be weakened… .

Unremitting efforts must be made in ideological education to instill the values of patriotism, collectivism, socialism, self-reliance, and hard struggle, as well as revolutionary traditions, among the masses, particu­larly the youth. Constant Communist ideological education should be conducted among members of the party and Youth League and among the advanced elements. We must provide Marxist and socialist ideological guidance for the departments of theoretical studies, propaganda and education, the press, the publishing industry, and the departments en­gaged in literature and the arts… .

Schools … should make moral education their priority and build up a firm, correct, political orientation… . We must actively absorb all the fine achievements of our country’s history and culture and of foreign cultures, and resolutely discard all feudal and capitalist cultural dross and spiritual garbage. In this regard, at present we must pay special attention to combating the ideology of national nihilism that completely rejects China’s traditional culture and worships everything foreign… .

The party and government have always considered the youth, includ­ing young intellectuals, to be the future and hope of the country and, while putting strict demands on them, have consistently treated them with love and care in the sincere hope that they will grow up healthily and quickly to become qualified citizens. We also sincerely hope that the mass of intellectuals, particularly young intellectuals, will seriously study Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, plunge into social reali­ties, and work together with the workers and peasants, constantly ab­sorbing nourishment from the people’s activities as the makers of history and giving full play to their own wisdom and talents in the country’s socialist construction… .

It should be stressed here that the international reactionary forces have never abandoned their hostility toward the socialist system or their at­tempts to subvert it. Beginning in the late 1950s, after the failure of military intervention, they shifted the focus of their policy to “peaceful evolution.” … They support and buy over so-called dissidents through whom they foster blind worship of the Western world and propagate the political and economic patterns, sense of values, decadent ideas, and life­style of the Western capitalist world. When they feel there is an opportunity to be seized, they fabricate rumors, provoke incidents, plot tur­moil, and engage in subversive activities against socialist countries… . The struggle between infiltration and counterinfiltration, subversion and countersubversion, “peaceful evolution” and counter-“peaceful evolu­tion” will last a long time. In this connection, people of all nationalities, and all party members, especially leaders, must maintain a high degree of vigilance… .


9. From Sartre to Mao Zedong

Hua Ming

The “Sartre craze” first swept Peking University in 1979, and over the following ten years, along with the “fad for Freud” and the “vogue for Nietzsche,” it swelled and subsided, leaving everyone quite dizzy. Cool reflection reveals that behind these crazes was a cargo cult of all manner of foreign imports. But university campuses are places that are forever trying to come up with something different. And as we enter the nineties, a new message is emanating from them. Now, university students are “Mao crazy.”

— On December 26 [Mao’s birthday], 1989, more than ten universities in the capital organized a “rediscovering Mao Zedong” seminar at the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall in Tiananmen Square;
— Mao Xinyu, Chairman Mao’s grandson, an undergraduate in the History Department of the Chinese People’s University, is increasingly popular with his fellow students, who crowd around to hear his stories about his granddad;
— Whether at schools in the capital like Peking University, the People’s University, Peking Normal University, or China Youth Political College, or at schools in the border regions like Jishou University, or Luzhou Medical College in the southwest.. . Mao Zedong’s philosophical writ­ings and poems have been exhumed from under layers of dust and are once more attracting attention. Books like A Biography of Mao Zedong and Mao Zedong’s Family History are particularly popular.
— Shaoshan, Mao Zedong’s birthplace, an unpopular destination for so many years, in 1989 hosted over 1.8 million visitors, 70 percent of whom were young people, and the majority of whom were middle school and university students;
— At Peking University students are organizing themselves into special groups for the study of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong’s writings.

What are we to make of the new fad? Everyone is talking about it. Most people are of the opinion that university students have now found the answers to China’s problems in the treasury of Mao Zedong Thought. To build a new China, one has to understand China’s national characteristics… . This writer believes this is the root cause of the “Mao craze.”

What was the greatest lesson taught to us by the disturbance in the spring and summer of 1989? Intent and profound reflection has led university students to the conclusion that Western remedies can’t provide cures for China’s ills… . Over the past century of change … when it comes to understanding the realities of China, no one can compare with Mao Zedong; and no one achieved such successes. Mao Zedong’s call to “adapt the universal theory of Marxism to the practical situation of China,” together with Deng Xiaoping’s formulation to “build socialism with Chinese characteristics,” represents the crystallization of the living essence of Mao Zedong Thought. Since last year’s disturbance, univer­sity students have spoken of “searching for Mao Zedong and being ashamed of [their] attitude to Deng Xiaoping.” This is a sign of their determination to discard all Western philosophy and political thought and soberly confront the realities of China.

Over the past decade, a generation of young Chinese intellectuals has traveled the path from Sartre to Mao Zedong. It has been a tortuous journey and much time has been spent in deep thought, but they have now found the road that leads from vacuousness to relative maturity.

— People’s Daily, March 1, 1990

[Note: For more on the ‘Mao craze’ of the early 1990s, see Geremie Barmé, Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.]


10. What’s New?

He Xin

— from a letter to Geremie Barmé


It’s not certain that this fad for Mao meant exactly what the People’s Daily said it did. After all, during the Protest Movement, students and other demonstrators frequently carried Mao’s portrait during their marches. For all of Mao’s excesses, many protesters seem to believe that he hadn’t been as corrupt as Deng Xiaoping and his fellows, and that in any case he had been able to keep the wheels of revolution turning. The Mao cult took on more traditional trappings in the countryside, where in 1990 it was reported that he was appearing variously as a door god and the god of wealth, and that truck drivers in the south had taken to mounting little Maos in their cabs much as drivers elsewhere might carry a plastic statue of Jesus. In Peking one formerly reformist intellectual reportedly suggested in late 1990 that the party establish an official Mao cult to exploit popular sentiment.

The overall situation in China now is stable. The “independent” intellec­tuals have basically been obliterated. To a certain extent they brought it on themselves. (I should explain here that some intellectuals see me as a “conservative,” while other, more orthodox figures regard me as an “independent.” In fact, I am neither. I am nothing more than a Sinophile, that’s to say, someone who loves China. The sole goal of my struggle is to find in intellectual and spiritual terms a means by which China can be revived and strengthened. In this respect I clearly belong to the tradi­tional as opposed to the modernist camp of Chinese intellectuals. This is why it was inevitable that Yan Jiaqi, along with the “River Elegy group,” and I would go our different ways.)

China is unquestionably entering a new political phase. I support some of the present policies such as the revitalization of China’s national spirit and the control of discrepancies between poverty and wealth, as well as of political corruption. However, some intellectuals will have to pay the price in this new era. In the Eastern tradition, the individual finds expres­sion through the collective; while in the West, the collective finds its meaning in the individual. In this sense, as long as one can achieve the development of the society as a whole in exchange, and in order to renew control of the excessively inflated egos of recent years, all of this is possibly not only necessary but also in keeping with the spirit of the East.

On the international scene, the West is once more forcing China into isolation. In my personal opinion, the majority of Western politicians and intellectuals basically misread the situation this time around. In reality this is because they have let themselves be misled for some time by the emotionalism and hopes of a group of independent-style Chinese intellectuals and right-wing students. Over the next three to five years China will undoubtedly go through a period of economic hardship and also witness the outbreak of social problems. Internationally, China will be rejected and isolated. However, one should never underestimate the potential and willpower of the Chinese nation. Intellectuals such as my­self will continue undaunted to concentrate our efforts on the revitalizing of our nation… .

October 2, 1989, Peking

[Note: For more by and about He Xin, see A Word of Advice to the Politburo, trans. and annotated by Geremie Barmé, January 1990.]


The conclusion to ‘Wheels’, Part IV of New Ghosts, Old Dreams, featured two quotations:

Old is the history of man; periods of order alternate with periods of chaos.

Mencius (371-289 BC)

Whoever was in power wishes for a restoration. Whoever is now in power is in favor of the status quo. Whoever is not yet in power demands reforms. The situation is generally such. Generally!

Lu Xun, 1927



  • The material in this section is from ‘Wheels’, Part IV of New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, edited by Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin, New York: Times Books, 1992, pp.321-410

Chinese Sources:

  • 劉亞洲,廣場——偶像的神壇,1990年
  • 柏楊,家園,1989年
  • 吳祖光,淺談‘國情’,1989年(手稿)
  • 李敖,給談中國文化的人看看病,《李敖全集》第四冊
  • 羅北山,舊事重溫,1989年
  • 毛澤東,在八大二次會議上的講話,第一次講話,1958年5月8日
  • 韓小慧,兵馬俑前的沈思,1990年
  • 江澤民,在慶祝中華人民共和國成立四十週年大會上的講話,1989年9月29日
  • 華明,從‘薩特熱’到‘毛澤東熱’,1990年
  • 何新,致白杰明信,1989年
  • 孟子譯註,1960年
  • 魯迅,小雜感,《而已集》

xuán, ‘to march under a fluttering banner; to revolve’, in the hand of Huaisu 懷素, a Tang-era monk


A Conclusion in Three Keys

Going Places


In this ancient city, as soon as the ice is thick enough, people come here to skate. Such freedom is a thrill, as is the ease with which you can constantly change speed and posture.

The moment you put a foot on the ice, you realize you have to change the way you walk. You also know that if you stop now, you’ll have no other choice but to leave quietly or stand aside and watch the others.

Observing them, you may eventually be emboldened to start again. Your first fall will leave you dejected. People speed on past, but you’ll see that you’re not the only one who has faltered. This will give you the courage to stand up. You may fall again, but you’ll keep trying. This is the beginning of understanding.

You learn how to modulate your pace and movements. You decide what path you’ll take and learn to keep your emotions in check. Initially everything seems unfamiliar, but gradually you get the hang of it.

The ice begins to melt. The season is nearly over. Much has been learned, some things better than others. You treasure the carefree sensation of gliding over the ice and you wait, wait for the next season.

A narrator’s words are read in a sonorous voice as images of adults and children skating on the frozen waters of the river-moat encircling the imperial palace at the heart of Beijing appear on screen. This is the final scene in ‘Going Places’, episode five of Tiananmen, a documentary series made in Beijing over the years 1988-1991.

The work of two young Beijing directors, Chen Jue and Shi Jian, the eight-hour series was begun at the height of cultural liberalism in the late 1980s and edited during the political purge that followed the 4 June Beijing massacre. Each episode contained elements — in both the montage of images and the narration — that reflected this momentous shift in public life. The narration, cowritten with Guang Yi, was couched in highly symbolic language and expressed eloquently what Miklós Haraszti, the Hungarian cultural analyst and former dissident who has featured in our work since the late 1980s, would have recognized as ‘civilization between the lines’.

Made for CCTV, the censors, who were riding high during the Counter-Reform era of 1989-1992, made sure that Tiananmen was never broadcast. Before the ban, the producers invited me to translate the whole series and I included the passage above in the conclusion to In the Red: on contemporary Chinese culture, a book published that I published in 1999. (See On the Road 在路上 — Taipei vs. Beijing, 12 January 2024.)

A few years earlier, in 1995, I was the main writer of a narrative for The Gate of Heavenly Peace, another documentary, one directed by Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton. We offered a very different account of Tiananmen Square and the events of 1989. It was controversial even before it was released in October 1995 and the controversy has continued to this day.

The year 2024 marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the momentous events of 1989 the subject both of the film The Gate of Heavenly Peace and the book New Ghosts, Old Dreams, which has been the subject of The Lugubrious Merry-go-Round of Chinese Politics, Part II of ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, the third chapter in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium.

‘Going Places’ is the first episode in this ‘conclusion in three keys’. In the second, we return to the novelist Wang Lixiong. We last heard from Wang in The Tyranny of History where he made the observation that:

… it seems as though we have come full circle. It’s as though our present trajectory is starting to coalesce with the past. Sometimes history gives you the feeling that, for a time at least, you are traveling forward when, in fact, you are merely on a tangent or experiencing a digression. In the long flow of history, it is nothing more than the blinking of an eye. It may well end up joining an earlier trajectory. That’s what I feel we are facing at present.

from ‘Wang Lixiong Comes Around’ in The Tyranny of History


Integration and Disintegration

Li Yuan: I believe that you are the kind of person who always prepares for the worst eventuality. I’m sure you recall the phone conversation we had during the Shanghai lockdown [between late February and August 2022]. We talked about how everyone was stockpiling various foodstuffs and various supplies. You told me that for decades you had always prepared for such an eventuality. Isn’t that so?

Wang Lixiong: That’s right. I’ve always had this sense of impending crisis. Why, you might ask? Although on the surface it seems as though we’ve been living in an extremely stable environment, the reality of the matter is that the integrity of our society is monolithic. It’s the kind of a system that is either extremely steady or one that can suddenly become unmoored.

A mature society is one in which many factors contribute to the overall stability and integrity of the system — that includes cultural factors, religious communities, the legal system, as well as the national armed forces [that is, not a one-party dominated army like the PLA], and a stable bureaucratic structure, as well as a vibrant political opposition and various civil and community groups.

In China each and every one of these has been eliminated leaving in their place the party-state. National and social integration relies on this system alone to hold everything together. Of course, the system cannot be challenged and therefore it appears to be supremely stable. And that is the very core of its instability. When such a highly integrated system encounters a problem, every aspect of it will be called into question and the whole thing will disintegrate into chaos.

During the COVID pandemic one wondered if this might happen? In the event, it didn’t happen, although our concerns were very real. In the future, other circumstances will give rise to the same anxiety, time and again. Sooner or later, it is quite possible that the integrative or centrifugal energies of the system will fail. That’s when the ‘yellow peril’ phenomenon [about which I wrote over three decades ago] may eventuate.

trans. G.R. Barmé

袁莉: … 其實您一直是一個為最壞的可能做準備的人。我想起來在上海封城的時候還跟您打過電話,是吧?就說到大家那會兒都開始在家裡面儲備各種各樣的糧食什麼之類的,但是這幾十年來,您實際上都是做著這樣的準備的,對不對?

王力雄: 是。像我這個危機感始終是存在的,為什麼會這樣呢?雖然看著我們都好像非常穩定,但是它是在一個單一整合性的社會當中,它要麼就是特別的穩定,要麼就是突然這一切就可能喪失。就是完善的社會啊,它是有很多整合因素的,尤其是這種整體性的整合因素:比如像什麼文化,宗教,法制啊,還有國家化的軍隊啊,穩定的官僚集團啊,還有反對黨啊,或者是各種民間勢力什麼的。但是這些呢,在中國前面的這些歷程當中,都是一一地被消除掉,那麼只剩下一個單一的黨國體制。而所有的整合都在這個黨國體制下,來進行整合。那在這種情況下,它是不會遇到任何挑戰,所以它看起來是非常的穩定。但是這種呢,又恰恰是最大的不穩定之所在。就是一旦它這個單一性的整合,要出現問題的話,那麼(其他)所有的整合性的因素都不存在,那不就陷入到非整合的一個混亂狀態當中去了。





 Time’s Arrows

Wang Lixiong’s concerns echo one of the oldest observations about Chinese history made by Mencius and quoted in the conclusion to ‘Wheels’ above:

Old is the history of man; periods of order alternate with periods of chaos. 天下之生久矣,一治一亂。

Mencius (371-289 BC)

It is no accident that Xi Jinping uses one of the most famous clichéd lines about history in his attacks on ‘historical materialism’ and any works or ideas that diverge from the monolithic historical narrative promoted by the Communist Party:

One uses a brass mirror to see whether one’s clothes are in order. One can understand the rise and fall of rulers if one consults the past. 以銅為鑑,可正衣冠;以古為鑑,可知興替 。

from 《新唐書·卷九七·魏徵傳》

And, during what many regard as the ‘historical reversal’ of the Xi Jinping era, it is not surprising that old terms such as ‘the circularity of order and chaos’ 治亂循環 zhì luàn xún huán, ‘rise and fall’ — 興替 xīng tì, 興廢 xīng fèi — and ‘flourishing and decay’盛衰 shèng shuāi — have enjoyed renewed popularity. After all, as Bill Jenner pointed out in Part I of this chapter:

History … plays a role comparable to that of religious texts in other cultures. It is also the Last Judgment. The religion of the Chinese ruling classes is the Chinese state, and it is through history that the object of devotion is to be understood. … History thus held, and still holds, the present in its pincers. One jaw is the record of the past; the other is the future record of the present.


Allow me here then to ‘circle back’ to some observations I made in 1999 at a conference held in Hamburg to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the People’s Republic. In a speech titled Time’s Arrows: Imaginative Pasts and Nostalgic Futures, I said that:

It is easy to labor the parallels between the late 1940s, the late 1980s and the late 1990s, but it is instructive to follow the evocations of these moments by participants in contemporary intellectual debate and critical inquiry as part of their strategies to formulate positions and possibilities for themselves. As the country was about to begin its conversion to a Marxist-Leninist planned economy directed by a communist government in Beijing, liberal thinkers and activists had warned of the dangers of totalitarianism, although later for the most part they were swept up in a wave of nationalist fervor and support for the communist-led revolution. Half a century later, a disparate group of liberal thinkers, be they identified as neo-liberal or neo-leftist (or left-wing), were actively debating the consequences of the further transformation of the state-run system into a market-oriented economy that was enmeshed in global networks. The trajectories may appear to be those of two arrows of socio-political time headed in different directions. One was bound for an unfulfilled past that had been construed as an inevitable future, while the other sped towards a future as promised, though thwarted, in the past.

Although in naming this article I took a lead from Martin Amis’s novel Time’s Arrow, in the end the intersecting ‘plot lines’ and temporal shifts that have been discussed here in terms of the trajectories of history, ideologies in conflict, paths taken, and roads rejected, bring to mind a 1941 short story by Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’.

The labyrinthine and complex garden around which that tale and its Chinese and Western characters—and the surreal denouement—revolve contains a secret, ‘an enormous riddle, or parable, whose theme is time.’ The garden in Borges’ story was a universe of times as conceived by a fictional Chinese philosopher who rejected notions of uniform or absolute time, creating instead a multivalent realm in which all ends lead to multiple beginnings. Indeed,

…he believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us. In the present one, which a favorable fate has granted me, you have arrived at my house; in another, while crossing the garden, you found me dead; in still another, I utter these same words, but I am a mistake, a ghost.


In this chapter we have discussed historical cycles, the return of autocracy and the seemingly inescapable nature of the past. In doing so, I have revisited and quoted both the work of others as well as my own thoughts on these subjects.

[Note: See also The Pirouette of Time — After the Future in China, 28 January 2019.]

The Counter-Reform years of 1989-1992 have been important to our discussion. When, in the early spring of 1991, Deng Xiaoping undertook a ‘southern tour’ to revitalise the economic reforms that had been stalled by the calamity of 1989, and the investiture of Jiang Zemin as Party leader, he quashed a heated debate about whether the post-Mao reforms were socialist or capitalist in nature. The controversy was summed up in the expression 姓社姓資 xìng shè xìng zī and Deng categorically declared:

Don’t make the mistake of thinking all economic planning is socialist or that the market economy is essentially capitalist. That’s getting it all wrong. They are both a means to an end and the market can serve socialism. 不要以為,一說計劃經濟就是社會主義,一說市場經濟就是資本主義,不是那麼回事,兩者都是手段,市場也可以為社會主義服務。

In the late 1970s, Deng had emphasised the unassailable role of the Communist Party; similarly, in the 1990s the Party would also reign supreme. This time around, Deng said that the debate over socialism and capitalism could be shelved for two decades until China was wealthier and stronger. When Xi Jinping came to power two decades later, in 2012, he did so planning to correct the excesses of the previous years and, in the process, he cast China back into the recurrent cycle of its history.

On 1 October 2024, the People’s Republic of China celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary. Xi Jinping is the fifth generational leader of New China and his autocratic, one-man rule, brings to mind another quotation from Mencius:


The legacy of the founder is spent by the fifth generation.


‘Transmigration’ 輪迴, by Xia Qingquan 夏清泉. Source: New Ghosts, Old Dreams, 1992, p.324