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Yaxue Cao, April 16, 2019
In August 1988, two months after receiving his PhD in literature from the Beijing Normal University, Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) left the Chinese capital for a series of academic visits across Europe and the United States. The first place he went to was University of Oslo in Norway. A few months later, he visited University of Hawaii, where he completed the book “China’s Contemporary Politics and Chinese Intellectuals” (《中国当代政治与知识分子》) at its Center for Chinese Studies. It seems that the purpose of his visits was to construct a framework for exploring ways to change China, and it was for this reason that he felt an urgent need to see the West up close.
In March 1989, Liu Xiaobo arrived in New York as a visiting scholar at Columbia University. According to his friends at the time, he went to art exhibitions and Broadway, and bought a leather jacket. Though the Chinese of the 1980s were still donning Mao suits, the sense was that China was on the doorsteps of a new era and a transition. All kinds of new popular vocabulary, ideas, and new “reform” trends were in the air, sparking both expectancy and uneasiness. The title of Liu Xiaobo’s dissertation, “Aesthetics and Freedom” (《审美与自由》), sounds like the name of a rhapsody.
Walking the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art triggered an epiphany in Liu. He suddenly felt the ridiculousness of the discussions that were taking place in China about “novel” concepts that were just everyday life common sense in the free world.
When a group of people who knew Liu Xiaobo in New York got together a few years ago for a meeting to recall their time with him (Liu had been imprisoned for six years by this point), one of his friends, a poet, said that Liu’s “enthusiasm for politics at the time greatly belied other interests of his, such as literature.”
Liu had built friendships with the small number of Chinese democracy activists in exile, and took on editorial work for their publication, “Beijing Spring” (《中国之春》).
April 15, 1989 saw the death of Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), the Chinese Communist Party general secretary who had been ousted for his reformist stance. Hu’s death sparked memorial events in college campuses across the country. In the days that followed, throngs of students left their campuses for Tiananmen Square to pay their respects to the deceased leader. Few guessed that condolences for one man would lead to millions of people taking to the streets and voicing their political demands. Around the world in New York, the tiny group of Chinese democracy activists watched with bated breath. It’s said that at the time, at least five of them decided to return to China, and that “when it came time to depart, other four found various reasons not to leave, and only Xiaobo returned” to China.
I can almost see Liu Xiaobo’s silhouette as he gathers his luggage and hurries to the airport. Perhaps it was the call of fate. Thirty years have gone by. In hindsight, the Chinese democracy circle in Flushing was indeed too small a pond for him.
Liu arrived in Beijing on April 27, 1989 and went to Tiananmen. In the morning of June 4, he was one of the last to leave the square. From June Fourth to Charter 08 and winning the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, and then to his death in prison two years ago, nearly half of this period of his life he spent incarcerated and forgotten, as time marched by outside the prison walls.
Even though the world had pretty much ignored him, for the Communist Party in China, it was imperative that he be completely wiped out. Death was not enough; his ashes must be thrown into the sea so as to leave nowhere for people to memorialize him.
2019 is the 30th anniversary of the June Fourth Massacre. One of the many activities being planned in anticipation is the placement of a bust for Liu Xiaobo, as he was very much a man of the June Fourth activist generation, and his aspirations belong to 1989, the year that changed the world.
In the summer of 2018, Columbia University unveiled a bust of late Czech dissident and president Václav Havel. This provided inspiration for Zhou Fengsuo (周锋锁), who chairs the non-profit organization Humanitarian China: a bust of Liu Xiaobo could also be made and erected on the Columbia campus. In 2006, Havel accepted an invitation to be a guest lecturer at Columbia and spent seven weeks there. Likewise, Liu spent several weeks here as a visiting scholar before his stay was cut short by the democracy protests in Beijing.
Liu’s widow Liu Xia (刘霞) agreed with the idea, though she expressed doubt about whether or not anything would actually come of it. The many years of her husband’s imprisonment, the monthly train trips to and from the prison in Jinzhou, Liaoning Province, her own eight years of house arrest and the abyss of depression it engendered — all this left her with a deeply jaded view of the world that lingered even after her emigration to Germany made possible by protest by the international community.
C. V. Starr East Asian Library: ‘We Must Decline the Proposal’
Last December, on Liu Xia and Zhou Fengsuo’s behalf, renowned Sinologist and Columbia political science professor Andrew Nathan (黎安友) put forth the suggestion to the Columbia president that Liu Xiaobo’s bust be donated to the university. (The following correspondences were turned over to me by Zhou Fengsuo, and Prof. Nathan has authorized the publication of their content).
The suggestion was transferred to Curator of Art Properties Roberto Ferrari, who gave Nathan a prompt reply. He explained that all artistic contributions required approval by the Committee of Art Properties, and that whether or not approval could be granted depended on there being an academic department in favor of displaying and maintaining the artwork. Ferrari noted that the Committee had recently approved the busts of Vaclav Havel and Eleanor Roosevelt, and that he was happy to work with the donor to bring this proposal to the Committee. He also said that he would make an inquiry with Jim Cheng, head of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, as to whether they would be interested in displaying the bust.
In the following weeks, Zhou Fengsuo tried multiple ways of contacting Jim Cheng, from calls to text to email. He got no response.
On February 8, Nathan got an email from Christopher Cronin, the Associate University Librarian for Collections overseeing both Starr Library and Avery Library. He said he had discussed the matter of the Liu Xiaobo bust with Jim Cheng and Roberto Ferrari, the Art Properties curator. According to Cronin, the Starr Library would take two policies into account in deciding whether to accept a bust: first, if the person depicted had been a distinguished alumnus at Columbia; and second, if the donor was prepared to provide an endowment for the maintenance and care of the artwork.
“However,” Cronin continued, “Starr does not accept busts or statues that represent religious or political figures. As the Liu Xiaobo statue does not fit these criteria, we must decline the proposal for Starr.”
According to Cronin, the original proposal would nevertheless be submitted to the Committee of Art Properties for discussion at its next meeting, to be held in late April or early May, even though the Starr Library could not accept the bust and nor has another location on campus has been identified. He hinted that the outcome of such a submission was clear, and that “Roberto will be in touch shortly thereafter to communicate the decision of the Committee.”
I thought about Liu Xiaobo in relation to the three “criteria” Cronin mentioned. Firstly, though Liu was a Nobel Prize laureate and notable for that reason alone, he was only at Columbia for a few weeks, is he or is he not an alumnus? But if Václav Havel could be approved, why not Liu Xiaobo? Secondly, if a monetary donation was required for the acquisition, perhaps we could organize a crowdfunding event in light of the fact that Humanitarian China would not be able to foot the costs alone.
The third criterion set by the Starr East Asian Library is baffling. Excluding Liu for this reason implies that he is a political figure (that he is not a religious figure is self-evident), and that, by extension, erecting his bust would favor one political perspective over another. Now, between which political sides does the Starr East Asian Library wish to maintain its neutrality and independence?
The last time Starr Library accepted a China-related piece of art was in January 2016. A New York-based non-profit organization, the Dragon Summit Foundation (美国龙峰文化基金会), and an organization named China-America Friendship Association (CAFA, 美国中美友好协会), which is registered in New York as well, had donated a bronze bust of Tao Xingzhi (陶行知). Tao Xingzhi was a left-leaning education reformer during the Chinese republican era (1912 – 1949). From 1915 to 1917, Tao had studied education at Columbia. In addition, the Dragon Summit Foundation donated $100,000 to establish a “Columbia University Dragon Summit Fund.” The New York Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China took part in the ceremony, and the event was reported on by People’s Daily. Another article, by China Daily, is no longer available on their website.
That August, these two organizations partnered with the Columbia University Teachers College, changing the Center on Chinese Education to the Tao Xingzhi Center for Chinese Education.
According to the CAFA website (original preserved here), in 2015, it raised $600,000 for the C.V. Starr East Asian Library of Columbia University: $500,000 for the Xu and Song Education and Culture Endowment Fund, which will “support collection, development, administration, public programming, and research at the Starr Library,” and $100,000 for a Dragon Summit Endowment Fund, which is probably the “Dragon Summit Cultural Fund” for the same library.
CAFA is the organizer of many large-scale activities, including U.S.-based training programs for Chinese Communist Party cadres, performances at Lincoln Center that brought performers from China, and parade and flash mobs near the White House during the 2016 Labor Day weekend that were held in celebration of the “China-U.S. Tourism Year.” According to CAFA’s website, these activities are typically held under guidance from the Chinese embassy and consulate, and in cooperation with Chinese businesses such as state-owned banks and corporations.
It appears that no updates have been made to the websites of these two organizations since around the end of 2017, leaving it unclear if they have ceased operations, or if they have simply stopped providing information about their activities online.
The Making of the Liu Xiaobo Bust
Meanwhile, the creation of the Liu Xiaobo bust started. At the end of last year, a friend of Zhou Fengsuo from the Václav Havel Library Foundation in New York put him in contact with Bill Shipsey, the founder of Art for Amnesty, Amnesty International’s global artist engagement program. In January, via Shipsey, Humanitarian China commissioned Czech sculptor Marie Šeborová to make Liu Xiaobo’s bust. The bust of Havel previously erected at Columbia University is her work.
On April 15, the Liu Xiaobo bust was unveiled at the DOX Centre of Contemporary Art in Prague. Liu Xiaobo’s friends Professor Xu Youyu (徐友渔) and Zhou Fengsuo pulled the veil. Liu Xia had planned to attend but in the end didn’t make it for “personal reasons.” For the time being, the bust will be displayed at DOX.
For those looking to donate the Liu Xiaobo bust, the goal was to have it placed on the Columbia campus; the idea of it being displayed at the Starr East Asian Library was only a suggestion made by the Curator of Art Properties. The donors hope that there are other departments at Columbia University that would be willing to accept the offer, and that the Committee of Art Properties gives the matter serious consideration at its upcoming meeting.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
Wang Dan, February 5, 2019
On February 2, tens of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets again, demanding change. This article by 1989 Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan (王丹) was published in Chinese by Radio Free Asia on January 25. After teaching in Taiwan for years, Wang Dan now lives in the Washington, DC area and heads the new Dialogue China think tank. – The Editors
On January 23, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of the Venezuelan capital to protest the ruling party and President (Nicolás) Maduro. In front of a dense cheering crowd, waving their arms in support, the 35-year-old opposition leader (Juan Guaidó) proclaimed himself “interim President” and immediately received recognition from Western countries led by the U.S. and Latin American neighbors. The current Venezuelan administration faces severe challenges, and an alternation in regime will very likely succeed peacefully. What happened in Venezuela once again tells us one thing: that is, it is only when people take to the streets that regime change is possible.
Why, you might ask? Simply because in countries with authoritarian dictatorships like China and North Korea, there’s no mechanism for people to change the regime through elections and other means within the system. Even in democratic countries, people taking to the streets is the most effective and direct way to effect a change in political power.
Venezuela is not a completely authoritarian state. It has long possessed a constitutional democracy. But a democratic system cannot guarantee that a corrupt regime will, on its own accord, correct its own mistakes. During Chavez’s four-term presidency and the tenure of his successor, Maduro, it’s not that the opposition did not try to overthrow their rule through elections, but they could not shake the entrenched power. This was in part due to the irrational choices of Venezuelan voters, and in part due to the fact that the opposition could not come together and jointly agree on a leader to put forward.
But in recent years the Venezuelan opposition party has continued to explore ways to solve problems within the system, and the majority of public opinion supported the opposition. In the December 2015 parliamentary elections, the opposition won 112 seats of 167 seats and took control of the National Assembly. The outside world thought that this would effectively check the anti-democratic behavior of the current government. However, on August 18, 2017, Maduro also used a method from within the system to announce the establishment of the Constituent Assembly. This Constituent Assembly, with direct legislative power, meant that the National Assembly was deprived of its main powers, making it impossible for the will of the people to be expressed through the system. Through manipulation by the government, the judicial system– another built-in check and balance mechanism – was, likewise, unable to play its role. The Supreme Court opposed the National Assembly’s exercise of its right to effect change in political power.
It was only when all means within the system were exhausted and there were no other ways to force a regime that had lost popular support to step down, that the people took action. Heeding the call of the opposition party, tens of thousands of people took to the streets. And this led to the moving scene witnessed by the whole world: the self-proclamation of a takeover of the regime by the young opposition leader.
It remains to be seen whether the alternation of political power in Venezuela will be realized smoothly. In addition to the crucial factor of whether the military’s support for the current government will change, the attitude of the United States and Latin American neighbors, such as whether or not to intervene militarily, and their influence, is also crucial. Regardless, at present we can already see there is hope for solving the political deadlock that has long troubled Venezuela.
Losing the recognition of the international community and facing large-scale street protests, the future prospects for President Maduro don’t look good. Even if he can manage to hold onto office, it’s unlikely that his rule will proceed smoothly. All that has happened is predicated on the people taking to the streets in large numbers, and peacefully displaying their desire for change.
It is often said that street demonstrations are a radical form of protest, which can easily lead to large-scale violent conflicts and undermine the democratic process. But in fact, throughout the ages, the vast majority of regime change took place when people went to the streets. Without the pressure of people taking to the streets, few rulers will take the initiative to step down on their own. At the same time, we also have seen that, without the support of street demonstrations, mechanism from within the system can easily be defeated by all manners of political manipulation. Although people taking to the street may lead to large-scale violent conflicts, there are many examples of peaceful demonstrations that have forced a peaceful change in the regime. The resistance on the street, which occurs outside the system, will provide an opportunity for the opposition party within the system, and it is only such an opportunity that can lead to success for the opposition within the system. This is root cause for why street demonstrations are the only method to change a regime, and what happened in Venezuela proves this point again.
Twenty-Eight Years After – An Interview With Wang Dan, October 25, 2017.
The Chinese Communist Party Should Fade Into History Peacefully, Avoiding Violence and Minimizing Social Unrest, Zheng Yefu, January 25, 2019.
The Chinese Communist Party Should Fade Into History Peacefully, Avoiding Violence and Minimizing Social Unrest
Zheng Yefu, January 25, 2019
“Now it’s time to lay it bare: You can’t fool the Party into starting this journey, nor can you allow the calls for political reform that lack a clear final goal to numb the minds of the people.”
I. Why Hasn’t Political Reform Happened?
In the late 1970s, China undertook a reform; the main elements were the restoration of the household production system in rural China [that allowed individual families to take control of their farming], opening up the private economy, and allowing farmers to go into the cities to find work. In the early 1990s, seeing that it was likely that this reform would run aground, Deng Xiaoping once again pushed a reform agenda, which was known as “reform of the economic system.” As for corresponding political reform, Deng Xiaoping and the leaders that came after him all mentioned it in succession, and even said: “Without successful reform of the political system, reform of the economic system will be impossible to carry through to the end.” Subsequent history proved this argument.
It is precisely because political reform did not happen in China that “reform and opening up” fell far short of meeting people’s expectations, and the developments up to the present have led to a fear of further regression. Why did political reform always remain in the realm of words, with not even one step taken towards action? The truth is actually quite obvious, but unfortunately, it seems that it was never clearly pointed out.
When referring to political reform in speeches, the above-mentioned leaders meant the following: first, the separation of Party and government and the separation of government and enterprise; second, decentralization of power, avoiding excessive concentration of power; third, improving the legal system; fourth, initiating social and political consultations.
Why did these leaders propose political reform? Because they realized that if rule of law is lacking and power is abused, then social and economic life cannot get on the right track.
But why, ultimately has political reform not been implemented? Because intuition has also told the Communist Party leaders that every component of political reform weakens the Party. First, the separation of Party and government, and the separation of government and enterprise, means that the Party is losing power to others, and that the Party will lose control of the administration of the state and the society and economy. Second, the soundness of the rule of law will, on the one hand, guarantee citizens’ rights and freedoms such as speech, association, assembly, and demonstration, and on the other hand, limit the sphere of action of the Party. The society will not be completely controlled by the ruling group as in the past. Third, once genuine political consultations are initiated, it’s possible the Communist Party’s views will fall into a disfavored position. In order to avoid such a situation, the Party leaders eventually created political consultations in form only, in which they had the final say. Fourth, in the competition with the Party’s internal and external opponents, the rulers are increasingly firmly convinced of this: in order to suppress and respond to the trend of social diversification, democratization, and liberalization, even internally the Party cannot practice democracy and must concentrate power.
Before the reform of the economic system, and afterwards too, it’s difficult to say that most of the Communist Party’s guiding principles and policies have been in the fundamental interests of the vast public. But ahead of us there is something that is in the common interest of both the broad Chinese public and the Party, and that is, the Communist Party should fade into history peacefully, avoiding violence and minimizing social unrest. I think that the one great thing the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party can do that would enter the annals of history is to honorably and with dignity lead the Party off the historical stage.
During its 70-year rule, the Party has brought too many disasters to the Chinese people. And as the Party has evolved up until now, its power structure as well as its ecology have predetermined that it can no longer deliver excellent leaders for Chinese society at all levels; it has almost completely lost its self-correcting mechanism. Its nature has already completely degenerated: for a long time it’s been a group that lacks belief; people join the Party to become officials, and they defend the Party to protect vested interests. The mindset of preserving power at all costs ruined the souls of those involved: hatred of different political views grows ever stronger, and the fear of a crisis has led to their own dysfunction.
The path to escape the shackles on their souls is to strive to melt the Party into the larger society.
However, to make the Party that has ruled Chinese society for 70 years end the one-party dictatorship by itself, there will be a long period of transition. During the transition period, the Party will necessarily be the one to guard social order. This transition period will allow other political forces to emerge, preparing to launch real and meaningful political consultations. Every school of thought and political faction can have its own ideas, but China’s blueprint for the future, and the path it will forge, can only be produced through negotiations involving many political groups.
Don’t we already have the “Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference” (CPPCC)? It is difficult in this world to find a business like the CPPCC that squanders taxpayers’ money and is so hypocritical, contrived, pointless and boring, and deceptive. I’m speechless as how to describe it. If the rulers had courage and confidence, they should either disband the CPPCC and engage in a real one-party dictatorship; or give different political factions a platform for dialogue and engage in real political consultations.
Ending autocracy is in the interest of the Chinese people, but bloodshed and turmoil are not. A peaceful transition is in the interest of the Communist Party, because it is the only dignified path of retreat.
In sum, pursuing prosperity while fearing for its political security has resulted in the Party professing interest in something it fears for more than 30 years, and swaying to and fro, left and right, in the economic and ideological fields. However, in the past few years, the seesawing has come to a halt at the left side because the Party leaders realized that the private economy and the liberalization of thought bears a threatening and close relationship to the survival of the Party. In contrast to the increasingly stereotypical conduct of the power oligarchy, the call for political reform has not declined at all in society. Unfortunately, the latter has been weak at best. It’s been weak because everyone is scared; it’s been weak because those few in the know have stopped short of telling the whole truth. Chen Ziming (陈子明) said: We should promote democracy together with the Communist Party. Zhou Duo (周舵) advocated Party-led constitutional government.
Just exactly what will the position of the Communist Party be when democracy and constitutional government are realized in China? Now it’s time to lay it bare: You can’t fool the Party into starting this journey, nor can you allow the calls for political reform that lack a clear final goal to numb the minds of the people.
II. Rarely Seen Common Interest of the Party and the People
The core of the theory is “the Communist Party of China must always represent the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people.” Unfortunately, during most of its rule, the Party’s principles and policies have not represented the interests of the vast majority of the Chinese people. Property rights are the greatest manifestation of interests. In the rural areas, through the chain of land reform, mutual aid groups, cooperatives, and people’s communes, the land has changed from privately owned to state-owned. In the cities, private economy vanished following the public-private partnership movement. The benefits of the economic reforms of the 1980s proved that the above-mentioned two revolutions seriously violated the fundamental interests of the Chinese people, and suppressed their zeal for production. Otherwise, why would there have been a need for reform to begin with?
So after the reform, did the policies represent the interests of the vast majority of the people? When land was nationalized, what did the government do? Creating revenue by selling land. It sold lots at high prices to real estate developers. This is the first cause of excessive housing prices in China and a great portion of the population became slaves to their mortgages. Isn’t it too tyrannical to say that a policy that enriches the state and impoverishes the people is in the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people?
Has there ever been a policy of the Communist Party that has been in the fundamental interests of the Chinese people? Yes, but it really is rare; that was the reform of the economic system in the late 1980s. I stated the following view at a seminar in 2008: top-down reform is not common; it is a rare thing because the reform aspirations at the higher level and motivation to reform exist only in rare moments. For 60 years, from 1949 to today, only once did I see a time when most of the people in the ruling class had reform aspirations, and that was in 1978. Just once.
What was the motivation for the reforms in 1978? Because they were at a point at which they could either choose to reform, or see the Party demise. “If the Party falls, so does the nation” is the axiom so often repeated by the state propaganda machine. But there is no such thing as the demise of the country. The age of colonialism is all but in the past; China and its people no longer face the same threat of extermination. It’s the Party that is going down. Thanks to its dismal management of the country, there are so many people who can’t make ends meet. What happens if the Party falls? The Party will fade into history. Of course, they want to avoid that scenario, so reform was implemented.
We can credit Mao Zedong for creating this consensus among them: Mao, in his dogmatic ways since 1956, had drawn himself ever further apart from his colleagues. No one except for the bootlickers and careerists were inclined to support him. By the time of his death, he had driven upwards of 95 percent of the people within the Party into the ranks of a hidden opposition. The end of Mao led the other senior officials to jointly discuss how they should move away from Mao’s political line. I have yet to find a second dictator in history whose subordinates stood together in such unity after his death. It is extraordinary and rare: the Party elders were of one mind, working in concert to turn things around.
Reform is not a novel concept: going back to 1956, and even earlier. In the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1911), and all the way back in the Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.), household production system had been the model for agricultural production. Throughout history, there had been a private economy that existed to varying degrees in urban areas. Reform isn’t some sort of groundbreaking thing, it’s actually conservatism: look at what the ancients did and follow the path they took. It’s just that Mao Zedong introduced his utopian thinking that repudiated common sense. This thinking led to constant disagreement during the reform period despite the broad consensus; as a result, the general secretary [of the CCP] was replaced time and again. Today, that rare moment of consensus that once permeated the leadership is gone; they will not come to this kind of understanding again. What reason do we have to hope that any new top-down reforms can be sustainable?
III. Successful Transition Requires the Cooperation of Two Forces
No discussion regarding the end of the one-party dictatorship in Taiwan can do to omit Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國). At the same time, the Taiwanese themselves firmly deny the notion that the course of their history was shaped by one individual. They think that Chiang would not have made that choice if not for the perseverance of Taiwan’s democratic activism as well as the massive pressure that arose from the social diversity at the time. I am of the same opinion.
The ruler is created by the ruled, and vice versa. Ruler and ruled sculpt one another, together creating a vicious circle. The ruler bears most of the responsibility, but his wantonness is also induced by the meekness and submissiveness of the Chinese themselves. They have spoiled the CCP too much. Only when we the vulnerable speak up can China escape this vicious cycle. If there is no pressure from outside [the political system], no demand for the independence of the press or tolerance of opposition parties, there can be no change: Even supposing the Party leader himself is willing to reform, he would encounter opposition from his colleagues — they would think that he has gone insane. It needs not be said that without external impetus, the idea of reform will never occur to them. If we don’t voice our opinions and exert pressure, we don’t deserve to see the dictatorship come to its end.
On the other hand, a wise leader is needed to bring a peaceful end to dictatorial Party rule. Otherwise, violence will be inevitable. It is hard to say if this sort of positive development has much probability of occurring, but at least there’s the possibility, since those in the upper echelons of power know the truth, better than anyone on the outside, that the Party can hardly change its ingrained habits. For the Party to voluntarily give up its power in a way that saves face would be a win-win outcome.
There’s a third “win” involved: I have always believed that politicians must possess ambition. For one’s name to be honored by history should be enough to satisfy the ambition of any politician. This is the best way out for the Chinese people, the Party, and the Party leader.
Being the Party leader though, it’s really no easy task to take the Party on this path. The challenge comes not necessarily in the form of opposition from the outsiders, but the lack thereof, which is also a consequence brought about by the Party itself. As it doesn’t face any credible opposition, it has little reason to choose the path of ending its rule.
This is also the reason why I have decided to “poke through the paper window” and point at the truth hidden within. Let us gather and pool our efforts to take the single path that will lead to an amicable resolution. This opportunity will not last long.
IV. Blame Not He Who Speaks But the Wise Men Who Remain Silent
It is written in the Chinese constitution that the “socialist system is the basic system of the People’s Republic of China.” and that “the leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Given that the central theme of this article goes against the words above, should I be considered a criminal for writing it? No, because it is an expression of opinion and not an action. There should be no such thing as a thought criminal in a civilized country.
The Thirteenth People’s Congress convened in 2018 is instructive. There used to be a rule in the constitution limiting the number of presidential terms, and a motion to remove the term limit was proposed prior to the conference. Is it a crime to suggest a constitutional amendment to the presidential term limit? No. I am in favor of terms being limited, but I don’t think it’s wrong to suggest any amendment to the constitution. The characteristic of the law is that it is authoritative and inviolable under a specific setting, but it also progresses along with the course of history and as such is subject to revision. The process of revision is dependent on the ability of citizens to freely discuss and criticize the laws, so long as their criticism remains in the realm of speech and not action as this would be illegal.
While I write this primarily in my own self-defense, I also write them for the people who came before, or will come after, me. For a peaceful transition to become reality, China needs citizens who abide by the law. I am such a citizen. Everyone shares a collective responsibility for the welfare of the nation, as it’s said, and this is one of the reasons I wanted to write this article. A humbler reason is to allow myself some semblance of self-respect. Over the years I have scribbled millions of words. How could I forgive myself if I fail to write a few words on the one question that has been on my mind for so long, the question that concerns the future of our country?
In January 1948, three months after the CCP published the “Outline Land Law of China” (《中国土地法大纲》), late Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong (费孝通) wrote an article titled “Standards for a Moderately Prosperous Society Free of Hunger and Cold” (《黎民不饥不寒的小康水准》) to argue against violent land reform. He wrote: “History is not always reasonable, but in any historical setting there has always been a reasonable solution available. Whether history can develop along a reasonable course is dependent upon whether people can make rational choices. Those in the position of scholars have the responsibility to point out rational solutions, while it is up to the politician to bring it into history.”
I don’t believe we’ve reached the point where we can hold the politicians responsible for everything. This is because at present, the intellectuals have yet to fulfill their duty. Had they stayed true to their conscience and mustered the courage to speak their minds, China would not be in the state it is in today.
Drafted August 2018; finalized December 2018.
Zheng Yefu (郑也夫) was born in 1950 in Beijing. He was one of the 17 million “educated youths” sent down to the countryside, and served in the Heilongjiang Construction Corps. He is now a retired sociology professor from Peking University. The Chinese version of the article can be found here.
A Great Shift Unseen Over the Last Forty Years, Xiang Songzuo, December 28, 2018.
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.
An Interview With Xu Youyu: ‘The Worst Is Yet to Come’, China Change, October 31, 2018.
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Hu Ping, November 19, 2018
Recently, there have been two hot topics in China: the Sino-U.S. trade war and the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of China’s Reform and Opening up.
We have noticed that many people in the system have written articles or made speeches enthusiastically praising Deng Xiaoping while covertly and in some cases even openly criticizing Xi Jinping. They believe that in bringing back lifelong leadership terms and the cult of personality, abandoning Deng’s policy of “hiding one’s capabilities and biding one’s time” (韬光养晦) and promoting state-owned businesses over private firms, Xi Jinping has significantly deviated from Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up.
For this year’s May 4th anniversary, Fan Liqin (樊立勤), a Peking University alumnus and an old friend of Deng Xiaoping’s eldest son Deng Pufang (邓朴方), posted a 24-page big-character poster in the Campus Triangle at Peking University calling Xi Jinping out for “going against the tide.” On July 24th, Xu Zhangrun (许章润), a law professor at Tsinghua University, published an article titled “Our Fear and Expectation,” which explicitly demanded restoration of presidential term limits and even the vindication of the June 4th Incident.
Also, some economic scholars criticized the boastful propaganda of “Awesome, my country!” that was launched a while ago, saying it invited the U.S. to begin the trade war and caused serious difficulty for the Chinese economy — with this they implied that the leadership was to blame. In the past six months, more people in the system are choosing to support Deng’s policy over that of Xi. Such phenomena has been quite rare during the six years since Xi Jinping took office.
Not long ago, on Sept. 16, Deng Pufang said at a conference of the Disabled Persons’ Federation that: “We must persevere in seeking truth from facts, keeping clear-minded, knowing our actual ability without being boastful or self-deprecating. We should adhere to our national conditions and plan all work based on the reality of being in the primary stage of socialism.” Anyone who is even remotely keyed in can immediately see who Deng is referring to.
Interestingly, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence expressed similar views promoting Deng and opposing Xi in his Oct. 4 speech given at the Hudson Institute. Pence criticized Xi Jinping several times without naming him directly. For example, he mentioned that “China’s top leader” had visited the China Global Television Network (CTGN) headquarters and said that “the media run by the Party and the government are propaganda fronts and must have the Party as their surname.”
Pence said that when the United States decided to develop extensive economic relations with China, they had hoped that Beijing would allow its people to move toward greater freedom. At one point, Beijing did make slow progress toward giving greater respect for human rights. However, in recent years, China has turned sharply in the direction of controlling and oppressing its own people.
The vice president noted that now, “while Beijing still pays lip service to ‘reform and opening up,’ Deng Xiaoping’s famous policy now rings hollow.” Pence hopes that Chinese leaders will change course and “return to the spirit of reform and opening up” when relations between the two countries began decades ago.
Slovenian scholar Slavoj Žižek recently published an article titled “Will our future be Chinese ‘capitalist socialism?’” in which he mentions an anecdote told many years ago by a Chinese scholar who knew Deng Xiaoping’s daughter. “When Deng was dying, an acolyte who visited him asked him what he thought his greatest act was, expecting the usual answer that he will mention his economic opening that brought such development to China. To their surprise, he answered: ‘No, it was that, when the leadership decided to open up the economy, I resisted the temptation to go all the way and open up also the political life to multi-party democracy.’”
We can’t confirm whether Deng Xiaoping actually said this before his death, but it would be in keeping with his legacy. In the 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party, the Soviet Communist Party, and many other communist parties in Eastern European countries were pushing for economic reforms. However, while the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe moved away from dictatorship, the CCP held onto and even reinforced the Party’s authoritarian rule.
Deng Xiaoping played the most crucial role in guiding China to embark on a path different from these other communist countries. He differed from the communist leaders of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in that he promoted economic reforms while rejecting political openness.
Within the CCP, the forces demanding political openness were once strong and it was unclear whether the CCP would be able to maintain its authoritarian leadership. The reform of the communist countries, even if confined to the economic sector at the beginning, was symbolic of digging their own graves. Because the communist countries’ economic reforms were essentially equal to altering socialism and restoring capitalism, it effectively became a self-denial of the communist revolution and with it the communist dictatorship.
In the past, the only “magic weapon” for the Communist Party to suppress freedom and democracy was to accuse others as “bourgeoisie” and “taking the capitalist road;” but once the Communist Party itself consciously and openly took the capitalist road and became the bourgeois class, what other excuse would it then have to insist on communist dictatorship? In this way, even if they did not actively choose to change the system, then tens of thousands of people would do it for them — by demanding the end of one-party dictatorship and the implementation of liberal democratic reform. To paraphrase American scholar Adam Przeworski, the leadership couldn’t convince themselves to pull the trigger.
This is how the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe embarked on the path of peaceful democratic reform. How did Deng Xiaoping resist calls for political openness coming from both outside and within the CCP? The answer is the June 4th Massacre.
As I said earlier, China’s reform is not one but two reforms. June 4th, 1989, was a turning point. Deng Xiaoping ruthlessly suppressed China’s democratic forces and led Chinese reforms in the wrong direction.
There is no essential difference between the Xi Jinping route and the Deng Xiaoping route. Xi Jinping’s actions are basically an extension of Deng Xiaoping’s political line, but he has deviated from it by bringing the pernicious elements inherent to Deng’s policy to extremity. In this regard, it is something of a positive sign that there are people in the system who oppose the Xi route in the name of returning to the Deng route and promoting Deng. The Xi route is indeed worse than the Deng route.
Furthermore, if Xi’s policies are stopped and he loses power, things will not simply return to the era of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. When Hua Guofeng (华国锋) arrested Jiang Qing and the other Cultural Revolutionaries, China didn’t just return to the pre-Cultural Revolution period; instead, a strong impetus brought China into a new era of Reform and Opening up. Similarly, if anti-Xi forces within the CCP strike down the Xi route in the name of returning to the Deng route, then the resulting political momentum would surely break through and beyond the boundaries set by Deng Xiaoping.
The June 4th Massacre was not just a brutal event, but an atrocity by many measures. Only by clearly recognizing this truth can we understand the nature of “Chinese characteristics” and the “Chinese model,” and what it means for the future of humankind if such “characteristics” and such a “model” are allowed to triumph.
Hu Ping (胡平) was one of the most respected and prolific dissent intellectuals living in New York. He edited Beijing Spring (《北京之春》), “a monthly Chinese-language magazine dedicated to the promotion of human rights, democracy and social justice in China” for more than two decades before retirement. This article combines two recent articles (here and here) by Hu Ping, and edits were made for clarity and fluency with the author’s authorization.
Also by Hu Ping:
How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, June 2, 2015. (This is one of the most read essays on this site.)
Reconsidering Deng Xiaoping the Reformer: What Did He Really Reform? Li Xuewen, February 21, 2017.
China Change, November 6, 2018
Teng Biao interviewed Prof. Stein Ringen on August 2, 2018 and October 5 via Skype. Stein Ringen is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Oxford and Professor of Political Economy at King’s College London. Teng Biao is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, New York University and a Chinese human rights lawyer. – The Editors
Teng Biao (TB): I think your book, The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, is one of the best books on Chinese politics in recent years. Is this your first book on China? What inspired you to study China?
Stein Ringen (SR): First, I’m interested in governments and states and how they work. This is the biggest and most challenging one. So if you want to understand states you need to understand the Chinese state, and so there’s the challenge. The other reason is that I had already done a study of the South Korean state. And I thought that the developmental states’ experience of Korea might be a relevant background for looking into the Chinese story. I thought it might be rather similar. In fact, it turned out that the Chinese story is very, very different.
TB: Yes, and then you wrote the book The Perfect Dictatorship. Why did you choose this title?
SR: I found that it is a dictatorship that is, from its own point of view, functioning very well. It is a dictatorship that is in full control. So my idea with the title was not to praise the Chinese system but to give a warning that this is a dictatorship that is very hard, and very much in control.
TB: In your book you created some interesting concepts, like “controlocracy.” What do you want to suggest by creating this term?
SR: The idea was, on the one hand, to say that this is a regime that is dictatorial, but in a way that sometimes it doesn’t even look dictatorial. It is obsessed with being in control. It is not obsessed with dictating everyone in their daily lives. It’s not like under Mao that people have to dress in a certain way or like certain forms of entertainment. But, it is in control. So control is the commanding feature of this dictatorship and it is very good at keeping and staying in control. The party-state is everywhere. It sees everything and knows everything, and they are in their very big population in perfect control.
TB: Another thought-provoking term in your book is “sophisticated totalitarianism.” In a piece I wrote recently for ChinaFile, I cited your term and elaborated on it a bit. I wrote: “This totalitarianism is strict and refined without being brittle and dogmatic; it’s cruel and barbaric without being chaotic. China’s booming economy, social stability, and apparent popular support for Xi have fooled both the world and most Chinese citizens.” What’s your view on the difference between this “sophisticated totalitarianism” and Stalin or Mao Zedong-style total control system? Is this system more adaptable, flexible and resilient, than traditional totalitarianism? Is the CCP able to learn from the collapse of other party-state dictatorships and maintain its own monopoly on power for quite a long time, say 40 or 50 years?
SR: It’s not acceptable. It is a very hard dictatorship and is therefore an unacceptable form of government. But they are very clever in making themselves look acceptable. I think both within China, but also in the outside world. As you know, people keep travelling to China and when they come back they are starry-eyed in admiration of the delivery of the system. So they are very much able to control their own narrative both at home and abroad. And, of course, they have learned very much from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which in Beijing was studied very carefully. And they understood the weaknesses in the Soviet Union that they had to prevent at home. These are, for example, to never lose control of the narrative, to always consolidate the alliance between the Party and the military, to maintain surveillance and propaganda and censorship ruthlessly, and to never let go, and also to not allow factions in the Party system. This they learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union and they are determined that there shall not be a similar kind of collapse in the Chinese system.
TB: Former Singapore UN ambassador Kishore Mahbubani once said that every year tens of millions of Chinese people travel internationally and then they voluntarily go back to China. He used this as a strong example to praise the so-called “China Model.” What do you think are the reasons? Do you agree with that?
SR: Many Chinese are traveling. Mainly, I think, because they can afford it; they have enough money to be able to travel internationally. We know that very much in Europe, for example, that there are very many Chinese tourists who travel here. They go back. On the other hand, there are many people in China who leave the country either because they have to, you know something about that, or because they wish to send their children to education outside of China. They try to bring their own money out of China to invest it and secure it outside of China. So many of those who are able, are showing with their behavior that they do not have much confidence in the future of the Chinese regime. The idea that the Chinese regime is better, the Chinese model is better than a democratic model, for example, is a very powerful narrative from the regime’s side. But we need to keep priorities right here. It is not a system that is better just because it delivers development, because it does that at the cost of depriving all Chinese of freedom. We know about authoritarian, totalitarian regimes previously, and that is the main characteristic of this regime. It is to the benefit of some, but it deprives everyone of liberty and freedom.
TB: Relatedly, George Orwell’s 1984 was famously regarded as a perfect dictatorship, do you think China’s “controlocracy” is equal to 1984, or is it even an advanced version of 1984? And I also used the term “technical totalitarianism” to analyze the advanced version of totalitarianism in China, with such examples as networked “stability maintenance,” big data, street cameras, facial recognition, voiceprint recognition, artificial intelligence, DNA collection, strengthening of the secret police, the Great Firewall, etc. Are we exaggerating the ability of the dictators’ use of high-tech? Aren’t high-tech and new tools a double-edged sword that can be utilized by civil society or resisters as well?
SR: Yes, China is very much like Orwell’s warning, including in the control of language, control of history, control of the narrative. But they have moved on because they now have technologies that Orwell could not even imagine at the time. And these technologies, these modern technologies, are being used for control in a very sophisticated way by the Chinese authorities. They are in control of the Internet. It was long thought to be obvious that no dictatorship can control the Internet. But the Chinese dictatorship is in control of it. They are actively using the Internet by engineering the stories that circulate. They are using other technologies, big data systems, facial recognition. All of this in order to control what is happening in their country. I mean this is now very advanced, particularly in Xinjiang, which is a police state of the kind that has never been seen previously. In the last few years, as you well know, the security budgets in that province have doubled year by year. And the control, explicit control there, by old-fashioned means –– police and military forces –– and modern means –– electronic surveillance, is still a kind that has never been seen previously. There has never been control of this kind anywhere in any country before, like the way we see now. We now see it unrolling in China.
TB: You know I was a human rights lawyer for 14 years in mainland China. Harshly speaking, during Hu Jintao’s era, we had some space to develop our human rights movement. And we felt that the Internet-related technology were more in favor of the civil society than the government, even though we knew both the human rights communities and the rulers made use of high tech. Now it seems that we should not be that optimistic.
SR: You know better than I do. The community of human rights lawyers has suffered very badly in China in the last several years. What was at one time, you say, a movement is now really crushed, and it has become very much more difficult for your brave colleagues to continue their work in China. Many have their businesses shut down. Many have been imprisoned, persecuted in other ways, and their ability to stay in touch with each other has been reduced very strongly. So it’s a very sad story what’s happened to that brave community. This is a story you know better than I do, but it is very hard to watch from the outside. There was a vibrant, brave community of lawyers, and they have really been taken down.
TB: Yes. The 709 crackdown on rights lawyers is the worst crackdown on lawyers since the legal system was reconstructed in 1978 after the Cultural Revolution.
TB: Most people know that China is one of the most unfree countries, but forget China is also one of the most unequal countries. How does this inequality affect the CCP’s political legitimacy? Or is it a necessity of the one-party rule of the Communist Party?
SR: Well, in my book about China, I looked at both inequality, poverty and public services. And I looked at taxes. I found that the tax burden of the Chinese people is very, very high. What is returned to the people in the form of services is minimal. Inequality has been increasing very rapidly. So now China is one of the most unequal societies in the world. And I think this is part of the reason for the dictatorship, because these are realities that could not be maintained under a democratic system ––the combination of very heavy taxes and very inferior services. It just doesn’t always look like that to observers, but that is the way it is. So the system, the political economy, extracts enormous resources from households and returns to the household sector a system of rising inequality. That is explosive in any society and is part of the reason why this regime needs to maintain such draconian controls as they do.
TB: The ideology of Marxism-Communism-Maoism has gradually declined in China. The CCP, and most Chinese people believe in money and power. How does this shift influence the CCP’s rule? Is this the reason why Xi Jinping tried to resort to a return to ideology and a cult of personality?
SR: Yes, among the innovations of Xi Jinping is the reintroduction of ideology, but now not Marxist ideology, but a strongly nationalistic ideology. His slogan of the “China Dream” and all that is a nationalistic narrative. So here we have a regime that is very strong, very dictatorial that is giving itself guidance by an ideology of nationalism and chauvinism. These are Xi Jinping’s innovations, the heart of his relentless movements of the regime into a heavier and heavier dictatorship.
TB: You mentioned nationalism. You know when the Chinese Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China, they strongly — and successfully — utilized nationalism. Theoretically, nationalism is in conflict with Marxist theory—i.e., communism and internationalism. So, from the beginning, paradoxically, the CCP employed a mix of Marxism and nationalism, and now maybe they feel they need more nationalism. Do you agree with that?
SR: Yes I do. I think that part of the regime’s efforts to control the narrative is that they need an ideological superstructure. They need a story of purpose for the regime, and for the nation. And that they are now finding not in Marxist internationalism but in Chinese nationalism. And that story of nationalism has been notched up very strongly and very explicitly by Xi Jinping. This is again part of the control system. This is a regime that gives itself the praise that they have the support of the people, but at the same time, it never ever trusts in the support of the people. So they never relax controls even though they say that they are governing in such a way that they have the support of the people. They do not for one moment trust that that support is genuine. So they rely on controls.
TB::Some scholars noticed the similarity between the current Xi Jinping regime and Hitler’s Third Reich. The one-party rule and the total control of society. Ideology, propaganda, brainwashing, nationalism. What happened in Xinjiang is race discrimination, mass detention and cultural elimination, secret police and the cult of personality. So in your opinion, how possible is it that China’s political system goes toward fascism in the future?
SR: Well it’s a system that has very many characteristics of fascism in it now. Important in that statement is the use of ideology. Deng Xiaoping and his followers presented themselves as non-ideological, just pragmatists, engineers of economic progress. That is all gone, and the regime is back to ideology. So it is a dictatorship that is very hard. I now call it a totalitarian system. It is a totalitarian system that is informed by ideology and that ideology is nationalistic. These are characteristics of fascist rule. Now, I think, we should always be aware that the Chinese system is very much of its own kind. It’s very different from anything else, but it is a system that has taken very clear likenesses with the characteristics of fascism under the rule of Xi Jinping.
This regime does not present itself to the world as a bully in the way, for example, Putin’s Russia does. It is a bullying state. Ask democracy activists, who routinely get beaten up. Ask human rights lawyers, who are now pretty much forbidden from practicing. Ask the people of Xinjiang, now a horrific police state, complete with a vast network of concentration camps. Ask international corporations that are forced to humiliate themselves and pay tribute if they want to do business, or governments in smaller countries if they want collaboration. Or ask neighboring countries around the South China Sea. But it is also a state with the clout and skill to disguise its bullying side and make itself look sophisticatedly elegant.
TB: In a recent letter, you were publicly calling for China analysts to describe China as a totalitarian, not an authoritarian state. It aroused interesting debates. In your opinion, what are the academic and non-academic reasons behind the reluctance to categorize China as totalitarian?
SR: I think there are now very few academic reasons for not categorizing the PRC as a totalitarian regime. I go by Hannah Arendt’s pioneering work and I think the PRC under Xi now fits the bill. The final straw has been the imposition of outright terror in Xinjiang.
In the debate following that open letter, there was much support for my position, but also, as you note, reluctance. Some of that reluctance is simple self-censorship. Many China scholars have invested their careers in work that requires being in China, having access to Chinese universities, archives and so on, and they cannot risk this being refused. That is understandable and I do not find it particularly upsetting. Another reason is what I have called “China fascination.” China, with its long history and rich culture, has an uncanny ability to fascinate. I think some academics in the field really wish for the best for China and the Chinese people and are for that reason reluctant to accept so negative a label as “totalitarian.” I think this kind of reluctance is misplaced, but also understandable. Related is a view that China is unique and that it is, therefore, too crude to apply a categorization that puts the Chinese regime in the same class as various other unpalatable regimes.
I should add that when I speak about totalitarianism in China it is of course the regime I am talking about and not the country, the culture or the people.
TB: You had analyzed the Chinese state as “trivial”. How “trivial”–– in your context, it means having no purpose beyond itself ––is the Chinese state? F.A. Hayek emphasized the “purposelessness” of a state. How should we understand the difference between purposelessness and triviality?
SR: I thought that one kind of dictatorship could be called “trivial” in the sense that it is nothing but control for the sake of control. There is no mission, no idea. I do not think that applies to the Chinese system, certainly not now. There is now a mission; there is an ideology, a vision of what this is for, and that vision is for China to regain its position as the Middle Kingdom in the world. This is a very ambitious idea that gives the dictatorship a purpose that makes it–– in my terminology––more than trivial. It makes it an ideological system, a system with a strong purpose of its own definition.
TB: So you mean Deng Xiaoping had no big ideology, and his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, had less ideology, and Xi Jinping has more ambition to “make China great again?”
SR: I mean that may have been the ambition all along. Deng Xiaoping perhaps understood that it would take time before China had the economic and other powers to really accept the ambition of making itself the central power in the world. Now, they have the economic and other powers. And they are hard at work in making China the dominant power in the world.
TB: Some people argue that Xi Jinping’s personal dictatorship is a collective choice of the Communist Party, when it is facing comprehensive crises –– political, financial, and ideological crises. Do you agree?
SR: There’s always one branch of thinking about the Chinese system that says that it is in crisis. As you know, people have been predicting that it would collapse for a long time, but that hasn’t happened. I think it’s a system with many tensions in it. And I think Xi Jinping made his first mistake from his own point of view, his first mistake, when he had the time limits on the presidency abolished earlier this year. That was a mistake, because it wasn’t necessary. It was a display of power that was demonstrative; it pulled aside the curtain for the rest of the world to see that this is a ruthless dictatorship where the top man can change the constitution by flicking his fingers, and it exposed the inner conflicts in the regime. Of course, there are disagreements and conflicts within that regime. And this step by Xi Jinping was demonstrative towards anyone who is not firmly within his camp, and he gives those others a motivation for organizing factional activity. We see some signs of that now, so I think this was a mistake on the part of Xi Jinping. He undermined, to some degree, his own position. And he let himself become the victim of the hubris of too much power.
So he committed a great mistake, in my opinion, and that mistake has followed through to some tensions within the system. Those tensions are now being stimulated by what is seen as not strong enough economic growth, and so on. So there are now visible signs of tension. That tension has been stimulated by Xi Jinping’s mistake. I think this was really the first mistake he did in his first five years. Otherwise, he has been consolidating power and cohesion within the system. And suddenly he took a step that undermined some of the “achievements” that he had made in his first years. However, I do not think this is a system on its own terms that is in any way in crisis. The control is very, very strong, and the strengthening of control that has happened under Xi Jinping is in anticipation of difficulties with economic growth, for example.
TB: Relatedly, will Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaigns hurt the dynamic or motivation of the CCP cadres? As to the totalitarian dynamic, like interest, ideology, nationalism, brainwashing, violence, or fear, will they be exhausted in China or elsewhere?
SR: The anti-corruption campaign has had two intended results, I think. One is to make the regime look more attractive in the eyes of many Chinese people. There have been improvements in the corruption environment. So most Chinese are now less exposed to arbitrary corruption than they have been previously, or at least, they have seen improvements in that respect. The other result is that it has been a powerful weapon of power, control within the system. When everyone is corrupt, anyone who needs to be taken down can be taken down in the name of corruption. So under the auspices of the corruption campaign, Xi Jinping and the other leaders have been able to eliminate anyone within the system whom they’ve seen as not approving of them, or are seen as in anyway threatening. These “achievements,” dictatorial achievements, have been notable in the anti-corruption campaign. It has worked in both respects. It’s a remarkable system in the way it gives itself credit for liberating the people from the miseries that it, itself, has imposed on them.
TB: Some Chinese people, I think, are unhappy with the anti-corruption campaigns, even though they feel good once some corrupt government officials are arrested or sentenced, or even executed. But first, some privileged families are not affected. Most of the privileged families, those very high-level families, are not affected, like Deng Xiaoping or Li Peng’s families. And second, more and more Chinese people realize that this kind of corruption is embedded in the political system. It exists everywhere and is systematic. So what’s the next step of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign? Will the anti-corruption campaign influence Xi Jinping’s political agenda?
SR: As I see it, I think the anti-corruption campaign has done its work. You know, we hear much less about it now than previously. I think there is less ordinary workday corruption. So it’s done its work, cleaning up a bit, in the daily lives of many people. Many potential opponents of the regime have been eliminated, so I think it’s really done its work. As I understand it, it goes on, but now it’s more of a routine. It’s not a big show anymore. I think it’s mainly had its time; it has run its course. And it does not have the prominence in the regime’s self-presentation as it did for a while. I’ve no doubt it will continue, but it is not the central instrument that it once was.
TB: Samuel Huntington distinguished performance legitimacy from procedural legitimacy; and A. John Simmons made an even clearer theoretical distinction between legitimacy and justification, arguing that recognition, through free elections, is the only source of modern legitimacy. In the context of post-Mao Chinese politics, is “performance legitimacy” enough for the regime’s political legitimacy?
SR: Well, not in the opinion of the leaders themselves. They do not trust that they are seen as legitimate, so this is why they never relax controls. They praise themselves for the delivery to the people. They praise themselves for the gratitude that they are getting back from the people. But they never trust that they are seen genuinely to be legitimate, so they always fall back on control — never relaxing controls and always maintaining controls. No genuine trust that there is genuine legitimacy.
TB: Has the world had second thoughts about China after Xi Jinping removed the presidential term limit from the Constitution? Is the image of China changing in light of the facts of the deteriorating human rights situation, failure to abide by WTO rules and UN norms, even the CCP’s abduction of dissidents on foreign soil? You know the Gui Minhai case, a Chinese publisher with a Swedish passport who was kidnapped in Thailand and sent back to China and detained. So can we say that the presumption many people accepted, that is, that a market economy and globalization would lead China to become a democratic, open society, has been proven wrong?
SR: Yes, I think so. It is now very difficult for anyone in the world to escape the recognition that in China there is a hard dictatorship. It’s a dictatorship that in many ways is good for business. Many people are fascinated with China and want to see the good in the system. But the development under Xi Jinping clarified to the rest of the world that this is a hard dictatorship. This is not a mild, benevolent autocracy; this is a hard dictatorship. I think the regime has brought upon itself a more difficult evaluation from the outside world.
TB: Have you seen many scholars, Beijing watchers, start to rethink the assumption that the market economy and globalization will guide China to become a liberal democracy?
SR: I mean this was a strong theory for a while. But it is not a theory that anyone subscribes to anymore. In the long run, we do not know. In the immediate future, it’s clear that this is not a system that is on a path towards a more open society. It’s a system that, for the last five or six years under Xi Jinping, has been on a very clear road towards tighter dictatorial controls. In a way, it is moving politically in the opposite direction than was previously assumed because of its economic development. Economic progress, and political regression –– this was not thought to be possible previously. We are seeing in China that this is possible. It’s possible for the country to modernize economically and to regress politically towards an increasingly hard dictatorship.
TB: For the past two decades or so, there has been a return to totalitarianism, the expansion of authoritarian influence, in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines and, of course, China, and some countries in South America. What’s behind this phenomenon?
SR: I think that there are, at least, some very clever dictators out there. Vladmir Putin in Russia is from his own point of view a clever operator. I think also there is a problem on the democratic side that democracies have been functioning quite poorly in many ways in recent years after the global crash. In 2007-2008, the democracies had not really managed to govern in a way that seemed to be beneficial to most people. And to be fair, I think we are seeing a revolt against what is perceived to be inadequate governance in the democratic countries, in particular, in the United States and in Britain. So that is weakening the democratic side. Why the autocratic side is strengthening, for someone like myself, that is a source of great concern and sadness in the world. And, I think, we on the democratic side really need to get our own house in order and to step up and to see that there have been real shortcomings in the way we are managing our affairs. That’s true in much of Europe and the European Union. It’s true in America. We really need to step up and do better than we have been doing.
TB: What’s your view about Francis Fukuyama’s claim (deepening a tradition of Hegel and Kojève) that liberal democracy is the end of history?
SR: Well, the history of democracy is not a very encouraging one; it was invented 2500 years ago but we have had very little democracy since then, so it’s possible that democracy will not survive. And right now, there is, for my tastes, too much admiration of autocratic strength and not enough appreciation of democratic liberty. And what I’m, in modest ways, trying to do is to encourage the understanding of the importance for our way of life of democratic governance. I think again, we need to step up and to do better in the democratic world.
TB: When Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Chinese government tried to punish Norway with “Salmon politics.” My personal experience is that the American Bar Association rescinded my book proposal for fear of angering the Chinese government, and some universities canceled my scheduled talks to avoid the risk of infuriating Beijing. In Hong Kong, China has torn up the “one country, two systems” commitment and the Sino-British Declaration. Hong Kong’s freedom is in danger and the UK has remained silent to a great extent. From your point of view as a Norwegian scholar living in the UK, is the policy of “buying silence” successful? What should the world do to fight the growing aggressiveness of the CCP?
SR: Yes, the policy of buying silence is successful. This is sad to say, but it’s the case. You see that in my own country, as you mentioned, in Norway, they have normalized relations with China on the condition, in writing on paper, that the Norwegian government shall do nothing to disturb the new normal relations between the two countries–– a commitment to silence. And in Britain, the authorities here want Chinese investments for various purposes. They are silent. So severe human rights abuses that occur in China, they go on without much mention in the rest of the world. What we should do, I think, is to continue to be in contact and collaboration with Chinese people and Chinese authorities. For example, in the academic world where I operate, we should continue to be in contact. But, we, and our governments, should at the same time speak, in clear language, about the Chinese regime’s transgressions against human rights and the regime’s aggression in international politics. This happens to some degree but it does not happen as clearly and straightforwardly as I think it should, given the harshness of the Chinese dictatorship. And I think the democratic countries should collaborate and find some kind of common voice against the excesses in dictatorship and aggression from the Chinese side; we should speak with clear language.
TB: China is playing a more and more active and aggressive role on the international stage, and shapes the international order. How far will China go on the way to influencing the international order? Or how possible is it for the West to give up its appeasement policy toward China, before it is too late?
SR: I’m very pessimistic about all of this. I think that the Chinese regime is, by and large, able to control the narrative, and they are widely regarded to be a positive influence in the world as they present themselves. This is for many reasons; partly it is for reasons of self-censorship. Many of us have interests in China, economic interests, interests in being able to do research, for example, and we exercise self-censorship. So there is no common voice from the democratic side in response to Chinese totalitarianism.
TB: To what extent does the CCP in foreign affairs, represent the interests of China and the Chinese people, and to what extent does it represent only the Party itself, every diplomatic choice is aiming to maintain its one-party rule and the interest of the privileged?
SR: I always start from the basic premise that the PRC is a political project. Policies, domestic and foreign, are always designed to the perpetuation of the party-state. In foreign policy, that includes making this party-state ever more influential and dominant on the world stage. Is it in the interest of the Chinese people that the party-state gains in strength? I would say no, since it is not in the interest of the Chinese people that the dictatorship becomes stronger and more invincible. However, the nationalistic narrative of “national rejuvenation” no doubt has resonance in much of the population. This dictatorship, as many others, finds nationalism a strategically useful card.
TB: So these are my questions, do you have other comments before we wrap up?
SR: I know that many China observers always see signs that things are cracking in the Chinese regime. The economics are not performing well enough. There is disagreement within the regime, and so on. Personally, I think that the right description is to see this as a regime that is in control and that we can expect very little improvement in that respect in the foreseeable future. So I’m deeply pessimistic about any movement on the Chinese side towards a more open society, and a more collaborative profile in international relations. I think, on the contrary, it’s increasing control domestically and increasing its quest for domination internationally.
TB: Thank you very much, Professor Ringen.
Also by Teng Biao on China Change:
Politics of the Death Penalty in China, January 16, 2014.
The Confessions of a Reactionary, August 27, 2013.