A lot of people – myself included – speak and write and talk about contemporary Chinese political and intellectual life. One of the particularities of this has always been that getting to hear voices direct, because of the political environment within the People’s Republic, has never been straightforward. Some figures are labelled quickly as being `government friendly.’ Others have to speak in that peculiar register characterised by ambiguity and concealment -`Hanyi’ (含义）as it is called in Chinese. Those who do speak clearly and unambiguously are always aware that if what they say strays from officially permitted boundaries, they are running real risks of punishment – losing their jobs, being detained, and, in the worst cases, sent to prison for many years.
Since 2012, under current leader Xi Jinping, this situation has significantly deteriorated. The subtitle of this excellent and very timely collection of essays by key figures writing now is `public intellectual debate from contemporary China.’ But as the editors Timothy Cheek, David Ownby and Joshua A Fogel make clear in `Voices from the Chinese Century‘ (Columbia University Press, New York 2020) a series of Party edicts in Xi’s period have made the permissible space for full debate more and more narrow. From the vantage point of 2020, the late 2000s under Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao seem almost liberal – something they certainly didn’t feel at the time.
This collection is a great place to start considering some of the reasons why China has ended up in the situation it is in – and where it might be heading in the future. One of the most compelling pieces is by Liu Qing (刘擎), a professor of political science at East China Normal University, which starts the whole collection. Liu’s defence of what could be called `liberalism with Chinese characteristics’ seems anachronistic today in view of the decidedly illiberal trend Xi seems to have taken. But his acknowledgement of what he calls the `complex historical process’ by which modern China has been produced needs urgent attention. These deep historic structures were not swept away by the 1949 revolution. Issues like the tension between family and the larger society, the self and the context in which it existed and had meaning, and the question of Confucian hierarchy and the new Communist egalitarian order may have been managed by repression in the Maoist era. But as Mao himself lugubriously admitted late in his life, in interviews to Edgar Snow, he was not able to transform much the deep layers of cultural commitment that lie at the heart of what it means, even today, to be Chinese. `Traditional ethical sentiments and their transcendent spirit have not vanished in present day China,’ Liu writes, `but instead exist either overtly or implicitly and manifest powerful influences’ (63). Strangely the challenge for liberalism is the same as for Communism – how to deal with the anomalies that arise from these deep, and embedded historical structures, which are often an impediment to modernity, but which are so central to Chinese identity. The question is in what ways the two forces, which aim for reform, are able to be combined. Xi’s China implies not much.
Other essays that follow this are less deliberative and calmly argued. Businessman Rong Jian (荣剑), who had been an aspiring academic till the upheaval of 1989, is much more coruscating in his criticism. `In the past century’, he asks,`has China actually produced its own thought?’ (77) Chinese liberalism, the kind that Liu referred to above, derived all of its resources from the West, according to Rong. Mao’s revolution, he goes on to claim, was a `revolution bereft of thought’ (87). This sense of intellectual deficit is one that has often appeared in the language of Chinese intellectuals. It is underlined by the fact that the voices in this book are informed about figures like de Tocqueville, Hegel and Adam Smiths in ways it would be hard to see a similar group in the West bothering to know much if anything about Liang Qichao, Kang Youwei, or Hu Shi. Even so, perhaps the counter argument to Rong is that going on so incessantly about the paucity of Chinese intellectual resources just reinforces the very problem it is meant to address. It is not a good thing that the outside world knows so little about key figures in modern Chinese intellectual and cultural life, and as much an admission of their own limitations and complacency as any fault in China itself. If the West had had more, and perhaps (dare it be said) better Joseph Needhams, maybe our situation today of knowledge imbalances and the antagonism that grows from this would not be so bad.
There are many other attractive parts of this rich, well translated and well presented collection to admire. Excellent and stimulating discussions of Mao Zedong, Kang Youwei, and Confucianism. But two in particular have representative value. The first, by Wang Shaoguang (王绍光), formerly based in Hong Kong, and now mostly in Beijing. Wang has been an influential academic for many years within China. It is easy from the essay rendered here to see why. He takes no hostages, managing, just about, to control a hardcore polemical tone that must owe something to his political training in the Cultural Revolution. American democracy in particular gets a fairly fierce beating. China, instead, is offered as the model for the future – representational, with wise and caring cadres going down to the grassroots to listen to opinions which they then use to inform their decision making, rather than representative democracy from the West which is corrupted by money, vested interest and a multitude of other distortions. Wang’s description of the mass line, promoted in Xi’s China, is helpful. It gives what I think is the most succinct and lucid outline of what contemporary leaders in the country think the heart of their work is. But my own experience of these `consultations’ which Wang refers to makes me far less idealistic than he. Yes, Chinese leaders at various levels do go down to the grassroots, and arrange learning sessions. Some of these work well. But a lot are stage managed, and it is hard to really see anyone daring to sit in situations like these and raise difficult or contentious issues, without running the risk of pulling opprobrium and trouble on their head. Wang’s spirited defence, therefore, is great in theory. In practice, though, it really needs way more justification than the highly combative, albeit spirited one it gets here.
None of this however can possible prepare for the grand finale of the book – Jiang Qing (将庆) and his dialogue with a former female student about the ways in which Confucianism far from being a burden to Chinese women over the millennia is actually their salvation. David Ownby in his short introduction to `Only Confucians Can Make a Place for Modern Women’ can clearly barely conceal his mixture of amusement and contempt at some of the ideas that Jiang comes out with. Jiang himself has been amongst the most fanciful thinkers of modern China – one so extreme that even the government has not bothered much to silence his musings on Confucian democracy (where a third chamber would be composed of descendants of the sage). But Jiang’s declarations of how women need to be secure in their family and home, and how their European and American sisters are burdened by terrible modernist horrors like needing to work and pursue their own careers is not only out of history – at times, it sounds like Jiang is out of his mind! So too is his reference to some figures he calls his `friends’ who then get hilariously indiscreet and harsh criticisms for their lack of moral, Confucian behaviour.
This is a truly excellent collection, and one that introduces some important and little know voices to a wider English speaking audience. There are younger thinkers coming on line. But they operate without even some of the space that these from a slightly older generation have been able to enjoy in their careers till now. Those that visit China, and have engaged with the place, know how deeply stimulating the atmosphere there is, despite the reputation for being coercive and controlled. This book shows there are no easy answers, and no easy parameters, to understanding the political social and other kinds of problems the country now faces. That must be why it has no conclusion: at the moment, no conclusion is possible to the situation it testifies to and reports.