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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.”
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.”
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:
- A powerful citizenry: A mature civil society and a strong citizenry are the fundamentals for social progress;
- 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;
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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:
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.
By Xiaokai Xiang
Published: July 8, 2013
The fundamental irreconcilability between constitutionalism and a Leninist political party.
Recently, China’s state-owned media has issued a number of articles bombarding constitutionalism, starting a war of words. Among these, one that is rather weighty is an editorial in the Global Times, along with an article in the CCP Propaganda Department’s Dangjian magazine (《党建》) that bore the obvious signature of team writing. Several authoritative official media outlets such as the People’s Daily, the Guangming Daily, etc., which represent the standpoint of the central government, also all declared where they stood. We can pretty much conclude that this fully reflects the attitude of CCP top leadership towards “Western Constitutionalism.”
The question I want to ask though is this: Can China implement a constitutional government under the Communist Party? Regrettably, the answer is no if the question predicates on the CCP staying in power as China’s ruling party.
The concept of constitutionalism is quite simple. It requires that the ruler rules within the framework of a constitution. Of course, this extends from two basic principles of constitutionalism: the separation of three powers and law-making power granted by the people. These are not fresh concepts; they were already thoroughly discussed as far back as more than 300 years ago in the English philosopher John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.
But the issue lies in that the party that rules China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is still a Leninist political party. It is not compatible with a separation-of-three-powers model, nor does it tolerate law-making power granted by the people. This is because in political paradigms, the Leninist party-state system has a fundamental conflict with the constitutional democracy model.
Origins of the Leninist Political Party
In 1912, under the influence of Lenin, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which believed in Marxism, formally split. A faction with a relatively large number of people, the Bolsheviks, became a new party under the leadership of Lenin. It was seen as the first Leninist political party. In 1918, this party formally changed its name to the Communist Party of Russia. In time, the word “communist party” became a term specifically used for Leninist political parties.
Leninist political parties use Marxist Communism as their creed. They believe that they represent the most advanced direction of development for humanity, and thus the legitimacy of the party is self-evident. However, the Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership were unable to obtain a majority of the seats in the legislative elections following the October Revolution in 1917. The Bolsheviks, who controlled the military, dissolved the legislature and completely banned opposition parties. Also, Lenin established the Cheka, the predecessor to the Soviet Union’s secret intelligence organization, the Committee for State Security (KGB), to purge and eradicate opposition inside and outside of the organization.
From nearly the moment Leninist political parties stepped onto the stage of history, there existed a tense relationship with constitutionalism that was difficult to reconcile. Constitutionalism implies that, in political games under the framework of a constitution, different political parties are in a relationship of peaceful competition. However, Leninist political parties use military force as the basic means of power competition, and they have a built-in hostility toward other apparent or potential political parties as if in a state of war. Peace and war are two totally different systems of political contest.
So then, is it possible for Leninist political parties to evolve in the direction of constitutionalism? Let’s examine two historical examples.
The Pre-1949 Kuomintang Party
The first example is the Kuomintang (KMT) before 1949. Whether or not the KMT was historically a Leninist political party is a topic that has been debated continually without rest. In 1923, under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen, the KMT accepted the guidance of Soviet representative Mikhail Borodin and conducted comprehensive reorganization. In nearly all aspects, it was modeled on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), including the party constitution, party membership, party discipline, party organization, the development of the party and the youth league, the management of party affairs, party-military relations, etc. But, ideologically, Sun Yat-sen and other KMT elites held fast to their own “Three Principals of the People,” rejecting communism. Thus, the KMT was not a Leninist political party in the complete sense.
Sun Yat-sen and the other first generation KMT elites participated in the founding of a constitutional republic, the Republic of China. Sun Yat-sen’s “Five-Branch Constitution” was one of the core theories of the “Three Principals of the People.” Constitutional thinking had an enormous influence on KMT ideology. The KMT could not use the “proletariat autocracy” theory like the CPSU to conduct single-party rule; it could only use special wartime “political tutelage” to serve as the rational for the mainland’s military dictatorship. The KMT was unable to break away from the “shadow” of constitutionalism in the long run. Constitutionalism is not only the foundation of the values established by the KMT, it is also the legal objective of the KMT’s struggle. Under the constraints of constitutional concepts, even though the KMT conducted a military dictatorship in the mainland, it had no justifiable way to wipe out other democratic political parties.
If one examines the history of Leninist political parties, it is not difficult to discover that in early and medium-stage expansion and construction, the majority of Leninist political parties all go through regular internal purges, such as the CPSU’s “Cheka” and “Great Purge,” the Chinese Communist Party’s “Elimination of the Counterrevolutionaries” and Yan’an Rectification Campaign, the Communist Party of Kampuchea leader Pol Pot’s purges, etc. The outcome of such purges was the elimination of internal dissenters, and the reinforcement of the party’s cohesion. It is a strengthening self-organization method.
Comparatively, the KMT’s party boss Chiang Kai-shek did not accept such “purification” methods. To maintain his power base, he focused more on military than party affairs, strengthening military discipline and sustaining the balance between factions within the party. Therefore, although the early organization of the KMT nearly copied that of a Leninist political party, Chiang Kai-shek continually had a “de-Leninizing” effect on the KMT before 1949. This made the KMT a kind of “half Leninist political party” that entered into the degradation process too early. This is also an important factor in how, during the civil war, the KMT was unable to rival the newer Communist Party, whether in terms of social mobilization or organizational discipline.
The Gorbachev Era CPSU
Another example is the CPSU in the Gorbachev era. In the 1980’s, in order to break away from long term stagnation, Gorbachev, who had just come into office, set about to implement economic reforms. However, following the deepening of these reforms, the disagreement of conservative forces in the CPSU, such as Second Secretary Yegor Ligachev and KGB chairman Viktor Chebrikov, intensified every day. Power struggles and reform setbacks became intertwined. Deep in trouble, Gorbachev gradually moved the focus of the reforms towards the realm of politics, and in 1989 produced an important policy: to establish a truly independent legislative body and introduce open democratic elections.
However, the consequences of democratic elections far exceeded Gorbachev’s expectations. Democratization did not weaken but rather intensified power struggles within the party. Starting during the Lenin Era, power struggles had to be conducted in secret, Stalin was an expert at this. But now, the rules encouraged electoral competitions that are open, frontal, and geared towards the masses. Some prominent political elites, like Boris Yeltsin, discovered that if they were able to get ample legitimacy from public support, there was no more need to subject themselves to the constraints of the old system. This group of people quickly broke away from the CPSU system. In July 1990, Yeltsin declared that he was leaving the CPSU. In June of the next year, Yeltsin was elected as president of the Soviet Union’s Russian Republic.
Constitutionalization inherently demands democratization, and democratization conflicts with the centralized organization principals of Leninist political parties. This conflict is fundamental to the point of utter irreconcilability. Everyone in the world knows the history that followed: the Soviet Union’s conservative faction, the KGB, and military leaders plotted the August 19th coup of 1991 and placed Gorbachev under house arrest. At the moment of crisis, Yeltsin climbed atop a tank and spoke to the masses. He turned the tide, gaining great popularity and becoming the de facto leader. When Gorbachev came out of house arrest, it was already impossible to save the Soviet Union from its fate of collapse.
The Certain Present and Uncertain Future
In order to survive, Leninist political parties not only must prohibit external political challenges, they also must suppress internal power competition. Their system structure, by nature, is incompatible with a constitutional democracy model. In the process of development, the majority of Leninist political parties go through internal purges to “purify” their organizations and strengthen internal cohesion. Although these purge movements were essentially the same, people seem less willing to accept the Soviet Union’s “Great Purge” or China’s “Anti-Rightist Campaign” and “Cultural Revolution,” which occurred in peacetime, as opposed to the Soviet “Cheka” or China’s “elimination of the counter-revolutionaries,” which happened in wartime. The post-Stalin Soviet Union and post-Mao China basically abandoned this type of purge movement.
Under a constitutional democracy model, the masses and a free press supervise political parties and political parties supervise each other to stem corruption. Leninist political parties do not possess these kinds of mechanisms. And once they stop internal purges, there is likely nothing that can stop the spread of internal corruption. At the same time, ideology degenerates into a code of allegiance that is only a formality, and the actual internal cohesive force yields to a tangled maze of interests and “patron-client” relations. This was the history of mainland-era KMT and Brezhnev-era CPSU. History also tells us that an organization which purely uses interest as its cohesive bond lacks competitive power. Competition in an open environment, regardless of whether in peace or war, creates a fatal threat to its survival.
For present day China, continuing to suppress external challenges on the one hand and prohibiting internal competition on the other will mostly likely be an unavoidable strategy. Under the CCP, China cannot constitutionalize, nor is it able to democratize. It is compelled to go even a step further and block discussions of these topics so as to prevent people from having unrealistic expectations of the future. This is what we are witnessing right now in China in one argument after another against constitutionalism and in Party’s instructions prohibiting discussions of an array of related topics in universities and elsewhere. All of these are perfectly logical and unsurprising. As for what will follow in the future, no one knows.
Xiang Xiaokai (项小凯) is a PhD candidate in information science at Tokyo University. He is also emerging as a fresh voice in discussions of China’s political transition. Translated by Jack.