A review of `Rethinking China’s Rise: A Liberal Critique,’ by Xu Jilin, Edited and Translated by David Ownby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 2018; pp xxxii + 218/ £75.00).

In the China of Xi Jinping, since his ascent in 2012, liberals have had a hard time. Dissidents have been so effectively buried they seem almost to have become extinct. Rights lawyers were rounded up in 2015 and, in many cases, frightened into silence. There are critical voices, for sure. Xu Zhangrun, a prominent public intellectual, issued a lengthy critique of the Xi era of governance in Chinese in mid-2018. An anonymous letter in Chinese with equally succinct critical comments about the current leadership surfaced domestically in 2016, reportedly starting a witch hunt. But they are prominent because so rare. On a recent visit to China, I would not but notice how omnipresent Xi’s image and his imprint were. I was not alone. Many Chinese interlocutors were also amazed at how much the Party under Xi seemed to have penetrated into business, culture and daily life with unexpected completeness.
That makes engaging with the writings and thinking of historian and public intellectual Xu Jilin even more urgent. The outside world is woefully poorly informed about figures like him, and the range and depth of their scholarship and engagement with political and social issues. Xu himself refers to better known academics like Pan Wei of Beijing University, or Zhang Weiwei, of Shanghai’s Fudan, who have a noisy international presence – but they are enthusiastic promoters of the mantra of `China on Chinese terms’. As Xu shows, in the eight essays excellently translated here by David Ownby of the University of Montreal, there are more nuanced, subtle, and quieter voices – ones that indicate a greater depth of scholarship and betray a more reflective manner. These deserve as much, if not more attention, than their more grandstanding peers.

Xu’s theme, in different ways and in different contexts through this collection, is how Chinese modernity might be validly said to be exceptional, and how it links to other expressions of values and progress. European Enlightenment values get particular attention in each of his essays, but not as some monolithic entity that everyone has a clear idea about. While modern Chinese intellectual discourse often presents Western values as universalist, coercive and dangerously domineering in political, cultural and economic terms, and frequently make them a target of attack (best exemplified by the declaration in a state document issued in early 2014 outlawing the sympathetic teaching of many of these ideas in Chinese lecture halls and classrooms) for Xu the situation is a much more complex. `China has difficulty coming up with a narrative of values to explain herself’’ he states (p 77). All too often in China `the existence of this “us” as a national community ultimately relies on the Western other.’ (76) The figures from the new left side of the debate he most criticises in this book are often so exercised by this belief in the dominance of the West, and the need to assert their own exclusivity in the face of it, that they end up reinforcing the very thing they aim to undermine.

Xu’s presentation of the relevance of Confucianism in contemporary China and its inability to become a national religion is given particular force, as the editor Ownby says in his very helpful introduction, because as an historian of ideas, he knows much more about the evolution of this set of ideas through Chinese ancient and modern history than defenders of the idea like Beijing academic Jiang Qing. Xu’s sharpest points though are about the hugely important issue of a crisis of faith and ideas in the country – something that no amount of nostalgia or adherence to a dangerous intoxication with nationalism rather than ill-defined Confucianism will help cure.

Throughout the separate essays, there is a commitment to what he calls `cultural pluralism’ rather than relativism. Declaring that all expressions of belief are deeply linked to the cultures they are expressed in and that there is no underlying shared standard of truth is erroneous, he states. They are just expressing aspects of a singular truth in different ways. The concept `Tianxia’ is deployed a lot in these discussions – something profoundly rooted in Chinese histories, and yet also with adherence to what Xu sees as universal notions of good conduct and shared humanistic values and personal and social order. His declaration in the extended essay on the `Tianxia’ notion is a powerful one: `The reason,’ he states

`that Chinese civilisation did not decline over the course of 5,000 years is precisely because it was not closed and narrow. Instead, it benefitted from its openness and inclusiveness, and never stopped transforming outside civilizations into its own traditions.’ (131)

If there was a contemporary Chinese liberal creed, this is it: a defence of a China confident of its own diversity and ability to assimilate the ideas and attitudes of the outside world, rather than perpetually police them.

One of the most striking things about Xu’s works is what while a public intellectual in Europe or the US would rarely be able to refer to even the best known current Chinese thinkers, Xu, despite his not being a fluent English reader, is able, in translation, to draw on a vast array of non-Chinese sources, from Leo Strauss to the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, to Jurgen Habermas, and Samuel Huntingdon.

There are, of course, points of his argument that are highly contestable. `Tianxia’ as a concept grows almost impossibly diffuse through his discussion. The claims about the dominant Han ethnic group contained in the essay `Civilizations and Cultural Consciousness’ are provocative, and, at least in this reviewer’s view, untenable. The notion of `universal Han’ that he outlines sounds like a legitimisation of one view of ethnic identity as superior to all others. Even with these caveats, Xu is an important author and thinker, and one that the outside world needs to appreciate better. It is a pity that a £75.00 price tag on this book might prevent wider appreciation of his ideas. This is an excellent introduction to one of the key intellectuals of contemporary China, and a reasonably priced paperback version would, I am sure, find the wide audience it deserves. Hopefully the publishers will consider this.

Xu Jilin

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