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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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The Ideological Continuum Between Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping

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.

Hu Ping, Deng Xi, 1The 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.

Hu Ping, Deng Xi, 2In 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.

For Over 36 Years, Grassroots Elections in China Have Made No Progress – An Interview With Hu Ping, November 1, 2016.



Support Our Work


At China Change, a few dedicated staff bring you information about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.


Reconsidering Deng Xiaoping the Reformer: What Did He Really Reform?

Li Xuewen, February 21, 2017



Li Xuewen. Photo: New York Times


In the world of Chinese Communist Party propaganda, the image of Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) has been molded into that of the master architect of China’s reform and opening up. He’s said to have helped China through two major transformations: the reform and opening up following the Cultural Revolution, and then the development of a market economy following his Southern Tour in 1992. Thus, in the mythology of the Chinese Communist Party, Deng is the second deity following Mao Zedong (毛泽东).

But if we step back, take in a broader historical perspective, and make a rational examination at the twentieth anniversary of Deng’s death (February 19, 1997), it quickly becomes clear that Deng Xiaoping managed to effect only one transition: launching China onto the road of crony capitalism after the June 4 massacre. The baneful consequences of crony capitalism have saved the Party but are a crime against the nation.

Historians have already used a wide variety of documentary sources to show that during the anti-rightist movement of the 1950s, Deng Xiaoping was a “leading vanguard” and a chief perpetrator. But there’s no need to rehearse that history here — after all, the chief culprit in the anti-rightist campaign was Mao, and Deng only truly came into his own as a historical figure following the Cultural Revolution, as the so-called “second generation core” leadership. This essay aims at analyzing why Deng Xiaoping only oversaw a partial, not a full, transition, and it argues that this is the key in any evaluation of Deng.

The first matter to address is why the first so-called transformation wasn’t a transformation at all.

By the end of the Cultural Revolution, China had been so thoroughly ravaged by Mao that people could hardly get by, the economy was ruined, and the Chinese people were living in unspeakable misery. Mao, as head of the Party, had driven the country into the ground. When Mao died and the Party carried out so-called “reform and opening up,” they said it was to save the nation and save the people — but it would be better put that they were mainly about saving themselves. The Party’s decision for Deng Xiaoping to take the lead was no more than a passive historical choice, the only option when there were no options. In the years following 1949, all the outstanding political leadership of the Nationalist Party had either fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek, or were slaughtered by the communists. During Mao’s dictatorship, the communist’s own pragmatists, for instance Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇) and Zhou Enlai (周恩来), had either been struggled to death or had their careers stifled out. The designated successor, Lin Biao (林彪), died trying to flee to Mongolia, and other veteran revolutionary cadres were either too old to be of any use or were already dead. The remnants of this corps, including Ye Jianying (叶剑英) and Li Xiannian (李先念), had ideals, but were too old to be at the helm. The only two remaining figures who had the resourcefulness and strategic measure to rule the country were Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun (陈云). Overall, Deng was more capable than Chen, and so it became a matter of “none but Deng.”

Given what a wreck China was at the end of the Cultural Revolution, no matter who the successor was to be, their only option was to reform and open the economy. This was a product of circumstance, the trend of history, and not something that any individual could reverse. The fact that Hua Guofeng (华国锋) was unable to keep the Maoist antics going is a prime example. If it wasn’t Deng who took control, it might have been, for instance, Lin Biao — and he may have taken things much further than Deng, and been still more groundbreaking. Simply taking a glance at the seditious, anti-Mao thought in Lin Liguo’s (林立果, son of Lin Biao) “Project 571 Outline” (《五七一工程纪要》) makes clear the possibilities. My claim that the circumstances overrode the individual is to say that at that point in China, whoever took charge simply had to carry out economic reform and opening. Besides, the official propaganda around Deng Xiaoping being the grand architect of reform and opening doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As scholar Wu Wei (吴伟) revealed in his recent book “On Stage and Backstage: China’s Political Reform in the 1980s,” (《中国八十年代政治改革的台前幕后》) Deng lifted many of his ideas about governance from Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳). In particular when it came to political system reform, Deng was no architect. Thus, attributing the entire reform and opening program to Deng, as Deng’s achievement and the first post-Mao transformation, is simply not supported by the historical evidence.

These days, there are many people of my father’s generation who hate Mao but feel a great sense of gratitude toward Deng. The reason is simple: they were persecuted in the Mao era, and in Deng’s time they were able to live a normal life. But rarely do they think it through a step further: they should have been able to live unmolested in the first place. The Party under Mao robbed them of that, and under Deng it simply gave them back a bit — not all — of what was stolen. Not to mention that their youths, and most of their lives, had been wasted — giving them their lives back shouldn’t be seen as the grace and magnanimity of the Party, but simply the basic rights they are entitled to as citizens.

At the end of the Cultural Revolution, a group of veteran cadres used classic coup d’état-style tactics to purge the remaining Maoists. The Party, with Deng at the helm, then transitioned from Mao’s mode of frantic political violence to a form of stable, pragmatic politics: so-called abandonment of class-struggle as the guiding principle, and a turn to economic development as the central focus. Through this, Deng was able to gradually establish his personal power and authority, and forge for himself the historical role as so-called grand architect.

And yet for all this, because what Deng presided over was always merely a maimed transition — economic reform without political reform — China’s reform never resolved the most fundamental issues and it failed to achieve the genuine transformation that would have brought true political modernization. Throughout the 1980s, Deng constantly suppressed the political reformist leanings of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, he personally ordered the June 4 massacre, and then he used his personal power and prestige to make clear that “whoever fails to promote economic development will be sacked.”

This was the direct catalyst for ushering in the period of China’s crony capitalism, which persists to this day. It’s not only through the Jiang Zemin (江泽民), Hu Jintao (胡锦涛), and Xi Jinping (习近平) eras that discussion of political reform has been out of bounds — nothing comparable to the political reformist aspirations of the 1980s in the Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang period has been allowed to appear. As Wu Wei reveals in his “China’s Political Reform in the 1980s”: “Deng Xiaoping added a line to a draft of the document ‘Overall Considerations in Political System Reform’ (《政治体制改革总体设想》), saying: ‘We absolutely won’t carry out Western-style separation of powers, with periods of elected office.’ Without this line being added, Deng wouldn’t have felt reassured. And without Deng’s approval, the entire political reform program at the time would have died in its crib.”

The liberal intellectuals have mocked the “Five Nos,”* proposed by the then-National People’s Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo (吴邦国) in 2011 that summed up the key political changes that the Party rejects. Few know that Deng Xiaoping was the one who first set out the “Five Nos.” Rejecting political modernization is in fact rejecting reform, because true reform must have at its heart reform of the political system. Any reform without political reform is ersatz reform — all simply a matter of using the banner of “reform” to monopolize power and plunder the people of their wealth. For these reasons, following Deng there was simply no more so-called reform. Reform was long dead. What was left were a pack of political swindlers.

People who think clearly ought to be able to see that Mao and Deng were not at loggerheads. Their commitment to the sustenance of Communist Party totalitarianism was identical. Mao pointlessly set the Cultural Revolution in motion, and Deng caused the June 4 massacre; Mao created a one-man dictatorship, Deng demanded eternal adherence to the Four Cardinal Principles (四项基本原则).** Whether under Mao or Deng, the same one-Party dictatorship was up there all the same, lording it over the people. This is the fundamental commonality in the ruling power clique, and could be said to be the Party’s core, unshakable mafia code.

The only true transition that Deng Xiaoping oversaw was his opening the road to crony capitalism. It was this transition that threw the Communist Party a lifeline following the 1989 massacre — and which also threw open the floodgates for the mass expropriation of the Chinese people by corrupt officials, which continues to this day.

This historical turning point that Deng presided over comes into clearer focus twenty years after his death because, as the Party’s crony capitalists continue their mad plunder of the citizenry, the regime is getting closer and closer to the mouth of a volcano that threatens to erupt. If we concede that his reform and opening following the Cultural Revolution saved the Party, then we must say that his inauguration of crony capitalism will lead to the death of the Party, and the June 4, 1989 massacre was the historical inflection point.

Deng ended the madness of Mao, but he ushered in another form of madness. The latter has led to an enormous wealth disparity in China, to a corrupt class alloyed with power who act as they  wish, to environmental disasters, moral collapse, and the plunder of the country’s patrimony. Perhaps even Deng failed to foresee all that.


*Five Nos: No multiparty rule; no diversification of the Party’s guiding principles; no separation of powers and no two parliaments; no federalism; no privatization.

**The Four Cardinal Principles of Deng Xiaoping: Keeping to the socialist road, upholding the dictatorship of the proletariat, upholding the leadership of the Communist Party, and upholding Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.



Li Xuewen (黎学文) is an independent writer in Beijing. This article was first published to WeChat, and later censored. China Digital Times preserves an archived version.



《黎学文:邓小平转了什么折?》 translated by China Change.




Xi’s Empty Words Harm the Nation

(Tom is unable to post his piece at the moment. Yaxue substitutes.)

Xi Jinping created quite a stir with his recent trip to Guangdong province, which has been seen by many as a demonstration of his determination to continue with (economic) Reform and Opening up. On this trip he impressed many by proceeding in a much less flashy fashion than most expect from Chinese gov’t officials. While his recent promotion of waste-preventing guidelines and anti-corruption policies show a strong desire to limit these ills of the Party, there is little hope that these alone will make a difference.

Xi is right to focus on these issues early on in his leadership, as graft and abuse of power are widely seen as the biggest threats to the Party, but he fails to recognize that these are unavoidable consequences of the current political structure. As it stands in China, the flow of resources is still largely controlled by a massive bureaucratic system. This gives a large number of individuals power over very valuable, finite commodities; which provides them the opportunity to extract bribes and use their positions for their own personal benefit. Because these petty officials are only beholden to the Party, and not the people affected by their actions, there is little need for them to produce results that would help their communities (and the results they produce are generally in effort to further their own careers). Without massive reforms, corruption will continue to be major problem.

Furthermore, as we’ve seen time and again, China’s leaders are excellent at producing laws, edicts, speeches, and slogans; but are incapable of ensuring their enforcement. There is little reason to believe that Xi’s latest efforts will produce a different outcome than the dozens of similar speeches made during Hu Jintao’s time. The problem is that to date, anti-corruption efforts have relied heavily on gov’t investigators instead of public oversight. In reality, this is simply creating another opportunity for graft, as these investigators can use their power to extract bribes from other officials.

I believe that the current strategy of the Party is simply to present the appearance of a clean up. After all, if many people in China believe that the Communist Party of the 50’s and 60’s was incorruptible (even though officials feasted through Mao’s great famine), than it should be possible to convince them of this again while maintaining the “perks” of officialdom that produce the unquestioning loyalty that the Party requires of it servants.

Last week though an open letter to Xi Jinping outlined clear initiatives that could be taken if the Party was really serious about cleaning up corruption, instead of just giving the appearance of caring. Signed by 65 Chinese intellectuals, legal professionals, teachers, engineers, media professionals and people from other professions, the letter reads as follows:

Corruption is a very serious social problem in China, as general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, Xi Jinping said on November 17, 2012, during a  study session of the Political Bureau, “The problem of corruption is becoming increasingly severe, and could ultimately bring down the Party and the country.” On November 19, 2012, the head of the CPC Commission for Discipline Inspection, Wang Qishan, gave a speech in the meeting of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the Ministry of Supervision also stressing the importance of “steadfast opposition to corruption”.

But over the years, the anti-corruption slogans, campaign-style anti-corruption efforts have not been able to solve the increasingly serious problem of corruption. On July 11, 2010, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the CPC Central Organization Department, the Ministry of Supervision jointly issued “Rules Regarding Cadres Reporting Personal Matters” that stipulate that cadres at and above the division level (处级, lower-middle level officials) must report personal income, real estate holdings, and investments of his/her own, as well as that of the spouse and children living with them.” But the information has not been made public, and did not work toward eradicating corruption.

The fundamental way to solve the problem of corruption is transparency. In 1766, in order to limit the power of the king, the Swedish Parliament enacted “freedom of the press,” which gave the Swedish citizens the right to access information about the property of all officials. Over 240 years, the official property declaration system has proven to be an effective weapon in fighting corruption, and many of the countries in the world have emulated it, including China’s Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao.

In the face of this grim situation, we demand that the official property publicity to be started from the top, not only because high-level officials display better ideological and political quality, their job performance stands out, and they also enjoy a relatively high degree of respect by the masses,” but more importantly, because senior officials wield enormous public resources, and hold the power to affect the well-being of China’s 1.3 billion citizens.

During the 18th Party Congress, Shanghai Party Secretary Yu Zhengsheng said, as soon as the central authorities made the decision, he could easily make his information public, “because I do not have much property.” The same day, the Guangdong provincial party secretary Wang Yang said, answering questions about official property declarations, that Guangdong is implementing pilot official property declaration system, and will continue exploring it. During last year’s Two Meetings, the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian said that, if officials are to make public of their properties, he would be the first to do so. From these public statements, we see that the conditions are ripe for officials’ property holdings to be known to the public.

As prescribed in Article 41 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China have the right to put forward criticisms of, and suggestions for, anyone working in any state organ.” As citizens of the People’s Republic of China, we ask the 205 most senior officials of China, as listed below, set an example by publishing the income, real estate, investment and other holdings of their own, their spouses and their children’s to curb the corrupt behavior of officials from the source, and to build a better China.”

It seems as though Xi would benefit from the wisdom of his newly minted catch phrase, “empty talk harms the country,” as it stands, this trip to Guangdong is nothing more than another hollow gesture that is not substantially different than any of the anti-corruption measures that have come before. If he wants the country to benefit fully from the idea that “hard work prospers the nation,” his first step should be implementing a transparent system for reporting the wealth of officials.

Mo Yan, According to You — Part Two

By Yaxue Cao

In the first part of this long post, I took a closer look at Mo Ya’s political choices and explained why many Chinese find him objectionable as a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. At the end, I asked the question: If Mo Yan is such a critical writer, as many in the west believe (the Nobel Committee certainly does), why does the Party embrace him completely, feature him prominently internationally, and award him all the official literary prizes there are in China? Knowing that the Chinese government censors criticise harshly and consistently? Why? Here is my attempt to answer this question.

Just like the face of China has changed beyond recognition over the last 30 years, so has China’s literary scene. Even though the Chinese Writers Association is still under the control of the Party and writers still must carry out “assignments” from the Party now and then, in today’s China, it is decidedly unfashionable, and despicable, for writers to sing the Party’s praises as they did in Mao’s era. In the CWA, only the relics of the past would write like that and they look as ridiculous as seeing someone wearing a Mao suit on street today. If those who have some respectability at all have to do it, they would do so discreetly.

This is because such writings have long been rejected by readers. The Party knows it very well, and the writers know it even better. As a matter of fact, the withdrawal of encomiastic literature began as soon as China’s “reform and open-up” in late 1970s. You may still see a few books of this nature in government-run bookstores; during Party anniversaries and the National Day celebrations, you would see lavish performances on CCTV, but these are “assignments.” Even with a film like《建党伟业》(“the  Great Endeavor of Founding CCP” but deceptively translated into “Beginning of the Great Revival” ), the style has little in common with similar works in the past, and it takes discerning eyes to pierce through the fog. Of the most famous or best-selling literary authors, no one has succeeded for adulating the Party.

In our email exchanges, O’Kane (quoting him with permission) thinks that, the CWA may not be a good thing, but “if it provides a living for talented writers like Han Shaogong, Wang Anyi, and Diao Dou, then so much the better.” Well, I must say that this view of the CWA is a bit naïve. The Party sets up organizations such as the CWA, the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles (文联), which is a government entity from the top level all the way to the county level, claim to take away writers’ worries so that they can devote their minds on writing. Instead, these entities are reins and yokes meant to control the writers. Many people, in recent years, have called for disbanding these organizations provided by tax payers’ money, but Chinese writers all know very well that, unless they write something that offends the Party badly, their job security is probably one of the highest among government employees.

The relationship between the CWA and the Party is somewhat like a teenager and a dictator father. In the old days, the strict father required the teenager to return home before 6 o’clock every day and allowed no hanging-out on weekends. Now that the time has changed, the father relaxed quite a lot, allowing free weekend play, and moving the curfew to midnight. But what has not changed is the absolute power of the father and the bottom line that whatever you do you still must go home every night. The Party doesn’t require you to sing praise every day, but it makes sure that you don’t write anything offensive, or worse, subversive.

Since Deng Xiaoping’s time, the CCP has distanced itself from the Mao era as well. It issued an official document in 1978 to denounce the Cultural Revolution, and it has also admitted mistakes made during land reforms, the anti-rightest campaign, the great leap forward, etc. But at the same time, it is very sensitive as how deep and how broad historians and literary writers would explore the recent past, thwarting works that may cause people to question the fundamental legitimacy and justification of the Party. When O’Kane and Lovell say Mo Yan’s works are no encomia to the Chinese rulers, they are still using the 6 o’clock curfew as their yardstick while the curfew was moved to midnight long ago. Inside the CWA, many writers have been writing about the recent tragedies, and all of them would be bold, critical writers if measured by the 6 o’clock curfew.

Take for example Life and Death Are Wearing me Out, one of Mo Yan’s newer novels in 2006. In the first volume, a landowner was shot to death during the land reform at the end of 1940s. To avenge himself, he was reborn as a donkey. From the fragmentary narrative of the donkey, we learned that the landowner was a good man who had helped the poor and lived a diligent life. He was shot in the head, his land was distributed to the poor, his two concubines remarried to his two farmhands respectively, and his house became the village hall. The donkey’s owner is one of the landowner’ old farmhands, the only man who refused to join the cooperative, the precursor of People’s Commune. The donkey was exceptionally handsome, more magnificent than a horse, so much so that the head of the county made it his own. The donkey later had an accident in which he broke his legs, and was eventually killed. This of course is just a summary. But as far as the historical land reform is presented, the novel is surprisingly spotty and one-dimensional, not too much more than my summary. But the first volume roams on for over one hundred pages, what do they consist of? Words; overflowing words, superabundant words, a florid rain of words.

As for the subject of the land reform, following the highly simplified and symbolized route of beating-down the landowners, killing the landowners, digging up their wealth and dividing their land and houses has long become the standard route for writers of CWA writers.

In the following volumes, the novel’s depiction of the other major events of the recent history is just as sketchy and standard. So I said the other day, half jokingly and half seriously, “in Mo Yan’s ‘hallucinatory realism,’ 99% is hallucination, and 1% is realism.”

About ten years ago, Mr. L, the chief editor of Shanxi Literature, a CWA writer as well, interviewed dozens of old folks in his hometown in northwestern Shanxi province for their stories during the land reform. Later he compiled these interviews into a book. His interviewees included the then village heads, militiamen, poor peasants, well-to-do families, adult and youth, men and women. From historical documents to the Party’s decrees, from individuals’ tragedies to village population analysis, from the voting procedure for executing landowners to details of various tortures, his interviews presented a layered and panoramic view of the land reform. Readers of his book were shocked, including people who were not strangers to the subject. But no publisher would publish his book, the reason being: it’s too much.

By comparison, the land reform in Mo Yan’s novel, whether it’s the characters or the events, has the quality of a jingle, highly cursory and generic. There is nothing sensitive about it, because it doesn’t provoke, nor challenge, you to think. This is why the barbarism and ugliness depicted in Mo Yan’s novels somehow don’t connect. You can read at flying speed without being seized by something that makes you pause and think. As a matter of fact, this novel of 460,000 characters, “the consummate work of my writings” as Mo Yan told Xinmin Weekly recently, was also written at galloping speed in 43 days.

Next to a non-fiction work, of course we must also consider the structure, the symbolism and other elements of a novel in our evaluation. My point here is to demonstrate what kind of realism is Mo Yan’s realism, and what is acceptable to the censorship and what is not.

Until I started reading Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (I read the Chinese original), my impressions of Mo Yan still stayed in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the ‘80s when the memories of Cultural Revolution were still fresh, Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum, part of a new literary movement, was different from anything people had read for a long time. To use—guess who?—Liu Xiaobo’s words, it was like “a cracking rock that startles the sky” (石破天惊). Especially after the movie adaption by Zhang Yimou, it became an expression of the kind of eruptive energy widely felt in the 80s. For a long while, just about every Chinese young man was singing or humming the “Liquor Song” of the movie: “March ahead bravely, my beloved!” (“妹妹你大胆地往前走”). And the scene in which a burly country man makes a clearing in a sorghum field and lays down a young, beautiful woman was an indelible cultural memory of a generation.

But I never thought Mo Yan as an author with a critical bent, probably because there were many outspoken writers at the time and, next to them, Mo Yan didn’t stand out. On the other hand, I was weary of Mo Yan’s increasing tendency toward hyperbolic depiction of violence, barbarism and sex, because the surreal treatment of them turns them into entertainment, desensitizes their potential criticism, and turns readers’ attention away from the real evil and its roots. In addition, Mo Yan’s language has always been colorful but overly indulgent that can really test your patience. But according to Wolfgang Kubin, the German scholar of Chinese contemporary Chinese who has written a lot about Mo Yan and other Chinese writers, such excess has been corrected in translation. Mo Yan’s English translator Howard Goldblatt seemed to suggest, in an interview with Nanfang Weekly in 2008, that the translator had done quite bit of editing, even re-writing, of the original. Fans of Mo Yan like him not for his sharp criticism of either the past or the present, but find his brand of extravaganza intriguing and exhilarating.

Since the Prize, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon, that is, a lot of Chinese readers are asking: Where is Mo Yan’s criticalness? The writer himself also seems to feel the necessity of defending himself. He said in a news conference,“if you have read my books, you would know that my criticism of the dark side of the society is very harsh and serious. The Garlic Ballads, Republic of Wine, Thirteen Steps, and Big Breasts and Wide Hips that I wrote in the 1980s were all unreserved criticism of social injustice from a humanistic point of view.”

To write this post responsibly, I can’t just rely on my past impressions and the one novel I am reading now. So I emailed my friend, Professor Z of the College of Literature, Beijing Normal University, the very institution with which both Liu Xiaobo and Mo Yan had ties, to seek his views. In the 1980s, my friend was a college student of Chinese literature, and now he is a professor in the same field. For years he was a fan of Mo Yan, wrote about him quite a lot, and has made contacts with the writer in countless professional occasions. He said he had read just about everything Mo Yan had written except for Republic of Wine and Life and Death Are Wearing me out which he lost interest when he reached “Volume Three, the Wallowing Pig.”

First of all, I asked Professor Z to tell me the “history of Mo Yan’s conflict” with the authorities, if any. This is his reply:

“Mo Yan had had run into trouble with the authorities. The biggest occasion came when he published Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1995). A bunch of leftists complained about him, saying that this work of his was anti-Party and anti-socialism, and they took their case all the way to the PLA Army General Staff Department. As a result, Mo Yan had to write self-criticism, and then had to leave the military to a job at Procuratorial Daily. I knew a bit about this episode at the time, and just this afternoon I heard more from an insider who told me that Mo Yan had had trouble twice because of this book. The second time was when the Workers’ Publishing House planned to re-issue the book but there were people who were still at him. This insider happened to be the censor/reader who helped protect him. But after being published for a while, the book was banned again.”

Then I asked Professor Z to evaluate how critical a writer Mo Yan has been. This is his view:

“My reading experience of Mo Yan has been somewhat complicated. I admit that he has written good works before Big Breasts and Wide Hips, which I believe is his best work, that were strong as social critiques. But his works have become weaker steadily ever since. His craftsmanship has grown more and more deft in later works but their substance and level of criticism have become thinner and thinner.”

How about his latest novel Frogs? The Nobel Committee said it was a “brave” work that critiques China’s birth control policy. Professor Z said,

“I guess you can say Frogs is a critical work, but it’s not compelling enough. I wrote in an article last year that ‘the novel tells the story of the aunt, and the history and the current situation of China’s one-child policy, in the form of letters to a Japanese friend. Because the recipient of the letters is a foreigner, it’s impossible for the author to bare it all. The narrative then becomes a dilemma for him: on the one hand he wants to explore the cruel history of it, but on the other he engages in a kind of cover-up. So half-said-and-half-unsaid is the basic narrating strategy of the novel. Technically you can’t lay blame on the narrative strategy an author chooses, but it does dull the sting and leave readers wanting.’”

Mo Yan’s real aunt, the archetype of the aunt in Frogs, said recently when interviewed by a Hong Kong TV station (start 4:20) that, as a busy country midwife, she delivered about 20,000 babies over the course of the last 40 years, and aborted twice as many. Considering the aunt in the novel only aborted 2,000, some asked, “Doesn’t the novel down play the one-child policy?” Well, I won’t find fault this way with a fiction that I haven’t read, but the effect would surely be different if the aunt in the novel aborted twice as many as she delivered.

How does my professor friend think about Life and Death Are Wearing me Out? Since Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize, he said, he had pulled it out again to finish from where he had left it. “At the time I felt Mo Yan was too indulgent in playing dazzling tricks without much substance. This afternoon I was chatting with a colleague of mine, and he was of the same opinion.”

I shared my assessment of Mo Yan with my friend: That he is a boy who comes home dutifully before the midnight curfew. My friend agreed. “I feel the same way,” he said. “What Mo Yan wrote in his later works is permissible; and his critiques are critiques well within the boundaries.” My friend went on to say, “the current publishing system in China means that what have been published are safe to publish; if a work is too challenging, it wouldn’t be published to begin with, because publishers are afraid of taking risks, because it directly concerns people’s livelihood. This I think is the key problem.”

Interestingly enough, in terms of criticism, Mo Yan’s self-assessment seems to coincide with that of my friend. You may have noticed it too: in my earlier quote of Mo Yan, he mentioned only his earlier work to defend that he is a critical writer.

Needless to say, contemporary Chinese literature is rather diversified.  But reading Life and Death Are Wearing me Out, I am reminded of a couple of “avant-guardist” writers I read in the 90s and a few writers I came across more recently. Together they seem to represent a winning trend in Chinese literature. Depending on the writers, it more or less has the following characteristics: It’s set in a specific time of the past before 1949, but the sense of time is very thin; its descriptions tend to be elaborate and copious; the characters tend to be poker-faced and immobile, lack of connection with real people; it has universal themes but seldom challenges the readers morally or existentially; and one feels hollow after reading such novels. I call it pseudo literature, and the China depicted in such works pseudo China.

It looks like the authors and the government have found harmony with each other in such a trend: The authors write happily and indulgently; the critics have plenty of material to expound on; and as far as the Party is concerned, you can write about all the pillage and all the rape in the world as long as you don’t ask questions about the real realities, which in many ways are ten times worse than Mo Yan’s fictional realities. Do the censors and the watchers from the propaganda department really like Mo Yan? Not necessarily. But dictators don’t err in what’s damaging to them and what’s not. Writers like Mo Yan are perfectly acceptable to them, and at the same time, they know that such writers are the only viable athletes to represent China in the cultural Olympics of the world.

And for the world, perhaps a little too eager to concede something to the communist China that looms big economically, Mo Yan looks right and feels right.

In an interview with Time magazine in 2010, Mo Yan said he never worried about censorship when he chose what to write. “‘There are certain restrictions on writing in every country,’ he says, adding that the inability to attack some topics head on is actually an advantage. Such limitations make a writer ‘conform to the aesthetics of literature,’ Mo Yan argues. ‘One of the biggest problems in literature is the lack of subtlety. A writer should bury his thoughts deep and convey them through the characters in his novel.’ ” So, censorship helps writers write better literature? I don’t know that before! I feel so sorry for all the great writers of the world, and in history, who haven’t had the good fortune to benefit from censorship. How much better would they have written?!

Mo Yan’s defense of censorship reminds me of a conversation I had with another CWA writer friend of mine in China a couple of years ago. When I shared Shen Shuren with him, he liked it very much but told me right away that it was not publishable in China. So I commented on the lack of freedom to write even though there was considerable space for good writers to shine. To my surprise, he corrected me sternly. “I have complete freedom to write,” he said. “What I am writing now is what I will be writing anyway in a state of complete freedom.”

At this juncture, it would be interesting to compare Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) and Mo Yan. With the same Red Sorghum, one as a short story and the other as a movie, the two men opened up new horizons in the 1980s and became famous overnight. Both were disliked in the 80s and part of 90s by the government, and both “adapted” to the realities. Zhang Yimou has been making grandiose but vapid “visual banquets” such as Hero (英雄) and Curse of the Golden Flower (满城尽带黄金甲), while Mo Yan found home in “hallucinatory realism.” Both are now China’s gold medalists in the realm of world culture, towering signs of China’s cultural achievement next to its economic miracle. These days I don’t think there are that many people outside China who regard Zhang Yimou as a critical movie maker anymore, but the assessment of Mo Yan will be a lot more complicated, partially because not that many people have the patience to read 500-page novels one after another, partially because he is now shrouded in the aura of the Nobel Prize. I don’t think Mo Yan made a mistake when he named only his earlier writings to defend the critical quality of his works and the risks he has taken to write them. I haven’t read enough myself to agree or disagree with my professor friend, but the fact remains that, after the mid-1990s, Mo Yan has not run into any trouble with the authorities and his status in the officially anointed Chinese literary scene has pinnacled long before the Nobel Prize.

Julia Lovell, in her article in the New York Times, warns against intellectual laziness on the part of western readers who might judge Mo Yan unfavorably simply because he’s a writer embraced by the Party and the government. She urges them to find answers in his works. I, too, would warn against intellectual laziness on the part of any reader, Chinese or otherwise: Just because Mo Yan does not portray power and the government in favorable light doesn’t automatically make him a critical writer. And more importantly, don’t let the Nobel Prize deify anyone for you.

I don’t know how many times I have heard argument over the last couple of weeks for separating literature from politics. First of all, the Party doesn’t for a second think that way. For the Party, everything is politics, literature and art in particular as tools to shape ideas and minds. Second, aren’t Mo Yan’s painstaking avoidance of Liu Xiaobo and going along with handcopying Mao all political choices? As a matter of fact, when Chinese writers and movie makers escape into the era before 1949, into the ancient times, or take pains to blur the clear memories of the recent past into a fog, aren’t they political behaviors after all?

As a Harvard scholar pointed out the other day (sorry I can’t find the link anymore), now that he is a Nobel winner, Mo Yan has become a political figure whether he likes it or not, more so in China than in the world. People will seek him out for his opinions on the hottest topics of the day and he will not be able to just say “no comment.” The Party will watch him closely to make sure that he stays on track. For Chinese literature, the message is clear: Forget all those talks about idealism and conscience; the key is to have the right literary formula.

For days I have had the wicked image of the five judges of the Nobel Committee and the nine members of the Politburo sitting together, exchanging their enthusiastic views of Mo Yan over a cup of warm tea. “… Who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary,” the old dons from the Swedish Academy of Letters say. “… Who among a slew of great works by Chinese writers is an outstanding representative of the Chinese characteristics, Chinese style and Chinese grandeur,” said Li Changchun (李长春), the Party’s propaganda tsar. These two groups of old men have thus far disagreed on just about everything else, and the latter hates the guts of the former for being “vicious” to China. But with Mo Yan, the chemistry between the two changed miraculously, swirling merrily together like a hot cinnamon bun.

So, readers, no matter who you are, Chinese or foreigners, men or women, having read Mo Yan or not, for him or against him or having no opinion of him, knowing China or not, no matter who you are and where you are, we can all agree on one thing: Mo Yan has it all.

And that is truly a huge and supernatural achievement for which one Nobel Prize is not enough. I think this year’s Peace Prize and Chemistry Prize should have gone to Mo Yan as well.

What I learned slogging through China’s official version of history

Over the past three days we’ve had a chance to look at the full version of the story the Party tells about China’s past 170 years. I divided it into three sections that weren’t broken up in the National Museum, but that allowed reflection on logical chunks – The Opium war up to the founding of the Republic; The founding of the Party through the Mao years; and finally, 30 years of opening up. I wanted to wait to comment on the text until you all had had a chance to read it and form some of your own impressions (which I hope you’ll share below).

The first thing that I noticed from the exhibit was that China’s default status in the world is “glorious,” and that this glory comes from the Party. This is hardly a surprising claim, but its importance in the foundational myth is worth noting. Even the title of the exhibit reinforces this idea – The Road to Rejuvenation. From there we learned that foreigners’ only interest in China was exploitation, and that the Republican gov’t failed to live up to Sun Yatsen’s vision for China.

While these two points are not completely accurate, they are presented in a way that is convincing and clear. The repeated use of the word “bourgeois,” suggests that this is a story that the Party knows how to tell (it appears 9x in the first section, and only 1 time after that when discussing the founding of the Party). All the sections prior to the actual establishment of the People’s Republic of China seem to be much clearer than the later sections.

The second section of the exhibit has a different focus and serves to emphasize the role the Party has had in improving the lives of the Chinese people. It also reinforced the idea of ethnic unity (mentioned three times here, and only one other time in the preface). While the first section may have bent the truth to some degree, this section seems to have heavily employed the use of the delete button and provides a version of history that would likely confuse many who survived Mao’s decades of rule. Without any further knowledge of China, one would come away with the impression that nothing bad happened in the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s; even though well over 50 million Chinese people died unnecessarily during that time. As despicably revisionist as it is, there is still a narrative that makes sense if you ignore all of the outside information.

The only mention of the Cultural Revolution

However, it’s not Mao’s era that seemed the most difficult for Party historians to discuss, it’s the last 30 years. As I walked through the museum with my father, we were both left scratching our heads as we read through lists of slogans and campaigns that described each leader’s reign since Mao. I wasn’t surprised that there was no mention of Tian’anmen square or the other crackdowns, but  I was surprised that there was not no mention in the narrative of a single concrete action that any of these leaders had accomplished.

Within each decade there were trinkets of accomplishments, but it felt more like a scrapbook than a museum, in that it provided very little in the way of explanation. Oh look, it’s Deng Xiaoping’s cowboy hat. Wow, remember when we got let in to the WTO, or sent that guy into space? What was clear to me was that the Party still doesn’t know how these leaders will be viewed in the future, and seems to be working on the last third of the narrative.

Deng Xiaoping’s cowboy hat

The conclusion though makes sure you haven’t missed the point – “Socialism is the only way to save China,” and a subtle nudge to “closely unite around the CPC central leadership with Hu Jintao as its General Secretary.”

View of Tian’anmen Square from the museum

As we left the halls of the museum and returned to Tian’anmen Square, I couldn’t help thinking that not far from here Chen Guangcheng, Ai Weiwei, Wang Lijun, and Bo Xilai were all waiting for history to judge them as well. Each one would have been seen quite differently just a little over a year ago by the authorities and by common Chinese people. Chen would have likely been forgotten in Linyi, unknown to most and a thorn in the side of leaders; Ai would have occupied a dubious position between dissident and respected artist, but I don’t have many Chinese friends interested in modern art; Wang was a cop worthy of novels and film; and Bo was a rising political star that caused the country to pause and sing the songs of an era worthy of a single photo in a museum.