Thursday, August 16, 2018

白轲评 许章润:我们当下的恐惧与期待/ Larry Catá Backer, Thoughts on Xu Zhangrun: Our current fears and expectations

Very recently, Professor Xu Zhangrun (许章润) Professor of Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law at Tsinghua University, posted an essay, "Our current fears and expectations" (我们当下的恐惧与期待).   The essay appeared on the website of the Unirule Institute of Economics (天则经济研究所), an independent think tank in Beijing;(and below).  It was then translated into English by Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage  on 1 August 2018 and posted to its website with an elegant and thoughtful introduction by the translator (Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes — A Beijing Jeremiad).  The essay is important and worthy of reflection, even for those inclined to reject its claims, in whole or part.   

Flora Sapio and I have  each written reflections on the many important ideas, and provocations, in Professor Xu's essay. Flora Sapio's reflection, 孙晓义评 许章润:我们当下的恐惧与期待/ Flora Sapio, Thoughts on Xu Zhangrun: Our current fears and expectations, appears here (and may also be accessed HERE).

My reflection,  白轲评 许章润:我们当下的恐惧与期待/ Larry Catá Backer, Thoughts on Xu Zhangrun: Our current fears and expectations appears below. Professor Xu's essay may be accessed at the end of each of our reflections.

The essay may be downloaded HERE.

 白轲评  许章润:我们当下的恐惧与期待/ 
Larry Catá Backer, Thoughts on Xu Zhangrun: "Our Current Fears and Expectations"

Very recently, Professor Xu Zhangrun (许章润) Professor of Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law at Tsinghua University, posted an essay, "Our current fears and expectations" (我们当下的恐惧与期待).  The essay appeared on the website of the Unirule Institute of Economics (天则经济研究所), an independent think tank in Beijing (and below).  It was thereafter translated into English by Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage  on 1 August 2018 and posted to its website with an elegant and thoughtful introduction by the translator (Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes — A Beijing Jeremiad).

What has made that somewhat remarkable, for Western observers at least, was  the tone and objectives of the essay. One outlet noted "Xu spoke specifically of three problems afflicting the regime in China: Party nobility, special needs provisioning, and a new personality cult" (Chinese professor publishes scathing critique of Xi Jinping's administration, calls out president's personality cult). John Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, is the author of The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present,” who on August 3, 2018, published a short  essay in the Washington Post worth reading. Entitled "Unease rattles China’s invincible facade," the essay sympathetically laid out the arguments made by Professor Xu, suggesting that it "captured the feelings of many Chinese people when he questioned whether China’s reforms and opening up policies “are being terminated and whether totalitarian rule will return.”(Ibid). That trajectory follows, it argued, from the systematic unraveling of the four basic parts of an implied social contract. "Xu’s essay has resonated deeply among China’s intellectual elite and has been widely shared on Chinese social media, despite attempts by China’s censors and Chinese largest search engine, Baidu, to erase mentions of his name." (Ibid). And that unraveling has been revealed, we are meant to understand, in the context of the intense trade negotiations  in which Chin and the United States are now embroiled.

And, indeed, it appears that Professor Xu's essay might be understood as important only in the shadow of trade. More interesting, perhaps, is that it might derive its internal power from what appears to be China's never ending reflection in the mirror held up to (or for) it reflecting the United States.  Not Europe or Latin America, or even other Asian state (objects and subordinate places it might be understood). . . but the United States itself (the equal, the competitor, the rival, the objective).   This is an irony that runs from this essay to the triumphalism in Chinese policy that it was in part meant to attack. 

To that end, both Chinese and Westerners might seize this essay (and what might usefully be extracted from it) for their own ends, of course.  In this case those ends include trade and U.S. relations, with respect to which criticisms could be blown up to take on the character  of an assault on the core political system of the state itself, rather than on the unfortunate and erroneous choices made by current leaders in the application of that system toward policy ends. To the extent, then, that Professor Xu's essay proves useful (and utility is built into the fabric of Western academic and political ideology) then it may be referenced for that purpose; but not necessarily read.  Perversely, certain elements of home state authorities also have acquired this habitat if the West; sometimes condemning an essay (and its author) for its purported optics, rather than engaging in its content. That is a pity as well. 

It is useful to style the essay a "Jeremiad," a prolonged lamentation or complaint. Perhaps it is also usefully characterized as a cri de coeur. Yet perhaps, reading the essay more carefully might reveal something other than its optics, than a performance piece meant mostly for its emotive and dramatic value.  That something might not focus on complaints or laments, but rather engage precisely in those actions demanded by the Chinese Communist Party itself in the exercise of leadership and in the fulfillment of its own obligations--regardless of the individuals who for short periods of time are vested with the grave responsibility of seeing this duty undertaken wisely. Taken as a whole, the essay evidences the evolving characteristics of a Chinese Constitutional Leninism with Marxist democratic characteristics.

The thoughts that follow, then, consider Professor Xu's reflections from the perspective of theory--of the core obligations of the Communist Party itself and the expression of that obligation in the actions of the state organs. These are based on the Barmé translation. The resulting insights, in turn, may prove useful not merely for Chinese constitutional theory, but for the operation of Western constitutional systems as well. It is to reflections along those lines that this essay is devoted.


Xu starts the essay with three fundamental points that then inform the essay as a whole and serve as its structural bones.

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.).
The Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party makes this clear: "The biggest political advantage the Party has is its close ties with the people while the biggest potential danger it faces as a governing party is becoming distanced from them. Party conduct and the Party’s ties with the people are of paramount importance to the Party." The masses wish to speak, yet they are afraid to make their voices heard. They feel; they do not speak. They are worried, they are confused.  The implication, of course, is that they lack leadership, or that the leadership is failing in its fundamental obligation under the Basic Party Line. The initial and important implication is of a failure of the mass line, and by that failure, a failure of the leadership obligation at the core of vanguard legitimacy.  

Second, Xu suggests a cause of the failure of leadership, and of the mass line. That cause is rooted in misdirection, or the loss of direction.  More fundamentally, it is caused by deviation from the principles on which a state (and specifically the Chinese state) is organized (立國之道).  
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).
Note here the nature of the structuring proposition.  It is one grounded in the failure of leadership; it is not grounded in a  failure of principle. In a sense that brings what follows firmly within the Leninist tradition of leadership within the vanguard, rather than positioning the writer as outside the system itself.  If the first point invokes the mass line, this second point firmly invokes democratic centralism and intra-Party democracy ("The Party must fully encourage intraparty democracy, respect the principal position of its members, safeguard their democratic rights, and give play to the initiative and creativity of Party organizations at every level and all Party members" (Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party)).  The invocation democratic centralism in the 2nd point also suggests its corollary--the positive obligation of criticism-self criticism at the heart of the CPC working style to ensure that the collective remains at the center, even when guided by its "core." 

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).
In his gloss on the translation, Barmé suggests that the invocation of 立國之道 points to fundamental principles of something like natural law that might be more fundamental than the CPC Basic Line itself. I agree that the invocation is deliberate, and meant to suggest the fundamental principles that serve as the core of his argument.  I am less sure that the invocation was meant disturb the identity between that concept and its expression in the core principles for state construction at the heart of the CPC Basic Line. My sense, then, is that the invocation is to the core of the CPC Basic Line itself--the grounding of the political principles of the state in the theory proceeding from Marxism Leninism. But not just any Marxist Leninist principles, instead the invocation is quite specific--those Chinese Marxist Leninist principles produced in the forge of the Cultural Revolution.

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.  

The form of the essay, and its object, is now clear.  With three concise points Xu declares his allegiance to the current political and ideological system; he expresses his allegiance to and invokes its core relationship between the vanguard and the masses; and he adds substance to that core Leninist dynamic through a defense of the normative principles of Chinese Marxist Leninism that emerged as the fundamental political constitution of China after the Cultural Revolution.  These are the basic political notions that shape the ideological base of the people of China (and not just its state apparatus or the political vanguard).  It follows that these must then be reflected in the whole of the CPC and its work. This, then, frames both the declaration of allegiance and the j'accuse that follows.  And even that j'accuse might be deemed to have deep roots in Chinese Marxism-Leninism.   It is hard, then, to see in this essay, an attack from the outside.  It is rather, at its core, a most Leninist exercise in the protection of Chinese Marxism.

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.

Let us consider these four basic principles together.  First, they do not exactly parallel the fundamental principles that together comprise the CPC Basic Line or the core principles from which they derive.  And yet they are derived from both Basic Line and core principles.  Xu's four principles, then, might be considered the pragmatic expression of the elements of the Basic Line, or they might be understood as the summary expression of the core principles of the meaning of vanguard responsibility, then elaborated in the Basic Line. Second, the four principles seek to the core manifestation of theory, rather than to its elaboration.  They manifest truth from facts, or rather theory from expression in governance. Third, they imply the continued importance of a hierarchically arranged political system at the center of which is a vanguard party whose legitimacy is based (as the CPC Constitution itself underlines) on fidelity to its ideological principles translated into political action. Fourth, they touch on the core structures through which the Basic Line itself can be advanced, or impeded.  Each of the principles looks toward the attainment of normative goals, but none of them are of themselves a goal. Fifth, all of Xu's principles are subjective and contextual.  They require interpretation, but in light off the history and conditions of China (that, of course is the main point--one forgets the Cultural Revolution in China at one's own risk, or in this case at the risk to the integrity of the CPC and the march toward a communist society).  Sixth, they suggest the necessity of aligning political ideology with the construction and operation of the state apparatus--without exception for individuals, and without deference for the status of the position.  This last remains radical and elusive in a society (like all societies) that tend toward rank.

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).)
These constant personality enhancing campaigns detract form stability of an ideological order already well established, Xu asserts. To some extent, Xu's argument may be overbroad.  The problem, of course, is that his core tendency opens the door to ossification.  That is, stability in which the ideology, its principles and application become fixed, tend to produce systems that eventually atrophy as popular understanding increasingly departs from unchanging principles.  The same applies to security issues.  Social order is a critical element of a progressive society.  But at the same time, a security apparatus can be a vanguard element in the suffocation of social progress. The difference between the two must be mediated by principle--and principle must be grounded in a coherent theory of the social order.  And here, again, Xu and the current leadership can quibble.  But there is little here on which one can see how that quibble must inevitably point in one direction rather than another.  

Yet here, Xu moves decisively from abstraction to something quite concrete.  The criticism blends the un-Leninist propensity toward personality in government, with the need to protect the socialist modernization project:
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)  
Here, Xu takes the opportunity to mock the China Dream (中国梦); "That’s to say, it’s not so much about ‘This Dream’ or ‘That Dream’, rather it’s been about growing the economy and developing the society with an emphasis on nation building" (Ibid.). And not just 中国梦, but also the personal ambition, Xu implies, that drives individuals to produce (invent) these campaigns that do not contribute to the core objective of the vanguard.

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.

(2) respect for property rights. Xu here touches on the slow by steady development of principles that protect wealth creation and the exclusive use of property. He devotes much space to praising the development of what I have called Markets Marxism (e.g., here). 
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) 
A quick reading might suggest a criticism of the 19th CPC Congress Report's reference to the rise of a new basic contradiction in this very phenomenon of wealth disparities and income distribution. Yet Xu appears to have a different target, not the new contradiction but the restriction of the private sector in ways that might imperil socialist modernization.

(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).
Xu regrets the focus on individual rather than on civil freedoms.  
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),
 For Xu, the trade off is unacceptable. Here is an argument from the left rather than the right.  Xu is unimpressed with a society that expands personal freedoms that permit what he might consider personal self indulgence, especially those that have no public social significance.  He regrets that in return for this broader permissiveness in personal choices, individual political expression is curtailed.  Here, of course, Xu runs into the grave difficulty of basic Leninism, which posits that all politics must be exercised (and enjoyed) within rather than beyond the vanguard Party.  To that extent Xu's criticism turns to the right int he sens of seeking to broaden the political sphere beyond the Party. Yet this is an area worthy of some discussion.  Even if one believes that Xu is wrong, that the CPC must retain a monopoly of political action, that does not imply no political role for non-CPC members.  Xu's own invocation of the mass line provides a hint. And, indeed, there is much room for improvement int he ways that the CPC undertakes its mass line responsibilities without encouraging popular watchfulness and discussion.  In this sense, there is nothing in Leninism that suggests that even if the CPC retains all political power, that it must pretend that the masses themselves are without expression. And more importantly, it does not suggest that CPC social policy--or the way such policy is implemented--does not constitute political error. Yet that is not the argument that Xu makes.  He notes, as he should, recent actions of lower level officials that substantially interfere with popular habits or practices, but which are suppressed without the benefit of coherent political decisions.  Yet it is not clear that the answer to these administrative abuses is a larger civil society rather than a greater and stricter political supervision of officials. Here is an area in which a transparent social credit might prove useful in disciplining the state and ensuring political correct decisions.

(4) term limits for individuals. Here, Xu offers his view of the construction of Chinese political constitutionalism. 
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). 
This, Xu suggested, implied a constitutional settlement that aligned law and reality, bolstering certainty and international confidence in institutional stability.  
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)
Here Xu implies the overtones of class struggle.  The notion that such a settlement reduced the differences between political and laboring classes. It offered a solution to the great contradiction of the 19th CPC Congress--not with respect to wealth but rather with respect to political differences. There could be tolerance for Party rule, especially when individuals came and went. Again, posing this in Leninist terms might have been useful.  That is, that the constitutional settlement advanced Leninist notions of collectivity, in politics as well as economics by de-centering the individual in favor of the collective (I had suggested something along those lines here). 

The rise of these four basic clusters of constitutional principles, for Xu, contributed to the operation of the CPC led Party-State. It's de-stabilization produced distortions that might imperil the operation of the system as a whole.  And what Xu sees are distortions--not just at the edges of these constitutional settlements but at their core.   
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). 

Worse, for Xu, is the contraction fo the private sector in favor of the public sector.,  And, indeed, that is a concern that has driven American policy in the current quite contentious battles over trade frameworks.  Xu fears the return of economic policies that center the political objectives of economic activity over its role in creating wealth. But most important, Xu fears that in departing from the spirit of the four constitutional settlement principles he outlined that a new form of Cultural Revolution will return to China, and with it, disaster for both state AND Party.
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).
And that transition brings Xu from the description of abstract principle and a generalized sense of distortion in implementation to the eight quite specific manifestations of damage to the Chinese dream from a continued investment in trajectories of present policies. Here one has the operation of mass line and criticism (though not self criticism) operating at its most elevated level.

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) 

Here Xu is right--hypocrisy is the worst corrosive element to the legitimacy of a political order. Here there is an alignment with some of Xi's anti-corruption initiatives.  Yet it comes from a very different place. Xu appears to suggest that the current policy of killing property and wealth creation to reduce corruption  would do neither.

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. 

The third fear follows the pattern of the second.  But here the object is class struggle.  Again, Xu wonders whether movement toward the revival of class struggle in modern China also is a species of looking backwards to move forward.  He raises the question that should be at the core of study among Party faithful: how can historical materialism be reconciled with policies that appear to look backwards? Indeed, such a policy can be criticized within Chinese Leninism both for its left error and its right error.  It is left error because it opens the door to cronyism and cults of personality.  It is right error to the extent it promotes false conflict among people whose unity is a prerequisite toward the objectives of achieving a communist society. A return to class struggle, indeed, would suggest that the CPC's political work was a failure.  It would suggest that little has changed since 1949 in terms of the class constitution of Chinese society, and that all Chinese leaders to date have failed in their obligation.,  But that cannot be true.  If that is the case then the return to class struggle itself is grave error. 

That brings Xu to his fourth, and perhaps greatest fear--trade and prosperity.  Having built China to serve as the factory to the world, politics, it seems will close those factory doors in ways that can only reverse the progress of socialist modernization. This ia a fear with societal and cultural implications.  His fear, and not without some justification, is that China may make political choices that will preserve a sort of backwards looking politics that will produce, in turn, a backwards nation.  The result is that all efforts to assume a leading role in the world will come to nothing. Terrifying, to be sure, but justified? Xu argues that "Now, for China to buddy up to failed states and totalitarian regimes like North Korea and Venezuela not only goes against the popular will, it flies in the face of the tide of history. Indeed, it lacks wisdom" (Xu, supra). More pointedly, he notes the hypocrisy--that officials now pushing an aggressive policy against the West had already transferred substantial wealth to those very places.  The result is that the Chinese people will bear the price of policies which may not affect officials. This produces the critical charge--that officials have put their own interests, and the institutional interests of the CPC , ahead of that of the nation.  This is a serious charge.  But its implications are more powerful--it suggests that the basis of the core obligation of the CPC--to align its interest to those of the nation--have been breached, and with it fidelity to the CPC Basic Line and its legitimating ideology. 

Fifth, Xu worries that moving from economics to politics internally will have significant spillover effects in terms of foreign policy. Here Xu makes an oblique criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative.  He effectively suggests that Belt and Road is effectively more successful as a political rather than as an economic project.  But that such political adventurism itself breaches the CPC's core duty to the nation.
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.
But, Xu warns, and a warning that should be taken seriously, that such efforts erode confidence precisely because of the falsity of the challenge they represent.  Here agains, Xu'0s concern is actually Party positive.  The concern is missteps by officials, borm of a fear that the accumulation of error by officials who may have lost a sense of fidelity to the party and its objectives, might destroy the system itself.  This is hardly the cry of an individual who fulminates against the state.  The reverse is true; here is a cadre who takes steps to protect the collective for the benefit of the people.  The only response that is legitimate is to meet the criticisms . . . or change.

The sixth concern focuses on the repression of the intelligentsia.  This is well known and understood.  Xu, however, does not raise the arguments that might have been rightly criticized for its rightist error.  Rather he raises concerns that focus on the ability of the state to continue to develop the productive forces of the intelligentsia where it seeks to suppress their contribution.  There are other ways to manage intellectuals.  And China has already experimented, unsuccessfully with the methodologies much used between 1957 and 1976. Again this is a variant of the principal argument that Xu develops--is the CPC failing in its leadership obligations by seeking to look backwards to move forward.  More importantly, however, Xu suggests that the current policy effectively eliminates democratic centralism.  Yet, the elimination of democratic centralism is itself a core breach of the fundamentals of Leninist organization. If the CPC cannot encourage robust intra-party democracy, it will never be able to meet its obligation to successfully extend its political work to all the masses.  It is difficult to see how the CPC can maintain fidelity to its own core values in this context.

The seventh concern turns to the cost of great power status.  Xu worries that the cost of a Chinese arms race would be borne on the backs of those least able to afford it. Worse, it would constrain the primary objective of socialist development."The main issue for China is that we cannot afford to interrupt our developmental trajectory or further frustrate the Great Modern Transformation just as it is within sight of being realised" (Xu, supra). Xu had written about this in the past.  He "did so in an effort to point out the inherent dangers in this development and to forewarn of its negative consequences" (Ibid.).  For Xu this is icing in the cake of a series of bad policy choices. In particular, Xu worried, and quite correctly, that China had no business worrying about whether its system was better or worse than that of other powers, especially the United States (a thinly veiled critique of some writing from other departments at Tsinhua University hat had become influential in some circles).  The accumulation of these factors would not produce positive effects for Chinese objectives.
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. 
For Xu, war and military emphasis, is bad for the business of socialist development. more importantly, it would interfere with what he suggests is the trajectory of Chinese restoration to its former glory and place among states.

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.

But all is not lost.  To counter the eight worries that Xu extracts from leadership failures to remain loyal to core principles, Xu also offers what he calls "eight immediate hopes (八項期待). These are the concrete policy suggestions that Xu suggests would correct the errors he has outlined. They mirror, of course, the eight fears.

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).
What is worse, is the charge that these initiatives end run the National People's Congress and might, on that score, be extra legal.  This is a delicate matter.  The Belt and Road Initiative is a crown jewel of the Chinese Going Out and economic initiative, the heart of the great challenge to the Post WWII global system and the dominance of the United States. To challenge its implementation surely hits the current leadership near the center of where it might hurt most.  And yet, from a theoretical perspective, this is not the strongest point of the argument.  Whatever one thinks of the Belt and Road Initiative, it is hard to argue that it shows a lack of fidelity to the core principles of State or Party.  Indeed, the reverse is more likely true.  Whether the policy will actually succeed remains in doubt.  But no state can survive long if its leadership cannot take good faith risks in furtherance of legitimate objectives.  And that is the case here. The same is true of diplomatic extravagance.  And in any case this is an old old complaint; one recalls even Deng Xiaoping complaining about the value of banquets.

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).
Anyone with even the smallest connection to history recalls the devastating effects of these sorts fo systems of privilege on the Communist nobility in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. People are also well aware of the whispering of the masses in places like Cuba where, though the privileges are relatively smaller, they are still quite noticeable. The privileging stings more where the masses are asked to sacrifice int he name of equality of state policy. Leaders who lead most authoritatively lead from the front. Those who enjoy comforts int he rear eventually may find that the armies they deploy may turn around. That is a lesson that early Chinese Communist theorists were as sensitive to as others.

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.

Xu has now moved his reader from the basis of the argument, in the form of betrayals of fundamental principles, to the exposition of the four core principles, to the eight worries and eight hopes that provide a framework for understanding what is error and how to overcome them in the current environment.  But Xu is not done.  In Section 4, Xu seeks to answer the fundamental Leninist question: What is to be done? His answer, in times of transition, dislocations are likely but those who manage to avoid conflict will win in the end--at least for their people.
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). 

Xu suggests that China and the United States find themselves with quite similar leaders at the same time, and both perhaps suited for the transitional time sin which they find themselves. "This is and can only something that happens in a transitional moment; it’s the typical kind of unruly coincidence that occurs during periods of heightened historical drama" (Ibid).  He has little positive to say about either leader--though he paints both with a similar brush.  In both cases, the leader is not aligned with the needs of the people or the direction in which duty requires.
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).
And who might come to the rescue? The intellectual class, of course.  Here Xu ties back the implications of one of the eight worries, with strands of soem fot he hopes, to produce a suggestion that, ironically, centers his own class at the heart of the political discourse of a re-invigorated China.
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. "
Like Xu, I am a great fan of the intellectual class within which I function.  And like Xu I believe that the ability of this class, in the aggregate, to fully develop knowledge (and to some controlled extent to disseminate it appropriately), can serve society well. . .quite well.  At the same time, a class is a class is a class.  Those of us who have been enmeshed within its institutions, especially its disciplinary societal institutions, understand well that the intelligentsia is a subjective to the excesses of orthodoxy and of simony as any other. The charges Xu makes against an ossified and detached ruling elite can as easily be made against a detached and self reflective intelligentsia bloated on its own image of itself and worried more about protecting its  view of itself than of serving knowledge or society. It is difficult, then to convincing argue for intellectual leadership, where, instead, the cultivation of the individual in the exercise of knowledge production, might serve society better.  But that is an argument for another day, but one that is contextually contingent (Democratizing the Global Business and Human Rights Project by Catalyzing Strategic Litigation from the Bottom Up). Yet for Xu, this is important.  It ties the legitimacy of the proffered eight hopes, to the authority of the intelligentsia to proffer them to state authority. 

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.   


  • 许章润
    2018-07-24   累计浏览:31266

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