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What Is Hu Shigen Thought and the ‘Topple-the-Wall’ Movement Anyway?

Zhao Xin, September 11, 2016

“Chinese state media spilled much ink on the “three factors” and “five main proposals” to demonize Hu Shigen, but avoided discussing Hu’s “three stage” roadmap to change. This is because if the 88 million Communist Party members hear about such a moderate and rational roadmap for transition, some of them may very well embrace it, leading to fissures within the ruling clique itself.”


Hu Shigen show trial. Final statement:

Hu Shigen show trial. His final statement:


From August 2 to 5, The Tianjin Intermediate People’s Court carried out a four-day so-called “open trial” against Hu Shigen (胡石根), Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民), and Gou Hongguo (勾洪国), where they were charged with subversion of state power. The first two were sentenced to 7.5 and 7 years of imprisonment, while the latter two were given suspended sentences. Their punishments were so severe, on evidence that was so rash and far-fetched, in a trial that was so expedited, that both foreign media and China watchers were outraged. The Chinese activist community called it Beijing’s version of the “Moscow show trials.”

The four were among the over 20 human rights lawyers and activists arrested in what’s known as the “709 incident” (referring to a rash of arrests on July 9, 2015). Over the past year they have been put through secret detentions and forced to “make statements” dismissing their own lawyers, while also being deprived visitation from them. After the four trials, not one of the victims lodged an appeal. In the following weeks and months, more lawyers and activists will be forced to perform the same farcical show trials.  

However, one of the unintended products of the four trials in August is the discussion and dissemination of “Hu Shigen thought” and the “topple-the-wall movement,” thanks to the hysterical vilification of the veteran dissident. Immediately following the trials, Communist Party mouthpieces including Xinhua, People’s Daily, CCTV, and Legal Daily, published articles with headlines like “How Hu Shigen’s ‘Topple-the-Wall’ Theory Bewitches and Poisons the People’s Minds,” “Using the ‘Topple-the-Wall’ Theory to Subvert State Power,” “Instead of Repenting, Hu Shigen Sentenced for Trying to ‘Topple the Wall’,” and “Trying to ‘Topple the Wall’ But Only Toppling Himself.”

All of these were clear demonstrations that Hu Shigen was being tried and punished as a thought criminal. The concept of “toppling the wall” has been familiar to Chinese political activists for a long time already, but thanks to the Communist Party’s propaganda, many people who are afraid of politics, or afraid to ask about politics, are inquiring: What is Hu Shigen’s thinking? What is the ‘topple the wall’ movement?

As someone who has known and worked with Hu Shigen for 26 years, I’ve been asked many of these questions myself. In the following passages I will set down what I know about these questions, as a preliminary explication.

I. Hu Shigen’s ideas are the consensus for China’s peaceful transition to a constitutional democracy

During the show trials, the state media reported the following: “According to the testimony of multiple witnesses, this gathering (in an Anhui restaurant called Qi Wei Shao, 七味烧) was not a simple dinner party. Instead, it was a meeting for exchanging views and perfecting ideas about subverting state power, and for planning and implementing the overthrow of the socialist system. The gathering had a number of strict and set regulations, with clear, explicit topics for discussion about the subversion of state power, including a summary of the activities to subvert state power undertaken in 2014, and the secret conspiracy and plot for continued organization to subvert state power in 2015. The meetings also set forth systematic theories, methods, and steps for the subversion of state power, and these were also concrete acts by Hu Shigen and others to organize, plot, and carry out the subversion of state power.”

The activists were also accused of “widely spreading so-called ‘state transition’ and other subversive theories.”

In reality, the so-called “Hu Shigen thought” and so-called “state transition and other subversive theories” are no more than topics that have become a matter of widespread consensus in Chinese civil society about China’s peaceful transition to a constitutional democracy. The reason the Chinese authorities made such an implausible attempt to point out Hu Shigen’s “harmful thinking” was in order to leverage his status as a veteran of the democracy movement to make false charges against rights defense lawyers and human rights defenders, casting the peaceful attempts to defend civil rights and the rule of law as nefarious efforts to subvert state power. The goal, of course, is to strangle the rights defense movement of the last decade or so.

In the years since the June 4 massacre in 1989, China’s civil society has gone through different stages of political activism for change, and it has also reached a consensus that China needs a peaceful, rational and nonviolent transition, not a violent revolution, toward democracy; that rights defense should be based on the law (thus the role of lawyers came to the fore); and that a free and democratic constitutional republicanism, not a totalitarian dictatorship, is the future for China.

A component of this consensus is that the Communist Party could transform itself into a socialist party, or a democratic socialist party, participate in democratic elections, and that its officials could hold government offices. It could even, after laying down a clear roadmap for transition to a constitutional government, consider making the Communist Party itself a legal transitional ruler.

For all these reasons, it’s clear that this is a moderate, rational, and constructive consensus, and that it can guide Chinese society toward a broad and open road with the least risk, the lowest cost, and the greatest value, where there are no losers and only winners. But all this has been besmirched by a terrified dictatorship as “subversive thinking.”

Hu Shigen at his house church. Photo: Zhao Xin

Hu Shigen at his house church. Photo: Zhao Xin

II. The Three Factors (三个主要因素) and the Five Proposals (五个方案) for China’s Peaceful Transition to a Constitutional Democracy

Chinese state media have engaged in widespread and targeted criticism of the three factors and five proposals for China’s transition. The “three factors” refers to the three main forces needed to push forward China’s transition:

  1. A powerful citizenry: A mature civil society and a strong citizenry are the fundamentals for social progress;
  2. Splits in the ruling clique: Given that the Communist Party has previously produced types like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, it’s entirely possible that a catalyzing figure, like Chiang Ching-kuo or Boris Yeltzin, may yet emerge;
  3. The involvement of the international community: A hardline totalitarian regime is not in the interest of the world.

The Five Proposals include:

  • Transition: That the transition to constitutional government be peaceful, steering clear of violence;
  • Nation-building: That a democratic constitutional government system be established;
  • Livelihood: The communists tax heavily but neglect the people, while maintaining massive bureaucratic institutions. Post-transition China will need to focus on education, healthcare, care for seniors, housing, welfare, and other aspects of the people’s livelihood;
  • Rewards: All those who made contributions and sacrifices should be recognized through rewards, thus asserting a set of social values;
  • Punishments: Reconciliation should be extended on the basis of truth and righteousness, while the obstinate criminals will be accorded punishments.

III. The Three-Stage Roadmap for Social Change

During the trial in Tianjin, Hu Shigen “confessed” the following: “On multiple occasions of citizen meal gatherings (同城饭醉) with lawyers and petitioners present, I talked about my concept of a ‘peaceful transition,’ in particular the ‘three main factors,’ ‘three stages (三个阶段),’ and ‘five proposals’ for transition. I inculcated these ideas in other people in order to achieve the goal of a ‘color revolution.’”

Chinese state media spilled much ink on the “three factors” and “five main proposals” to demonize Hu Shigen, but avoided discussing Hu’s “three stage” roadmap to change. This is because if the 88 million Communist Party members hear about such a moderate and rational roadmap for transition, some of them may very well embrace it, leading to fissures within the ruling clique itself.

The three stage roadmap for social progress that Hu Shigen proposed can be summarized as follows:

  1. The Phase of Enlightenment

The root of this enlightenment can be traced back to the enlightenment movement at the end of the Qing Dynasty and the early Republican Era. The Democracy Wall-era of Wei Jingsheng and others in the late 1970s was a continuation of this, with the most recent episode being the enlightenment of public intellectuals in the post-1989 era. While this enlightenment has not been completed over the last century, and faced brutal repression under communist rule, the ideas have not died. The importance of movements to enlighten and transform the thinking of the masses by spreading truth and common sense has been a consensus of all liberal Chinese citizens who favor democracy.

In 2004, when Hu Shigen was still serving out his 20-year sentence in prison for organizing political groups and activities shortly after the Tiananmen Massacre, I wrote an essay titled: “The Plight of Hu Shigen Is a Test of the Conscience of Every Chinese,” in which I quoted something he said to me during the post-June 4th white terror. He said (roughly): China doesn’t need heroics. What China needs is for every citizen to find a little conscience and courage inside themselves, a bit of public spiritedness and sense of civil responsibility. If everyone can think, beginning with themselves, to proactively get involved, then our country will definitely have hope and future.

This is what he ardently hoped for — and he practiced what he preached. Over the last few years he and Zhao Changqing (赵常青) and other like-minded people have steadily organized and expanded the same-city dinner gatherings across the country. They have met with threats and crackdown, but the activities remain alive among activists.  

  1. The Rights Movement Phase

At the heart of civil consciousness and the development of non-government citizen organizations, is the struggle and defense of citizens’ rights. This includes economic rights, political rights, cultural rights, religious rights, and personal rights.

The Communist Party claims that it’s the vanguard of the working class, and that its political base is an alliance of workers and peasants. But the greatest irony is that, given that the Chinese economy is an oligarchy and reforms are rudderless, those harmed the most by China’s vested interest groups have been workers, peasants, and urbanites.

So where is the social base for those in favor of constitutional democracy? Where is the breathing room for this opposition group to survive? Which groups should those committed to China’s social advancement represent? This is what Hu Shigen thinks, and it’s also the consensus of China’s rights defense community: we need to rupture the authorities’ plan to marginalize us, and also the tendency to marginalize ourselves. We defend everyone’s rights, be they workers, farmers, city-dwellers, businessmen, military officials, intellectuals, religious believers, victims of forced sterilization, the elderly, and those demanding equal education and healthcare. In the final analysis, if one has no political rights, then one has no right to other rights. A system of constitutional democracy is for safeguarding all lawful rights of every Chinese citizen.

As early as 1991, again since his release in 2008, Hu Shigen emphasized repeatedly: rights defense is the greatest enlightenment. Every citizen should help to defend the rights of everyone from every strata who has been harmed, and use every rational and reasonable means to do so. Only by completely disintegrating the Communist Party’s social base and undermining its foundation can the temple of constitutional democracy be constructed.

That is the “Topple the Wall” theory.


Hu Shigen spoke on video about his detention in 2014, along with Pu Zhiqiang, Xu Youyu and several others for commemorating the June 4th Massacre.

Hu Shigen spoke on video about his detention in 2014, along with Pu Zhiqiang, Xu Youyu and several others, for commemorating the June 4th Massacre.

  1. The Truth and Reconciliation Phase

How will a post-democratic transition China treat the 88 million Communist Party members and their families? This is a massive social constituency. If they have no future, China has no future — because they’ll form the greatest obstruction to social progress. Absorbing and reconciling with them, thereby reducing as much as possible the obstacles to peaceful transition, needs to be at the forefront of our work.

Hu Shigen was determined to learn from the examples of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, who advocated a truth and reconciliation movement in their country. At an appropriate time in the future it will be necessary to carry out the same process in China. Just as Archbishop Tutu said: If there is no truth, there can be no justice, and if there is no forgiveness there can be no future.

Hu Shigen remarked on many occasions that since the social transition in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the Chinese Communist Party has been needlessly terrified and anxious about a future peaceful transition to constitutional democracy in China. The reason, as Hu said during that Qi Wei Shao dinner, is because the social transformation of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe demonstrated one principle very clearly: as long as Communist Party officials aren’t “blinded by their Party nature so much that they sacrifice their lives for it,” and as long as they mobilize when the time is right and become a force for social progress and not an obstruction, then they will have made a great contribution to the future constitutional democracy. Whether the Chinese Communist Party re-organizes itself to become the Chinese Socialist Party, or the Socialist Democratic Party, current party members will be in a relatively better position to play a larger role in every aspect of Chinese society to promote positive changes.

According to statistics, following the social transition of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as many as 95 percent of the key social positions, with the massive social resources those posts commanded, were still held by former Communist Party members. Hu Shigen joked about this: There are golden bricks in the Berlin Wall — we’re just waiting for the Chinese Yeltsin. In the future, China is bound to produce minor and major “Yeltsins,” guiding the China’s transition to constitutionalism.

Twenty six years ago, Hu Shigen declared before me: Sitting around and waiting for freedom is a poor cousin to getting up and fighting for it. Twenty six years later in the Qi Wei Shao restaurant in Beijing, Hu Shigen is said by communist mouthpiece media to have made the following rousing declaration before his colleagues: “It’s better to mount a rebellion than wait to be shot.”


August 11, 2016


zhao-xinZhao Xin (赵昕) is a student leader in 1989 and one of the earliest rights movement activist. After years of being blocked from traveling overseas, he was able to leave China recently and relocate to San Francisco. This article was written for China Change.


Chinese state media sources:







环球时报:胡石根颠覆政权幕后:聚众宣讲“推墙” 派人赴台联络分裂势力

中央电视台:《焦点访谈》 20160805 “推墙”推倒了自己



China Sentences Hu Shigen, Democracy Advocate, to 7 Years in Prison, the New York Times, August 3, 2016.

Hu Shigen: The Prominent Yet Obscure Political Prisoner, Ren Bumei, August 2, 2016.



Intellectual Discourses in Post-Mao China and Today

 By Xu Youyu, published: May 24, 2014


Dear Editor,

In late 2012, on behalf of the Louis Green Lecture committee of Monash University, I invited Professor Xu Youyu, who I had never met before, to fly to Australia to deliver a public lecture. My recommendation of Prof Xu to the Committee was simply out of profound admiration for his outstanding scholarship as well as his moral integrity.

In early this month, together with several other highly respectable intellectuals, Prof Xu was “criminally detained” by the Chinese authorities for holding a private workshop in the memory of the Tiananmen Tragedy that took place 25 years ago.

It is sadly ironic that Prof Xu was arrested virtually on the same day as President Xi Jinping’s celebration of the 95th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement at Peking University, for Prof Xu and his detained colleagues are the very embodiment of the May Fourth spirit. They are the conscience and cream of Chinese intellectuals.

In light of Prof Xu’s disturbing ordeal, we wish to register our serious concern and moral support by publishing here (online for the first time) Prof Xu’s lecture, entitled “Intellectual Discourses in post-Mao China and Today”.

Sincerely yours,

Warren Sun

for the L. Green Lecture committee of Monash University, Australia: 

Professor David Garrioch, School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies

Professor Constant Mews, President, Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies

Professor Marko Pavlyshyn, Ukrainian Studies, School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics

Professor Wallace Kirsop, Adjunct Professor in the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics


Prof Xu Youyu (right) delivering the Green Lecture in Melbourne,  20 November 2012, chaired by Prof Wallace Kirsop.

Prof Xu Youyu (right) delivering the Green Lecture in Melbourne, 20 November 2012, chaired by Prof Wallace Kirsop.

I AM a philosopher, but I am not going to talk about philosophy this evening. As a Chinese public intellectual, I should like to say something about my country. China has attracted worldwide attention in recent years because of the rapid growth of its economy. This growth has given rise to much discussion, and many wonder whether China’s tremendous economic and military capabilities spell good or bad fortune for its neighbouring countries, for the Pacific region and for the world. I do not want to dwell on this problem. In my opinion it is more important to know what the Chinese people themselves are thinking. The economy and its material goods belong to the people, and it is essential to understand what this new prosperity means to its consumers. I shall focus on the points of view of Chinese intellectuals concerning their country and its future itinerary, noting that these opinions were formed and expressed only after the death of Mao Zedong.

Thirty-six years have passed since the death of Mao Zedong, the leader of mainland China, on 9 September 1976. Mao was one of those rare figures in the history of mankind to have made a deep impression on his country, either by causing the population to live in glory and happiness or by bringing it suffering and pain. In ancient China there was a tyrant called Jie (桀) who provoked people to  call: “We would rather perish together with you!” At the time of Mao’s death TV news reports and documentary films showed ordinary people crying and wailing loudly. It was as if their grief was so great that they wished they too had died,  much as was seen after the deaths of the North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and  Kim Jong Il. What was not reported was that some Chinese rejoiced at Mao’s death and at the possibility of the restoration of normal life. On 9 September 1976 I belonged to the latter group. I had an optimistic premonition that there was hope for my life and for my motherland.

Mao’s death led to the end of the Cultural Revolution and to China’s transformation towards a market economy. Among Chinese intellectuals and philosophers there was a renewal of independent thought and intellectual discourses on history, society and culture. This latter development has made very slow progress, however. I wish I could say that there has been a great change in the history of the People’s Republic of China, but I must remember what one writer told me: Eight hundred million Chinese people had only one head during the Cultural Revolution; that meant that only Mao Zedong was allowed to think, and everyone else had to obey. As a result, anything Mao Zedong approved of was said to be right, and anything he disapproved of was said to be wrong. After Mao died, everybody realized he had a head on his shoulders and could think for himself. People also remember what Marshal Lin Biao, Mao’s assistant and successor, said during the Cultural Revolution: “Every sentence Chairman Mao says is truth, and one sentence of Chairman Mao works as ten thousand sentences.” Tens of thousands of Chinese were declared guilty, even sentenced to death, for questioning or disagreeing with what Mao said.

I call opinions on China’s modernization and future and social criticisms by Chinese intellectuals Chinese contemporary social thought —that is, non-governmental thought. The Party has monopolized theory, and thinking has been the privilege of the top leaders, for a very long time. Strictly speaking, Chinese contemporary social thought emerged in the 1990s, but our story should be narrated from the 1980s on. Although Chinese intellectual discourses or social thought did not come into being in the 1980s, they originated or bred in this period.

For Chinese intellectuals the 1980s are worth recalling. When that time is talked about we use terms like “culture fever” and “culture craze” to describe the variety and excitement of cultural activities in that decade. In my understanding “culture fever” indicates the tremendous enthusiasm demonstrated by Chinese citizens, especially university students. It may sound rather exaggerated to designate enthusiasm or interest as a “fever” or “craze”, but it is not unreasonable. For example, people lined up throughout the night outside the doors of bookstores for literary masterpieces such as Anna Karenina or Shakespeare’s works. Almost every university student loved poetry, and almost everyone wanted to be a poet in China at that time. Almost every publishing house tried its best to produce “hot” items—surprisingly enough Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy and Heidegger’s Being and Time. These two books reached record sales figures of over 100,000 copies within several months.

The nature or character of the cultural activities of the 1980s was nongovernmental. None of them was organized by the Party or the government. It was the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China that all books were chosen and edited by scholars, then given to official publishing houses to be printed. Scholars and activists formally established non-governmental organizations usually called editorial boards. The five most influential ones were as follows. Firstly, the Towards the Future Editorial Board, whose core was composed of research fellows of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, young scholars good at the natural sciences who devoted their major efforts to recommending the methodology and world outlook brought about by recent scientific developments and who tried to investigate history and to predict the future with a new conception of that discipline. Secondly, the Academy of Chinese Culture, which was headed by the grand old scholars studying Chinese traditional culture. They regarded reviving this field and recommending contemporary Confucianism as their duty. Thirdly, the magazine New Enlightenment, which was edited by a group of open-minded Marxist theorists advocating an explanation of Marx based on humanitarianism. Fourthly, the Culture: China and the World Editorial Committee, whose main task was the recommendation of twentieth-century Western humanities. I was a member of this group. Finally, the 20th Century Book Editorial Board, which was engaged in translating and recommending Western social sciences such as sociology, science of law, economics, political science etc. Each group co-operated closely with certain publishing houses, helping them choose, organize, edit and publish many good books that would not have been possible otherwise.

It should be noted that people talked a lot about culture in the 1980s, but politics constituted the starting point and purpose. Everybody knew that the most important and pressing task was political, not cultural, but they had to advance by the roundabout cultural route because politics was a forbidden zone. So translation is needed in order to understand intellectual discourses in the 1980s. For example, when we criticized China’s feudalism, what we were actually referring to was the autocracy of contemporary China.

Some so-called rebellious and frightening opinions that the Party launched a campaign to criticize were in fact common sense. For example, Li Honglin (李洪林) maintained that there should be no “forbidden zone” in reading and that political problems could be discussed(i) People were surprised at such daredevil slogans, and the newspapers and magazines publishing what he said were waiting for punishment. Perhaps we are astonished that such common sense was worth discussing. However, when we think about some of the events of the past, we know that it can be life-threatening to espouse common sense in China. One example is Yu Luoke (遇罗克), who was sentenced to death as a thought criminal during the Cultural Revolution for insisting that the future of a young person should be determined by his or her performance, not by family background.

That those scholars, so-called teachers of youth or cultural heroes in the 1980s, were rather limited in their outlook and philosophy can be seen from an example. Liu Zaifu (刘再复), a respectful and enlightened teacher, was condemned as an advocate of bourgeois liberalization by the Chinese authorities in the 1980s. When he visited Claude Monet’s garden in France, he said excitedly: “Look, we failed to train and bring up any great painter like Monet under Chinese cultural policies.” He thought that he was criticizing the Chinese educational and cultural system, but at heart he was the same as the government officials. All of them thought that an Impressionist master like Monet could be trained and brought up under a certain system or policy.

The culture fever in the 1980s could also be called aesthetic fever, for the most important discipline at that time was aesthetics or literature. The most  influential theorist was Li Zehou (李泽厚), an aesthete, and another influential theorist was Liu Zaifu (刘再复), a literary critic. People were concerned with politics in general, but they read and thought about problems of aesthetics, literature and ethics. The reason for this can be sought in Chinese traditional culture. The most interesting problem for the Chinese from ancient times to the present has been the so-called issue of ultimate concern—that is, how to be a gentle and noble person. There has been very little attention in the Chinese cultural tradition to the principles guiding social and political institutions. It can be said that Chinese intellectuals were not prepared for any social movement or social transformation in the 1980s. They failed to give any practical advice or suggestions to students apart from expressions of moral support when the latter took to the streets and appealed to the authorities for democracy.

In the 1980s the basic political conflict in China was between those who favoured reform and an open-door policy and those who opposed them. The situation was not the same in the 1990s. The conservative bureaucrats who had resisted reform at first soon discovered that reforms did not threaten their positions or reduce their benefits. On the contrary, reform increased their opportunities, and these bureaucrats found they could pursue policies beneficial to themselves by flaunting the banner of reform. There is a Chinese saying, “a waterside pavilion is the first to get the moonlight”. It means that a person in a favourable position gains special advantages, and Chinese bureaucrats have been in such a position. So whereas the basic dividing line in the 1980s was “reform or no reform”, in the 1990s it changed to “Which reform do you prefer?”

There was a change in values among Chinese intellectuals at the beginning of the 1990s. In the 1980s they had generally been in favour of science, freedom, democracy, rule of law, enlightenment, rationality and so on. In the 1990s, however, some young scholars began to advocate postmodernism. They argued that the ideas mentioned above belonged to the ideology of modernity and embodied Western cultural hegemony and Eurocentrism, and that their acceptance by Chinese intellectuals was a consequence of colonization by the West. To be frank, I do not know what role postmodernism plays in its place of origin, Western society, but I am sure that it does not apply to China at present. In my debates with Chinese postmodernists I have pointed out that modernity or modernization does not need to be suppressed in China; on the contrary, it is a movement still to be accomplished.

The argument in my favour in the debate was that Western postmodernist masters, when they knew that their works had been translated into Chinese, wrote special prefaces for them, warning Chinese readers that postmodernism could not be imitated and that it belonged to a very complicated and special tradition. Douwe Fokkema, the co-editor of Approaching Postmodernism, wrote that postmodernist discourses had definite geographical and social limitations. Further, that the postmodernist experiment was based on the luxurious lives led by distinguished Western cultural personages, and postmodernism had nothing to do with people who were living in hungry and poor conditions. He added that there was no living condition related to postmodernism, hence it was beyond imagination to accept postmodernism in the People’s Republic of China.(ii)

Chinese postmodernists often found fault with the modernists for their lack of critical spirit and for yielding to the Western hegemony of the discourse of modernity. I despised them for noisily criticizing American imperialism and for not talking about human rights in Beijing. I often tell the following story in my lectures and papers. An American delegation of congressmen visited the Soviet Union and criticized the country for its lack of freedom of speech. They asked their hosts: “We can shout out the slogan ‘Down with Reagan!’ Do you dare to do the same?” A Russian replied without any hesitation, “Why not? Of course we dare to shout out ‘Down with Reagan!’ ” I tell my audience that the Chinese postmodernists displayed their courage and critical spirit by shouting out the slogan “Down with Reagan!” in Beijing.

The debates between liberalism and the New Left, which broke out in the middle of the 1990s, are phenomena that had rarely been seen among mainland Chinese intellectuals since 1949. They are large-scale, spontaneous debates without official manipulation or ideological constraint. First of all, I should point out that the meanings of “liberalism” and “New Left” in China are not the same as they are in the West, just as “liberalism” and “conservatism” have different meanings in the United Kingdom and the United States. On almost every important political, social and cultural question in contemporary China, liberals and new Leftists hold opposite positions. Their disputes, however, can be seen to focus on the following issues.

The first issue concerns the market economy as the cause of social injustice. China is now in a period of social transition in which startling problems of consumption and social injustice have greatly concerned intellectuals. Both sides agree that the social malady is serious, but make different diagnoses of the cause. The New Leftists hold that the problems come from the market economy itself and that it should therefore be criticized and boycotted. The liberals maintain that the injustice arises because the market in China has not broken free from the control of the old power system and is not mature and appropriately regulated. For them the way out is to regulate and consummate the market economy.

The second issue concerns globalization and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. New Leftists oppose China’s positive attitude towards globalization and the WTO and maintain that these developments will bring China into an unjust capitalist world system. They hold that the Western capitalist countries developed their economy by exploiting and enslaving other countries from the very beginning and that they now dominate the whole world just as they did in colonial times. One New Leftist has said that the development of the Third World in present historical conditions can only be an unjust, even suicidal development, for development means only the transference of environmental pollution from Western industrial countries to developing ones. This author concluded that the only task for developing countries was to launch a worldwide battle against capitalism. In refutation, I said: “This claim is ridiculous and dangerous. Underdeveloped countries, if they believe this, will indulge in the illusion and fantasy of ‘world revolution’ and be backward forever. As a result, the gap between rich and poor countries will grow wider and wider.”

The third issue concerns the analysis of the internal condition of China. Some representatives of the New Left have attempted to prove that Chinese society in the 1990s was a capitalist or market society and a part of the capitalist world system. Therefore, “China’s problems should be seen at the same time as problems of the capitalist world market. Our diagnosis of issues regarding China should be part of a critical diagnosis of the issues of an increasingly globalized capitalism.” Liberals responded to this thesis by holding that it originated not from the reality of China, but from misplaced theory: “Chinese New Leftists distort and excise the conditions of China in order to apply the fashionable theories of the West to China.”

The fourth issue concerns the evaluation of the Great Leap Forward, the People’s Communes and the Cultural Revolution. These political campaigns brought about tremendous disasters and pain for the Chinese; for example, the People’s Communes resulted in over 30 million people dying of hunger. These campaigns were criticized to a certain extent in the 1980s. The New Leftists were unhappy with the criticism, however, saying that the campaigns were a bold vision for an ideal society, and that the Chinese should not rashly abandon such a valuable socialist heritage. One of them appealed for China to have a Cultural Revolution every seven or eight years just as Mao Zedong had advocated. This point of view was totally rejected by liberals, who argued that praise and advocacy of the Great Leap Forward, the People’s Communes and the Cultural Revolution were based on ignorance of China’s past and its real history, confusing disasters with socialist innovations.

The fifth issue concerns the evaluation of the Mind Liberation Movement in the 1980s and the May Fourth New Culture Movement. Some New Leftists attempted to negate and belittle these two enlightenment movements, which, in their opinion, demonstrated the unconditional subordination of Chinese intellectuals to Western discourses. One of them stated: “The May Fourth culture movement only copied European enlightenment discourse. The scholars of the May Fourth generation accepted colonial discourse while accepting enlightenment discourse; their minds and outlook were semi-colonized.” Liberals defended the enlightenment, the Mind Liberation Movement in the 1980s and the May Fourth New Culture Movement. They argued that in the two movements Chinese progressive intellectuals did not mechanically follow Western discourse, but pushed forward mental liberation based on Chinese reality in order to solve China’s practical problems.

The sixth issue concerns international relations and radical nationalism. The Chinese New Left often supported the Chinese government in condemning hegemony when issues arose between China and Western countries, especially the United States. In this area, the typical opposition between liberals and the New Left concerned the relationship between human rights and state sovereignty. The New Left shared the view of the official media in charging NATO with hegemony masked by the excuse of human rights when it intervened in Kosovo. After the September 11 terrorist attack, the New Left argued that the origin of the emergence and spread of terrorism was American hegemony and its diplomatic policy in the Middle East. In contrast, liberals emphasized the importance of human rights and the need to be on guard against radical nationalism. They held that the violation of human rights by a despotic government could not be defended by excuses of state sovereignty.

After the terrorist attack of September 11, many students, graduate students, lecturers and professors in Chinese universities and colleges were exhilarated by the incident. They bought alcohol and drank madly, let off firecrackers, wrote and put up posters, even organized demonstrations on campuses, rejoicing in the extreme suffering of hundreds of people in America. Why were they so happy? The main reason was that they thought America had bombed China’s embassy in Yugoslavia and that an American warplane had shot down a Chinese fighter plane. China had been threatened and humiliated by the USA, but China was not powerful enough to confront America. For them the terrorist attack meant that braver fighters had avenged China, so they were pleased and excited.

Liberal intellectuals had a totally different position and attitude. They published a letter in the middle of September entitled “An open letter to President George W. Bush and the American people” over the names of Bao Zhunxin (包遵信) and Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), both of whom had been jailed for supporting the student prodemocratic movement in 1989. In this letter they condemned the terrorist attack and supported the American government and people. They said that the attack on America was a price the American people paid when they set up a global order of freedom. The letter ended with the sentence: “This evening we are American.” The number of signatories of the letter reached over 1000 within two weeks.

The letter was attacked indignantly by many people. Their attack focused on the last sentence “This evening we are American.” For them, to want to be American meant to not want to be Chinese. The liberals were accused of being traitors or “running dogs” of America. What their attackers did not realize was that the sentence was an allusion to what American President John F. Kennedy said in the period of the Cold War when he visited West Berlin and faced the Berlin Wall. Kennedy said, in German: “Heute ich bin ein Berliner,” that is, “Today I am a Berliner.” Obviously, President Kennedy did not mean that he wanted to be a German. The angry Chinese did not understand that it did not mean any change or choice of nationality, but that it was an expression of moral support. Nationalism rose abruptly in China at the beginning of the twenty-first century and became a remarkable social trend of thought. However, the emergence of nationalism can be traced to as early as the beginning of the 1990s when some scholars who were politically sensitive and willing to serve the party and the government suggested that patriotism and nationalism should be the main courses for the education of university students and government officials. Indeed a lesson had been drawn from the June Fourth event that political education in universities had been unsuccessful and that it was not enough just to instil Marxism into students.

The book China Can Say No published in 1996 manifested the fanaticism and irrationality of nationalist emotion. The book defines contemporary Chinese nationalism in such a way as to equate patriotism with opposition to America. The book and chapter titles reveal that the authors were expressing their anti- American feelings, for example “We don’t want most-favoured-nation treatment, and will never give it to you” and “We will never take a Boeing 777.” One of the basic points of view of the book is that American people are not only evil, but stupid. The authors assert that most Chinese high-school pupils have much more knowledge of American history and culture than American university students. That the American younger generation is on the road to degeneration and has been abandoned by human civilization is proved by their preoccupation with drugs, sex and electronic games.

The book The Chinese Road in the Shadow of Globalization, published in 1999, presented itself as an updated version of China Can Say No in response to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia by NATO. After praising the demonstration against the USA held on 8 May, the book says: “At last, on May 8, 1999, we saw the life impulse of our nation and heard the shout from the soul of our nation.” Readers may find sentences like this one: “China has tried to be a good boy for many years in international affairs, so the USA and other countries which only understand and recognize power have forgotten China’s actual strength.” The authors of the book suggested that China should become a naughty boy paying no attention to its international image.

The most dangerous topic covered by the fanatical nationalists is that of Taiwan. The authors of China Can Say No advocated attacking Taiwan with military force immediately, saying that “an ordinary attack is not as good as a general offensive, and a late attack is not as good as an early offensive”. Talking about the “liberation” of Taiwan, Professor Chen Ming (陈明), a representative of contemporary Confucianism in mainland China, said: “What is important is not military ability, but will and determination. If we fail the first time we can launch offensives for the second and third times. We call this fighting to the last drop of our blood.”

I call the nationalism held by some Chinese scholars and intellectuals cultural nationalism. Its basic idea is that Western civilization has been in crisis and that only Chinese culture can free the West from this crisis, so the twenty-first century will belong to Chinese culture. The most important advocate of this idea was Ji Xianlin (季羡林), an old and famous scholar. According to Ji, every civilization is doomed to undergo a process of rise and decline. The time when Chinese culture will take a dominant position is coming now, since Western culture has been the guiding ideology in the world for several centuries. His argument for the above thesis is as follows. The essence of Chinese philosophy is the idea that heaven and men are one. The Chinese believe that men and nature are one entity. In contrast, the core of Western thought is contained in the maxim of Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is power”, meaning that mankind should conquer nature by means of knowledge. The environmental and ecological crises in modern times come from the failure to balance the relationship between men and nature. Ji Xianlin concluded that mankind could be saved only by Chinese ethics and Chinese philosophy.

I do not agree with Professor Ji, but it is unnecessary at this moment to say what is wrong with his thesis in detail. I would like to point out only that Ji distorted the meaning of the doctrine of “heaven and earth are one”, which was a political philosophy serving imperial power and autocracy in ancient times, not a modern ecological philosophy at all. China has very serious environmental and ecological problems. China has set a bad, not a good, example for the world in this regard.

Cultural conservatism is a doctrine similar to cultural nationalism, whose concentrated expression is the so-called “Chinese national culture fever” advocating that reading and studying the classics of Confucius and Mencius should be put in the first place in education and ordinary life. This assertion was so influential in 2004 that the year was called the Chinese Cultural Conservative Year. The following important events took place at that time.

First, Jiang Qing (蒋庆), a non-governmental scholar, put forward a slogan for “reading classics” about which a heated argument broke out. The book Basic Readings of the Chinese Cultural Classics in twelve volumes edited by Jiang Qing was published in this year. It was reported that children in five million families and over sixty cities had joined the ranks of reading Confucian classics. Second, some well-known cultural conservatives held a conference entitled “The Contemporary Destiny of Confucianism” in Guiyang in the summer of 2004. The meeting was also called the “Summit of Cultural Conservatives.” The participants wanted to apply the doctrines of Confucius and Mencius to the present Chinese political system and to political life. They hoped that the Chinese government would accept their suggestion.

Third, “The Cultural Summit Forum of 2004” was held in Beijing, and “A Cultural Manifesto of 2004” was published. This was sponsored by distinguished scholars such as Xu Jialu (许嘉璐), Deputy President of the National Congress, Yang Zhengning (杨振宁), winner of a Nobel physics prize, and Wang Meng (王蒙), ex-Minister of Culture. The manifesto made the appeals that cultural tradition should be re-evaluated and re-constructed and that the kernel of value of Chinese traditional culture should be carried forward.

I support the attempt and effort to rejuvenate Chinese traditional culture. In my opinion, traditional culture should play a more important role in education, ethics and other fields in today’s China. My disagreement with the cultural conservatives, however, is as follows. First, they think that the decline of traditional culture in modern times is due to the attack from the May Fourth New Culture Movement, but I maintain that criticism from scholars is unlikely to destroy Chinese culture. Only policies from government can trample upon culture. It is not the fault of liberal intellectuals that traditional culture has been regarded as a feudal prison and eliminated completely since 1949. Second, I believe that traditional culture can play a positive role only in cultural and personal ethical aspects, not in the political system. But some conservatives maintain that the political system should be arranged in accordance with the old doctrine and that the modern democratic political principle, such as equal political and legal rights for everyone, is not acceptable. Jiang Qing asked: “Why should an unemployed young man have the same right to vote as a professor?”

There has been a problem for Chinese intellectuals in how to deal with the relationship between rulers and themselves. In Chinese tradition, it is right and proper for intellectuals to think about and judge everything from the point of view of the state, but not from their own point of view or that of the people. For all Confucian scholars, being patriotic is the same as being loyal to the sovereign. This tradition was questioned and criticized in the 1980s when an author, Bai Hua (白桦) asked in his play: “What should be done if you love your country but it doesn’t love you?” The author and his work were criticized fiercely. Many intellectuals have changed their attitudes since the beginning of the twenty-first century. They think that the train of history is going in the direction guided by the party along with the economic rise of China. They are afraid of missing this train and losing their future. Some influential intellectuals make statist discourses. They think that the so-called “Chinese model” which violates human rights and pays no attention to social justice is the hope of mankind, for the secret of its success is that the government controls all political and economic power and can do whatever it wants. In their opinion the best example is the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. Others think that China will make contributions to human civilization with a new political system whose core is a new type of democracy, according to which the agreement and the authorization of the people are not necessary for the legitimacy of government. The key point is that the government should take care of the people just as a kindly father does for his children. Others again hold that the party may place itself above the constitution, this being thought reasonable because of China’s special condition. In this view the best institutional arrangement is to make the state and the party an integral whole. It can be predicted that the statist trend will be developed further among Chinese intellectuals, and I am very worried about that.

Fortunately, that is not the whole story for Chinese intellectuals. In my opinion, the most important progress made from the 1980s to the present day is that we have affirmed constitutional democracy as the objective. Perhaps some of you will be surprised at this, since constitutional democracy is a self-evident principle of state foundation and governance in many countries. Indeed it was put forward by some intellectuals and politicians as their political programme about a hundred years ago in China. I should like to point out that the civil wars, invasions by foreign countries and the communist revolution disrupted these early efforts to realize constitutional democracy in my country.

I believe that China can be a decent country, a qualified member in the big family of human civilization, only after the accomplishment of constitutional democracy. I also believe that the Chinese people will enjoy the sympathy and support of peoples all over the world, including in Australia, in the process of striving for this goal.



* Acknowledgements. I have been in Australia three times, but this is my first visit to Melbourne. I feel greatly honoured to be invited to give the Louis Green Lecture for 2012. In particular I should like to thank my hosts, Dr Warren Sun and Professor Wallace Kirsop, who arranged the occasion.

(i) Li Honglin, “读书无禁区[No forbidden zone in reading]”, Dushu [Readings], 1979:1.

(ii) Douwe Fokkema and Hans Bertens, eds, Approaching Modernism, Amsterdam and Philadelphia,John Benjamins, 1986; Chinese edition: Beijing, Peking University Press, 1991.


“Professor Youyu Xu (徐友渔), once a visiting scholar at Harvard and Oxford Universities respectively and who served as the Olaf Palme Visiting Professor in Sweden, is a preeminent thinker and one of China’s leading spokesmen for constitutional democracy. He is author/editor of over twenty books in Chinese, from the Copernican Revolution in Philosophy and Bertrand Russell in 1994 to A Study of Contemporary Western Political Philosophy in 2008.  He translated, from the original German, Wittgenstein’s Remarks On the Foundations of Mathematics. His outspoken defence of liberalism, in works such as Discourse of Freedom (1999), Facing History (2000), and Unremitting Spiritual Pursuit (2002), has won him a wide readership in China.” (from Professor Warren Sun’s original introduction)


Defiance, by Xu Youyu

Scholars and Lawyer Disappeared after June 4th Seminar in Beijing