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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.