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China’s Despair and China’s Hope

Fang Lizhi, translated by Perry Link

Fang Lizhi, an internationally respected astrophysicist, is China’s most prominent dissident. Formerly the vice-president of the University of Science and Technology in Anhui province, he was dismissed from his job and expelled from the Communist party in 1987, after being accused of encouraging student demonstrations in favor of democratic rights. Recently he was barred by the authorities from leaving China to visit the United States. Andrei Sakharov, along with other scientists in Europe and the United States, has appealed to Chinese government leaders to permit him to travel abroad.

The Editors

Nineteen eighty-nine is the Year of the Snake in China. It is not clear whether this snake will bring any great temptations. But this much is predictable: the year will stimulate Chinese into deeper reflection upon the past and a more incisive look at the present. The year will mark both the seventieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (a major intellectual and political movement marked by nationalism and Western cultural influence) and the fortieth year since the founding of socialist China in 1949. These two anniversaries may serve as telling symbols of China’s hope and China’s despair.

Forty years of socialism have left people despondent. In the 1950s, the catch phrases “only socialism can save China” and “without the Communist party there could be no new China” seemed as widely accepted as physical laws. Today, a look at the “new” China makes one feel that the naive sincerity of those years has been trifled with, the people’s enthusiasm betrayed.

True, the past forty years have not been wholly devoid of change or progress. But the standard of comparison for measuring the success or failure of a society should be this: Has the distance between it and the most advanced societies of the world increased or decreased? To measure our forty socialist years by this standard, not only was the Maoist period a failure; even the last ten “years of reform” provide insufficient basis for any singing of praises.

The failure of the past forty years cannot be blamed—at least not entirely—on Chinese cultural tradition. The facts clearly show that, among other countries and regions1 that began with similar cultural backgrounds, and at starting points comparable to China’s, nearly all have now joined or are about to join the ranks of the developed.

Nor can the forty years of failure be blithely attributed to China’s overpopulation. First, we must recognize that China’s overpopulation is itself one of the “political achievements” of the Maoist years. It was Mao’s policy in the 1950s to oppose birth control as a “bourgeois Malthusian doctrine” and encourage rapid population growth. Moreover, as everyone knows, one of the greatest factors obstructing China’s economic development has been, for years, the parade of enormous “class struggle” campaigns and large-scale political persecutions. Are we to believe that any overpopulated society necessarily generates such struggles and persecutions? Such a view is plainly illogical.

Logic allows only one conclusion: that the disappointments of the past forty years must be attributed to the social system itself. That is why, in China today, pursuit of modernization has replaced faith in any ideology. Socialism of the Lenin-Stalin-Mao variety has been quite thoroughly discredited. At the same time, the May Fourth slogan “science and democracy” is once again circulating, and becoming a new source for hope among Chinese intellectuals.

The reforms of recent years, which were begun against the background of this transition in thought, have indeed changed China considerably from what it was in the Maoist period. We should regard these changes as positive. The new emphasis on economics in domestic policy and the cessation of “exporting revolution” in foreign policy are both important examples of progress. On the other hand, the suppression of “Democracy Wall” nine years ago created the foreboding sense that, when it came to political reform, the authorities were not planning to do much. This fear has been confirmed by the experience of the ensuing years. Consider these examples:

—Even while admitting that the class struggle of the Maoist years was a mistake, the authorities have announced their “Four Basic Political Principles”—i.e., maintenance of 1. the leadership of the Communist party, 2. the dictatorship of the proletariat, 3. the socialist system, and 4. Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. These four principles, in actual content, are hardly distinguishable from Mao’s own “Six Political Standards.” And the latter were the basic political principles that underlay thirty years of “class struggle.”

—Although the Chinese constitution provides for freedom of speech and other human rights, the Chinese government has, so far, failed to make its own endorsement of the UN Covenants on Human Rights. And in actual practice, even a basic right like freedom of scholarship, which has little political relevance, is commonly infringed. There have been instances, even very recently, in which lectures in the natural sciences have been banned on political grounds.

—Chinese education, which for years suffered the ravages of Mao Zedong’s anti-intellectual, anticultural political principles, has left China with a population in which the proportion of illiterates remains about what it was forty years ago. Yet today’s expenditures on education, as a proportion of China’s GNP, are exactly what they were under Mao, or about 30 to 50 percent below the norm in countries whose economic levels are similar to China’s. Ignorance serves dictatorship well. The true reason for the destruction of education is apparent enough.

—In recent years the authorities have repeatedly issued calls for “stability and unity,” especially when any signs of political unrest have appeared. Stability and unity seem to have been raised to a kind of supreme principle. But when it comes to one of the major causes of instability in Chinese society today—the continuing state of civil war with Taiwan—this supreme principle somehow ceases to apply. In their attempt to end the forty-two-year-old state of war, the Chinese leadership has so far refused, at least in theory, to accept the principle of “no military force” in relation to Taiwan.

These various problems have spawned continual conflict beneath the surface in Chinese society. The student demonstrations of 1986, which openly called for freedom and democracy in Chinese society, only brought these conflicts into the open. The authorities, in their efforts to curb the influence of the demonstrations, were obliged to fall back on the following two arguments:

  1. Chinese culture lacks a tradition of democracy, and thus cannot accommodate a democratic system. The common people are not interested in democracy; they would not know how to use it if they were given it; they lack the ability to support it; etc.

  2. Economic development does not necessarily require a democratic system. A dictatorial system may actually be more efficient in this regard. What best suits China is political dictatorship plus a free economy.

To present these arguments amounts, first of all, to public acknowledgement that what we now have is not democracy but dictatorship, and that slogans like “socialism is mankind’s most democratic system” are simply a kind of fraud. But if this is the case, how can Marxism still claim a place as the orthodox ideology of China?

The first of the two arguments above might be called “The Law of Conservation of Democracy.” It holds that a society’s total capacity for democracy is fixed. If there was no democracy to start with, there also will be none later. Nobody, of course, has set out to prove this law, because the counterexamples are too numerous. The argument cannot save dictatorship in China; it can only provide us with some comic diversion.

The second argument does seem to have a certain basis in fact. There do seem to be some societies that have achieved success by combining political dictatorship with a free economy. But there are examples of failures among this group of societies as well. It follows that the question cannot be decided by enumerating precedents, but must be answered for China by asking this: Can a free economy be made compatible with China’s own form of dictatorial government? A look at China in 1988 demonstrates that, on the whole, the answer to this question must be no.

First, in comparison with other societies that have tried the “political dictatorship plus free economy” formula, China differs in that its system of dictatorship is unable to accept a free economy entirely. This is because socialist dictatorship is closely bound to a system of “public ownership” (in fact official ownership), and its ideology is fundamentally antithetical to the kind of private property rights that a free economy requires. Although the severe inflation of 1988 has demonstrated quite clearly that price reform is unworkable unless it is accompanied by reform in property rights, the Chinese leadership’s response to the inflation has been a resort to “the superior strength of politics.” This is but a retreat into the old rut of “politics in command” of Maoist times.

Second, it has already been shown—repeatedly—that China’s dictatorial system lacks efficacy. One need only look at the corruption within the Communist party itself to appreciate this point. Ten years (since 1978) of “rectifying the Party work-style” has in fact produced nothing but yearly increases in “unhealthy tendencies”—i.e., corruption. What began merely as “unhealthy” misallocation of large living quarters to Party leaders now has grown into extensive profiteering called “official turnaround.” (The term refers to use of official power and connections to procure commodities or other resources at low prices in the state-run sector of the economy, then “turning around” to sell them at huge markups within the private sector.) Our minimum conclusion must be this: that there is no rational basis for a belief that this kind of dictatorship can overcome the corruption that it has itself bred; and that, based on this problem alone, we need a more effective role for public opinion and a more independent judiciary. This means, in effect, more democracy.

China’s hope, at present, lies in the fact that more and more people have broken free from blind faith in the leadership. They have come to realize that the only avenue to social progress is through adoption of a “supervisory” role for the public, which should have the right to express open criticisms of the leadership. The deputy editor of a newspaper in Guangzhou has recently stated quite clearly that the function of his newspaper is to speak not for the Communist party but for the emergent “middle class” of Guangzhou. Not long ago, in an effort to turn back a rising tide of popular commentary on their performance, the authorities sternly announced their intention to “trace the rumor that top leaders and their children hold foreign bank accounts.” The actual consequence of this effort, however, was only to cause further spread of two basic ideas: first, that citizens have the right to evaluate their leaders; and second, that holders of high public office, including Deng Xiaoping himself, do not have the right to reject this public supervision. The old idea that “superiors must not be opposed” is on the way out; democratic consciousness is moving in.

As democratic consciousness spreads, it is bound to form pressure groups that will have ever greater power to weigh against the authority of the leadership. In fact such groups have already begun to appear in embryo. Right now, in many trades and professions, and at all levels of Chinese society, we are seeing the growth of unofficial clubs, associations, discussion groups, and other informal gatherings that have begun, in various degrees, to wield influence as pressure groups. Democracy is no longer just a slogan; it has come to exert a pressure of its own. The purpose of this pressure is to oblige the authorities, gradually and through non-violent means, to accept changes toward political democracy and a free economy. Currently, the following are among the items most commonly discussed:

  1. Guarantee of human rights. Most importantly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. Also, release of Wei Jingsheng2 and all political prisoners.

  2. Establishment of a free economic system. Gradual implementation of economic reforms that will include reforms in property rights.

  3. Support for education. Abandonment of the “ignorant masses” policy; provision of the needed and entirely feasible education that would be commensurate with China’s economic level.

  4. Supervision of public officeholders. Use of open glasnost-style means to root out corruption.

  5. An end to China’s state of civil war; promotion of peace in the Taiwan straits. The mainland side to call for mutual renunciation of force as a means of settling differences. A transition from mutual hostility toward peaceful competition.

  6. Establishment of rule by law. Opposition to rule by individuals, whether directly or in disguised form—as when Party documents or policies override the laws of the nation.

  7. Revision of the constitution. Deletion of all language that relies on the principle of “class struggle” to support dictatorship. Drafting of a Chinese constitution that provides for political democracy and economic freedom.

The road to Chinese democracy has already been long and difficult, and is likely to remain difficult for many years to come. It may last a decade, a generation, or even longer. But whatever the case, there can be no denying that the trend toward democracy is set. It would be very hard to turn it completely around now. Chinese history since the May Fourth period, including the forty years since 1949, makes it clear that democracy is not bestowed from on high, but must be fought for and won. We must not expect this fact to change in the decades to come. Yet it is precisely because democracy is generated from below that—despite the many frustrations and disappointments in our present situation—I still view our future with hope.

translated by Perry Link

  1. 1

    Including other parts of China, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong (translator’s note).

  2. 2

    A dissident of the Democracy Wall period, Wei Jingsheng was sentenced to fifteen years in prison in 1979 (translator’s note).

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