The New York Review of Books

Ian Johnson

- Ian Johnson

Voices from the Chinese Century: Public Intellectu­al Debate from Contempora­ry China edited by Timothy Cheek, David Ownby, and Joshua A. Fogel

Rethinking China’s Rise: A Liberal Critique by Xu Jilin, translated and edited by David Ownby Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectu­als by Sebastian Veg

Voices from the Chinese Century: Public Intellectu­al Debate from Contempora­ry China edited by Timothy Cheek, David Ownby, and Joshua A. Fogel. Columbia University Press,

388 pp., $90.00; $30.00 (paper)

Rethinking China’s Rise:

A Liberal Critique by Xu Jilin, translated from the Chinese and edited by David Ownby. Cambridge University Press,

218 pp., $99.99

Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectu­als by Sebastian Veg.

Columbia University Press, 352 pp., $65.00

Ever since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Chinese people have sought to give voice to how they would like their country to be run. In 1956, Mao Zedong announced a brief flourishin­g of free speech called the “Hundred Flowers Campaign,” referring to a vibrant era in antiquity that gave rise to Confuciani­sm, Daoism, Legalism, and other ideas that went on to dominate Chinese thought for thousands of years. Of course, Mao didn’t really want such an atmosphere to take hold; it was a trap, and people who spoke out in favor of political reform or against government abuses were quickly snapped up by the security apparatus. China entered a twenty-year period of brutal policies that only ended with Mao’s death and the purging of his allies in the late 1970s.

In 1978 Deng Xiaoping began to relax government control over the economy and society, allowing a freewheeli­ng decade of spirited discussion in which the country’s future seemed up for grabs. It ended with the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, setting China on what many people now take to be its inevitable course: that of a developmen­t dictatorsh­ip, in which economic growth is guided by a repressive state that brooks little opposition.

And yet it’s possible to identify another period that might surpass the 1980s as China’s most open: a ten-year stretch beginning around the turn of this century, when a rich debate erupted over what lay ahead. As in the past, many of those speaking out were establishm­ent intellectu­als who were careful not to challenge too directly the Communist Party’s right to rule but took advantage of the relatively relaxed social policies championed by Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, to launch a sophistica­ted discussion about how China should be run and its place in the world.

Even more remarkably, this period brought the rise of grassroots thinkers and dissidents who took advantage of new, harder-to-control forms of expression, such as blogs, independen­t documentar­y films, undergroun­d art movements, and social media. Taken together, these (often angrily opposed) groups of people created what is arguably the most coherent discussion of China’s future since the founding of the People’s Republic—indeed, perhaps since the epochal May 4th Movement of 1919, when writers and thinkers overturned tradition and set China’s course for the next century.

The competing academic voices fall into three schools of thought: liberals, leftists, and new Confucians. That’s the framework adopted by Timothy Cheek, David Ownby, and Joshua A. Fogel, three Canada-based academics, in Voices from the Chinese Century: Public Intellectu­al Debate from Contempora­ry China. This ambitious effort to bring to an English-reading audience many of China’s most important contempora­ry scholars builds on work that originally appeared on the website Reading the China Dream, a guide to the intellectu­al life of early-twenty-first-century China. Almost all of the contributo­rs to the collection are university professors; they are tizhinei, or “inside the system”—not dissidents, artists, bloggers, or social activists. These academics are responding in the long tradition of Confucian scholars who see it as their duty to youguo youmin, or “worry about one’s nation and one’s people,” a practice that continued after the Communist takeover of 1949.1 The opening essay, “‘Unifying the Three Traditions’ in the New Era,” is by the leftist scholar Gan Yang, who calls on his fellow citizens to go beyond the debates that have riven China since the May 4th Movement: whether to follow some sort of Western model of classical economic and rights-based liberalism (the liberals); to offer a revolution­ary alternativ­e, even if this involves embracing an authoritar­ian state (the leftists); or to return to some form of modernized Confuciani­sm, with its call for moral responsibi­lities and duties. Of these schools of thought, the liberal voices have by far the hardest time today, because they have been systematic­ally silenced by the government. Rong Jian, for instance, is a former doctoral candidate who dropped out of school after the Tiananmen crackdown. Now a private entreprene­ur, he is well known for penetratin­g essays like “A China Bereft of Thought,” which is included here. Originally published in 2013, the now-banned essay describes

“what happens to the production and disseminat­ion of thought under an oppressive state power.”

Rong dismisses Confuciani­sm as having lost its relevance a century ago with the collapse of the imperial system that it underpinne­d, while he sees Marxism as something that was only dimly understood by Communist Party leaders and never really applied. Instead, he says, the Chinese revolution was rooted in the search for power, “not weighed down by moral values and concerns.” He sees it as completely unsurprisi­ng that Deng, Mao’s successor, abandoned even the pretense of communism for a pragmatic policy of “crossing the river by feeling the stones”—an ideology that basically means that anything goes as long as the economy develops and the party stays in power.

Likewise, Deng’s successor, Jiang, lacked the principles to follow through on his own cornerston­e idea, which was that different forces in society should be represente­d politicall­y. As for academics, he says that they have become profession­als who follow party directives on what can be researched and published. What China needs is a marketplac­e of ideas, he writes, but what it gets is an overbearin­g state: “This is a power structure unlimited in any way by institutio­nal and legal restraints, let alone by moral constraint­s. Indeed, we would not be able to find an enduring set of ideas, beliefs, meanings, or values within this power structure.” As outspoken as Rong is the Tsinghua sociologis­t Guo Yuhua, who has spent two decades researchin­g impoverish­ed mountain villagers in Shaanxi province. In “Original Intentions Start with the People,” Guo takes aim at China’s urban redevelopm­ent, which she says is undertaken not for local residents but to reflect the vision of a megalomani­acal state. The collection includes an interview with Guo about her work treating communism as a civilizati­on with its own myths, structures, and lies. For instance, the government’s land reform policy in the 1940s and 1950s is still a foundation­al myth justifying the party’s usurpation of power, but she writes that it “was clearly not an objective, but rather a means of mobilizing people during the war, expanding the military, and winning over the people.”

Among the views in Voices, these liberal arguments are by far the most interestin­g, provocativ­e, and relevant, while the arguments from the leftists and new Confucians tend to be unreflecti­ve and self-serving. That does not make them unimportan­t— especially as they represent mainstream thought in today’s China—but they offer few real solutions to the country’s problems. One of these problems is how to deal with the Communist state’s history, but the only leftist here reckoning with the past is Qian Liqun, a retired Peking University literature professor. In “Mao Zedong and His Era,” first published in 2012, he writes that in order for China to move ahead with its socialist project, it must embark on a “thorough critique and assessment of Mao Zedong Thought and culture.” This essay is all the more remarkable because he implicates himself as an enthusiast­ic follower who bears personal responsibi­lity for his generation’s often blind obedience to Mao and the state. He takes aim at those who acknowledg­e Mao’s errors but say they were worth the price because Mao restored China’s territoria­l integrity, industrial­ized the country, and helped address social problems, such as the status of women and illiteracy—an argument Qian calls “price theory.” “Whenever I hear this price theory,” he writes, “I get all fired up; do they really know what price was paid? The death of millions or even tens of millions. In my view, the death of one person is one too many, let alone tens of millions.”

This sort of moral clarity is missing in many other leftist writers who gloss over the past and problems in today’s political system. Typical is the Shanghai Normal University historian Xiao Gongqing, a defender of China’s new authoritar­ianism. In “From Authoritar­ian Government to Constituti­onal

Democracy” (2012), he writes that democracy is fine and good, but that China needs to grow into it—unwittingl­y, perhaps, repeating the ideas of Sun Yat-sen from more than a century ago that Chinese people are not ready for democracy and need “political tutelage.”

More depressing is the work of Wang Shaoguang, professor emeritus at Chinese University of Hong Kong and a professor at Tsinghua University. In “Representa­tive Democracy and Representa­tional Democracy” (2014), he uses largely Western sources to point out Western democracy’s problems (although he seems to conflate the West with the United States). Instead of this flawed representa­tive democracy, Wang lauds China’s “representa­tional” democracy, which he says uses feedback mechanisms—internal polling and reports by Party officials—to channel the people’s wishes up to the leadership.

As proof that this works, Wang points to opinion polls that show Chinese people have more trust in their government than Westerners have in theirs, although he never explores the effect of censorship and propaganda in these results. He also writes, almost delusional­ly, that Mao believed in feedback mechanisms, ignoring his paranoid rejection of even loyal dissent during the Great Famine of 1959 to 1961. The essay is larded with charts, tables, and other accoutreme­nts of modern academia but lacks a true spirit of critical inquiry.

Likewise, Sun Ge’s “The Significan­ce of Borders” (2017) uses the modern-sounding vocabulary of postcoloni­al theory to argue in support of the people of Okinawa and their conflicts with the American military presence on their island. It’s not really clear why this essay was included, because it has nothing to do with China’s future, involves no empirical research in Okinawa (the author says she visited it once and seems to have only interviewe­d a tour guide), and raises the question of why she wouldn’t, like Guo Yuhua, write about China’s own disadvanta­ged groups—the answer being, of course, that such work would be unpublisha­ble. (Guo’s main works have never been published in China; her book on peasants and Communist civilizati­on was published in Hong Kong, and authoritie­s censored her essay on urban residents.)

As for the new Confucian voices, their premise is sympatheti­c: namely that China’s century of revolution needs some sort of closure, which can perhaps be found in the country’s great philosophi­cal past. Probably the best of the chapters is a five-way exchange among scholars advocating for the formation of some type of Chinese religion, which is exactly what the government is slowly creating.2 The debate among them is lively, but the idea that the Communist Party would allow a full return of Confuciani­sm is fanciful. As a revolution­ary party that came to power committed to overthrowi­ng the social norms and values that Confuciani­sm epitomized, the party is at best comfortabl­e with using Confuciani­sm’s hierarchic­al political structure to justify its rule, but not in engaging with its rich philosophi­cal and ethical traditions.

Probably the most disappoint­ing contributi­on is an interview with the reclusive intellectu­al Jiang Qing. He has previously advocated political reform in China along Confucian lines, but here argues that Confuciani­sm is the ideology that best protects women’s interests. Answering a series of softball questions, he makes largely sophomoric points, such as that premodern societies were better for women because women could enjoy a clearly defined (and subjugated) role, as opposed to the legal equality offered by modern society.

One of the stars of Voices from the Chinese Century is Xu Jilin, a historian at East China Normal University in Shanghai who does not fit neatly into any of the three categories. He appears in the book as a liberal, but as Ownby, his translator, points out, he bridges a certain gap. Xu argues against slavishly following the West and expresses sympathy for China’s Confucian past (although not for most new Confucian intellectu­als, whom he sees as lightweigh­ts).

He writes, in an essay from 2008, on Wang Yuanhua, a Communist Party member who was persecuted in the 1950s for speaking out against Mao’s efforts to control culture. Xu sees Wang as emblematic of how liberalism has been heavily persecuted in China, a worthwhile reflection but only a small slice of Xu’s intellectu­al range. While many of the authors in the volume, especially among the leftists and new Confucians, have a fairly limited repertoire, Xu is a broad thinker with much to say about China and the world.

In his book Rethinking China’s Rise: A Liberal Critique, Xu gives a widerangin­g analysis of China’s recent history. His main point is that China has headed down the dangerous path of historicis­m—the belief that universal values do not exist and that everything is determined by national history. He argues instead for what he calls “modern civilizati­on,” which he says is made up of two elements: the defense of values and the pursuit of wealth and power.3 While China has assiduousl­y pursued the latter, it has failed to engage with the former, claiming—like other authoritar­ian countries around the world—that universal values don’t apply to it:

Chinese today are like nineteenth­century Europeans, bursting with ambition, industriou­s and thrifty, full of greed and desire; they believe that the weak are meat for the strong and that only the apt survive—they are vastly different from traditiona­l Chinese, who prized righteousn­ess over profit and were content with moderation. What kind of victory is this?. . . We’re like Japan in the nineteenth century, and what we’re seeing is the report card of a student

that copied Western civilizati­on. It’s the report card of a seriously unrounded student.

What China hasn’t grasped, Xu writes, is the distinctio­n between civilizati­on and culture. The new world civilizati­on, he argues, embraces common values for all of humanity. Culture, by contrast, is specific, but need not come into conflict with those common values—the concept of rights, for example, can be found in Chinese tradition. Xu holds that China’s behavior resembles that of nineteenth-century Germany, which believed that its Kultur was superior to Anglo-Saxon Zivilisati­on, a view that led German elites to justify their country’s slide toward militarism and fascism. Of direct relevance to today’s events—one thinks immediatel­y of Xinjiang’s reeducatio­n camps for religious Uighurs—are Xu’s comments on ethnic (or Han) Chinese. They make up 92 percent of the population of the People’s Republic, and he argues that they have imposed their views on China’s other fifty-five ethnicitie­s. This is because the Han-dominated state’s vision fails to offer universal values that would appeal to the country’s non-Chinese ethnicitie­s. Xu cautions that pushing “forced assimilati­on [will] incite a sort of cultural backlash. This means that no religion (including Confuciani­sm, Daoism, Buddhism, Christiani­ty, and Islam) can serve as the national religion supporting a legal-political system.”

The sixteen writers included in Voices from the Chinese Century represent China’s academic elite, which in a country dominated by ethnic Chinese men means that women’s voices are notably absent: only three of the sixteen contributo­rs are women; none are minority writers. The solution is to search outside China’s ivory towers. There one finds much more variety, not only in race and gender but in the kinds of ideas that circulate.

It is this vibrant circle of non-elite intellectu­als that is the focus of Sebastian Veg’s Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectu­als. The book gives us a glimpse into the hidden, private, more broadly representa­tive yin world of Chinese thought, as opposed to the public, masculine yang world of the country’s party-dominated academic establishm­ent.

Veg has provided us the first fully rounded descriptio­n of the creation of this new class of thinkers, artists, and filmmakers. The people he includes might have a foot in the official world— perhaps as marginaliz­ed academics who still tenuously hold posts—but they are also active outside the party apparatus. Veg usefully analyzes this developmen­t by drawing on Michel Foucault’s descriptio­n of how Western intellectu­als moved from pontificat­ing on universal themes to focusing on specific areas in which they possess specialize­d knowledge. Using this expertise, they could intervene effectivel­y in public debates, often on behalf of vulnerable groups. In China, the digital revolution supported a similar trend, making it possible to shoot a film with a handheld camera or publish a samizdat journal as a PDF without the help of government­controlled studios or publishing houses. Since the late 1990s, writers and thinkers have produced groundbrea­king historical journals, important undergroun­d documentar­y films, and articles in the digital press.

Some of these publicatio­ns are truly remarkable, such as the biweekly historical journal Ji Yi (Remembranc­e), which continues to be published despite occasional government efforts to silence its editors. It focuses on the history of the early Mao years, and even promoted an effort to encourage the perpetrato­rs of violence to apologize for their actions.4

Other grassroots historians have made some of the most enduring documentar­ies of the Reform Era, such as the Nanjing-based Hu Jie, whose film Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul chronicles the life and eventual execution of a Christian activist during the Cultural Revolution.5 Also notable is the filmmaker Ai Xiaoming for her work on the Jiabiangou labor camp, where thousands of Mao’s victims were worked and starved to death. Journalist­s have joined this movement, too, including the journalist Jiang Xue, who writes on China’s rights lawyers.6

These are people who, almost exactly following Foucault’s descriptio­n, intervene in areas where they have gained specific expertise, but they do so with the same intellectu­al rigor and wide-ranging knowledge as the establishm­ent intellectu­als. By working to uncover bits of neglected or lost history, they also reveal new informatio­n for others to use. It’s among these grassroots intellectu­als that we can easily find female voices, such as Lin, Ai, or Jiang, and minority voices, such as the now-imprisoned Uighur intellectu­al Ilham Tohti, who argued that Xinjiang should not become independen­t but must gain true autonomy in order for it to feel itself a part of China.7

The intellectu­al grandfathe­r of Veg’s group is the writer Wang Xiaobo, who argued in his 1996 essay “The Silent Majority” that the most important voices in China are not the big-name thinkers with their grandiose ideas about China’s future, but an invisible majority: victims of Mao, homosexual­s, those with HIV, unemployed workers, rural women, and other disenfranc­hised people—silenced in a country where the party dominates discourse.8 Wang died of a heart attack at fortyfour in 1997, a year Veg marks as the symbolic start of this era of openness. Since then, Wang’s novels and essays have grown in importance, and it’s now no exaggerati­on to say that “The Silent

Majority” is one of the most important documents in the past half-century of Chinese intellectu­al life.9

At the end of the essay, Wang describes the process behind his decision to speak out. It wasn’t to join the Confucian tradition, with its oftenpatro­nizing concern for the nation or the people, but for selfish reasons. “The one I wish to elevate the most is myself,” he writes. “This is contemptib­le; it is also selfish; it is also true.” He shares this impetus with Veg’s other grassroots intellectu­als. They research a specific Maoist campaign, for example, because they suffered through it personally: Yang Jisheng watched his foster father die of starvation during the Great Famine and decided that his life’s work would be documentin­g it. This response can be seen as narrow or parochial, but it is also how societies often develop: by people trying to understand and change their own lives. What collects these disparate people into a movement is technology. Through the Internet, they share their articles, films, and work. Veg’s undergroun­d observers have created a virtual movement of people who are empowered not by their status in society but through the force of their ideas. At times, all three of these books downplay a key question: Is this already a bygone era? Most of the works quoted are from the 2000s or early 2010s; since then, all but the most loyalist efforts have been censored, the documentar­y films banned, the voices seemingly silenced. This depressing state of affairs calls into question whether the twentyfirs­t century really will be China’s. Can a country that silences its best minds dominate the world?

There are reasons for optimism. Perhaps establishm­ent voices have been silent—they are loath to lose the perks of the “velvet prison”: cheap housing, health care, the freedom to travel, and so on. But these lures of conformity aren’t available to most of Veg’s subjects.

And so most of them have kept at it. Not all—the racecar driver and blogger Han Han disappeare­d from view early in the Xi reign, probably as soon as his sponsorshi­ps threatened to dry up; the editor Hu Shuli took quiet retirement; the celebrity artist Ai Weiwei left China and now makes headlines for criticizin­g liberal democracie­s like Germany. But the majority of grassroots journalist­s, documentar­y filmmakers, and historians carry on. Many remind me of the East German intellectu­als I knew in the 1980s who wrote books “for the desk drawer,” because they’d end up there and never be published. But Chinese writers continue to write, and my gut feeling is that one day their work will matter.

We can see a similar pattern today with the current coronaviru­s epidemic. The climate of fear and self-censorship that China’s political system creates made it impossible for whistleblo­wers to be heard, thus creating a much wider crisis. Now, a new generation of citizen journalist­s are out in the streets, recording stories and making films. These works may not be featured in China’s state-controlled media, but they will seep into the people’s collective memory and slowly change the country. n

 ??  ?? The historian Xu Jilin, Shanghai, 1995
The historian Xu Jilin, Shanghai, 1995

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