How to Stop Reactionaries From Derailing Reform in China

So we shouldn't feel self-righteous about the enormous struggle China has fought to overcome its dragon culture. Nonetheless, it now needs to take decisive steps. We cannot make reform happen in China. It may not happen. China may go over a precipice, with traumatic consequences for its own people and for our interests. But we need to understand, better than our 19th-century ancestors, both the pressures for reform and the sources of resistance to it.

We need to understand both the pressures for reform in China and the sources of resistance to it.

There is, of course, a deep fear of political disintegration in China. The horrors of the Taiping era, the anarchy of the warlord era, the miseries of the Cultural Revolution, all feed this fear in political and folk memory. And political reform is always and everywhere a matter of the "slow boring of hard wood," in Max Weber's phrase. But we need to be clear that "bold political and social reform" in China in this decade is in our interest so that China can become not the rival of America, with a dragon culture's hauteur and growing military clout, but the brother of the West in taking science, economic innovation and democratic governance to new levels.

In the West, we used to look back to the fifth century BCE in classical Greece as the most glorious era of Western civilization. Hu Shih looked back to the fifth century BCE in China: with its many schools of thought and many different kingdoms, before the King of Qin suppressed both. Hu, in exile, lived in a simple house in Taipei, now a museum. If you visit it, you can purchase a small volume of his reflections: Tolerance and Freedom. In looking back, he was no reactionary antiquarian or inward-looking romantic. He was a cosmopolitan intellectual, educated in the United States, who longed to see China's dragon culture become modern and liberal.

China now needs leaders fired by this vision and with the political courage to bring it into being. With a China striving in that direction, we could communicate on equitable and unconstrained terms. If Hu Shih was our interlocutor, there would be nothing we could not discuss in a civilized manner. If Liang Qichao was an agreed reference point, there would be nothing we could not intelligently explore. While the sinister and overblown figure of Mao Zedong stands between us and looms over Tiananmen Square and while the failures of the Qing dynasty to govern competently are blamed on the West by an aggrieved Chinese nationalism, such dialogue is inevitably awkward.

To this end, we need a new, more honest approach to Chinese historiography than that which has dominated discourse since Edgar Snow lionized Mao Zedong in Red Star Over China, in the 1930s. This is perfectly possible and doesn't arise from a presumptuous Western "Orientalism." It arises simply from pulling aside the curtain of propaganda and secrecy that the Communist Party has for too long held over the stage of modern Chinese history and thought. Many patient and patriotic Chinese thinkers have laboured against great odds to make this possible over the past 30 years and more. It's time now to embrace that hidden history, precisely for the reasons the editors of Seeking Truth cite.

One of many figures we should celebrate as we do this is Liang Sicheng, the son of Liang Qichao. He was an architect and scholar, full of hope for the renewal of China. Educated in Beijing under the Republic and in the United States, he wrote A History of Chinese Architecture, in which he described six stages in the development of Chinese architecture going back to the Shang Dynasty 3,500 years ago. At his Institute for Architectural Research, in Beijing, he imagined a refurbishment of China's cities.

He proposed that the old imperial capital be converted into a garden city; the old Ming walls being made into a museum and public park for a liberated and cosmopolitan citizenry. He was in America when Mao took power, but he returned to Beijing, hoping to make a contribution to the "New China." He was given a senior appointment in Beijing in city planning, but his vision did not come to fruition. Both he and his wife suffered marginalization and oppression on ideological grounds, even in the 1950s. His wife died in 1955, aged only 51. He was arrested during the savage purges of the 1950s.

Mao demolished the old walls and built grim industrial suburbs. Liang Sicheng died in 1972, the Cultural Revolution still wrecking China around him. But, like Hu Shih, he embodied the spirit of China at its best. When we see opportunities in China, feel awe at its economic transformation, the burgeoning of its cities and its trade; we should be mindful of the generous and cosmopolitan vision of its finest twentieth century minds. If we are to prosper sustainably in trade with China, it must be this China; if we are to feel secure in a world in which China becomes a truly rich and powerful state, then it is very much in our interest that it be this China we have to deal with.

If China's recent progress is to be sustained, it's time, at long last, for the dragon to be slain and for the beauty of all that is best in China to meet the best that the modern world has to offer. Mao Zedong was not the dragon slayer. He was the very embodiment of the dragon. Liang Qichao and Liang Sicheng, Lu Xun and Hu Shih and, let it be said, the imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, leading author of the suppressed Charter 08, are the real dragon slayers of modern China. Their time has come and we need to collectively recast our perception of China, our dialogue with China and our future relationship with China in terms of their vision.

Presented by

Paul Monk is the founder and director of Austhink Consulting and the author of Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China.

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