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Bid Farewell to Reform and Opening Up –– On China’s Perilous Situation and Its Future Options

Zhang Xuezhong, translated by Andrea Worden, January 7, 2019

Last week, Dr. Zhang Xuezhong (张雪忠), a law professor at East China University of Politics and Law in Shanghai, posted an article on WeChat titled “Bid Farewell to Reform and Opening Up –– On China’s Perilous Situation and Its Future Options” (《告别改革开放 –– 论当今中国的危局和前路》). The following is an excerpt from the article in which he dismisses the notion that Deng Xiaoping’s time was a better time, a time, many believe, the current leader Xi Jinping has digressed from and should return to. We should point out that, in 2013, Dr. Zhang was stripped of his teaching position at the university by the university’s communist party committee for his writings on constitutionalism, and he now works in an administrative office on campus. He also has been a practicing lawyer and has represented prominent human rights activists, Liu Ping and Guo Feixiong, among others. But in the last two or three years, the university has blocked his practice. In other words, the university has reduced the law professor and human rights lawyer to an office clerk. He should be grateful that he hasn’t been sent to Jiabiangou (夹边沟) to die, if you call that progress.  –– The Editors

The Place of Reform and Opening Up in the Course of Long-Term National Transition

From the Westernization Movement to the Reform Movement of 1898, and then to the Revolution of 1911, the idea of a republic–– antithetical to a monarchy––became the consensus of the Chinese elite. Since the Revolution of 1911 through the founding of the People’s Republic of China by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and afterwards, although the values ​​of freedom and democracy had not been well implemented, they were modern political principles and ideals such that no political force dared publicly deny, destroy or discard them. In September 1949, the new People’s Political Consultative Conference formulated the interim Common Program (共同纲领), which would both continue the legacy of the Revolution of 1911 and establish a new democratic system.

However, the concept of communist dictatorship that the CCP adhered to then and now, in principle, stands in fundamental contrast to the constitutional government of a liberal democracy. This means that the continuation of the CCP’s rule must be predicated on the elimination of the concepts of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Beginning in 1953, a series of political campaigns, such as the socialist transformation movement (社会主义改造) and the “washing” of intellectuals (i.e., thought reform) meant the gradual destruction of the new democratic system. The 1954 Constitution, based on the Common Program, was in force for three years and then abandoned.

This meant that the new democratic system was replaced by the Soviet-style system, and that the political legacy of the Revolution of 1911 was basically eradicated. During the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign, following the persecution of Zhang Bojun (章伯钧), Luo Longji (罗隆基), Chuan Anping (储安平) and others, liberal, democratic organized forces with clear political demands vanished completely from the mainland. Since then, although the ideals of freedom and democracy have hung on by a thread, they have survived and been passed on only in the form of personal thought.

Reform and opening up, which was launched after the end of the Cultural Revolution, is undoubtedly a denial of Maoism. It brought opportunities and space for a ravaged Chinese society to recover and recuperate. Compared with Maoism, reform and opening up is substantial progress, and objectively speaking, it brought about the emergence of civil society relative to governmental power.

However, reform and opening up as a political guideline and policy of the Chinese Communist regime, contrary to what Professor Xu Zhangrun (许章润) said, has never been about the transition to a better form of government (优良政体). In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Reform and opening up, as a policy measure in response to actual circumstances, is aimed precisely at consolidating and continuing the CCP’s one-party dictatorial rule. Initially, reform and opening up relaxed restrictions on society, and the loosening of political oppression made people hope for a more civilized, democratic, and liberal political system. This is the social backdrop of the 1989 student movement. However, the suppression of the student movement by the CCP regime, headed by Deng, undoubtedly indicated to the world that reform and opening up never included in its agenda the gradual establishment of a liberal democracy.

Interestingly, pundits who are today still loudly extolling Deng Xiaoping are deliberately ignoring the most important political decision Deng made during his life–– that is, his decision to use military force to suppress the student movement. This suppression not only ended a patriotic student movement that focused on the pursuit of freedom and democracy, but also ruined the opportunity for a peaceful political transition in China.

In fact, judging from both official public pronouncements and the internal discussions of policy makers, in the past few decades, no CCP figure who has held real power has ever thought about establishing a good, modern political system in China. For CCP leaders, the supreme concern has always been keeping the CCP in power, meaning they must spare no cost to tenaciously defend a backward, premodern system of government. All policies carried out in the name of so-called “reform and opening up” must be based on the premise of defending, and even strengthening, the existing structure of power interests.

I have never denied that compared with the Mao Zedong era, the policies during the reform and opening up period–– and the results of those policies–– are certainly much better [in terms of economic growth and improvement in people’s livelihoods]. But I don’t agree that scholars and pundits should act like the official mouthpieces who invariably look at the path of reform and opening up over the past several decades from a vulgar, utilitarian perspective.

What Criteria Should Be Used to Judge 40 Years of Reform and Opening up?

We must use the discourse of rights and rules before we can fairly judge the gains and losses of reform and opening up.

Once we adopt the discourse of rights and rules, not only can we conduct a fair and convincing evaluation of the past reform and opening up, but we can also more clearly understand the current situation in China. We can even conceive of a clearer future for this country, one that is more reasonable and reliable. 

For example, we often see people, who, due to a crass utilitarian mentality, are deeply grateful to Deng Xiaoping for reinstating the college entrance examination (gaokao). However, if we use the discourse of rights, we can see that the resumption of the college entrance examination is both an improvement over the situation during the Cultural Revolution, and at the same time we can understand that it is a fundamental human right of modern society for people to be able to receive higher education when appropriate conditions are met. During the whole period of reform and opening up, not only has the allocation of resources for public institutions of higher learning been unequal and unfair, but also the government’s restrictions on private schools artificially deprives generations upon generations of opportunities for higher education, not to mention the long-term implementation of political brainwashing in the national education.

To take another example, during the period of reform and opening up, there was a limited right to have and protect private property, and the private economy. This is certainly an improvement compared with the preceding period. However, if we realize that personal property rights and business rights are basic human rights to begin with, we can see that during the period of reform and opening up, people’s property rights and business rights have not been adequately respected and protected by the government, and the violation of these rights by public authorities is extremely common and widespread.

As another example, compared with the absolutely unrestrained and comprehensive violation of human rights during the Cultural Revolution, the period of reform and opening up is, of course, much better. But at the same time we can also see that in the latter period, many freedoms, including the people’s right of freedom of speech, publishing, assembly and association, as well as the right to petition and the right to freedom of movement, have been strictly suppressed; and people have always been deprived of the right of political participation, and political persecution has been a common occurrence.

I think these few examples are sufficient to illustrate my point. In fact, once we begin to use the discourse of rights and rules, we not only can transcend the different subjective feelings held by different groups of people, but also objectively and fairly evaluate the reform and opening up policy. Moreover, we can clearly see how decades of reform and opening up have created the various crises and problems in China today.

In a nutshell, the root cause of these crises and problems is the dictatorial system in which a few people monopolize unconstrained power. In the process of reform and opening up over the past few decades, the problem of unfettered government power and unprotected individual rights not only has not been solved, but has also at times deteriorated. The policy priorities of different political leaders may have differed during this period, but they are completely consistent in terms of defending dictatorial power and suppressing individual liberties.

Arbitrary power can be wielded capriciously. When a few people monopolize unconstrained power, the power-holders can relax their control of society at a certain moment due to certain realistic needs, and they can also at a different moment, in response to different practical needs, strengthen their oppression of society. The reform and opening up path of the past few decades has always been based on a political system in which government power is not constrained and individual rights are not guaranteed.

Once we have seen this clearly, it is easy to understand that although there have been different policy priorities during different stages of these decades, the logic of political power behind them has been consistent. In the first stage of reform and opening up, the private economy was tolerated and encouraged to a greater extent, both to remedy the crisis of the national economic collapse caused by the Cultural Revolution, and because the size of the government at that time was still relatively small and the government’s absorption of social and economic resources was at a relatively low proportional level.

But unconstrained power must inevitably be rent seeking, and it is certain to be corrupt. The phenomenon of rent seeking by those in power has accompanied the entire course of reform and opening up, beginning with the dual pricing system (价格双轨制) in the early stage of the reform period. Once government power could be used for rent seeking and profiteering, not only did the power holders’ appetite become bigger and bigger, but it also led to more and more people using various kinds of paths to enter the government, and subsequently, the scale of the government swelled continuously and expanded without limit. Once such a trend reaches a certain critical point, the speed of social production and national economic growth will not be able to keep up with the increasing scale of government exploitation and consumption of social resources. By this time, all sectors of society, including private entrepreneurs, would find themselves in an increasingly difficult situation, with the exception of those who can use their power to extract wealth. We can even say that the various policies of squeezing and tightening in the later stages of the reform are a completely natural and logical result of the reform and opening up.

Leave Behind Reform and Opening up and Move Towards the Creation of a Modern Government

Under the reform and opening up policy, the government has never considered establishing rules for a constitutional government that would guarantee the basic rights of citizens. On the contrary, the suppression of individual liberty and the trampling of civil rights went hand in hand with economic growth. This model of economic growth inevitably led to problems such as a large gap between the rich and the poor, serious environmental damage, and the collapse of social governance. It can be said that the current government financial crisis and various social crises are the inevitable consequences of decades of reform and opening up. Those who have used 2012 as the dividing line and have portrayed the thirty-plus years before 2012 as a beautiful time, it is is incumbent upon them to search their hearts and ask themselves: Of all the social crises people have faced since 2012, which one of these did not already exist before 2012? Which one is not the result of decades of reform and opening up?

If we expand our horizons a bit more broadly, it is easy to understand that China’s political moves in recent years to intensify the repression of civil society and reject Western influences are themselves the logical result of the reform an opening up. The West is the region in the world that first completed modernization, and the core of modernization is political modernization; that is, the democratic politics of national self-governance under the precondition of respecting and guaranteeing individual freedom. The so-called modern polity is exactly the polity of this liberal democracy.

The Sino-Western collision during the Qing Dynasty made the imperial court aware of its own fragility, and the “Westernization movement,” which aimed at self-strengthening by learning from the West, became an important policy measure. But for decision makers in power, this modernization-oriented learning process had to be severed from political modernization. That is to say, the purpose of limited study of the West was not to change the autocratic regime of the minority ruling the majority, but to preserve and consolidate this premodern regime. However, the Westernization of such facets as technology, management, education, and culture gradually created a partially modernized society, which, in turn, led to conflict between the society making big strides towards modernization and the unchanging, obstinate, premodern government.

However, their more likely choice was to forcefully interrupt the process of societal modernization in order to eliminate the threat to the authoritarian regime posed by society’s pursuit of modernization. It is not surprising that after many years of the Westernization Movement, the extremely xenophobic Boxer Movement followed closely behind.

To a certain degree, the post-Cultural Revolution reform and opening up can be regarded as a Westernization Movement under new conditions. The key point is for China to learn from the West––to introduce Western investment, technology, management and products–– but at the same time, resolutely exclude political modernization. This is precisely the reason why Deng Xiaoping’s “four modernizations” slogan at that time did not include political modernization. While adhering to reform and opening up, the government at the same time insisted that the polity uphold the four basic principles that enshrine the leadership of the Communist Party. This is similar in terms of outcome to the formulation “Chinese learning as substance, Western learning for application,” in the late Qing dynasty.

However, with the castration of political modernization from the development agenda, sooner or later there will be a conflict between a society with limited modernization and an authoritarian regime that rejects modernization. At that point, the rulers must make a fundamental decision: either initiate the process of political modernization or discontinue the process of societal modernization.

People lament that China at present is a country that lacks consensus and is highly torn. In fact, the rips that have emerged in various aspects of this country all stem from a fundamental tear: a tear between a society that is looking forward to comprehensive modernization and a premodern government that adheres to the structure of existing power interests. It can be said that China today is a country that is pulling itself apart in opposite directions.

However, this state of pulling itself apart in opposite directions cannot be sustained over the long term. Eventually, either the whole society will succumb to the backward regime and regress to the previous state of closure, depression and poverty; or the backward regime will conform to the demands of the comprehensive modernization of society and transform into a modern political system that is compatible with modern society. In a sense, our country has reached a critical moment: Is it moving forward or backward?

What the Chinese need most is not to look backwards, not to recall with nostalgia the so-called reform and opening up, but to move forward, to decisively bid farewell to reform and opening up, and to work hard to innovate the current premodern polity.


Related:

A Great Shift Unseen Over the Last Forty Years, Xiang Songzuo, December 28, 2018.

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