These are translated excerpts from a stirring audio statement by an eminent Chinese academic and Communist Party member:
The Party itself is already a political zombie … the system has already corrupted many … [The leader] has become a total mafia boss who can punish his underlings however he wants … the whole Party [is] revolving around one person … [The CCP’s Standing Committee members are] just slaves under the command of one person, I wonder whether [the Party] can rise up again for the sake of this country and its people … [and] ask this person to step down … The key is whether our high-ranking officials have the political courage to be accountable to the Party and the people…
… Right now, society can’t be counted on, he’s already atomized the entire Chinese society into scattered sand. All of civil society and the capacity for self-organization have been shattered… the ability to think is being devastated…
… we need to believe in this nation … it is resilient and alive… If we don’t get rid of this person… we will wait for a hard landing…. There is a large likelihood that by the end of this year or the first half of next year [i.e. 2021], the economy will completely collapse… [eventually] domestic conflicts will boil over… within five years, we will witness China go through another period of major chaos…
That address, delivered in May, began to circulate on the Web in the first half of June 2020, when many in and outside China criticised the official handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. To show why these outspoken remarks are so noteworthy, I must explain the speaker’s background and the context. The above quotes are from the English translation, whose authenticity and accuracy I trust, of a recent speech by Prof. Căi Xiá, an eminent, now retired, professor of law at the Central Party School in Beijing, where she had taught since 1988. Her book, Globalisation and Communist Values, received a Party prize in 2002.
The excerpts reproduced above – addressed originally in a 20-minute on-line talk to a private group – were picked up and translated by the China Digital Times (CDT), a well-known California-based think tank that screens Internet and other material about China, material ‘filtered out’ by PRC robo-censors in particular. The robots sift the Web for inconvenient reports by identifying word combinations, for example “event”+“ June 4”, the date of the Tiananmen massacre; and then the article is removed. When ‘Web guerrillas’ in China began to use instead the term “May 35”, articles containing this term were also automatically removed. CDT identifies such materials and makes them accessible on their website, both in Mandarin and English. They are widely read, both in and outside China.
In addition, CDT offers its own commentaries and analyses and identifies news events which are favourable to the Chinese authorities, and which these authorities tell their followers to display prominently on the home pages of news sites. CDT has engaged in these cyber tussles with gusto since it was started in 2003 by Chinese astrophysicist Xiāo Qiáng (right). He had become a human-rights activist after the Tiananmen massacre and gone to the University of California, Berkeley, to attend the Graduate School of Journalism there. CDT is now run by Berkeley students with a network of contributors from around the world.
Internet postings by CDT of officially censored material are widely read by educated young Chinese on the Web. I have always been surprised how young strangers in the PRC boast that they can access Google, which is officially censored, and how they use VPNs (virtual private networks) and deciphering devices to bypass the censors. But does it matter that a mere relative few of China’s 1.4 billion citizens read Căi Xiá words? I think it does at the present stage of China’s social and economic development because the Beijing authorities are expending so much effort and treasure to censor words like hers.
Over the past decade, Prof. Căi Xiá, who was long considered a member of Xi Jinping’s faction of the Communist Party, has been a prolific writer on Marxist theory and public affairs. She made her voice heard on Chinese social media in particular, weighing in on corruption and the repression of intellectual life. More recently, she became outspoken with demands for what she calls ‘constitutional democracy’. Although she always argued with the terminology and within the mental models of Marxist theory, she maintained that socialist revolution must lead to genuine democracy. Now, she is retired from the Party School’s Department of Party Building and Education Research and, as of June 2020, is reported as being “currently outside China”.
Căi Xiá came to the attention of many foreign China watchers in 2011 when she published an article in which she argued that “modernization of politics must be an important part of the country’s advance toward modern civilisation”. The CPC’s historic mission was to use “socialist constitutional democracy to shore up and guarantee the great revival of the Chinese people” (all quotes are from a carefully annotated translation by T. Creek, J.A. Fogel and D. Ownby). She argued that the people, who had hoped to be masters of their own lives, were still a long way from that goal.
Revolution were able to overthrow old regimes, she said, yet unable to vanquish the ghosts of despotism and establish democracy. To make the case that genuine democracy was a core goal of revolution, she quoted the Communist Manifesto: “… the first step in the revolution … is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy” and harked back to the 1930s and 1940s when leading Chinese Communists praised US democracy. Mao and his team contrasted the despotism of the Guomindang with the Communists’ express aspiration to freedom of thought, speech, press, assembly, association and religion. Alas, after 1949, the CCP moved against democracy. She also wrote that the modern national market economy – with its limitation of state powers and protection of individual rights – had everywhere created the indispensable economic basis for democracy. Yet, in Mao’s China, markets were suppressed, partly due to long-standing traditions, Soviet influence and colonial distortions. As a consequence, leaders could ignore citizens’ rights. “Majoritarian democracy [became] … majority tyranny”.
In her writings, Căi Xiá quotes copiously from Marx and refers to Deng Xiaoping, implying a law of history which determines that revolution should lead to genuine democracy, a separation of powers and a rule of laws that protect property and other individual rights. She somehow imagines a political regime under one-party leadership, though not one-Party rule of the state. In post-revolutionary China, the ruling Party however became a privileged elite that expected to be served by the people. Căi Xiá argued that, as of 2011, the ruling Party had to change from the spirit of violent, conflictive social revolution to building a system of harmonious democratic governance, in other words from a zero-sum game to a win-win game on the principle of “live and let live”. She stipulated that there ought to be “a rough equality between state authority and citizen rights”.
In this essay, Căi Xiá argued for the recognition of the individual who enjoys autonomy and can pursue diverse self-set aspirations, and not – as in China’s despotic tradition – who is a subject and just a tool for realising the goals of the national collective. When she wrote critically of “the forced requisition of land and forced demolition of housing among the masses”, this evoked vivid memories in my mind of ordinary people waving placards and demonstrating in front of urban demolition sites –– scenes, which any visitor to China who left the ‘foreign tourist bubble’ will have come across in recent decades.
Căi Xiá re-issued her essay in January 2013 . It sounded like a cri de cœur against the then emerging argument that constitutional democracy just does not fit China’s specific conditions. At the time, many foreigners were amazed that such arguments as hers were still tolerated in the People’s Republic, indeed that such arguments – even when infused with Marxist-Maoist modes of dialectic thinking – could come out of the Central Party School. To my mind, this inspired hope.
The style of the essay reminded me of the writings of Milovan Đilas (Djilas), the imprisoned communist renegade in Tito’s Yugoslavia. He, too, had reflected about communism within a framework of Marxist dialectic and come to conclusions that condemned the ‘New Class’ (aka party priviligentsia) for frustrating the justified aspirations of individuals. Writers like Djilas and Căi Xiá are hard to read because they use communist jargon and are enmeshed in the Marxist way of thinking. A sympathetic Western reader of Căi Xiá must of course doubt the practicality of her proposals. How could the leading role of the Communist Party of China ever be sustained when the political order allows freedom of speech, freedom of association and free elections? Would this not lead to the demise of the monopoly Party because of its past repression and its corruption? Would that not lead to revenge and turmoil? Would the present rulers not soon be replaced by alternative thugs?
It is thus easy for Westerners to dismiss the writings of idealistic reform Marxists. Yet, they deserve some admiration for their valiant intellectual struggles and their humane, individualistic aspirations. After all, they have not had access to thinkers such as Max Weber, Joseph Alois Schumpeter, Friedrich August Hayek and Karl Popper. Our respect needs, however, to be tempered: Whatever Marx may once have had in mind when he spoke of ‘democracy’ and whatever Căi Xiá imagines him to have thought, one cannot absolve present-day Marxist idealists of empirical ignorance. Wherever socialist revolutions overturned an old order during the past one-hundred years, thuggish autocrats emerged and inflicted fear and poverty on the people: Castro in Cuba, the Kims in Korea, Uncle Ho in Vietnam, half a dozen socialist dictatorships in Africa, the al-Assads in Syria, Muammar Gaddafi’s ‘Green Socialism’, the chavista socialism in Venezuela, and so on. There is no indication of a revolutionary dialectic leading from socialist revolution to democracy and constitutionally limited government!
As of June 2020 and amidst of the COVID-19 crisis in the PRC, Professor Căi Xiá has dared to escalate her criticism to a new level, though still clinging to Marxist thought habits. As the quotations at the beginning of this article show, she has the courage not only to adapt and harden her earlier argument for constitutional democracy under one-Party leadership, but to be explicit in criticising where China is now being steered by Xi Jinping. Hers is by far not the only courageous recent criticism. Most of us have become aware of Dr. Lĭ Wénliàng, the Wuhan eye specialist who warned the public of a new, highly contagious virus in December 2019. He was initially reprimanded for “greatly disturbing the public order beyond the scope permitted by law”. In February 2020, he died of the virus, aged 33. In the face of wide public outrage, Chinese authorities eventually declared “official sadness” over his death. Less well known is Dr. Ài Fēn, the head of Emergency in Wuhan Central Hospital, who was the first to alarm colleagues and Wuhan health authorities about the SARS-Cov-2 virus. She, too, was at first severely rebuked. Her warnings on social media in January were censored, but were eagerly reposted on the Internet, using Morse code , braille signals, Pinyin transcriptions and emoji characters, which the robo-censors could not uncover. In March, Dr. Ài Fēn (left) openly condemned the government in an interview for its lies about the COVID-19 outbreak. The interview was of course promptly removed from Chinese media, but obstinately reappeared, also translated into English, German and Japanese. Dr. Fēn is now reported to have disappeared.
The current cat-and-mouse games in cyberspace in and around China occur at a critical time for the Beijing autocrats. One-and-a-half generations ago, most in Mainland China were dirt-poor, castigated by the political turmoil of the Mao era. Their priority, when economic life was becoming more open and free in the 1980s and 1990s, was to keep their heads down and improve their living standards, move from collective quarters into their own four walls, save for amenities and the children’s better education, and perhaps travel to foreign countries to see how the rest lived. During these ‘Golden Years’, we in the West discovered that the Chinese were politically compliant, but not ‘yellow ants’. They were people like us; they wanted the same things that we expect of the good life — a good meal, sharing a song, being inspired by great art or a wonderful landscape, laughing at a witty idea, savouring new knowledge. Only when one works or trades in Asia and interacts more intensively, does one discover psychological and cultural differences between West and East: a more community-bound way of thinking tends to prevail, with less insistence on individual rights and more regard for collective obligations.
The expectation in the 1980s and 1990s was that a new and educated middle-class would gradually demand more political freedom and become more outspoken about the corruption of the Party elites, just as demands for democracy and civil rights arose after a generation of economic advancement in Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The signs were there that the PRC would follow that same evolutionary trajectory. Remarkable writings like Căi Xiá’s 2011 essay inspired hope.
Since Xi Jinping’s takeover of the helm of the CPC in 2012, such expectations have had to be modified drastically, though not all foreign observers and Chinese citizens have completely abandoned hope. Xi is on the unprecedented mission to control 1.4 billion people, who are no longer ignorant, downtrodden peasants. Nor are Chinese communities as ‘atomised as sand’, as Căi Xiá feared. Hundreds of millions now belong to an educated, aspiring middle-class. They have been buoyed by an economic and cultural ascendancy and now have the means to network independent of government. Any leader, who sees his role as defending a life-long political monopoly of the Communist Party and the country, will of course try to meet the challenges from the rising, more demanding, more educated middle-class by falling back on selective repression and whipping up nationalistic fervour.
Căi Xiá is probably right when she now writes that a crisis is imminent. China’s economy has been hit hard both by the domestic disruptions of production and trade and the downturn in export demand in the wake of the pandemic. The option of using massive pump-priming to ‘buy prosperity’ is less available than in earlier cyclical slowdowns, since huge debts and unused capacities – for example ubiquitous stocks of new, but vacant housing – weigh on the economy and the financial system. Add to this the COVID-19 death toll throughout the country and a possible second wave now spreading in the capital. Superstitious Chinese may interpret recent omens as signs that the Red Emperor is losing the Mandate of Heaven.
Further, add to this the massive material and reputational harm suffered worldwide by the PRC owing to the ‘Wu Flu’. Besides, the rulers may now discover that the Belt-and-Road initiative is not as welcome around the world as originally expected. Causing controllable tensions – by an intensification of cyberattacks to Western infrastructures, a crackdown on those pesky people in Hong Kong, a skirmish on the Indian border, or a move on Taiwan – are in such a situation a tried and tested means for insecure dictators to prop up intra-Party support and national solidarity. This seems even more feasible, as the chair of the Western alliance appears to be vacant with America occupied by a Presidential election.
This does not, in my opinion, mean that Beijing will risk an open conflict, as that would be extremely harmful for the PRC. After all, China’s real per-capita income is way below that of the United States (according to the 2018 estimates of the World Bank, the PRC’s real GDP per capita at PPP values is US$ 15,300, a mere quarter of US income). And it is real per-capita production and income – not aggregate nominal spending – that matter to defence capability. In addition, most Western countries would side with the US in any hard conflict, as would most of the highly educated Chinese who have emigrated in recent years. The Beijing rulers and their generals must know that the technical resources of the West are still far superior to those at the disposal of the People’s Liberation Army, despite massive advances in its capability.
Nonetheless, we can now expect to live in more interesting times than the younger generations have so far been privileged to enjoy. And most of what will make life interesting will emanate from the Middle Kingdom, as the West loses some of its economic, political and cultural predominance and has to get used to a bi-polar world.
Wolfgang Kasper is an emeritus professor of economics (University of New South Wales) with a long-standing interest in China. In the March issue of Quadrant, he cautioned against seeing everything Chinese as a threat to the West and for standing firm when faced with acts of illegitimate aggression by the Beijing rulers