Chi­nese have a dream, too What’s miss­ing from Xi Jin­ping’s vi­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY XIAO QIANG AND PERRY LINK Xiao Qiang is founder and chief ed­i­tor of China Dig­i­tal Times, a bilin­gual news Web site, and an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley’s School of In­for­ma­tion. Perry Link, who was a co-ed­i­tor of “The Tian

CPer­sonal dig­nity de­pends on per­sonal rights, and such rights can be se­cure only un­der a con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem of government.

hinese New Year, which be­gan Feb. 10, marks the sea­son when Chi­nese ev­ery­where give voice to their wishes for the fu­ture. A con­tro­versy last month in the of­fices of South­ern Weekly, one of China’s more lib­eral pub­li­ca­tions, ap­peared to be mainly about cen­sor­ship. It spread to the streets and widely on the In­ter­net, and the fo­cal point was in­deed free­dom for jour­nal­ists. At a deeper level, though, the is­sue was a pre­cur­sor of the new year. It was about alternative na­tional dreams.

Xi Jin­ping, who was in­stalled as the Com­mu­nist Party leader in Novem­ber, opened the “dream” dis­cus­sion with th­ese words in his ac­cep­tance speech at the 18th Party Congress:

“Our peo­ple love life; they hope for bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion, more sta­ble jobs, more sat­is­fac­tory in­comes, more re­li­able so­cial guar­an­tees, higher-level med­i­cal and health ser­vices, more com­fort­able liv­ing con­di­tions, a more beau­ti­ful en­vi­ron­ment, and they hope that their chil­dren can grow up bet­ter, work bet­ter and live bet­ter. The wishes of our peo­ple for bet­ter lives are the goals of our strug­gles.”

Xi spoke of ma­te­rial mat­ters, but soon he seemed to re­al­ize that his “dream” should in­clude more spir­i­tual el­e­ments. In a speech two weeks later, he said:

“Ev­ery­one has ideals and pur­suits ... . The great­est dream of the Chi­nese peo­ple in re­cent times has been to re­al­ize the great re­nais­sance of the Chi­nese na­tion . . . . The fu­ture and the fate of ev­ery Chi­nese per­son is tightly bound to the fu­ture and fate of the state and the na­tion . . . . No one will be well off un­less the state and the na­tion are well off.”

Now Xi’s ver­sion of the China dream had two lev­els: a daily-life ma­te­rial level and spir­i­tual as­pi­ra­tions at the level of state and na­tion.

Edi­tors at South­ern Weekly, a publi­ca­tion based in Guang­dong, saw a cru­cial gap, right at the dream’s cen­ter: It left out dig­nity for ci­ti­zens. So they drafted an ed­i­to­rial, “China’s Dream: The Dream of Con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism,” that said in part:

“Our dream to­day can­not pos­si­bly end with ma­te­rial things; we seek a spir­i­tual whole­ness as well. It can­not pos­si­bly end with na­tional strength alone; it must in­clude self-re­spect for ev­ery per­son . . . . We will con­tinue to dream un­til ev­ery per­son, whether high of­fi­cial or ped­dler on the street, can live in dig­nity.”

This thirst for dig­nity, not quench­able by money or the success of a state, does much to ex­plain why the South­ern Weekly state­ment drew ex­plicit sup­port from many — pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als, stu­dents, movie stars, pop­u­lar blog­gers such as Han Han and count­less other In­ter­net users, in­clud­ing the edi­tors of ma­jor news Web sites. Peo­ple re­sponded to the “dig­nity” is­sue be­cause they had seen it in their own ex­pe­ri­ence. South­ern Weekly’s fine con­tri­bu­tion sim­ply put the is­sue into the pub­lic arena; no one needed to be told the prob­lem was there.

In an es­say writ­ten shortly be­fore he was sent to prison for “in­cit­ing sub­ver­sion of the state,” No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate Liu Xiaobo ob­served, “When­ever a con­flict breaks out be­tween government and ci­ti­zens, In­ter­net opin­ion re­flex­ively heads for the ci­ti­zens’ side.” Peo­ple nat­u­rally flock to the de­fense of strangers, Liu noted, be­cause, though the vic­tim may be un­known, the na­ture of the prob­lem is all too fa­mil­iar. In many cases in re­cent years, the un­der­ly­ing cause of pub­lic protests is that peo­ple feel an af­front to their dig­nity.

One might ask why South­ern Weekly’s no­tion of dig­nity can­not sim­ply be in­serted into Xi Jin­ping’s China dream. Why should it con­flict with ei­ther ma­te­rial im­prove­ment or na­tional strength? The prob­lem — and South­ern Weekly edi­tors wrote the point plainly — is that per­sonal dig­nity de­pends on per­sonal rights, and such rights can be se­cure only un­der a con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem of government.

“Con­sti­tu­tional government is the ba­sis for the en­tire beau­ti­ful dream,” they wrote. “Only when we have es­tab­lished con­sti­tu­tional government, only when the pow­ers of government have been lim­ited and sep­a­rated, will ci­ti­zens be able to voice their crit­i­cisms of author­ity with con­fi­dence and be able to live in free­dom, in ac­cor­dance with their in­ner con­vic­tions. Only then will we have a free coun­try and a coun­try that is truly strong . . . . The real ‘China dream’ is a dream for free­dom and con­sti­tu­tional government.”

This is the part of the edi­tors’ state­ment that Com­mu­nist Party au­thor­i­ties could not abide. The lan­guage does not go quite as far as Char­ter 08, the cit­i­zen man­i­festo largely re­spon­si­ble for Liu Xiaobo’s 11-year prison sen­tence. Char­ter 08 had called for elec­tions and a mul­ti­party sys­tem. But the echo is un­mis­tak­able. Some lines are al­most iden­ti­cal, such as “af­ter the fall of the Qing dy­nasty in 1911, our fore­bears set up the first repub­lic in Asia, yet a con­sti­tu­tional China — free, demo­cratic, and strong — was not the re­sult.”

Af­ter of­fi­cials of the Com­mu­nist Party’s Pro­pa­ganda De­part­ment “re­vised” the South­ern Weekly state­ment, all of the lines quoted above had been re­moved and were re­placed with words from Xi Jin­ping’s speeches about ma­te­ri­al­ism and state power. It was an­nounced that the edi­tors had made th­ese changes, and the re­sult was pub­lished as “Mes­sage for 2013: We Are Closer to Our Dream than Ever Be­fore.”

Pro­pa­ganda of­fi­cials’ ac­tions sparked pop­u­lar out­rage in Guang­dong and on­line. At the same time, the strong-arm tac­tics show the weak­ness of the party’s po­si­tion. China’s rulers are well aware that some­thing is miss­ing in their ver­sion of the dream. Char­ter 08 and the orig­i­nal South­ern Weekly state­ment both put “in­di­vid­ual dig­nity” at the dream’s cen­ter. If it were true, as the regime of­ten main­tains, that such ideas are “West­ern” and stirred up only by “ex­ter­nal hos­tile forces,” then there would be no rea­son to cen­sor them or to jail their pro­po­nents. Au­thor­i­ties could sim­ply pub­lish the ideas and then watch the Chi­nese peo­ple in­oc­u­late them­selves by re­ject­ing them as “un-Chi­nese.” But no one is clearer than China’s rulers that this would not be the case.


Pro­test­ers out­side the Guang­dong head­quar­ters of South­ern Weekly news­pa­per in Jan­uary.

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