What the Chinese people are thinking (3)

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.


Nationalism rose abruptly in China at the beginning of the twenty-first century and became a remarkable social trend of thought. However, the emergence of nationalism can be traced to as early as the beginning of the 1990s when some scholars who were politically sensitive and willing to serve the party and the government suggested that patriotism and nationalism should be the main courses for the education of university students and government officials. Indeed a lesson had been drawn from the June Fourth event that political education in universities had been unsuccessful and that it was not enough just to instil Marxism into students.

The book China Can Say No published in 1996 manifested the fanaticism and irrationality of nationalist emotion. The book defines contemporary Chinese nationalism in such a way as to equate patriotism with opposition to America. The book and chapter titles reveal that the authors were expressing their anti- American feelings, for example “We don’t want most-favoured-nation treatment, and will never give it to you” and “We will never take a Boeing 777”. One of the basic points of view of the book is that American people are not only evil, but stupid. The authors assert that most Chinese high-school pupils have much more knowledge of American history and culture than American university students. That the American younger generation is on the road to degeneration and has been abandoned by human civilization is proved by their preoccupation with drugs, sex and electronic games.

The book The Chinese Road in the Shadow of Globalization, published in 1999, presented itself as an updated version of China Can Say No in response to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia by NATO. After praising the demonstration against the USA held on 8 May, the book says: “At last, on May 8, 1999, we saw the life impulse of our nation and heard the shout from the soul of our nation.” Readers may find sentences like this one: “China has tried to be a good boy for many years in international affairs, so the USA and other countries which only understand and recognize power have forgotten China’s actual strength.” The authors of the book suggested that China should become a naughty boy paying no attention to its international image.

The most dangerous topic covered by the fanatical nationalists is that of Taiwan. The authors of China Can Say No advocated attacking Taiwan with military force immediately, saying that “an ordinary attack is not as good as a general offensive, and a late attack is not as good as an early offensive”. Talking about the “liberation” of Taiwan, Professor Chen Ming(陈明), a representative of contemporary Confucianism in mainland China, said: “What is important is not military ability, but will and determination. If we fail the first time we can launch offensives for the second and third times. We call this fighting to the last drop of our blood.”

I call the nationalism held by some Chinese scholars and intellectuals cultural nationalism. Its basic idea is that Western civilization has been in crisis and that only Chinese culture can free the West from this crisis, so the twenty-first century will belong to Chinese culture. The most important advocate of this idea was Ji Xianlin(季羡林), an old and famous scholar. According to Ji, every civilization is doomed to undergo a process of rise and decline. The time when Chinese culture will take a dominant position is coming now, since Western culture has been the guiding ideology in the world for several centuries. His argument for the above thesis is as follows. The essence of Chinese philosophy is the idea that heaven and men are one. The Chinese believe that men and nature are one entity. In contrast, the core of Western thought is contained in the maxim of Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is power”, meaning that mankind should conquer nature by means of knowledge. The environmental and ecological crises in modern times come from the failure to balance the relationship between men and nature. Ji Xianlin concluded that mankind could be saved only by Chinese ethics and Chinese philosophy.

I do not agree with Professor Ji, but it is unnecessary at this moment to say what is wrong with his thesis in detail. I would like to point out only that Ji distorted the meaning of the doctrine of “heaven and earth are one”, which was a political philosophy serving imperial power and autocracy in ancient times, not a modern ecological philosophy at all. China has very serious environmental and ecological problems. China has set a bad, not a good, example for the world in this regard.

Cultural conservatism is a doctrine similar to cultural nationalism, whose concentrated expression is the so-called “Chinese national culture fever” advocating that reading and studying the classics of Confucius and Mencius should be put in the first place in education and ordinary life. This assertion was so influential in 2004 that the year was called the Chinese Cultural Conservative Year. The following important events took place at that time.

First, Jiang Qing(蒋庆), a non-governmental scholar, put forward a slogan for “reading classics” about which a heated argument broke out. The book Basic Readings of the Chinese Cultural Classics in twelve volumes edited by Jiang Qing was published in this year. It was reported that children in five million families and over sixty cities had joined the ranks of reading Confucian classics. Second, some well-known cultural conservatives held a conference entitled “The Contemporary Destiny of Confucianism” in Guiyang in the summer of 2004. The meeting was also called the “Summit of Cultural Conservatives”. The participants wanted to apply the doctrines of Confucius and Mencius to the present Chinese political system and to political life. They hoped that the Chinese government would accept their suggestion.

Third, “The Cultural Summit Forum of 2004” was held in Beijing, and “A Cultural Manifesto of 2004” was published. This was sponsored by distinguished scholars such as Xu Jialu(许嘉璐), Deputy President of the National Congress, Yang Zhengning(杨振宁), winner of a Nobel physics prize, and Wang Meng(王蒙), ex-Minister of Culture. The manifesto made the appeals that cultural tradition should be reevaluated and re-constructed and that the kernel of value of Chinese traditional culture should be carried forward.

I support the attempt and effort to rejuvenate Chinese traditional culture. In my opinion, traditional culture should play a more important role in education, ethics and other fields in today’s China. My disagreement with the cultural conservatives, however, is as follows. First, they think that the decline of traditional culture in modern times is due to the attack from the May Fourth New Culture Movement, but I maintain that criticism from scholars is unlikely to destroy Chinese culture. Only policies from government can trample upon culture. It is not the fault of liberal intellectuals that traditional culture has been regarded as a feudal prison and eliminated completely since 1949. Second, I believe that traditional culture can play a positive role only in cultural and personal ethical aspects, not in the political system. But some conservatives maintain that the political system should be arranged in accordance with the old doctrine and that the modern democratic political principle, such as equal political and legal rights for everyone, is not acceptable. Jiang Qing asked: “Why should an unemployed young man have the same right to vote as a professor?”

There has been a problem for Chinese intellectuals in how to deal with the relationship between rulers and themselves. In Chinese tradition, it is right and proper for intellectuals to think about and judge everything from the point of view of the state, but not from their own point of view or that of the people. For all Confucian scholars, being patriotic is the same as being loyal to the sovereign. This tradition was questioned and criticized in the 1980s when an author, Bai Hua (白桦) asked in his play: “What should be done if you love your country but it doesn’t love you?” The author and his work were criticized fiercely. Many intellectuals have changed their attitudes since the beginning of the twenty-first century. They think that the train of history is going in the direction guided by the party along with the economic rise of China. They are afraid of missing this train and losing their future. Some influential intellectuals make statist discourses. They think that the so-called “Chinese model” which violates human rights and pays no attention to social justice is the hope of mankind, for the secret of its success is that the government controls all political and economic power and can do whatever it wants. In their opinion the best example is the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. Others think that China will make contributions to human civilization with a new political system whose core is a new type of democracy, according to which the agreement and the authorization of the people are not necessary for the legitimacy of government. The key point is that the government should take care of the people just as a kindly father does for his children. Others again hold that the party may place itself above the constitution, this being thought reasonable because of China’s special condition. In this view the best institutional arrangement is to make the state and the party an integral whole. It can be predicted that the statist trend will be developed further among Chinese intellectuals, and I am very worried about that.

Fortunately, that is not the whole story for Chinese intellectuals. In my opinion, the most important progress made from the 1980s to the present day is that we have affirmed constitutional democracy as the objective. Perhaps some of you will be surprised at this, since constitutional democracy is a self-evident principle of state foundation and governance in many countries. Indeed it was put forward by some intellectuals and politicians as their political programme about a hundred years ago in China. I should like to point out that the civil wars, invasions by foreign countries and the communist revolution disrupted these early efforts to realize constitutional democracy in my country.

I believe that China can be a decent country, a qualified member in the big family of human civilization, only after the accomplishment of constitutional democracy. I also believe that the Chinese people will enjoy the sympathy and support of peoples all over the world, including in Australia, in the process of striving for this goal.

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