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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.


Related:

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

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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.

Signs of China (1)

China Change, September 16, 2018

 

Unsettling news from China has been emerging in a constant stream for some time now, in news, on social media and from our own sources in the country. Not every new development is suited to a fully fleshed-out analysis, and as with so much to do with China, many reports and developments cannot be immediately confirmed or properly evaluated. Nevertheless, while each individual brush stroke may not be decisive, upon stepping back a fuller picture begins to emerge. China Change today inaugurates a new, regular series titled ‘Signs of China,’ where we catalogue and contextualize what might otherwise have been forgotten as ephemera. What are these signs pointing to? Our discerning readers will know. — The Editors

 

Sign series 1, 卸磨杀驴

Kill the donkey once it’s finished pulling the stone mill (卸磨杀驴).

 

Urgent Call to Watch ‘Operation Thunder 2018’

According to a variety of sources brought to social media by netizens, Chinese authorities sent out an urgent notice on September 14 to work units, companies, government departments, universities and more, across the country, demanding people to watch the September 15 nightly Network News Broadcast (《新闻联播》) on CCTV, as well as CCTV’s September 15 and 16 “Focus Talk” (《焦点访谈》) programs, and also the detailed reports due to be published on September 16 on Global Times online, as well as its the September 17 print edition. This hurried propaganda scramble is called ‘Operation Thunder 2018’ (2018-雷霆行动), and is an anti-espionage operation focused on ‘exposing Taiwanese spies.’ As state media reports, it’s about “increasing the anti-traitor and spy-prevention consciousness of the entire population, preventing online phishing and other harms to national interests and security,” as well as “firming up… the national security People’s Line of Defense.” At the same time, a similar Weibo announcement by Yibin Cable Television in Sichuan Province was censored. (More links on the operation are available here.)

Those familiar with the workings of Chinese Communist Party propaganda will recognize that yet another mass terror campaign is likely in the offing. 

Is the Private Sector Still Safe? 

Recently, a certain Wu Xiaoping (吴小平), self-identified as a “senior finance figure,” published a mere five paragraph article that has attracted significant attention. In it, Wu writes that “private companies would be ill-advised to continue blindly expanding; a completely new state of public-private mixed economic control — more centralized, more united, at a larger scale — will become an increasingly important part of the economy in the future,” and also that “the private sector in China has already completed its task of assisting state sector economic development, and it should now gradually diminish in importance.” His article argues that “in a battle between superpowers, China must concentrate its financial, material, and human resources, and must follow a planned development strategy.”

As might be expected, the article caused an uproar. Some observers suspected that it represented a trial balloon by Party Central; others thought the author was a nobody attempting to guess at what the higher-ups in the regime would like to hear, and curry favor by making the suggestion; while still others thought he was communicating the coded message that private enterprise should try to save themselves while they still had the chance. The independent historian Zhang Lifan (章立凡), based in Beijing, posed the question on Twitter as to whether the authorities were going to “kill the donkey once it’s finished pulling the stone mill.” The original essay was subsequently refuted by the People’s Daily, and appears to have been purged from domestic Chinese websites.

Whatever the case, the CCP’s plans of asserting control over private companies are already well underway. According to economist He Qinglian’s (何清涟) analysis of a key set of ‘Guiding Opinions’ about state-owned enterprise reform promulgated in 2015, private enterprises in China are going to be the main target for SOE reform. She wrote that the Chinese authorities hope to roll out a ‘mixed ownership system,’ in which “private companies can make cash purchases of shares in SOEs and become shareholders. But since the equity allocation ratio is based on the state-owned capital being the controlling party, private companies can only remain in a subordinate role, without any decision-making power or right to a say in matters.”

On September 16, the Chairman of the National Laboratory for Finance & Development (中国国家金融与发展实验室) Li Yang (李扬), speaking at an academic forum commemorating the beginning of reform and opening up in China, pointed out that as the economy declines, private companies will come under enormous pressure. Their “way to save themselves is to find a state-owned company as an ‘umbrella,’ and if they don’t do that they can’t get financing, and they can’t lower their costs. If they do that, the enterprise will survive, profits will be there, and employment will be maintained. It’s an outcome that should leave everyone satisfied.” Li Yang thinks that such a scenario would be an opportunity for state companies to buy out their private enterprise counterparts.

Over the past few years the CCP has already been hard at work establishing Party cells in private companies in order to exert control. If anything, the outsize reaction this short article received is a telling indication of how anxious and insecure the Chinese public feels about this trend intensifying.

Xinjiang University Professors Sent to Concentration Camps

sign series 1, uighur professors

Left, Professor Arslan Abdulla; right, Professor Abdukerim Rahman.

News continues to emerge of Uighur academics in Xinjiang being sent to the re-education camps. Twitter user @Uyghurspeaker tweeted in both English and Chinese from a Radio Free Asia report that “Personnel from Xinjiang University’s Overall Management Command have verified that the dean of the humanities department, Professor Arslan Abdulla (the former director of the consultative office of the government of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region) as well as Professor Abdukerim Rahman have been sent to re-education camps ‘for the same reason’ that Rahile Dawut (a folklore scholar) was. Rumors say that at least 56 professors and teachers at the university have been taken away.”

Professor Duwat, the scholar of Uighur folklore at Xinjiang University, disappeared last December and has not been heard from since. No one knows why.

Apple Hurts the Feelings of the 1.4 Billion Chinese People

Apple held its new product launch in California on Wednesday (September 12), with Phil Schiller, senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, unveiling the new model of iPhones as well as when and where they’d first be sold. The background screen prepared for the event showed the individual flags of Hong Kong and Taiwan, and used the flag of the Republic of China for the latter.

Predictably, the China Youth League and Global Times immediately began expressing their displeasure, accusing Apple of having a double standard: “Apple, what are you trying to say here in your press event?” and “Given that you can put ‘United States’ before ‘Virgin Islands’ in order to differentiate it from the British Virgin Islands, why don’t you put ‘China’ before ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘Taiwan’?” Some Chinese netizens have called for a boycott of Apple phones and other products.

Following the public displays of contrition from Marriott and Mercedes Benz for similar grave insults, will Apple also apologize for hurting the feelings of the 1.4 billion Chinese people?

Uneasy Disappearance of a Popular Website

Letscorp.net, going by the Chinese name 墙外楼, which translates literally as ‘Over the Wall,’ is a popular Chinese news aggregation website, primarily focused on maintaining an archive of the news, posts, and commentaries that are censored inside China. The website uses RSS and mail subscriptions to propagate its content. Its Twitter handle, @letscorp, has been around for nearly eight years, and it boasts over 70,000 followers. Most of the time the Twitter handle has simply pushed out new content from the letscorp website automatically, but over the last year or so, the actual person behind the account has also become opinionated. He or she appears to be an astute observer of Chinese politics and society. Because of the website’s name (‘Over the Wall’), most everyone (including China Change editors) took it for granted that whoever runs the site lives outside of China.

Beginning on September 5, however, Chinese Twitter users noticed that the @letscorp account had stopped tweeting, that the website was down, and newsletters were no longer going out, and concerned users now feared that the website operator, likely based in China, had been identified by the authorities. “In the future, it will be more and more difficult to get valuable Chinese-language content even outside of China,” one Twitter user lamented.

We at China Change can’t help imagining the scene of that person being taken away, probably from his or her home, though we may never know, in the end, what has happened. Many Chinese Twitter accounts have similarly disappeared over the past few years. We recently subtitled and re-published a video of six police in Shenzhen forcing their way into the home of a young woman in the middle of the night simply for what she’d posted on social media.

Activist Barred From Traveling by Train

Ms. He Peirong, from Nanjing, is a Chinese activist who became very well-known during the Free Chen Guangcheng movement in 2012. Over the last few years she has been working on various public interest projects. On September 13 she tweeted out: “My liberty has been severely restricted; I can’t go out to buy train tickets, I can’t travel where I want in China. No department has officially notified me as to why I’ve been restricted and who is punishing me. I was preparing to travel to Shanghai yesterday, but only at the train station did I find out that I couldn’t purchase a ticket. I want to know which level of government made this decision. What is the legal basis for it?”

The ‘legal basis,’ it turned out, is likely China Railway’s May 1, 2018 policy of restricting the travel rights of individuals who have ‘seriously breached trust’ (《限制铁路旅客运输领域严重失信人购买车票管理办法》). It seems that Ms. He is now also marked as such an individual.

This and other incidents of the like are yet another indication of how the Chinese authorities appear to be planning to impose sweeping limitations on personal liberty as they deploy the national ‘social credit system.’

Cellphone Inspections in Hangzhou 

We made a mention of this elsewhere before but would like to draw your attention to it again: a Twitter user witnessed police in a Hangzhou subway station checking citizens’ cellphones. Similar incidents were reported in Beijing too. It looks like the Chinese government is conducting a trial of this practice in cities. The amended Police Law expected to pass during the Two Sessions in March 2019 will make such searches legal and therefore a common practice.

Date and time: August 23, 2018, 3:55 p.m.;

Location: Safety check at the entrance of the No. 1 Line subway at the Fengqi Road station, Hangzhou (杭州地铁1号线凤起路站); [the police were] checking the phone of every passenger waiting in line to enter the station;

Apparatus: They were using handheld scanning equipment;

The number of police: 6 to 7.

Crackdown on Christians

In Henan, the government has been conducting an intense crackdown on Christians, burning/removing crosses and dispersing congregations, forcing believers to sign pledges to quit the church, or closing down churches altogether (here, here, here, here). On September 9, the largest house church in Beijing, Beijing Zion Church, was shut down by the authorities who said it was not registered and “disrupted the order of civil organization management.”

Zion Church’s pastor, Jin Mingri (金明日), told Voice of America that religious repression has intensified since the 19th Party Congress. After the Congress (held in October 2017), the government has gone about strengthening both ideological and managerial control in all sectors of society. Then again after the ‘Two Meetings’ in Beijing in March of this year, there were further changes, in particular in religious policy.

Overall, the new policies indicate a shift from tolerating some non-official denominations of Christianity to heavily restricting them, as a greater number of religious populations are seen as ideological competitors to the Party, or even hostile forces.

Xu Zhiyong, in response to a video of burning cross, wrote on Twitter addressing the Party: “What wrong has Christianity done to you? You’ll suffer retribution for this! In this life, in this world, it will come to pass. On many occasions making a curse is the only weapon of the weak. If the curses are sufficient in number and people lose heart, the retribution will then arrive.”

10th National Assembly of Representatives of Overseas Chinese and Relatives is Held

A major convocation of overseas Chinese, overseas Chinese returnees and their families, was held in Beijing from August 29 to September 1. It must have been a significant event for all seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee to attend the opening ceremony. State media highlighted the fact that nearly 1,300 returnees from over 110 countries, as well as 700 (still) overseas Chinese, attended. Zhao Leji (赵乐际, China’s anti-corruption chief) made remarks that included this memorable exhortation for overseas Chinese: “Always remember [how] the Party and the People have entrusted you; spread good news about China; assist the development of the fatherland; safeguard the virtue of the Chinese people; promulgate Chinese culture; make new contributions to the realization of the China Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese people and promote the construction of a Community of Shared Human Destiny.”

Observers should not think of statements like this as mere empty rhetoric — the Chinese government’s ability and readiness to organize, mobilize, and use overseas Chinese has reached an impressive level of scale and sophistication. For instance, following the CCP’s 19th Party Congress, the Chinese Embassy-controlled Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA) at Harvard University, as well as a number of Hometown Associations on both coasts, organized discussion forums. In 2016, when the ethnically-Chinese police officer Peter Liang was being sentenced in New York City, the mass protest of Chinese and Chinese-Americans was suspected of having been at least in part mobilized by Communist Party agents, according to WeChat communications. And the Party’s Federation of Overseas Chinese, which operates on all levels of the government, regularly award membership in its “Overseas Chinese Committee” (海外委员会) to overseas Chinese who are in important positions in Western society, including many American university professors and scientists. China Change previously reported on the case of the Wellesley professor Charles Bu serving on one such commission.

Professor Xu Zhangrun, Author of Famous Lament, Forced to Return to China Early 

The author of the widely celebrated, lengthy reflection on the parlous state of affairs in contemporary Chinese political life published in July, Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun (许章润), was recently called back to China early from his visiting professorship in Japan. Rong Jian (荣剑), another Chinese scholar, saw Xu in Japan on September 7 and reported that Xu told him that “he was forced to go back on the 14th of the month.”

Xu’s essay, ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes,’ a portion of which was translated by China Change, and translated in its entirety by Geremie Barmé, was the subject of widespread public discussion in China and abroad, and was featured in a New York Times article for capturing the essence of concerns about China’s current political direction.

 

 


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Xu Zhangrun’s China: ‘Licking Carbuncles and Sucking Abscesses’

China Change, August 1, 2018

 

Xu Zhangrun

 

 

On July 24, Unirule (天则), the liberal, beleaguered economic think tank in Beijing, published a 10,000-character essay by the Tsinghua University legal scholar Xu Zhangrun (许章润) which has lit up the Chinese internet at a time when the voice of Chinese intellectuals has been dying out.

The text, deploying all the rhetorical potency of literary Chinese — even in its length, the ‘Ten Thousand Word Petition’ having a specific valence in Chinese political history — has captured the zeitgeist of revolt against the China that Party leader Xi Jinping is busy constructing. Since being republished on the website of the Hong Kong-based Initium Media, the article has been widely shared and reflected upon by intellectuals and scholars inside and outside the country.

Initium wrote in a tweet that “this text carries out a systematic critique of the retrograde tendencies in Chinese social and political life, in particular since the end of 2017. It explicitly points out and warns against the danger of the return to totalitarianism, and calls for a stop to the cult of personality and the resumption of term limits on the post of the state chairman. The piece has become one of the few direct criticisms of contemporary ills in China among the intellectual class.”

Below we offer an outline, followed by a small selection of picant excerpts from the essay, aimed at giving readers a flavor of the whole. China Change understands that Geremie Barmé will be publishing a full translation of the essay on the website of The Wairarapa Academy of New Sinology (http://chinaheritage.net/) in due course.

Xu Zhangrun’s essay, titled ‘Our Dread Now, and Our Hopes’ (我们当下的恐惧与期待), is composed of four parts: ‘Four Bottom Lines,’ ‘Eight Forms of Anxiety,’ ‘Eight Hopes,’ and ‘The Interim.’

The four ‘bottom lines’ — i.e. the fundamental assumptions on which CCP rule has been based for the last 40 years — that Xu identifies as having been breached are:

  1. The maintenance of basic social order and a clear direction for the country

“The cessation of successive ‘political movements,’ the end to ‘no protection from law or heaven,’ as well as the constant ‘strike hard’ coercive rectification campaigns, the prevention of social anomie, the safeguarding of social order, and attempt to realize social harmony, have all significantly contributed to the basic living conditions of regular people, and has for 40 years been the bottom line for the legitimacy of the current political system…”

  1. Allowing limited private property rights and tolerance of citizens’ pursuit of wealth

Xu writes that economic reform allowed unprecedented growth, and that this has been a key element in the citizenry’s tolerance of continued Party rule.

  1. Limited tolerance of personal freedoms

Xu writes that for more than the last decade, mere sprouts of civil society have been crushed through political campaigns, thus severely stunting the development of civic consciousness and a real understanding of politics among the public. Chinese people are encouraged to “amuse themselves to death” while getting rich without scruples, Xu says.

  1. Political term limits

Here Xu is directly targeting Xi Jinping’s abolition of term limits for the post of state chairman, effected at the most recent meeting of the National People’s Congress in March.

Xu writes: “For thirty years, the essence of the matter is that — despite salient increases in social pluralization and political tolerance — the entire political system has seen no substantial or meaningful progress or change. In its bones it’s that same set of banal and brutal ideas about political struggle and dictatorship, topped off with the disgraceful avarice of kleptocrats who consume the country’s patrimony.”

In light of this, he says, the Chinese people had some minimal comfort that the constitution contained basic rules limiting the tenure of Party leader to two terms, and the system observed some adherence to constitutional norms.

The abolition of term limits “is like scrapping 30 years of political reform with one flick of the pen.”

Xu’s then enumerates the eight fears of the Chinese everyman:

  1. Fear for the safety of personal assets
  2. The rise of ‘politics in command’ and the abandonment of economic development as the basis of national policy
  3. The reemergence of class struggle
  4. Shutting China off from the world once more, getting into a stalemate with the United States (and the West more generally), yet warmer ties with North Korea and other ‘evil regimes’
  5. Excessive foreign aid, leading Chinese to have to tighten their own belts
  6. Increased repression and thought reform of intellectuals
  7. Becoming trapped in a new armed race, war, and new cold war
  8. The end of opening up and reform and the comprehensive return of totalitarian politics

A sample translation by China Change of some of these fears follows.

  1. Asset Dread. Can the wealth accumulated over decades, no matter how much it is, be guaranteed safe? Can one’s current livelihood be maintained? Will the property rights proclaimed in the law be guaranteed? Or will it be that because you wrong some individual who really holds power (including the director of the Village Committee), your company is driven to bankruptcy and your family is out on the street? This and so many other questions have, in the last few years, with the passage of time become far more indeterminate, and people up and down the line are in a state of constant panic. The first ones under attack are those who already gathered their treasure during the tidal wave of reform and opening up; and the response of the rich is mass emigration…
  1. Class Struggle Once More. The official media and managers of ideology once again raising class struggle in recent years has everyone panicked. The direction of the current administration over these years has led people to doubt as to whether we’re going to see yet another round of Stalin-Maoist class struggle campaigns… In the first place, writing protections of private property and human rights into the constitution, accompanied with the custom of abdication of Party rulership after two terms, created hopes that China was slowly and gradually heading in the direction of a normal country, meaning that we no longer need to deploy the ‘struggle’ rhetoric — but the actions of the last few years seem to be going in completely the opposite direction, and everyone is naturally scared witless.
  1. The Totalitarian Revival. Though this phrase ‘reform’ has already been besmirched to some degree, and in the end tyrannical governance continues while hiding under its name, in the discourse of contemporary China, locating ourselves in the midst of a yet-to-be-completed grand transformation, with just one final push needed, is still better and more stable than a regression into volatile revolution and extremist leftist politics. Reform spinning its wheels, and perhaps even going backwards rather than forward, has already been going on longer than just these last few years, extending far beyond one term of office. Given this tendency, whether or not ‘reform and opening up’ has reached its end and totalitarianism will return is yet unknown; but at this very moment the entire Chinese people have no greater fear…

The remainder of the essay is dedicated to Xu’s eight hopes — all of them going to the heart of the CCP’s system of rule and control:

  1. Stop wasting money abroad
  2. Stop wasting money on ‘sportsground diplomacy’
  3. Abolish the privilege system for retired high-ranking cadres
  4. Abolish the system of Special Needs Provisioning (the enclosed system of food and other supplies for Party officials)
  5. Legislation forcing disclosure of official assets
  6. Immediately put a stop to the cult of personality around Xi Jinping
  7. A return to term limits on the post of state chairman
  8. Overturn the political verdict on June 4

Geremie Barmé provided translations of items three, four, and six on China Heritage, which are reproduced below.

  1. The Party Nobility: Elite privileges for retired high-level cadres should be eliminated. The system of the present ‘dynasty’ 國朝 allows for the state to provide inclusive retirement-to-grave care for high-level cadres according to a standard that is far and away above that allowed to the average citizen. These cadres retain the privileges they enjoyed during their careers, including health care and access to luxury resorts for rest and holidays. Everyone is aware of the extraordinary burden and financial cost this places on the people; the details are never released for fear of sparking public outrage. This system continues the kinds of prerogative given to the Imperial Zhu Family Lineage during the Ming dynasty [founded by Zhu Yuanzhang in 1368CE] and the emoluments permitted to the families of the Eight Banners [exclusive Manchu military and administrative groups that contributed to the founding and rule of the Qing dynasty in 1644; the privileges continued until the end of the dynasty in January 1912]. This is not merely a betrayal of the self-advertised ‘revolutionary spirit’ [of the Communist Party], it is also in breach of modern standards of civic life. What’s all that talk of ‘the remnants of feudalism’? This is a perfect example of it! People are outraged but powerless to do anything about it; it is one of the main reasons people hold the system itself in utter contempt. On one side of the hospital, Commoners face the challenge of gaining admission for treatment, while everyone knows grand suites are reserved on the other side for the care of high-level cadres. People despise you for it. Every iota of this bottled up anger may, at some unexpected moment, explode with thunderous fury.
  1. Special Needs Provisioning: Eliminate the system of Special Needs Provisioning. Starting in Yan’an some seventy years ago, this system continued unimpeded even during times of mass famine and deprivation. It continues even now as the Countless Masses are ever increasingly concerned about [the quality of and access to] dairy products for their babies and the hygiene and safety of their everyday foodstuffs. The Special Needs Provisioning system allows the high-level Party nobility access to a vast range of speciality products beyond the dreams of the average person. Apart from a few totalitarian polities, there is no other country that does this like China. The luxury afforded these people is only outdone by the shamelessness of their indulgence. Of course, inequalities exist in all societies and disparities in ability and wealth are natural, but they are a result not due to the fact that the ideal playing field imagined by our citizens does not include a level starting point; that doesn’t even take into account the outrage of allowing a small group of Party grandees to be continuously supplied from the coffers of the state. As long as this system and ‘No 34’ [originally ‘Number 34 Provisions Store’ in Beijing, a restricted-access shop established as deprivations created by the socialist planned economy became more acute and Party privileges more jealously guarded; the term later came to indicate regulations covering special access to necessities and luxury goods for the nomenklatura] remain unchecked, real food safety in China will never be realised; no side will really be assured of its long-term security.
  1. The New Personality Cult: An emergency brake must be applied to the Personality Cult. Who would have thought that, after four decades of the Open Door and Reform, our Sacred Land would once more witness a Personality Cult? The Party media is going to great lengths to create a new Idol, and in the process it is offering up to the world an image of China as Modern Totalitarianism. Portraits of the Leader are hoisted on high throughout the Land, as though possessed of some Spiritual Mana. This only adds to all the absurdity. And then, on top of that, the speeches of That Official, formerly things that were merely to be recorded by secretaries in a pro forma bureaucratic manner, are now carefully collected in finely bound editions, printed in vast quantities and handed out free throughout the world. The profligate waste of paper alone is enough to make you shake your head in disbelief. All of this reflects the low IQ of the Concerned Official and his craving for fame. More importantly, we need to ask how a vast country like China, one that was previously so ruinously served by a Personality Cult, simply has no resistance to this new cult, and this includes those droves of ‘Theoreticians’ and ‘Researchers’. In fact, they are outdoing themselves with their sickeningly slavish behaviour. It’s as though hundreds of millions of Chinese are oblivious; people tolerate the New Cult and allow it unfettered freedom; they are powerless in the face of all those arse-kissing bureaucrats [literally “those who would lick carbuncles and suck abscesses” as rendered by Donald Clarke]. It goes to show that China’s Enlightenment is far from over. Every generation must champion rationalism in public affairs painstakingly making a way to the future. Moreover, the New Cult is evidence that China faces a long struggle before it can claim to be a modern, secular and rational nation-state.

 

It’s clear that Xu has little faith in Xi Jinping. “You are touted for being a can-do man,” he wrote. “We’d be very happy if you could do one of the eight. If you could do three or four, we’d be convinced of your ability. If you do all of them, well then, the whole world will rejoice.”

Speech is dangerous, and Professor Xu Zhangrun knows it. But he seems to be at a point where if he doesn’t let out his thoughts, they’ll turn into kidney stones and kill him. He ended the essay with great relief: “I’m done talking; I leave my own life and death to destiny, the rise and fall of the nation to Heaven.”

That’s how disproportionately significant a matter it is for a Chinese intellectual to speak his mind in 2018 — a circumstance we find breathtaking.

Xu is currently on an academic tour in Japan, according to a news source. There is no word yet on what awaits him when he returns to China.

 

 

 


Related:

As China’s Woes Mount, Xi Jinping Faces Rare Rebuke at Home, the New York Times, July 31, 2018.