What the Chinese people are thinking (2)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier this month, noted political scientist and historian Xu Youyu (徐友渔) was “criminally detained” by authorities in Beijing after taking part in a forum to commemorate this year’s 25th anniversary of the June Fourth crackdown on democracy demonstrations. As the anniversary that tragedy nears, CMP honors the intellectual tradition represented by Xu and others present at the May 3 forum — including CMP fellow Pu Zhiqiang — by publishing Xu’s 2012 Louis Green Lecture, delivered at Australia’s Monash University. We have divided the talk, originally titled “Intellectual Discourses in post-Mao China and Today,” into three parts.

Professor Warren Sun of Monash University, who extended the invitation to Xu Youyu in 2012, noted that Xu’s arrest this month was “sadly ironic” given that it coincided with President Xi Jinping’s commemoration of the 95th anniversary of China’s 1919 May Fourth Movement, whose spirit Xu Youyu and other reform-minded intellectuals embody.



In the 1980s the basic political conflict in China was between those who favoured reform and an open-door policy and those who opposed them. The situation was not the same in the 1990s. The conservative bureaucrats who had resisted reform at first soon discovered that reforms did not threaten their positions or reduce their benefits. On the contrary, reform increased their opportunities, and these bureaucrats found they could pursue policies beneficial to themselves by flaunting the banner of reform.

There is a Chinese saying, “a waterside pavilion is the first to get the moonlight”. It means that a person in a favourable position gains special advantages, and Chinese bureaucrats have been in such a position. So whereas the basic dividing line in the 1980s was “reform or no reform”, in the 1990s it changed to “Which reform do you prefer?”

There was a change in values among Chinese intellectuals at the beginning of the 1990s. In the 1980s they had generally been in favour of science, freedom, democracy, rule of law, enlightenment, rationality and so on. In the 1990s, however, some young scholars began to advocate postmodernism. They argued that the ideas mentioned above belonged to the ideology of modernity and embodied Western cultural hegemony and Eurocentrism, and that their acceptance by Chinese intellectuals was a consequence of colonization by the West.

To be frank, I do not know what role postmodernism plays in its place of origin, Western society, but I am sure that it does not apply to China at present. In my debates with Chinese postmodernists I have pointed out that modernity or modernization does not need to be suppressed in China; on the contrary, it is a movement still to be accomplished.

The argument in my favour in the debate was that Western postmodernist masters, when they knew that their works had been translated into Chinese, wrote special prefaces for them, warning Chinese readers that postmodernism could not be imitated and that it belonged to a very complicated and special tradition.

Douwe Fokkema, the co-editor of Approaching Postmodernism, wrote that postmodernist discourses had definite geographical and social limitations. Further, that the postmodernist experiment was based on the luxurious lives led by distinguished Western cultural personages, and postmodernism had nothing to do with people who were living in hungry and poor conditions. He added that there was no living condition related to postmodernism, hence it was beyond imagination to accept postmodernism in the People’s Republic of China.

Chinese postmodernists often found fault with the modernists for their lack of critical spirit and for yielding to the Western hegemony of the discourse of modernity. I despised them for noisily criticizing American imperialism and for not talking about human rights in Beijing.

I often tell the following story in my lectures and papers. An American delegation of congressmen visited the Soviet Union and criticized the country for its lack of freedom of speech. They asked their hosts: “We can shout out the slogan ‘Down with Reagan!’ Do you dare to do the same?” A Russian replied without any hesitation, “Why not? Of course we dare to shout out ‘Down with Reagan!'” I tell my audience that the Chinese postmodernists displayed their courage and critical spirit by shouting out the slogan “Down with Reagan!” in Beijing.

The debates between liberalism and the New Left, which broke out in the middle of the 1990s, are phenomena that had rarely been seen among mainland Chinese intellectuals since 1949. They are large-scale, spontaneous debates without official manipulation or ideological constraint.

First of all, I should point out that the meanings of “liberalism” and “New Left” in China are not the same as they are in the West, just as “liberalism” and “conservatism” have different meanings in the United Kingdom and the United States. On almost every important political, social and cultural question in contemporary China, liberals and new Leftists hold opposite positions. Their disputes, however, can be seen to focus on the following issues.

The first issue concerns the market economy as the cause of social injustice. China is now in a period of social transition in which startling problems of consumption and social injustice have greatly concerned intellectuals. Both sides agree that the social malady is serious, but make different diagnoses of the cause.

The New Leftists hold that the problems come from the market economy itself and that it should therefore be criticized and boycotted. The liberals maintain that the injustice arises because the market in China has not broken free from the control of the old power system and is not mature and appropriately regulated. For them the way out is to regulate and consummate the market economy.

The second issue concerns globalization and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. New Leftists oppose China’s positive attitude towards globalization and the WTO and maintain that these developments will bring China into an unjust capitalist world system. They hold that the Western capitalist countries developed their economy by exploiting and enslaving other countries from the very beginning and that they now dominate the whole world just as they did in colonial times.

One New Leftist has said that the development of the Third World in present historical conditions can only be an unjust, even suicidal development, for development means only the transference of environmental pollution from Western industrial countries to developing ones. This author concluded that the only task for developing countries was to launch a worldwide battle against capitalism. In refutation, I said: “This claim is ridiculous and dangerous. Underdeveloped countries, if they believe this, will indulge in the illusion and fantasy of ‘world revolution’ and be backward forever. As a result, the gap between rich and poor countries will grow wider and wider.”

The third issue concerns the analysis of the internal condition of China. Some representatives of the New Left have attempted to prove that Chinese society in the 1990s was a capitalist or market society and a part of the capitalist world system. Therefore, “China’s problems should be seen at the same time as problems of the capitalist world market. Our diagnosis of issues regarding China should be part of a critical diagnosis of the issues of an increasingly globalized capitalism.”

Liberals responded to this thesis by holding that it originated not from the reality of China, but from misplaced theory: “Chinese New Leftists distort and excise the conditions of China in order to apply the fashionable theories of the West to China.”

The fourth issue concerns the evaluation of the Great Leap Forward, the People’s Communes and the Cultural Revolution. These political campaigns brought about tremendous disasters and pain for the Chinese; for example, the People’s Communes resulted in over 30 million people dying of hunger. These campaigns were criticized to a certain extent in the 1980s. The New Leftists were unhappy with the criticism, however, saying that the campaigns were a bold vision for an ideal society, and that the Chinese should not rashly abandon such a valuable socialist heritage.

One of them appealed for China to have a Cultural Revolution every seven or eight years just as Mao Zedong had advocated. This point of view was totally rejected by liberals, who argued that praise and advocacy of the Great Leap Forward, the People’s Communes and the Cultural Revolution were based on ignorance of China’s past and its real history, confusing disasters with socialist innovations.

The fifth issue concerns the evaluation of the Mind Liberation Movement in the 1980s and the May Fourth New Culture Movement. Some New Leftists attempted to negate and belittle these two enlightenment movements, which, in their opinion, demonstrated the unconditional subordination of Chinese intellectuals to Western discourses. One of them stated: “The May Fourth culture movement only copied European enlightenment discourse. The scholars of the May Fourth generation accepted colonial discourse while accepting enlightenment discourse; their minds and outlook were semi-colonized.”

Liberals defended the enlightenment, the Mind Liberation Movement in the 1980s and the May Fourth New Culture Movement. They argued that in the two movements Chinese progressive intellectuals did not mechanically follow Western discourse, but pushed forward mental liberation based on Chinese reality in order to solve China’s practical problems.

The sixth issue concerns international relations and radical nationalism. The Chinese New Left often supported the Chinese government in condemning hegemony when issues arose between China and Western countries, especially the United States. In this area, the typical opposition between liberals and the New Left concerned the relationship between human rights and state sovereignty.

The New Left shared the view of the official media in charging NATO with hegemony masked by the excuse of human rights when it intervened in Kosovo. After the September 11 terrorist attack, the New Left argued that the origin of the emergence and spread of terrorism was American hegemony and its diplomatic policy in the Middle East. In contrast, liberals emphasized the importance of human rights and the need to be on guard against radical nationalism. They held that the violation of human rights by a despotic government could not be defended by excuses of state sovereignty.

After the terrorist attack of September 11, many students, graduate students, lecturers and professors in Chinese universities and colleges were exhilarated by the incident. They bought alcohol and drank madly, let off firecrackers, wrote and put up posters, even organized demonstrations on campuses, rejoicing in the extreme suffering of hundreds of people in America.

Why were they so happy? The main reason was that they thought America had bombed China’s embassy in Yugoslavia and that an American warplane had shot down a Chinese fighter plane. China had been threatened and humiliated by the USA, but China was not powerful enough to confront America. For them the terrorist attack meant that braver fighters had avenged China, so they were pleased and excited.

Liberal intellectuals had a totally different position and attitude. They published a letter in the middle of September entitled “An open letter to President George W. Bush and the American people” over the names of Bao Zhunxin(包遵信) and Liu Xiaobo(刘晓波), both of whom had been jailed for supporting the student prodemocratic movement in 1989. In this letter they condemned the terrorist attack and supported the American government and people. They said that the attack on America was a price the American people paid when they set up a global order of freedom. The letter ended with the sentence: “This evening we are American.” The number of signatories of the letter reached over 1000 within two weeks.

The letter was attacked indignantly by many people. Their attack focused on the last sentence “This evening we are American.” For them, to want to be American meant to not want to be Chinese. The liberals were accused of being traitors or “running dogs” of America.

What their attackers did not realize was that the sentence was an allusion to what American President John F. Kennedy said in the period of the Cold War when he visited West Berlin and faced the Berlin Wall. Kennedy said, in German: “Heute ich bin ein Berliner”, that is, “Today I am a Berliner.”

Obviously, President Kennedy did not mean that he wanted to be a German. The angry Chinese did not understand that it did not mean any change or choice of nationality, but that it was an expression of moral support.

Part three of Xu Youyu’s talk will be posted Friday, May 30. Click here to read part one.

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