Ghoulish? Or Goulash?

This is dense but interesting. NYRB

Although the party never ruled over a golden age of free speech in China, it was possible to argue that for a decade up until the late 2000s China was getting freer. The combination of economic reforms and proliferating new media appeared to be permitting citizens more personal autonomy and freedom of expression. That began to change slowly soon after Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics. First came the detention of Liu Xiaobo for helping to organize “Charter 08,” a document calling for modest constitutional reforms—a stand later recognized by the award of a Nobel Peace Prize. Then the overthrow of autocracies during the Arab Spring in 2011 fed into party neuroses about secret plots and uprisings, and this last decade has seen the end of meaningful public debate of almost any kind.

Enter Xu Zhangrun. A fifty-six-year-old professor of constitutional law at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, Xu is well known in Beijing as a moderate and prolific critic of the government’s increasing embrace of authoritarianism. Since 2012, he has published and spoken widely about his concern over China’s course. Some of his essays are mentioned in “China’s Moment,” translated by David Ownby, a University of Montreal history professor who, with several other scholars, started an invaluable website called “Reading the China Dream,” which makes available leading Chinese thinkers in English. Others are translated by the scholar Geremie Barmé and collected on this page of the China Heritage website.

While most of Xu’s earlier writing was couched in fairly dense language, he decided last July to make his message much more explicit. Writing for the website of the now-shuttered Unirule Institute of Economics, Xu issued what amounts to a petition to the emperor in the classical style. He bluntly explained that the government’s ever-tightening grip was leading the country to disaster, and he demanded measures to reverse course.

Xu’s original article last year, called “Our Immediate Hopes and Expectations,” was republished by The Initium, an independent Chinese-language website based in Hong Kong. That already helped to make it one of the most widely read recent articles critiquing the government; then it was translated as “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes” by Barmé, who added an invaluable preface explaining the long tradition of petitions or memorials to the throne.

Xu writes that ever since the Cultural Revolution, China’s rise has been based on four basic principles: an end to political campaigns; permitting private property and wealth accumulation; tolerance for some personal freedoms; political term limits to prevent the return of dictators like Mao. All of these, he implies, have been breached by Xi; the violation of the fourth principle enables Xi to serve beyond the end of his two five-year terms in 2022.

Xu then sets out eight expectations—in effect, demands of the government—that include the abolition of special privileges for Communist Party cadres, the disclosure of leaders’ personal assets, the end of what he sees as a personality cult around Xi, and a return of term limits. Most incendiary of all, he calls for the overturning of the official verdict on the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Massacre, which was that the use of deadly force was justified because the protests were a “counter-revolutionary rebellion.”

To get a measure of Xu’s bluntness, here is how he describes (in Barmé’s translation) the privileges enjoyed by party members, including health care:

On one side of the hospital Commoners face the challenge of gaining admission for treatment, while everyone knows that grand suites are reserved on the other side for the care of high-level cadres. The people observe this with mute and heartfelt bitterness. Every iota of this bottled up anger may, at some unexpected moment, explode with thunderous fury.

Also worrying for Xu is the state of Sino–US relations, which he sees as threatened by leaders on both sides of the Pacific. In the US, he says “a crowd of the Ghoulish Undead, nurtured on the politics of the Great Game and the Cold War” is pushing mercantilist politics that are “shortsighted and avaricious.” China, meanwhile, is run by Xi, referred to simply as “the One”:

The One is blind to the Grand Way of current affairs and is scarred indelibly by a political brand from the Cultural Revolution. Overweening pride and official competence leads this One to bend his efforts to serve the wrong ends; talented enough to play the bureaucratic game, and doubtlessly masterful at achieving high office, but as for Guiding the Nation along the Correct Path, [what the One does] is worse than arrant time-wasting for there is something perverse at work.

Xu followed this up with several other articles warning about silence and complicity, as well as an extensive three-part critique of the party since reforms began in 1978. Although all of Xu’s articles were immediately censored, Xu himself initially escaped official criticism—until this year, when in March he was suspended from teaching and placed under investigation.

That led to a series of courageous essays from Chinese public thinkers. One leading voice was Guo Yuhua, a colleague of Professor Xu’s at Tsinghua who has herself been sidelined by the university while her critique of the government has been censored and suppressed. (See the NYR Daily’s 2018 Q&A with her here.) Guo wrote that the university was destroying its reputation by attacking Xu.

Here’s the Dream website referred to above. We don’t have time to think about this now, but we’ll come back to it.

One Response to “Ghoulish? Or Goulash?”

  1. feeblemind Says:

    It appears to me that free thinking and creativity vs totalitarianism is becoming increasingly in conflict in China.

    The Government seems to think that it can crack down on the unwanted thinking while leaving the approved thinking alone. They either don’t see that the two overlap, or they think the unwanted side can be suppressed and persecuted without ill effects to the other.

    It remains to be seen if they can pull this off, but if history is any indication, they will fail. I remain convinced that a political crackdown on thought will greatly retard innovation and productivity, but then I am a leftover from the 20th Century. What do I know?

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