The coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic has revealed the corruption of Chinese authoritarianism under Xi Jinping. In an unsparing critique, Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun argues that Chinese governance and political culture under the Chinese Communist Party have become morally bankrupt. The Party deceived the Chinese people as the viral outbreak in Wuhan spread across China before developing into a global pandemic. Chinese officials were more concerned with censoring the internet and news of the disease to preserve Xi’s one-man rule than with protecting the people from a public-health disaster. Xu calls on his fellow citizens to reject the strongman politics of the People’s Republic in favor of greater reform and the creation of a constitutional democracy.
Xu Zhangrun is a professor of law at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The author of numerous works on law and constitutionalism, he is also known for his literary essays and commentary. Shortly after the publication of the following essay, which appeared online in Chinese on 4 February 2020, Xu was placed under close surveillance and he has been kept incommunicado. This essay was translated from Chinese by Geremie R. Barmé. He is a historian, cultural critic, filmmaker, translator, and web-journal editor who works on Chinese cultural and intellectual history from the early-modern period (1600s) to the present. In 2016, he cofounded (with John Minford) the Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology, which publishes China Heritage. This translation appeared in ChinaFile, an online magazine published by Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. It is republished here with permission.
In July 2018, the Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun published an unsparing critique of the Chinese Communist Party and its general secretary, Xi Jinping. In it Xu warned of the dangers of one-man rule, the threats posed by an increasingly sycophantic bureaucracy and putting politics ahead of professionalism, and the myriad other problems that the system would encounter if it rejected further reforms and continued along its present path. That philippic was one of a cycle of works that Xu wrote during 2018 in which he alerted his readers to pressing issues related to China’s momentous struggle with modernity, the state of the nation under Xi Jinping, and the mixed prospects for its future. Those essays will be published in a collection titled Six Chapters from the 2018 Year of the Dog by Hong Kong City University Press in May 2020.
Although he was demoted by Tsinghua University in March 2019 [End Page 5] and banned from teaching, writing, and publishing, Xu remained defiant. His latest polemical work translated below, appeared online on 4 February 2020 as the coronavirus epidemic swept China and infections overseas sparked concern around the world.
Xu’s writing style integrates elements of classical Chinese in which references to or quotations from philosophy, history, and literature are seamlessly interwoven in an elegant but highly personalized literary form that was commonly employed by members of China’s elite from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. It is a prose free of Party jargon, although the author frequently makes mocking reference to officialese and to the kind of Europeanized Chinese popularized in the 1910s when the vernacular was promoted by political and cultural progressives.
In translating Xu’s work, I hint at the orotund style of the original and occasionally use capital letters or quotation marks to emphasize terms that have a particular significance for the author. Xu never refers to Xi Jinping by name, but rather employs various classical (and sometimes cheekily arcane) terms to lampoon the “People’s Leader.”
Xu’s essay is translated and annotated here with the author’s permission.
—Geremie R. Barmé
Translator’s Note: Subheadings have been added by the translator. The rule of Xi Jinping is officially hailed as China’s “New Era.”
February. Get out the ink and weep!
Sob in February, sob and sing
While the wet snow rumbles in the street
And burns with the black spring.
—Boris Pasternak Translated by Sasha Dugdale
As the Year of the Pig gave way to the Year of the Rat, a virus originating in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province—a city famed as the nation’s major transportation and communications hub—was spreading throughout China. Overnight, the country found itself in the grip of a devastating crisis and fear stalked the land. The authorities proved themselves to be at a loss as to how to respond effectively, and the high cost of their impotence was soon visited upon the common people. Before long, the coronavirus was reaching around the globe and the People’s Republic found itself rapidly isolated from the rest of the world. It was as though the China famed for its Economic Reform and Open Door policies for more than three decades was being undone in front of our [End Page 6] very eyes. In one fell swoop it seemed as though the People’s Republic, and in particular its vaunted system of governance, had been cast back to premodern times. As word spread about blockades being thrown up by towns and cities in an attempt to seal themselves against contagion, as doors were slammed shut everywhere, it actually felt as though we were being overwhelmed by the kind of primitive panic more readily associated with the Middle Ages.
The cause of all of this lies, ultimately, with the Axle Rod [that is, Xi Jinping] and the cabal that surrounds him. It began with the imposition of stern bans on the reporting of accurate information about the virus which but served to embolden deception at every level of government, although it only struck its true stride when bureaucrats throughout the system consciously shrugged off responsibility for the unfolding crisis while continuing to seek the approbation of their superiors. They stood by blithely as the crucial window of opportunity that was available to deal with the outbreak snapped shut in their faces.
Ours is a system in which the Ultimate Arbiter [an imperial-era term used by state media to describe Xi Jinping] monopolizes all effective power. This led to what I would call “organizational discombobulation” that, in turn, has served to enable a dangerous “systemic impotence” at every level. Thereby, a political culture has been nurtured that, in terms of the actual public good, is ethically bankrupt, for it is one that strains to vouchsafe its privatized party-state, or what they call their “Mountains and Rivers,” while abandoning the people over which it holds sway to suffer the vicissitudes of a cruel fate. It is a system that turns every natural disaster into an even greater manmade catastrophe. The corona-virus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance; the fragile and vacuous heart of the jittering edifice of state is thereby on display as never before.
This viral outbreak, which has been exacerbated by the behavior of the powerholders and turned into a national calamity, is more perilous perhaps than total war itself. Everything is being caught up in the struggle—the nation’s ethical fabric, its politics, our society, as well as the economy. Let me emphasize that point—the situation is even more perilous than total war, for it is leaving the nation open to a kind of devastation that even foreign invaders failed to visit upon us in the past. The ancients put it well, “Only thieves nurtured at home can truly despoil a homeland.” Although the Americans may well be trying to undermine our economy, the Axle Rod is beating them to it here at home! Please note: Just as the epidemic was reaching a critical moment, he big-noted himself by saying that he was being “personally this” and “personally that” [Note: When meeting Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, on January 29, Xi made a point of saying that he was “personally commanding” the response to the outbreak, a statement that was widely derided online]. They were [End Page 7] vacuous claims that merely served to highlight his hypocrisy. Such claims excited nationwide outrage and sowed desolation in the hearts of the people.
It is true: The present level of popular fury due to the handling of the epidemic is volcanic; a people thus enraged may, in the end, also cast aside their fear. Herein I offer my analysis of these developments in a broader context. Mindful of the cyclical nature of the political Zeitgeist, and with an unswerving eye fixed on what has been unfolding here in China since 2018 [when Xi Jinping was granted limitless tenure and the author published his famous broadside against the party-state], I have formulated my thoughts under nine headings. Compatriots: I respectfully offer them here for your consideration.
1. Politics in a New Era of Moral Depletion
First and foremost, I would posit that the political life of the nation is in a state of collapse and that the ethical core of the system has been rendered hollow. The ultimate concern of China’s polity today and that of its highest leader is to preserve at all costs the privileged position of the Communist Party and to maintain ruthlessly its hold on power. What they dub “the Broad Masses of People” are nothing more than a taxable unit, a value-bearing cipher in a metrics-based system of social management that is geared toward stability maintenance. [Note: “Stability maintenance” is a term that includes the deployment of paramilitary forces, police, local security officials, neighborhood committees, informal community spies, internet police and censors, secret-service agents, and watchdogs as well as everyday bureaucratic monitors who hold a brief to be ever vigilant and to maintain order and control over every aspect of society.] “The People” is a rubric that describes the price everyone has to pay to prop up the existing system. We are funding the countless locusts—large and small—whose survival is supported by a totalitarian system. The storied bureaucratic apparatus that is responsible for the unfettered outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan repeatedly hid or misrepresented the facts about the dire nature of the crisis. The dilatory actions of bureaucrats at every level exacerbated the urgency of the situation. Their behavior has reflected their complete lack of interest in the welfare and the lives of normal people. What is of consequence for them is their tireless support for the self-indulgent celebratory behavior of the “Core Leader” whose favor is constantly sought through their adulation for the peerless [End Page 8] achievements of the system. Within such a self-regarding bureaucracy there is even less interest in the role that this country and its people can and should play in a globally interconnected community.
Those shameless bureaucrats allowed the situation to deteriorate to such an extent that they were directly harming average people. Meanwhile, “the Core” was steadfast as inefficiencies and chaos proliferated. Instead they focused particular attention on policing the internet: They unleashed the dogs and have been paying their minions overtime to blockade the news of what is actually happening. Information has been getting out regardless, proof that even though the government is employing the tactics of a police state, and while the National Security Commission [the supreme policing agency created by Xi Jinping in November 2013] amasses ever greater powers, it can never truly achieve its vaunted aims.
The ancients observed that “it is easier to dam a river than it is to silence the voice of the people.” Regardless of how good they are at controlling the internet, they cannot keep all 1.4 billion mouths in China shut. Yet again, our ancestors will be proved right. Nonetheless, since all of their calculations are solely made on the basis of maintaining control, they have convinced themselves that such crude exercises of power will suffice. They have been fooled by the self-deception of “the Leader,” but theirs is a confidence that deceives no one. Faced with this virus, the Leader has flailed about seeking answers with ever greater urgency, exhausting those who are working on the front line, spreading the threat to people throughout the land. Ever more vacuous slogans are chanted—Do this! Do that!—overweening and with prideful purpose, he garners nothing but derision and widespread mockery in the process. This is a stark demonstration of the kind of political depletion that I am addressing here. The last seven decades [of the People’s Republic] have taught the people repeated lessons about the hazards of totalitarian government. This time around, the coronavirus is proving the point once more, and in a most undeniable fashion.
One can only hope that our fellow Chinese, both young and old, will finally take these lessons to heart and abandon their long-practiced slavish acquiescence. It is high time that people relied on their own rational judgment and refused to sacrifice themselves again on the altar of the powerholders. Otherwise, you will all be no better than fields of garlic chives; you will give yourselves up to being harvested by the blade of power, now as in the past. [Note: The term “garlic chives,” Allium tuberosum, is often used as a metaphor to describe the people, an endlessly renewable resource.]
2. Tyranny in a New Era of Political License
Second, tyranny ultimately corrupts the structure of governance as a whole, and it is undermining a technocratic system that has taken decades to build. There [End Page 9] has been a systemwide collapse of professional ethics and commitment.
There was a time, not too long ago, when individual moral imperatives found fellowship with systemic self-interest in a way that led to a vast corps of competent technocrats taking the stage. Over time, they formed a highly capable coterie of specialists and administrators even though, as anyone would readily admit, the process also resulted in managerial arrangements that were far from ideal. After all, China’s new technocracy was riven by its limitations and beset by serious problems of every kind. Nonetheless, one of the reasons that the technocratic class evolved and managed to function at all was that by instituting administrative competence within a system that allowed for personal advancement on the basis of an individual’s practical achievements in government, countless young men and women from impoverished backgrounds could be lured to pursue self-improvement through education. They did this in order to devote themselves to meaningful and rewarding state service. Of course, at the same time, the progeny of the Communist Party’s own nomenklatura—the so-called “Red Second Generation” of bureaucrats—proved themselves to be all but useless as administrators; they occupied official positions and enjoyed the perks of power without making any meaningful contribution. In fact, more often than not, they simply got in the way of people who actually wanted to get things done. But enough of that.
Unfortunately, as a result of the endless political purges of recent years [carried out by Xi Jinping and his deputy Wang Qishan in the name of an “anticorruption campaign”] and along with the revival of “Red Culture,” the people in the system who have now been promoted are in-house Party hacks who slavishly obey orders. Consequently, the kind of professional commitment and expertise that had been valued within the nation’s technocracy, along with the ambition people previously nurtured to seek promotion on the basis of their actual achievements, have been gradually undermined and, with no particular hue and cry, they have now all but disappeared. The One Who Must Be Obeyed, who talks about the importance of transmitting “red genes” through a reliable Party body politic, the man with the ultimate decision-making power and sign-off authority, has created an environment in which the system as a whole has fallen into desuetude. What’s left is a widespread sense of hopelessness.
The bureaucratic and governance system of China that is now fully on display is one that values the mediocre, the dilatory, and the timid. The mess they have made in Hubei Province, and the grotesque posturing of the incompetents involved [in dealing with the coronavirus] have highlighted a universal problem. A similar political malaise infects every province and the rot goes right up to Beijing. In what should be a “post-leader era,” China has instead a “Core Leader system,” and it is one that is undermining the very mechanisms of state. [End Page 10] Despite all the talk one hears about “modern governance,” the reality is that the administrative apparatus is increasingly mired in what can only be termed inoperability. It is an affliction whose symptoms I encapsulate in the expressions “organizational discombobulation” and “systemic impotence.”
Do you not see that although everyone looks to the One for the nod of approval, the One himself is clueless and has no substantive understanding of rulership and governance, despite his undeniable talent for playing power politics? The price for his overarching egotism is now being paid by the nation as a whole. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy drifts directionless, although the best among them try to get by as best they can. They would like to take positive action, but they are hesitant and fearful. For their part, meanwhile, bureaucratic schemers avail themselves of the muddle and, although they have no motivation to be proactive, they are quite good at making trouble. The situation works to their advantage; they shove the competent bureaucrats aside and create in their place an environment of overall chaos.
3. A New Era of Attenuated Governance
Furthermore, the day-today governance of China is in a state of terminal decay. This manifests itself in two ways:
In the first place, the economic slowdown is now an undeniable reality, and all indications are that things will only get worse over the current year. This presents the nation with a situation unrivaled since the economic downturn that followed the 1989 “disturbances” [that is, the June 4 Beijing Massacre]. Such a situation will only serve to exacerbate further the aforementioned “organizational discombobulation” and “systemic impotence.” Equally undeniable is the state of things more broadly, including:
- A collapse of consumer confidence;
- Widespread panic about the long-term security of private property;
- Administrative and academic frustration and pent-up anger;
- A general shutting down of society as a whole; and,
- A depressed cultural and publishing industry.
What is thriving, however, is all that ridiculous “Red Culture” and the nauseating adulation that the system heaps on itself via shameless pro-Party hacks who chirrup hosannahs at every turn.
Of particular and profound concern are the massive political miscalculations that have been made: first, regarding the uprising in Hong Kong; and, then, in forecasts about the elections in Taiwan. The political problems [in Hong Kong] are the product of a blatant refusal to abide [End Page 11] by the undertaking stipulated in the Hong Kong Basic Law regarding general elections [for the chief executive of the territory]. Repeated missteps in the Special Administrative Region have been followed by clumsy and haphazard moves that have led to the complete collapse of public confidence in the territory’s political leadership. The upshot is a fundamental disaffection toward Beijing among the masses of a place that is, if truth be told, the most prosperous and civilized part of China’s territory. The whole world has witnessed the ugly reality of the polity that lurks behind this situation.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, as the Sino-American relationship continues into uncharted territory, the fact is that superpower politics are not merely about grand claims that no one has a right to comment on the internal affairs of such nations. All of these happenings [in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which Beijing emphasizes are solely China’s “internal affair”] have a direct impact on the unfolding fate of our own nation. It is at this very juncture that the Axle Rod, befuddled as usual, is for his pains also having to deal with a United States led by a man who repeatedly “trumps” him by virtue of his own unpredictability. [Note: Here the author alters the Chinese transliteration of Trump’s name to read “extremely befuddling,” that is, someone who “stumps” everyone.] What you end up with is an unholy mess. There is a proliferation of online comments claiming that through his actions he is actually aiding and abetting the Yankees who are in pursuit of their “Imperialist Steadfast Desire to See Us Destroyed.” In other words, [canny commentators are suggesting that] he is helping the United States to achieve the very things it could never have dreamed of accomplishing itself. This is not just a way of ridiculing him, it is a profoundly painful reality for all of us.
Second, the powerholders have in recent years accelerated their efforts to stamp out anything that resembles or contributes to the existence of civil society in China. Censorship increases by the day, and the effect of this is to weaken or obliterate those very things that can and should play a positive role in alerting society to critical issues [of public concern]. In response to the coronavirus, for instance, at first the authorities shut down all hints of public disquiet and outspoken commentary via censorship; they then simply shut down entire cities. First people’s hearts die and then death stalks the living. It takes no particular leap of the imagination to appreciate that along with such acts of crude expediency a soulless pragmatism can make even greater political inroads. [End Page 12] Given the fact that the country is, in effect, run by people nurtured on the “Politics of the Sent-Down Youth” [that is, of the Cultural Revolution era—today’s leaders came of age during the late 1960s and early 1970s when, with schools and universities shuttered, tens of millions of young people were sent to the countryside for “reeducation” by the peasantry] this is hardly remarkable. After all, we are living in a time when what once passed for a measure of public decency and social concern has long quit the stage.
One could go so far as to say that from the highest echelon to the very bottom of the system, this lot represent the worst political team to have run China since 1978. That is why I believe that it is imperative that the nation act on and truly put into practice Article 35 of the Constitution. That is to say [we ourselves should advance five key demands]:
- Lift the ban on independent media and publishing;
- Put an end to the secret-police surveillance of the internet and allow people their right to freedom of speech so they can express themselves with a clear conscience;
- Allow citizens to enjoy their right to demonstrate as well as the freedoms of assembly and association;
- Respect the basic universal rights of our citizens, in particular their right to vote in open elections.
- [And, fifth,] It should also be a matter of pressing urgency that an independent body be established to investigate the origins of the corona-virus epidemic, to trace the resulting cover-up, identify the responsible parties, and analyze the systemic origins of the crisis. Then and only then [after the coronavirus epidemic has passed] can we truly engage in what should be a meaningful “Post [Antivirus] War Reconstruction.”
4. A New Era of Revived Court Politics
Then there is the reemergence of court politics or palace intrigue. The lurch toward the totalitarian in recent years along with a concomitant ratcheting up of policies aimed at insinuating the Communist Party into every aspect of civil government has, as we have noted in the above, resulted in the near paralysis of normal bureaucratic operations. The system lacks any real sources of positive motivation, and the concentration of authority along with the concomitant impotence of actual power mean that the tail [or underlings] can all too readily wag the dog—ergo the existence of a security commission that imposes harsh punishments as part of the overall mechanisms that have to be used to keep the show on the road and the bureaucratic game ticking over. Due to the lack of freedom of speech and the absence of a modern bureaucratic system, let alone anything even approaching a “His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition,” the whip itself [End Page 13] knows no restraint and the National Security Commission [established by Xi] rules with an iron fist, each layer of bureaucracy answering upward until it reaches the pinnacle, the Sole Responsible Person. And that individual is but a man of flesh and blood who cannot possibly “be across” all aspects of governance.
A party-state system that has no checks or balances, one that actually resists the rational allocation of duties and responsibilities, invariably gives rise to the rule of a clique of trusted lieutenants. Hence we have seen the equivalent of a court emerge, along with the political behavior endemic to a court. To put it more clearly, the “collective leadership” with its “Nine Dragons Ruling the Waters” [Note: Prior to the Xi Jinping era, there were nine members of the ruling Politburo Standing Committee. Xi’s leadership saw this number reduced to seven.] and its concomitant claque of rulers acting in an equilibrium is no longer operable. With the overconcentration of power and a relative decline in efficacy, the One Leader’s inner circle becomes a de facto “state within a state,” something that the Yankees have taken to calling the “deep state.”
Following the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, a nonparty bureaucracy was established which was empowered to carry out basic administrative tasks. Even Mao Zedong was able to tolerate someone like former premier Zhou Enlai running his part of the government. With the appearance of the revolutionary committees and security organs [which replaced the police and the judicial system as a whole during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 until the 1970s] that system was overthrown. In the four decades [after Cultural Revolution policies were formally rejected from 1978], for the most part a modicum of balance existed between the roles of Party leader and state leader [that is, between the general secretary of the Communist Party and the premier who, as head of the State Council, was in charge of the formal structures of government]. Even though the Party and state were still melded, the state bureaucracy was given the task of implementing Party directives. It is only in the last few years that a new kind of hermetically sealed governance has come to the fore and, because of the nature of hidden court politics, it is one that has further enabled the Sole Powerholder while granting license to the darkest kinds of plotting and scheming. Such a rulership structure stifles systemic innovation and forecloses the kinds of changes that could enhance regularized forms of governance. With the way ahead reduced to something akin to a “political locked-in syndrome,” and since a meaningful retreat is all but impossible, the system is put under constant strain. It is virtually impossible for anyone to act in any meaningful fashion. Instead, all are forced to look on in impotent frustration as things deteriorate. This may well continue until the situation is simply beyond salvaging.
Faced with all of this, the social economy itself is left in tatters; the basic ethical skein of society as a whole is rent by the changing winds [End Page 14] of political fashion, so much so that people’s already fragile sense of citizenship is further depleted. In the absence of anything that can meaningfully be called civil society, there is no hope that a mature form of politics can possibly evolve. The brittleness of the situation is such that, whenever there is the slightest disturbance—let alone a major disaster—everyone and everything is endangered; we are all powerless to help each other. In such circumstances, what may start out as a molehill can all too readily burgeon into a mountain.
The present chaos in Wuhan has thrown Hubei into confusion, but as we noted earlier, the root cause of the expanding problem lies in Beijing: The One who devotes himself energetically to “Protecting the Mountains and Rivers and Maintaining Rulership Over the Mountains and Rivers” of China. [Note: “Rivers and Mountains” is a poetic expression for China as a unified entity under authoritarian control]. His self-interest is not grounded in the sovereignty of the people, nor in a system of governance that is about “building a nation on the basis of civilization, or freedom.” The end result of his style of rulership is, as commentators on the internet have widely remarked of late, that although “Major Tasks Can Be Accomplished by Concentrating Power” in times of crisis, the reality is that “Major Mishaps Are Also Generated by Overly Concentrated Power.” The coronavirus epidemic is a clear demonstration of this.
5. A New Era of Big-Data Totalitarianism and WeChat Terror
They now pursue their rule over the people via what I would call “big-data totalitarianism” and “WeChat terror.” Although the Communist Party has reformulated its ideology in various guises over the decades, it has not fundamentally changed. That is how the nationalism that underpins their enterprise is presently cast in terms of “the revitalization of the great Chinese nation,” while the broad-based aspiration for national wealth and power was formulated [in the 1970s] under the slogan of “[achieving] the Four Modernizations” [of agriculture, industry, defense, and science and technology]. Twists and turns have followed one upon another, including such ideological formulations as the Three Represents [of the Jiang Zemin era] and the New Three People’s Principles [reformulated in the early 2000s on the basis of ideas first articulated in the Republican period, 1912–49] right up to the “New Era” announced under Xi Jinping [and written into the Communist Party Constitution in late 2017].
The Three Represents and the ideas [and policy latitude of the time] expressed the relative apogee of possibility under the Communists; since then there has been an evident downward curve which, in recent years, is evidence that the Party is increasingly obsessed with maximum control over their “Rivers and Mountains.” To that end, they are now evolving a form of big-data totalitarianism. Of course, the relative move [during the 1980s and 1990s] away from the totalitarian controls of the Maoist [End Page 15] era seemed at the time to presage some hope that the system as a whole might actually be able to transition into something else. Following the 2008 Beijing Olympics, however, that trend petered out as Maoist-style forms of social control were gradually reinstituted. That trend has been more evident over the past six years.
Unlimited government budgets have funded technological developments that are turning China into a mega data totalitarian state; we are already subjected to a Nineteen Eighty-four style of total surveillance and control. This state of affairs has enabled what could be called “WeChat terrorism” which directly targets the country’s vast online population. Through their taxes the masses are, in fact, funding a vast internet police force dedicated to overseeing, supervising, and tracking everyone and all of the statements and actions they author. The Chinese body politic is riven by a new canker, but it is an infection germane to the system itself. As a result, people live in a state of constant anxiety; they are keenly aware that the internet terrorism is by no means merely limited to personal WeChat accounts being suspended or shut down entirely, nor to the larger enterprise of banning entire WeChat groups [which are a vital way for individuals to be in contact and to debate issues of shared concern]. Everyone knows that the online terror may readily escape the virtual realm to become overtly physical: that is when the authorities use what they have learned online to send in the police in real time. Widespread anxiety leads to relentless self-censorship; people are beset by nagging fears about what inexplicable punishment may suddenly befall them.
As a result, the potential for meaningful public discussion [of issues of the day, including the coronavirus] is stifled. By the same token, the very channels of communication that should in normal circumstances exist for the dissemination of public information are choked off, and a meaningful, civic early-warning system that could play a crucial role at times of local or national emergency is thereby outlawed. In its place we have an evolving form of military tyranny that is underpinned by an ideology that I call “Legalistic-Fascist-Stalinism” [one that is cobbled together from strains of traditional harsh Chinese legalist thought wedded to an admixture of the Leninist-Stalinist interpretation of Marxism with the “Germano-Aryan” form of fascism]. There is increasing evidence that the Party, for all of its weighty presence, is in fact a self-deconstructing structure that constantly undermines normal governance while tending toward systemic atrophy. Therefore, when a political arrangement like the one I have been describing here is confronted by a major public-health emergency, as is now the case, the so-called All-Powerful Totalizing System under the Chairman of Everything produces real-world effects that expose the profound inadequacies of the system as a whole. Among other things, it has left the country without even enough face masks to go around.
As I write these words, in the city of Wuhan, and within the province [End Page 16] of Hubei, there are still countless numbers of people unable to get adequate medical attention, people who have been abandoned as they wail in hopeless isolation. Will we ever know how many people have as a result been condemned to a premature death? This is the reality of the so-called all-powerful state; its “good-for-nothing” nature is now on display for all to see. China’s party-state system that has systematically outlawed society itself, as well as the civic realm, cut off all sources of information apart from its own and given sole license to its own propaganda apparatus. A nation like this may well attempt to strut, but the reality is that it is little more than a crippled giant, if it can even be called a giant.
6. A New Era That Has Shut Down Reform
The last cards in the deck have been played and the possibilities for further meaningful reforms have been locked out. Or, to put it more directly, the Open Door and Economic Reform policies are dead in a ditch. From when [Xi Jinping declared], in late 2018, that “we must resolutely reform what should and can be changed, we must resolutely not reform what should not and can not be changed” right up to the publication of the Communiqué of the Fourth Plenary Session [of the Nineteenth Party Congress] last autumn, we can definitely say that the Third Great Wave of reform and opening in modern Chinese history [the first wave dates from the self-strengthening movement of the 1860s] has now petered out. In reality, the process of shutting down reform started six years ago [following the rise of Xi Jinping in late 2012].
Observing the trends in global history throughout the twentieth century, it is fairly evident that right-wing governments have proven, when forced by pressure or circumstance, that they may be able to evolve and overcome their internal systemic dilemmas without always having to resort to mass bloodletting. Even in the case of the “Eastward Wave of Soviet Change” [Su Dong Bo, literally “the (politically transformative) wave that broke over the Eastern Bloc controlled by the Soviet Union.” This clever shorthand is based on the name “Su Dongpo,” a famous Song Dynasty poet.]—in particular in the case of the socialist governments of the Eastern Bloc under Soviet control—even they managed a peaceful transition, something that, at the time, was both surprising and a relief. However, in China today, the authorities have blocked off all possible roads that may potentially lead to positive change. We must seriously doubt whether any form of peaceful transition might now even be conceivable. If that is the case, one cannot help but think of the old poetic line [from the Yuan Dynasty]: “The people suffer whether the state prospers or fails.” We can only hope that in the wake of the coronavirus, the people of China will reconsider their situation and that this ancient land will awaken to its predicament. Might it, perhaps, be possible to initiate a Fourth Wave of Reform? [End Page 17]
7. A New Era of Isolation
Given the logical unfolding of the things discussed in the foregoing, China looks like it will, once more, be isolated from the global system. The modern global system is one that took shape in the Mediterranean [with the rise of the European trading powers] and reached an apogee on either side of the Atlantic Ocean [with the imperial dominance of the United Kingdom and the United States]. Over the centuries, China has engaged in endless tugs of war with that system, rejecting or embracing it at various times. Back and forth it has gone as the nation has lurched one way and careened another over the years. For over three decades [from 1978 to 2008], a hard-won and painful realization led this country to “bow in humble acknowledgement” [as the author titled an essay in late 2018] as well as “actively pursue change,” right up to giving birth to its own new form of engagement with the world system that would, over time, become itself something of a new mainstream.
It is a sad reality, however, that in recent years China has increasingly acted imprudently and against its own best interests. Furthermore, the “Open Door” has evidently opened just as about as far as it is going to; the totalitarian impulses of the extreme leftists have led them to take a stand; they will not tolerate any kind of systemic evolution that could possibly lead to a peaceful transition and enable China finally to evolve [away from authoritarianism and the one-party state]. That’s why this place has repeatedly found itself at loggerheads with the modern global system. Despite this, and after all the to-ing and fro-ing, by virtue of its sheer scale and as a result of a generally more open mindset China was fitfully finding its place in the modern world system and even becoming an important player in it. Its mere global presence also forced people to engage with new interpretations of staid geopolitical narratives about the meaning of “the center” and “the periphery.”
In recent years, however, the country’s increasingly aggressive international posture has been out of kilter both with realistic assessments of China’s actual national strength and with the trends in global affairs as a whole. Added to all of that have been the changing internal dynamics of China itself, dynamics that have seen a steady drumbeat egg on the regime of “Legalistic-Fascist-Stalinism.” All of this taken as a whole has elicited alarm and trepidation among other players in the new great game of global politics; they are now alert to the potential rise of a Chinese “Red Empire.” Just as China has been trumpeting the concept of a global Community of Shared Destiny [since late 2013], the international community rejects it. What a tragic irony! Instead of embracing a real community, China is increasingly isolating itself from it.
No matter how complex, nuanced, and sophisticated one’s analysis, the reality is stark. A polity that is blatantly incapable of treating its own people properly can hardly be expected to treat the rest of the world well. How can a nation that doggedly refuses to become a [End Page 18] modern political civilization really expect to be part of a meaningful community? That is why although mutually beneficial economic exchanges will continue unabated, China’s civilizational isolation will remain an undeniable reality. This has nothing to do with a culture war, even less can it be encapsulated in—and dismissed by—such glib concepts as a “clash of civilizations.” Nor is this situation simply a matter of a new wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, or Sinophobia, or a desire to put China down. I say that despite the fact that, for the moment, dozens of countries have imposed travel restrictions on people from the People’s Republic.
Nonetheless, I would remind readers that as the present China scare increases talk about the threat of a “Yellow Peril,” that long-occluded and sclerotic ideological construct must invariably intensify. Internationally, the due appreciation for universal values and human rights was hard won, and it only achieved widespread acceptance following a tortuous period of contestation. These concepts have long been a standard feature in the treaties and agreements that underpin the international community. China’s own international engagement and its worthiness of enjoying a substantive place in the international community depend too on how these philosophical issues are understood and treated [that is, if the People’s Republic can evolve and accept internationally recognized rights and universal values, which at present are rejected as a threat to Party domination in China]. Over time who will prosper and who will move against the tides of history—that is, who will end up being isolated—these are questions that can only be answered in the process of some places being isolated by others or as a result of those states that decide to self-isolate and end up alone. Those nations [and here the author is thinking of China] may end up merely able to appreciate their assumed pulchritude as reflected back at them in the mirror of their own imperial self-regard.
The way to turn things around, to reestablish the image of China as a responsible major power that can shoulder its global responsibilities, requires that the internal affairs of this country be set in order, but that can only happen if we as a people join together on the great way of universal human values. Of particular importance is that this nation has to ground itself substantively in the political concept that sovereignty resides in the people. It all comes down to how this country chooses to manage its own affairs. I believe that the only way for China to end its global and historical isolation and become a meaningful participant in the global system, as well as flourish on the path of national survival and prosperity, is to pursue a politics that both embraces constitutional democracy and fosters a true people’s republic. When that time comes, and in accord with the flow of events, it is not unimaginable that China might even be worthy of joining the G-7, which would as a result become the Group of 8 or G-8. [End Page 19]
8. A New Era in Which to Seek Freedom from Fear
The people are no longer fearful. These are the common people—men and women who struggle to make a living, a populace that has put up with so much trepidation, a vast population that has only with the most extraordinary difficulty freed itself from the various myths about power—they are a people who will not forever be willing to hand over submissively the scant freedoms they enjoy to a tyrannical system, or their right to work for a better life. Why indeed should they submit to a polity that arrogates unto itself the sole right to proportion life and death, and survival itself?
Because of this Great Virus, the people are enraged; they have had enough. They have witnessed how the facts about the viral outbreak were hidden from them and how the health and safety of the common people were ignored by an unfeeling bureaucracy. Long before now, they have repeatedly paid a heavy price—the constant levies imposed on them to support the grandiose celebrations and bloated self-congratulation which the party-state uses to advertise prosperity and peace. All the while the people are treated as straw dogs [that is, sacrificial victims to be dispensed with at will]. They witness the ever-increasing death toll [caused by the virus], yet they are being shut down on We-Chat and forced into silence while the powerholders extol their own heroism and shamelessly heap plaudits on themselves. Mass sentiment can be summed up in that line [made famous in Bei Dao’s 1976 poem]: I—DO—NOT—BELIEVE! And they will not put up with it anymore.
Well may they say that the human heart is ineffable and inexplicable; it has no practical use. Experience would seem to have proven this fact repeatedly and we cannot ignore the grim truth. After all, what about Big Cock Li [former premier Li Peng, whose personal name, Peng, is also a term for a mythical huge bird], the man [who was directly responsible for the Beijing Massacre of 1989 and the nationwide repression that followed in its wake]? Millions bayed for his blood, but he peacefully lived out his allotted time [dying at the age of 91 in July 2019] even though the masses strained to spit on him in disgusted outrage. Do we not lament the fact that Heaven repeatedly fails to deliver justice? Even though, if truth be told, Heaven too must suffer along with all of us. If we are to believe that it is the heart—our sense of human decency—that makes us what we are, rather than the bestial organs of wolves and dogs, then it is the heart too that responds most meaningfully to the vicissitudes of life—be they joys or sorrows, disaster or good fortune, fairness as well as the desire to profit, loves, and hates. It is but human to be conflicted by wants and needs, to be prone to the agonies of separation and the hope for happiness. It is by means of that heart that a way forward may be forged, through thickets of pain and despite the rotten realities of our world.
When humanity itself is tested even up to the very point of extinction, know that this may presage the true “End of His Days.” As for those addle-brained morons and all of those smarmy gadabouts who think nothing [End Page 20] bad can ever happen to them, they are an undifferentiated mob: They play no positive role in history, nor indeed does the course of unfolding events change because of their existence, or anything they do.
9. A New Era in Which the Clock Is Ticking
The deplorable reality is evident and the countdown has started—the time to establish a meaningful constitutional order is upon us. It should be recognized that the March 2018 revision of China’s constitution [which allowed for Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely] opened the door to all manner of evil. It has legislated that a totalitarian specter may once more cast a long shadow over us. However, at that very moment, things were taking an unexpected turn; just as that stampede into the past began, systemic decay became increasingly evident. Putting aside the issue of disgruntled popular sentiment, in the above we have already noted the bungled policies related both to Hong Kong and to Taiwan, as well as the disorderly fashion in which the Sino-American relationship has been unfolding. Added to all of that is an overall economic decline that eludes simple resolution as well as the real-time international isolation that China has been experiencing [due to its increasingly aggressive foreign posture]. All of these things are symptomatic of policy failure, yet further proof that “Strong-Man Politics”—a phenomenon that flies in the face of modern political life—produces results that are at glaring variance with the avowed aim of their author [that is, Xi Jinping].
Given this suffocating situation, there is a widespread anxiety that we are caught in a stalemate. People are bedeviled by it and strain to think of ways to break through the logjam and excite new possibilities. Of course, there is a fervent hope among many that certain internal dynamics [within the Communist Party] may lead to a way forward; perhaps, they think, something welling up from below may influence those above positively. Just as such a pipe dream seemed to be capturing people’s imaginations, developments in Hong Kong and Taiwan showed instead how the periphery can suddenly throw the center off-kilter. Events in those two places have been so dramatic that, in fact, they may even offer a ray of hope. For it is perhaps, only perhaps, that with such a path forward—one in which the periphery gradually influences the center and makes imaginable some kind of peaceful transition, that a particular Chinese way out of our present political conundrum may be found. Perhaps too the “besieged city” [of Wuhan], beset as it is by crisis, may also prove to be a Jerusalem—a place of hope and peace; an old city proffering new hope.
To put it another way, a breakthrough originating from the periphery may augur once more [as it did in the 1890s, the 1910s, the 1940s, and again in the 1980s] a moment that favors a push toward meaningful constitutional and legal rule in China. We may well be at just such a juncture; even as the faint light of a new dawn is discerned on the horizon, [End Page 21] we nonetheless remain in the gloaming—we may no longer be lost in the pitch dark of night, yet the roseate promise of a new day still eludes us. Throughout, that bastion of power holds itself together tightly, its crumbling edifice reluctant as ever to acquiesce to the popular will. But, look there, the drawbridge that leads to a way out [that is, the promise offered by events in Hong Kong and Taiwan] has been lowered, just so far. Is this not a time spoken of by prophets—even though many will fail and fall before the dawn light ushers in a new day?
I present these nine points for the consideration of my fellow countrymen and women. Everything I say is obvious and no more than common sense. Nonetheless, allow me to reiterate my key point: When our nation has yet to enter a normal state of rule; when our people and our civilization are yet to transition into a truly modern era, we must continue forward with fortitude and hope; we must strive to bring about constitutional democracy and realize a real People’s Republic. We have been part of this long-breaking wave of modernity for over one and a half centuries [since the fledgling reform movement of the 1860s in the Qing dynasty]. It is herein that we play a role. That is right, we, We the People, for [as I have previously said] how can we let ourselves continue to “survive no better than swine; fawn upon the powerholders like curs; and live in vile filth like maggots”?
As I write these words I am forced to reflect on my own situation, one which also dramatically changed in 2018 [when the author published his famous anti-Xi jeremiad], having raised my voice then I was punished for “speech crimes.” Thereafter, [in March 2019] I was suspended from my job as a university lecturer and cashiered as a professor, reduced to a minor academic rank. I was also placed under investigation by my employer, Tsinghua University, and my freedoms have been curtailed ever since. Writing as I do herein, I can all too easily predict that I will be subjected to new punishments; indeed, this may well even be the last thing I write. But that is not up to me.
Confronted by this Great Virus, as we all are, to me it seems as though a vast chasm has opened up in front of us and I feel compelled to speak out yet again. There is no refuge from this viral reality and I cannot remain silent. To act in any other way would be to betray my nature. In Western philosophy, they call it “righteous indignation;” it is a kind of fury that results from repeated abrasion. Our own thinkers speak of it as “humanity combined with a sense of justice.” It is [what Mencius] called “the true way of the human heart” and, thus agitated, I—a bookish scholar who dares to think of himself as an “intellectual”—am prepared to pay for it with my life.
Ultimately, it is about freedom—that transcendent quality; that wellspring and fulcrum of conscious action; that secular value that is the most divine aspiration of humankind; that innate sensibility that truly [End Page 22] makes us human; that ineffable “quiddity” that we Chinese share with all others. The spirit of the world, that spirit incarnate on earth, makes possible a glorious unfolding of freedom itself. This is why, friends—my countless compatriots—though a sea of flames confronts us, can we let ourselves be held back by fear?
Oh, Vast Land beneath our feet, it is You that I now address:
You inspire the most profound feelings, yet you can be cruel in your dispensation. Despite the bounty of your promise all too often you assail us with ceaseless troubles. Bit by bit you gnaw away at our patience, inch by inch you chip away at our dignity. Do you deserve all of the praise we direct at you or are you worthy only of our curses? There is one thing that I do know, and it is a hard-won truth: At the mere mention of you my eyes fill with tears and my heart gasps. So it is that I say unto You, in the words of the poet [Dylan Thomas]:
I will not go gentle into that good night,Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Yet people like me—feeble scholars—are useless; we can do nothing more than in our lamentation take up our pens and by writing issue calls for decency and advance pleas for justice. Faced with the crisis of the coronavirus, confronting this disordered world, I join my compatriots—the 1.4 billion men and women, brothers and sisters of China, the countless multitudes who have no way of fleeing this land—and I call on them: Rage against this injustice; let your lives burn with a flame of decency; break through the stultifying darkness and welcome the dawn.
Let us now strive together with our hearts and minds, also with our very lives. Let us embrace the warmth of a sun that proffers yet freedom for this vast land of ours!
Drafted on the Fourth Day of the First Lunar Month
Of the Gengzi Year of the Rat [28 January 2020]
Revised on the Ninth Day of the First Month [2 February]
As a snowstorm suddenly assailed Beijing [End Page 23]
Copyright © 2020 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press
Image Credit: Ihor Sulyatytskyy/Shutterstock