The essay may be downloaded HERE.
First, Xu starts with a curious invocation of the overtones of the mass line (群众路线). He does not put his own concerns at the center of the essay, but rather those of the people, and the people of all classes.
"Yet again people throughout China — including the entire bureaucratic class — are feeling a sense of uncertainty, a mounting anxiety in relation both to the direction the country is taking as well as in regard to their personal security." 包括整個官僚集團在內，當下全體國民對於國家發展方向和個人身家性命安危，再度深感迷惘，擔憂日甚，已然引發全民範圍一定程度的恐慌。(Xu, supra.).
This is primarily due to the fact that in recent years our National Orientation [立國之道], has betrayed the Basic Principles that I outline below. 蓋因近年來的立國之道，突破了下列底線原則，倒行逆施，(Xu, supra).
Third, Xu points to those basic principles, those core principles that form the foundations of Chinese Marxist Leninist normative organization which have been breached. In this way he draws a distinction between the principles, to which Xu declares firm allegiance, and the individuals whose actions, he will now argue, who have failed in their duty to those principles.
In my opinion, these Basic Principles should not be compromised, and under no circumstances should they be undermined. They are the principles central to the policies formulated by the Communist Party following the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and during the years that it slowly and painstakingly managed to regain a measure of political legitimacy. Throughout the three decades of the Open Door and Reform era, these Principles proved to be the most appropriate political approach; they reflected a minimum consensus arrived at by the entire populace on the basis of which the country could enjoy a form of peaceful co-existence. (Xu, supra).
These are not merely theoretical principles. Xu does something more than that. He suggests that these principles are fundamental to the nation and to the CPC itself. That is, that Chinese Marxist Leninism is the natural law of China to which the CPC itself is bound. Personal deviation is not permitted within a system in which the collective stands at the center.
If "Leadership of the Communist Party of China is the most essential attribute of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and the greatest strength of this system" (Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party), then each of its members "must wholeheartedly serve the people, be ready to make any personal sacrifice, and dedicate their lives to realizing communism." (Const. CPC, Art. 2). That, more than anything else, makes what follows both important and sensitive. The bulk of the essay then turns to four basic principles on which the failures of leadership rest. "So, then, what are the Four Basic Principles? 那麼，是哪四項底線原則呢？(Xu, supra). These include (1) security and stability; (2) respect for property rights ; (3) a measure of tolerance for personal freedoms ; and (4) term limits for individuals.
These, then, might be the way to understand the National Orientation [立國之道] at the heart of Xu's elaboration. Let us consider briefly each in turn.
(1) security and stability. Xu notes the importance of both security and stability to the basic "bargain" on which the legitimacy of the vanguard rests. These are nearly universal notions, though, as important in the management of Western democratic social orders, as it is for theocratic states. China, in this sense is no different. What is different is the theoretical basis for that security and stability. Here Xu draws on the lessons of the Cultural Revolution (as he sees them) He also suggests the way that the system that emerged after the Cultural Revolution has been subject to increasingly frequent shocks brought about by personality based distortions.
There must be an end of the tendency to pursue new and repeated ‘Political Movements’ [that is, mass moblisation and voluntarist campaigns with short-lived political aims] as well as ‘Lawlessness’ aimed at crushing criminals and underworld gangs. (Xu, supra).)
Despite a few clashes, the average Chinese has been of the opinion that no matter who was in power, or who fell from grace, given the orderly succession of bureaucrats, a general feeling grew up over time that national policy priorities would continue to focus on substantive nation building. Thus, when it came down to it, most people were willing to put up with the existing political arrangements, in other words: ‘You hold onto the reins of power; I’ll enjoy my personal life’. This official-popular consensus and collaboration produced the social stability and security that I have been discussing here. (Xu, supra)
This presents a curious mix of criticism from the right and the left. From the right, Xu embraces the centrality and permanence of the socialist modernization project. In that sense, Xu embraces Deng Xiaoping's Reform and Opening Up as the basic principle against which everything must be judged. He judges much of what comes after more optics than substance. Here he makes a point that merits serious consideration by the CPC itself--even if undertaken internally. From the left, Xu embraces security and social reconciliation as the price to be paid for economic advancement under the leadership of a vanguard. So where is the center of the criticism? It is quite narrow in this respect:it is on unnecessary political movements, and the increasing tendency to use these political movements to mask cults of personality. Yet, in the end, there is little to help either cadre or citizen figure out what is necessary and what is unnecessary. Clearly, political movement, including that described in the 19th CPC Congress is central to the obligation of the CPC to lead the Chinese people forward toward the attainment of its goals. At the same time, the ritual of political movements has not clearly produced much by way of advancement of goals.
We went from a time when private property and ownership were regarded as the source of all social evils [during the era of ‘High Maoism’, from 1956 to 1976] and entered a period that tolerated hundreds of millions of Chinese legitimately pursuing greater personal wealth, and then on to a time when there was the prospect that property rights would even be recognised constitutionally — or as the short-hand puts it, ‘private property would be allowed into [recognised by] the Constitution’ (Xu, supra)
(3) a measure of tolerance for personal freedoms. There is a stark contrast between the realized attainment of expectations of property and wealth creation, on the one hand, and the discussion of civil society and mass action in the context of Xu's third principle. Indeed, from some perspectives, this principle appears to be aspirational rather than one that, having been attained, is now challenged by change.
Over the past decades, civil society has not evolved in China. Whenever there’s been an outbreak of anything approaching normalcy, it has been crushed. This has had a profoundly negative impact on the individual growth and political maturation of our citizenry. (Xu, supra).
Today, people enjoy their liberties of social actors but not as citizens; this is particularly so in the case of the more economically advanced provinces where this has been the case for some time. What I mean by ‘the liberties of social actors’ is that in the private sphere people can enjoy limited personal freedoms, in particular in regard to normal pleasures such as eating, going about one’s daily business and personal intimacy behind closed doors. " (Ibid),
In essence, the Party-State is founded on dictatorial political principles which at their rotting core are maintained by a philosophy of pitiless struggle and factional infighting. On the surface, this is a political modality with an ugly maw that can only be sated by ruling over and consuming the wealth of the nation. However, due to a Constitutional Provision that limited the highest power-holders to two five-year terms in office — and that includes both the state president and the premier — since 2003 , and with the peaceful transition of leadership the country finally experienced ten years [2003 to 2012] after which the leadership showed that it was satisfied with two five-year terms in power. (Xu, supra).
Despite all the vacuous hoopla about other kinds of political reform initiatives, the Party-State system had otherwise remained immobile. So, everyone came to believe that now, no matter who you are or what you do, at most you’ll only be in power for ten years. (Xu, supra)
However, in expanding to become a system of ‘Stability Maintenance’ the methods of employed to achieve social control have in effect put entire areas under quasi-martial law . . . The recent Sino-US Trade War has, in particular, revealed underlying weaknesses and the soft underbelly of the system. All of this has only served to exacerbate a widespread sense of insecurity in the society at large. (Ibid).
It is feared that in one fell swoop China will be cast back to the terrifying days of [one-man rule under] Mao. Along with this Constitutional revision there is also a clamour surrounding the creation of new personality cult, something that in particular has provoked the Imminent Fears that I outline below. (Ibid).
The eight causes of insecurity provide a glimpse at the weaknesses of current policy--at least from the perspective of Xu. But it also suggests, or should suggest to CPC leaders with a heightened sense of duty to the Basic Line, the context in which the party's political work, as well as its operationalization in the economic, societal and cultural sectors, might require adjustment--and explanation to the masses. That would be the appropriate approach of a Leninist vanguard fully confident in its legitimacy and in its confidence in meeting popular appeals, incorporating them into its programs, and then reshaping them in ways consistent with CPC objectives.
With respect to the assault on property, Xu is worried both about immigration, but also about the corruption that served to distort the process of moving to a Markets Marxist System. Worse, for Xu, is that wealth disparities are not the consequence of private accumulations, but of the ability of Party padres to accumulate wealth.
The biggest winners during the decades of the Reform policies and the Open Door has been that particular stratum of Party bureaucrat-cum business tycoon. They have milked the system with consummate skill and they make up the lion’s share of the migrating uber-rich. The official media carefully limits information , but popular grumbling is rife and, added to that, the propagandists still time and again strum the old tune about ‘the ultimate goal of communism being the abolition of private property’ to which hysterical populists add ‘Overthrow the Wealthy, Divide the Spoils’. (Xu, sipra)
With respect to the second fear, Xu suggests that the reversion to Mao era political initiatives can be dangerous. He notes, and not without some reason, that it may be impossible to detach old political initiatives from their effects. There is a sense here that Xu is skeptical that one can revert to Maoist ideological initiatives without suffering the consequences that are well known. One cannot detach an initiative from its context, even if the context in which it is to be applied has changed. The foundations of the Great Leap Forward might not have miraculously different results when applied a half a century later to a nation in very different financial conditions. But underlying the unease is a legitimate question: if the Leninist project demands moving forward to confront new conditions in their context, an idea firmly reaffirmed in the 19th CPC Congress Report, then how is it possible to revert of old approaches whose disastrous results are historically documented? There is no answer here; and none seems to be forthcoming. But a vanguard party must resolutely face this question and provide leadership if it is to overcome insecurity and lead willing masses. And, indeed, Xu raises the equally important question about CPC working style--self-criticism explicitly and democratic centralism implicitly.
It is said that China is now the world’s largest source of international aid; its cash-splashes are counted in billions or tens of billions of dollars. For a developing country with a large population many of whom still live in a pre-modern economy, such behaviour is outrageously disproportionate. Such policies are born of a ‘Vanity Politics’; they reflect the flashy showmanship of the boastful and they are odious. (Ibid).He references as well the ramifications in the face of the current U.S.-China trade dispute.
Following the recent outbreak of the Sino-US Trade War, the official state media has called on the nation to ‘Overcome the Present Difficulties in a Spirit of Unity’ [共克時艱], a slogan that has been widely mocked.. . . The Masses have responded by deriding such nonsense mercilessly: ‘Fuck you’, you hear people say. ‘What the hell does that have to do with anything?’ Such sentiments reflect popular sentiment; people can’t be duped like the hapless and uncomplaining subjects of yesteryear.
At the moment, as the political atmosphere of China is becoming increasingly repressive and the country is entangled in a foreign trade dispute, there is an increased possibility of an economic downturn, something that could led to things that are beyond control and that may have various unintended consequences. In such a situation it is not unreasonable to be afraid that matters could result in some form of military conflict, be it either a hot or a cold war. One should mindful of the need to prevent such an outcome. Popular wisdom argues that a trade conflict between China and the United States should not be used as a pretext [by the propagandists and policy advisers] for heightened ideological contestation, nor should there be a competition over which side has a superior political system.
The eighth and capstone worry brings Xu back to the opening of the essay. Xu worries that when current government and Party policy is amalgamated, what emerges is not just a progress of CPC policy to meet the challenges of the time, but instead, the end of reform and a return to the working style of the Cultural Revolution period. An opening up to war would, in Xu's view also open China up to a return to totalitarianism. That, he argues, is the firm lesson of recent Chinese history.
The first two touch on Chinese foreign policy and economic largesse ("Put a stop to grand gestures and Wasteful International Largess," and "Put an End to Diplomatic Extravagance"). Probably reflecting some public sentiment, Xu expressed chagrin at the cost of building the Belt and Road Initiative.
At the recent China-Arab States Cooperation Forum [on 10 July 2018] the Chinese Leadership [that is, Xi Jinping] announced that twenty billion US dollars would be made available for ‘Dedicated Reconstruction Projects’ in the Arab world. On top of that, [Xi Jinping declared that] ‘a further one billion yuan will be offered to support social stability efforts in the region’. Everyone knows full well that the Gulf States are literally oozing with wealth. Why is China, a country with over one hundred million people who are still living below the poverty line, playing at being the flashy big-spender? How can the Chinese not comment in astonishment: just what is the Supreme Bureaucratic Authority thinking? Don’t They care about our own people? (Xu, supra).
The third, fourth, and fifth hopes, "End the privileges of the Party Nobility," "End the System of Luxury Provisioning," and "Require Officials to Divulge their personal assets," are both necessary and quite stinging public rebukes. It is hard to maintain legitimacy in a Leninist organization grounded in class struggle (especially where the Party is itself seeking to revive this device) where cadres acquire special privileges that from the outside resemble those reserved for high capitalists.
This is not merely a betrayal of the self-advertised ‘Revolutionary Spirit’ [of the Communist Party], it is also in breach of modern standards of civic life. What’s all that talk of ‘the remnants of feudalism’ for? This is a perfect example of it! People are outraged but powerless to do anything about it and it’s one of the main reasons why people regard the system itself with utter contempt. On one side of the hospital Commoners face the challenge of gaining admission for treatment, while everyone knows that grand suites are reserved on the other side for the care of high-level cadres. The people observe this with mute and heartfelt bitterness. Every iota of this bottled up anger may, at some unexpected moment, explode with thunderous fury. (Xu, supra).
To be sure, there has been some reform. And that is to be lauded. But as Xu suggests, one wonders whether it is enough. More importantly, one wonders whether the Party has made sufficient effort to fix its optics to satisfy mass expectations. Failure here can have substantial effect. Xu suggests a connection between luxury provisioning, with respect to which much care is lavished, and the lack of care for safety standards relating to goods made available to the masses. These double standards are bad theory, and worse governance--at least for the long run. Individuals who care about strengthening the system ought to care deeply about these sort of charges. But the solution for discipline leaves something to be desired. Especially from experience in the West, disclosure if a good first step, but hardly a basis for the disciplining of officials. This is especially the case where the difficulty is systemic. Xu puts his faith in "the national Internet, and with the oversight of 1.4 billion pairs of eyes, everything would immediately become clear" (Xu, supra). He might have done better to put his faith in social credit systems (see, e.g., Next Generation Law: Data Driven Governance and Accountability Based Regulatory Systems in the West, and Social Credit Regimes in China).
The sixth and seventh hopes present timely and key challenges to current policy--"Put a Stop to New Personality Cult Immediately," and Restore Term Limits for the National Presidency." The issue of cults of personality should not be underestimated in China. Even if none are actually being engineered, the optics of personality cults can make large segments of the population, segments that have fresh memories of the Cultural Revolution, nervous. To some extent, Xu openly states what some segments of Chinese society had been whispering for some time. Perhaps that declaration was necessary. It is a pity that such an argument might be exploited by Westerners. Xu clearly has it in mind to bring the Chinese state closer to a state where theory and practice converge. He has no interest in attacking the legitimacy of the current political system or of the leadership of the CPC. But he does insist the CPC practices what it preaches better. That is fair enough. Even if one disagrees. Westerners, however, are unlikely to resist the urge to see in these charges all the evidence they need to conclude that the system is itself illegitimate. That is hardly the take-away Xu suggests, nor is it warranted by the essay. In any case, an official response is equally necessary. And it is possible to make such an answer--it is already an essential feature of Chinese political principle (see Constitutional Reform Comes to the Chinese State Constitution and Changes to China's Global Trade Relationships).
The eighth hope is perhaps the most impossible, to "Overturn the Verdict of 4 June." His reasoning is not absurd. It is indeed quite pragmatic. If one diffuses the political potency of the 4th of June, then it no longer serves as a focus of dissent. Xu notes correctly precedent for this rehabilitation in the recent history of the CPC. And to soem extent, he taunts the current leadership. If Deng Xiaoping could rehabilitate a very sensitive anniversary (5th April 1976), then why is it not possible for the current core leadership to do the same with the 4th of June? That, of course, is a question that only the core can answer. But certainly there is substantial inertia on that score.
Human beings are, above all, political animals, and politics is the ultimate expression of human ingenuity. What is necessary in the here and now is that, no matter what the present situation happens to be, we cannot allow ourselves to deviate from the grand course of Peaceful Development. We have a period of historic opportunity that can only be seized on by the wise. We don’t need heedless antagonism; at all costs we must not cast aside the good hand that we have been dealt. (Xu, supra).
Be it in China or abroad, in the present or in the past: we’ve seen their kind before. One is reminded of those [recent] jokes about how ‘Bad People Have Gotten Older’ [a reference to a popular comic observation that: ‘It’s not that old people have suddenly turned bad, it’s just that bad people have gotten older’ 不是老人變壞了，而是壞人變老了]. (Ibid).
In China it is necessary to call for an end to the ever-increasing censorship and to give freedom of expression back to the intelligentsia [讀書人, literally, ‘those who read books’]. For only then, and only with the painstaking work of generations, can the motherlode of Chinese Civilisation be regenerated and nurtured, its role protected and its relevance strengthened. Only then will it be possible to face unfolding possibilities with clear-sightedness, or to be able to respond calmly to immediate challenges so that we can apply ourselves to practical service in the world. "
And so Xu ends his argument, but not before insulting the venality of the people who curry favor with the current leadership through complicity in augmenting tendencies toward cults of personality; "one imagines that the whole performance is being stage-managed by a duet of bureaucrats and businessmen, each in hot pursuit of their own ends."(Ibid). That, perhaps, more than anything else, suggests the enormity of the task that Xu confronts. This, perhaps, he realizes as he ends his essay: "That’s all I’ve got to say now. We’ll see what Fate has in store; only Heaven can judge the nation’s fortunes. 話說完了，生死由命，而興亡在天矣." (Ibid.).
One can see why the essay might have been viewed as sensitive within China. And one can see as well the value of the essay for outsiders eager to continue the by now tiresome game of proving the illegitimacy of the Chinese constitutional system in a quest for regime change of some kind. Both urges are not merely tiresome but they impede the self interested advancement of the interests of all sides. Xu had made a strong Leninist case for change--some parts of it stronger than others. But the argument itself is quite conservative, in the sense of starting from the assumption that the system itself is not in question, just the choices made by those in positions of authority at the moment. That is fair. A more Leninist argument might have resonated more; but it would have been lost entirely on much of the audience Xu tries to reach. And that, ironically ought to be understood as the greatest criticism that ought to be made of the current situation. The CPC has failed to do its work when it has, after so many years, continued to fail to normalize the discourse of its system within the operative vocabulary of its people. In the end, it doesn't matter much if in the rarefied halls of the Party schools it is possible to have deep and elegant conversations about the operation of the state and the role of its vanguard. That is intellectual elitism that is every bit as corrosive in the intellectual arena as Marxist notions of advanced capitalism is in the economic arena. Until Xu's arguments can be normalized within the ideological view of the vanguard, the vanguard has much work to do to make itself understood.
One can extract several larger insights from Xu's essay.
The first is that the intellectual class is now nervous enough to seek ways to gain the attention of the highest level officials of the political and the administrative state. That should serve as a warning to officials. That warning has internal dimensions. If the collective governance system excludes its intellectuals to the point where such performances are deemed necessary, as sensitive as they might be, it suggests that some one is not listening, someone who ought to be listening. And of course, to listen does not mean to agree, or to act on what is said. But it is to hear and consider. Here, perhaps the greatest insight--the current system continues to require further work on the embedding of the mass line into its working style.
Second, the causes of that nervousness is not tied to an erosion of faith in the fundamental operational principles of the state or even of the Leninist organization of political power. The reverse appears to be true. It is a failure to adhere to founding principles that have made the intellectuals nervous. In this context it is important to note how, despite misgivings, Chinese constitutional ordering has developed a firm foundation. To see in Xu's essay an opportunity to advance arguments about the legitimacy of the current political order or its norms is error.
Third, it follows that Xu's essay does not in the slightest evidence any sort of constitutional crisis. Rather, it evidences a crisis of confidence in the fidelity of leadership to remain faithful to core Leninist principles of governance that have developed in China since the 1970s. It evidences the rise of constitutional Leninism that is both remarkable and highly understudied. Yet this emerging constitutional Leninism it is potent for ensuring the sort of collective governance at the heart of the evolving Leninist collective project, both for preserving the normative objectives of the Marxist political order, and for ensuring that the drive toward governance systems in which the collective remains at the center, and through which individual discretion is constrained by rules faithful to the normative project.
Fourth, the essay suggests the difficulty, even for people of clear vision like Xu, to move from the identification of the problem to its solution. To some extent, that is the great strength but also the great weakness of the essay. It clearly sees the problem but can do little more than what the adversary offers--looking backward to move forward. This has been the great problem of other Marxist Leninist States (see, e.g., The Cuban Communist Party at the Center of Political and Economic Reform: Current Status and Future Reform). But as Xu suggests as well, also a growing problem among Western democracies. As such it is a bit ironic to both criticize the looking backwards strategy in adversaries while offering a variant of that same strategy as an alternative. The answer cannot be to preserve the past (Xu's position) or to return to a different past (the solution of factions currently influential in state and party).
Fifth, the essay lamentably may fall into its own trap; and in doing so reflects a global problem for intellectuals and their role in contributing to the integrity of the governance of states in accordance with their contextually relevant political norms. Like his Western counterparts in the United States, concerned intellectuals of all political allegiances appear increasingly unable to separate arguments about policy and rules--and a fidelity to both, from the all-to-easy temptation to personal mockery of individuals. Yet succumbing to that temptation substantially weakens the power of the criticism, and its helpfulness. If, indeed, the object (or an object) is to ensure avoidance of cults of personality, then focusing on personality in critique might well appear to have the opposite of intended effect (see, The NATO Meeting's Agit-Prop Moment--Is this Any Way to Run an Alliance in the Age of Media Spectacle? On Reshaping Discourse in NATO). As a consequence, the authority of intellectual intervention is also weakened; it becomes politics by another means. That is as true in the United States as it might be in China.
Sixth, Xu reminds us that in a system founded on the union of politics and economics, one in which socialist modernization remains at the center, one cannot discount trade when speaking to politics, and one cannot value political theory that diminishes the reality of its economic effects. For Xu, this cuts in two contrary ways. For one, it puts a political spotlight on the Belt and Road Initiative. But this is bad business from the perspective of long term economic planning and the advancement of Chinese economic objectives. But that is precisely the problem that Xu describes but fails to analyze completely--the measure of political and economic risk differ; and a society's tolerance for economic risk will likely be quite different form its tolerance of political risk. And yet the Belt and Road Initiative requires a balancing of both in its construction and implementation. In that respect Xu focuses necessarily on the political risk (with respect to alternative expenditures of public money), but fails to consider the importance of the economic risk analysis. This is lamentable especially in the shadow of the overall imperative of socialist modernization. For the other, it centers the relations between China and the United States in ways that may distort China constitutionalism, Chinese politics, and Chinese economics. That is certainly a pity, but it is a problem of long standing. And, indeed, it behooves the Chinese intellectual class to determine a mechanics for finding escape velocity form the shadow of the United States. Normal relations between the two most powerful systems in the globe might never attain a level of value to both until each ceases to operate in the shadow of the other.