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Xu Zhangrun’s China: ‘Licking Carbuncles and Sucking Abscesses’

China Change, August 1, 2018

 

Xu Zhangrun

 

 

On July 24, Unirule (天则), the liberal, beleaguered economic think tank in Beijing, published a 10,000-character essay by the Tsinghua University legal scholar Xu Zhangrun (许章润) which has lit up the Chinese internet at a time when the voice of Chinese intellectuals has been dying out.

The text, deploying all the rhetorical potency of literary Chinese — even in its length, the ‘Ten Thousand Word Petition’ having a specific valence in Chinese political history — has captured the zeitgeist of revolt against the China that Party leader Xi Jinping is busy constructing. Since being republished on the website of the Hong Kong-based Initium Media, the article has been widely shared and reflected upon by intellectuals and scholars inside and outside the country.

Initium wrote in a tweet that “this text carries out a systematic critique of the retrograde tendencies in Chinese social and political life, in particular since the end of 2017. It explicitly points out and warns against the danger of the return to totalitarianism, and calls for a stop to the cult of personality and the resumption of term limits on the post of the state chairman. The piece has become one of the few direct criticisms of contemporary ills in China among the intellectual class.”

Below we offer an outline, followed by a small selection of picant excerpts from the essay, aimed at giving readers a flavor of the whole. China Change understands that Geremie Barmé will be publishing a full translation of the essay on the website of The Wairarapa Academy of New Sinology (http://chinaheritage.net/) in due course.

Xu Zhangrun’s essay, titled ‘Our Dread Now, and Our Hopes’ (我们当下的恐惧与期待), is composed of four parts: ‘Four Bottom Lines,’ ‘Eight Forms of Anxiety,’ ‘Eight Hopes,’ and ‘The Interim.’

The four ‘bottom lines’ — i.e. the fundamental assumptions on which CCP rule has been based for the last 40 years — that Xu identifies as having been breached are:

  1. The maintenance of basic social order and a clear direction for the country

“The cessation of successive ‘political movements,’ the end to ‘no protection from law or heaven,’ as well as the constant ‘strike hard’ coercive rectification campaigns, the prevention of social anomie, the safeguarding of social order, and attempt to realize social harmony, have all significantly contributed to the basic living conditions of regular people, and has for 40 years been the bottom line for the legitimacy of the current political system…”

  1. Allowing limited private property rights and tolerance of citizens’ pursuit of wealth

Xu writes that economic reform allowed unprecedented growth, and that this has been a key element in the citizenry’s tolerance of continued Party rule.

  1. Limited tolerance of personal freedoms

Xu writes that for more than the last decade, mere sprouts of civil society have been crushed through political campaigns, thus severely stunting the development of civic consciousness and a real understanding of politics among the public. Chinese people are encouraged to “amuse themselves to death” while getting rich without scruples, Xu says.

  1. Political term limits

Here Xu is directly targeting Xi Jinping’s abolition of term limits for the post of state chairman, effected at the most recent meeting of the National People’s Congress in March.

Xu writes: “For thirty years, the essence of the matter is that — despite salient increases in social pluralization and political tolerance — the entire political system has seen no substantial or meaningful progress or change. In its bones it’s that same set of banal and brutal ideas about political struggle and dictatorship, topped off with the disgraceful avarice of kleptocrats who consume the country’s patrimony.”

In light of this, he says, the Chinese people had some minimal comfort that the constitution contained basic rules limiting the tenure of Party leader to two terms, and the system observed some adherence to constitutional norms.

The abolition of term limits “is like scrapping 30 years of political reform with one flick of the pen.”

Xu’s then enumerates the eight fears of the Chinese everyman:

  1. Fear for the safety of personal assets
  2. The rise of ‘politics in command’ and the abandonment of economic development as the basis of national policy
  3. The reemergence of class struggle
  4. Shutting China off from the world once more, getting into a stalemate with the United States (and the West more generally), yet warmer ties with North Korea and other ‘evil regimes’
  5. Excessive foreign aid, leading Chinese to have to tighten their own belts
  6. Increased repression and thought reform of intellectuals
  7. Becoming trapped in a new armed race, war, and new cold war
  8. The end of opening up and reform and the comprehensive return of totalitarian politics

A sample translation by China Change of some of these fears follows.

  1. Asset Dread. Can the wealth accumulated over decades, no matter how much it is, be guaranteed safe? Can one’s current livelihood be maintained? Will the property rights proclaimed in the law be guaranteed? Or will it be that because you wrong some individual who really holds power (including the director of the Village Committee), your company is driven to bankruptcy and your family is out on the street? This and so many other questions have, in the last few years, with the passage of time become far more indeterminate, and people up and down the line are in a state of constant panic. The first ones under attack are those who already gathered their treasure during the tidal wave of reform and opening up; and the response of the rich is mass emigration…
  1. Class Struggle Once More. The official media and managers of ideology once again raising class struggle in recent years has everyone panicked. The direction of the current administration over these years has led people to doubt as to whether we’re going to see yet another round of Stalin-Maoist class struggle campaigns… In the first place, writing protections of private property and human rights into the constitution, accompanied with the custom of abdication of Party rulership after two terms, created hopes that China was slowly and gradually heading in the direction of a normal country, meaning that we no longer need to deploy the ‘struggle’ rhetoric — but the actions of the last few years seem to be going in completely the opposite direction, and everyone is naturally scared witless.
  1. The Totalitarian Revival. Though this phrase ‘reform’ has already been besmirched to some degree, and in the end tyrannical governance continues while hiding under its name, in the discourse of contemporary China, locating ourselves in the midst of a yet-to-be-completed grand transformation, with just one final push needed, is still better and more stable than a regression into volatile revolution and extremist leftist politics. Reform spinning its wheels, and perhaps even going backwards rather than forward, has already been going on longer than just these last few years, extending far beyond one term of office. Given this tendency, whether or not ‘reform and opening up’ has reached its end and totalitarianism will return is yet unknown; but at this very moment the entire Chinese people have no greater fear…

The remainder of the essay is dedicated to Xu’s eight hopes — all of them going to the heart of the CCP’s system of rule and control:

  1. Stop wasting money abroad
  2. Stop wasting money on ‘sportsground diplomacy’
  3. Abolish the privilege system for retired high-ranking cadres
  4. Abolish the system of Special Needs Provisioning (the enclosed system of food and other supplies for Party officials)
  5. Legislation forcing disclosure of official assets
  6. Immediately put a stop to the cult of personality around Xi Jinping
  7. A return to term limits on the post of state chairman
  8. Overturn the political verdict on June 4

Geremie Barmé provided translations of items three, four, and six on China Heritage, which are reproduced below.

  1. The Party Nobility: Elite privileges for retired high-level cadres should be eliminated. The system of the present ‘dynasty’ 國朝 allows for the state to provide inclusive retirement-to-grave care for high-level cadres according to a standard that is far and away above that allowed to the average citizen. These cadres retain the privileges they enjoyed during their careers, including health care and access to luxury resorts for rest and holidays. Everyone is aware of the extraordinary burden and financial cost this places on the people; the details are never released for fear of sparking public outrage. This system continues the kinds of prerogative given to the Imperial Zhu Family Lineage during the Ming dynasty [founded by Zhu Yuanzhang in 1368CE] and the emoluments permitted to the families of the Eight Banners [exclusive Manchu military and administrative groups that contributed to the founding and rule of the Qing dynasty in 1644; the privileges continued until the end of the dynasty in January 1912]. This is not merely a betrayal of the self-advertised ‘revolutionary spirit’ [of the Communist Party], it is also in breach of modern standards of civic life. What’s all that talk of ‘the remnants of feudalism’? This is a perfect example of it! People are outraged but powerless to do anything about it; it is one of the main reasons people hold the system itself in utter contempt. On one side of the hospital, Commoners face the challenge of gaining admission for treatment, while everyone knows grand suites are reserved on the other side for the care of high-level cadres. People despise you for it. Every iota of this bottled up anger may, at some unexpected moment, explode with thunderous fury.
  1. Special Needs Provisioning: Eliminate the system of Special Needs Provisioning. Starting in Yan’an some seventy years ago, this system continued unimpeded even during times of mass famine and deprivation. It continues even now as the Countless Masses are ever increasingly concerned about [the quality of and access to] dairy products for their babies and the hygiene and safety of their everyday foodstuffs. The Special Needs Provisioning system allows the high-level Party nobility access to a vast range of speciality products beyond the dreams of the average person. Apart from a few totalitarian polities, there is no other country that does this like China. The luxury afforded these people is only outdone by the shamelessness of their indulgence. Of course, inequalities exist in all societies and disparities in ability and wealth are natural, but they are a result not due to the fact that the ideal playing field imagined by our citizens does not include a level starting point; that doesn’t even take into account the outrage of allowing a small group of Party grandees to be continuously supplied from the coffers of the state. As long as this system and ‘No 34’ [originally ‘Number 34 Provisions Store’ in Beijing, a restricted-access shop established as deprivations created by the socialist planned economy became more acute and Party privileges more jealously guarded; the term later came to indicate regulations covering special access to necessities and luxury goods for the nomenklatura] remain unchecked, real food safety in China will never be realised; no side will really be assured of its long-term security.
  1. The New Personality Cult: An emergency brake must be applied to the Personality Cult. Who would have thought that, after four decades of the Open Door and Reform, our Sacred Land would once more witness a Personality Cult? The Party media is going to great lengths to create a new Idol, and in the process it is offering up to the world an image of China as Modern Totalitarianism. Portraits of the Leader are hoisted on high throughout the Land, as though possessed of some Spiritual Mana. This only adds to all the absurdity. And then, on top of that, the speeches of That Official, formerly things that were merely to be recorded by secretaries in a pro forma bureaucratic manner, are now carefully collected in finely bound editions, printed in vast quantities and handed out free throughout the world. The profligate waste of paper alone is enough to make you shake your head in disbelief. All of this reflects the low IQ of the Concerned Official and his craving for fame. More importantly, we need to ask how a vast country like China, one that was previously so ruinously served by a Personality Cult, simply has no resistance to this new cult, and this includes those droves of ‘Theoreticians’ and ‘Researchers’. In fact, they are outdoing themselves with their sickeningly slavish behaviour. It’s as though hundreds of millions of Chinese are oblivious; people tolerate the New Cult and allow it unfettered freedom; they are powerless in the face of all those arse-kissing bureaucrats [literally “those who would lick carbuncles and suck abscesses” as rendered by Donald Clarke]. It goes to show that China’s Enlightenment is far from over. Every generation must champion rationalism in public affairs painstakingly making a way to the future. Moreover, the New Cult is evidence that China faces a long struggle before it can claim to be a modern, secular and rational nation-state.

 

It’s clear that Xu has little faith in Xi Jinping. “You are touted for being a can-do man,” he wrote. “We’d be very happy if you could do one of the eight. If you could do three or four, we’d be convinced of your ability. If you do all of them, well then, the whole world will rejoice.”

Speech is dangerous, and Professor Xu Zhangrun knows it. But he seems to be at a point where if he doesn’t let out his thoughts, they’ll turn into kidney stones and kill him. He ended the essay with great relief: “I’m done talking; I leave my own life and death to destiny, the rise and fall of the nation to Heaven.”

That’s how disproportionately significant a matter it is for a Chinese intellectual to speak his mind in 2018 — a circumstance we find breathtaking.

Xu is currently on an academic tour in Japan, according to a news source. There is no word yet on what awaits him when he returns to China.

 

 

 


Related:

As China’s Woes Mount, Xi Jinping Faces Rare Rebuke at Home, the New York Times, July 31, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 


3 Comments

  1. […] On July 24, Xu Zhangrun, a professor of law at Tsinghua University in Beijing, published a lengthy essay that boldly questioned China’s current direction and specifically criticized Mr. Xi and his […]

  2. […] law professor Xu Zhangrun (许章润), in Japan as a visiting scholar, published a lengthy essay titled “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes” which carried out a thoroughgoing critique of — and […]

  3. […] essay, ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes,’ a portion of which was translated by China Change, and translated in its entirety by Geremie Barmé, was the subject of widespread public discussion […]

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