How to Stop Reactionaries From Derailing Reform in China

The People's Republic needs to start telling a different story about itself.

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Students watch a screen showing Chinese president Hu Jintao delivering a keynote report during the opening ceremony of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. (Reuters)

Speaking in 1988, a leading adviser to then-Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, Yan Jiaqi, declared that China had inherited a "dragon culture" from its long imperial past. If it was to become a free, cosmopolitan and peaceful society, Yan argued, China had to leave that dragon culture behind it. Yan fled China in 1989, after the Communist Party's bloody suppression of democracy advocates in Tiananmen Square. He has lived in exile in the United States ever since, but the time has come for the dragon culture to be laid to rest at last. That is the task confronting China's incoming leaders, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, in this decade.

Ever since 1989, there has been a running debate outside China about whether or how to press for political reform and human rights in that country. Its economic growth has led many interested parties to brush aside such calls as pointless, superfluous or presumptuous. The Communist Party has rejected them as efforts to weaken China. Since 2008, such rebuffs have even assumed a haughty tone at times, as if the apparently broken Western system of politics and economics had nothing to offer China in conducting its own affairs. In other words, the "dragon culture" remains ideologically ascendant: a political and geopolitical culture of repressive, grim authoritarianism that sees itself as above the law and superior to the barbarians.

But beneath the surface, tensions have been growing relentlessly in China. Early this year, sitting premier Wen Jiabao himself issued a startling warning that China faced a tragic social upheaval on the scale of the Cultural Revolution unless it embarked on serious political reform; astonishing words from the official head of state of a dictatorship that has relentlessly suppressed calls for political liberalization for 23 years. It officially derives legitimacy from Mao's seizure of power in 1949, but he was the man who caused the Cultural Revolution in the first place, not to mention the "Great Leap Forward" famine in which at least 30 million Chinese starved to death.

The Party magazine Qiushi proclaimed recently that the incoming leadership "must choose between bold political and social reform and driving China into a dead end." Qiushi means "seeking truth.Seeking truth is always and everywhere an arduous undertaking, especially under Communist dictatorships. But this call should be carefully noted. It means that political reform is on the agenda in China. The question is: after Hu and Wen, what and how?

The Party has created the most formidable system of surveillance and repression in the world. The budget for its internal security apparatus has grown even faster than its ballooning military budget and now totals about $110 billion. This funds the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Supervision, the Ministry of Justice, the Central Politics and Law Commission, the sinister 610 Office; the State Internet Information Office, the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

Yet many responsible voices are pointing to the urgent need for reform. As social scientist Yu Jianrong, in Beijing, has said, in the name of "stability" the party has "suppressed the livelihood of the people, suppressed human rights, suppressed the rule of law, suppressed reform," but it has "not suppressed corruption, nor has it suppressed mining tragedies, nor has it suppressed illegal property demolitions and seizures." All it has done, as Chinese scholar Guo Xuezhi points out, is build the "biggest security state in the world." Now, Seeking Truth declares that this looks like a "dead end."

Respected liberal economist Mao Yushi remarked recently that the Arab Spring alarmed China's security chieftains by showing how quickly popular revolutions can gather momentum. "If you look at these protests," he said, "almost all of them are because of abuse of governmental power. That's why the leaders are very worried." Since 1989, the incidence of mass protests has risen relentlessly, reaching 180,000 a year in 2009. The party then suppressed the statistics. The data was becoming too disturbing. But this unrest has taken place during the years of China's economic boom. The combination of a downturn and rising expectations could, therefore, prove explosive.

It's no big secret that the environmental damage caused by China's era of unprecedented industrialization and urbanization has been horrendous; that China's population is now aging rapidly, posing massive problems with health and welfare. It suffers a massive gender imbalance due to its coercive one-child policy. Its huge current account surpluses look impressive, but they have piled up in a lopsided global trade regime that is now floundering. Its export-led growth model can only be replaced by a viable, domestic-consumption led growth model if its approach to domestic economic institutions radically changes; but that approach is now in the hands of very powerful vested interests.

These are the looming realities that are leading to calls for political and social reform to avert catastrophe. Hu Jintao is being quite widely and openly criticized for having failed to tackle the challenges of political reform. The Beijing Youth Daily declared recently:

Everyone has always been able to see that these contradictions are not sustainable. But there is a widespread feeling that the country is moving closer to the brink of crisis.

This, rather than China's trade surpluses and GDP, should be the pivotal consideration when it comes to whether foreigners should be supporting political reform there.

To get this in perspective, we need to reframe our narrative of modern Chinese history. The standard narrative pivots on the tired cliché that China was pre-eminent in Asia until Western imperialists assaulted the venerable Middle Kingdom, force-fed it opium and inflicted humiliation and poverty on it for a century. According to this story, only the Communist revolution enabled China to "stand up" and now the party is vital to enable the "whole Chinese people" to assume their rightful place as leaders in Asia and the world.

In reality, the Qing dynasty stagnated, rejecting reform and openness, even as social unrest and political dissent built up within the empire. Round-eyed barbarians intruded, but vastly more damage was caused by a series of gigantic civil wars in which the dynasty mercilessly crushed its domestic enemies. The biggest of them was the Taiping rebellion in the 1850s and 1860s. The net population loss was about 100 million - twice the global death toll of the Second World War.

The Taiping wanted to embrace the West, to trade with it, to build railroads, emancipate women, reform education and to Christianise China. They sought and were denied British support. Reform in China was held back for half a century, at enormous cost. In 1909, Ito Hirobumi, four-time prime minister of Japan and chief architect of its 19th-century political and social reforms, told a British reporter:

The greatest mistake which you Western people, and more especially you English people, made in all your dealings with China, was to help the Manchus in putting down the Taiping rebellion.

This should resonate with us all now. The West had much to gain in the nineteenth century from supporting political change in China; but it didn't. The stakes are now higher. This time we need to get it right.

In 1898, leading proponents of political reform in China were killed or exiled. One, Liang Qichao, came to -- of all places -- my own country, Australia. He witnessed the founding of the Australian Commonwealth and wrote to his Chinese readers that China should become a constitutional monarchy with a federal government like Australia's new government. Who would have thought that a highly educated Chinese intellectual would see in far-away Australia a political model for the decadent Middle Kingdom? Yet he did.

In 1911-12, he helped overthrow the Qing and a found a Chinese republic. He led one of several parties in democratic elections in China, in December 1912. Some 40 million male, propertied citizens elected a 596-member National Assembly. It convened in Beijing to deliberate over and create a new republican constitution. This was to be the beginning of a modern, democratic China, inspired by the West, not oppressed or plundered by it. That was exactly 100 years ago next month.

Then, traditional dragon culture kicked in. On March 20, 1913, at the Shanghai railway station about to board a train for Beijing to lead the largest of the parties in the National Assembly, the young Chinese statesman Song Jiaoren was assassinated by agents of an old imperial general, Yuan Shikai. Yuan disbanded the new National Assembly and tried to return China to authoritarian government.

China fragmented into warlord-dominated fiefdoms and for the following 36 years, internal war, brutal factional struggles and Japanese invasion afflicted China. Appalled by all this, Chinese writer Lu Xun concluded that China's ills were "wholly of its own making and could not, in good conscience, be laid at the door of any foreigner." As Chiang Kai-shek consolidated a dictatorship in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Lu Xun and others insisted that the country needed human rights and democracy, not dictatorship.

Another who did so was Hu Shih, but he was marginalized by Chiang Kai-shek and fled the Communists in 1949. Had he not, he would have fallen victim to Mao's purges. He would surely have been among those who spoke out in the 1957 Hundred Flowers Movement, in which Mao had called upon China's intellectuals to tell the party frankly what their concerns were, triggering an outpouring of criticisms of the party's abuse of power, inefficiency, violence, propaganda and philistinism.

A furious Mao launched a vicious campaign of repression. Hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were arrested and imprisoned. No one knows how many were killed. He boasted that the First Emperor, in the third century BCE, had had hundreds of scholars buried alive, but that he had had hundreds of thousands of them buried alive, at least metaphorically speaking. This is the man whose portrait still stands over Tiananmen Square. It needs to be removed and buried. It is the very emblem of the dragon culture.

Political reform was rejected by the Qing court in 1898 and its leading proponents beheaded or exiled. It resurfaced in 1908-12. It was suppressed again by Yuan Shikai, in 1913-1916, but resurfaced with the May Fourth Movement in 1919. It was suppressed by Chiang Kaishek in 1927-31, but resurfaced in the principled advocacy of Lu Xun, Hu Shih and others. It was suppressed by the Communist Party after 1949, but rose to the surface in the Hundred Flowers Movement, only to be crushed again. It was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, yet rose to the surface yet again in the late 1970s. It was crushed in 1989, but the need for it is now acknowledged at the highest levels in China.

It took centuries to create liberal democratic institutions even in England and America, to say nothing of continental Europe. The West, too, had an imperial culture to overcome: the culture of Rome, of Caesar and of Papism. Whether we look back to Greece or only to Gutenberg, to Luther and Tyndale, or Bruno and Galileo; to Milton and the religious non-conformists, or Locke and the separation of church and state; to "Wilkes and liberty" or John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, we know that our struggle, also, was long and painful.

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.

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.