My thanks to Warren Sun who read over the draft translation of this essay and offered a number of insightful suggestions and to two other unnamed friends who helped me rid the text of various infelicities. I blame my obduracy for those that remain. For more essays by Xu Zhangrun in English, and for an account of his persecution by Tsinghua University, see the Xu Zhangrun Archive published by China Heritage.—Geremie Barmé. Subheadings have been added by the translator. The rule of Xi Jinping is officially hailed as China’s “New Era.“
In July 2018, the Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun published an unsparing critique of the Chinese Communist Party and its Chairman of Everything, Xi Jinping. Xu warned of the dangers of one-man rule, a sycophantic bureaucracy, putting politics ahead of professionalism and the myriad other problems that the system would encounter if it rejected further reforms. That philippic was one of a cycle of works that Xu wrote during a year in which he alerted his readers to pressing issues related to China’s momentous struggle with modernity, the state of the nation under Xi Jinping and the mixed prospects for its future. Those essays will be published in a collection titled Six Chapters from the 2018 Year of the Dog by Hong Kong City University Press in May this year.
Although he was demoted by Tsinghua University in March 2019 and banned from teaching, writing and publishing, Xu has remained defiant. His latest polemical work—“When Fury Overcomes Fear”—translated below, appeared online on February 4, 2020 as the coronavirus epidemic swept China and infections overseas sparked concern around the world.
Xu‘s writing style combines elements of classical Chinese in which references to or quotations from philosophy, history and literature are seamlessly interwoven in an elegant but highly personalized literary form commonly employed by members of China’s élite from the late-19th to the mid-20th centuries. It is a prose free of Party jargon, although the author frequently makes mocking reference to officialese and to the kind of Europeanized Chinese popularized in the 1910s when the vernacular was promoted by political and cultural progressives. Although the written language became more expressive of modern ideas it was soon overwhelmed by a kind of Communist Partyspeak that now dominates China’s media.
In translating Xu’s work I hint at the orotund style of the original and occasionally use capital letters and or quotation marks to emphasize terms that have a particular significance for the author. Xu never refers to Xi Jinping by name, rather he employs various classical (and sometimes cheekily arcane) terms to lampoon the “People’s Leader.”
“When Fury Overcomes Fear” is translated and annotated here with the author’s permission. —Geremie R. Barmé
Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear
February. Get out the ink and weep!
Sob in February, sob and sing
While the wet snow rumbles in the street
And burns with the black spring.
Translated by Sasha Dugdale
As the Year of the Pig  gave way to the Year of the Rat [February 2020], a virus that started in Wuhan, a city famed as the nation’s major transportation and communication hub, was spreading throughout China. Overnight, the country found itself in the grip of a devastating crisis; fear was stalking the land. The authorities proved themselves to be at a loss and the cost of their behavior was soon visited upon the common people. Before long, the coronavirus was reaching around the globe and the country found itself becoming rapidly isolated from the world. It was as though the China of the Open Door and Reform policies for more than three decades was being destroyed in front of our eyes. It seemed as is, in one fell swoop, the People’s Republic, and in particular its vaunted system of governance, had been cast back to pre-modern times. Then again, as word spread about the blockades thrown up by towns and cities to protect themselves against contagion, and as doors were slammed shut everywhere, it felt as though we were actually being confronted by a kind of barbaric panic more readily associated with the Middle Ages.
The cause of all of this lies with The Axlerod [that is, Xi Jinping] and the cabal that surrounds him. It began with the imposition of stern bans on the reporting of factual information that served to embolden deception at every level of government, although it only struck its true stride when bureaucrats throughout the system shrugged off responsibility for the unfolding situation while continuing to seek the approbation of their superiors. They all blithely stood by as the crucial window of opportunity to deal with the outbreak of the infection snapped shut in their faces.
Ours is a system in which The Ultimate Arbiter [an imperial-era term used by state media to describe Xi Jinping] monopolizes power. It results in what I call “organizational discombobulation” that, in turn, has served to enable a dangerous “systemic impotence” at every level. A political culture has thereby been nurtured that, in terms of the real public good, is ethically bankrupt, for it is one that strains to vouchsafe its privatized Party-State, or what they call their “Mountains and Rivers” while abandoning the people over which it holds sway to suffer the vicissitudes of a cruel fate. It is a system that turns every natural disaster into an even greater man-made catastrophe. The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance; the fragile and vacuous heart of the jittering edifice of state has thereby shown up as never before.
This viral outbreak, which has been exacerbated into a national calamity by the power-holders, is more perilous perhaps than total war itself, for everything is being caught up by the struggle—the nation’s ethical fabric, its politics, our society, as well as the economy. Let me say that again—it is even more perilous than total war, for it lays the nation open to a kind of devastation that even foreign invaders in the past had failed to visit upon us. The ancients put it well, “Only thieves nurtured at home can truly despoil a homeland.” Although the Americans may well be trying to undermine our economy, here at home The Axlerod is himself beating them to it! Please note: just as the epidemic was reaching a critical moment, He made a big deal about being “Personally This” and “Personally That“ [when meeting Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO on 29 January, Xi made a point of saying that he was “personally commanding” the response to the outbreak, a statement that was widely derided online]. Empty words that only serve to highlight the hypocrisy. Such claims served merely to elicit nationwide outrage and sow desolation in the hearts of the people.
It is true: the level of popular fury is volcanic and a people thus enraged may, in the end, also cast aside their fear. Herein I offer my understanding of these developments in the broader context of the global system. Being mindful also of the cyclical nature of the political zeitgeist, and with a steady eye on what has been happening here in China since 2018 [when Xi Jinping was granted limitless tenure and Xu published his famous broadside aimed at the Party-State], I have formulated my thoughts under nine headings. Compatriots: they are respectfully offered here for your consideration.
1. Politics in a New Era of Moral Depletion
First and foremost, the political life of the nation is in a state of collapse and the ethical core of the system has been rendered hollow. The ultimate concern of China’s polity today and that of its highest leader is to preserve at all costs the privileged position of the Communist Party and to maintain ruthlessly its hold on power. “The Broad Masses of People” are nothing more than a taxable unit, a value-bearing cipher in a metrics-based system of social management geared towards stability maintenance. “The People” is a rubric that describes the price everyone has to pay to prop up the existing system. We are funding the countless locusts—large and small—whose continued existence depends on a totalitarian system. The storied bureaucratic apparatus that is responsible for the unfettered outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan repeatedly hid or misrepresented the facts about the dire nature of the crisis. The dilatory actions of bureaucrats at every level exacerbated the urgency of the situation. Their behavior reflects a complete lack of interest in the welfare and lives of normal people. All that matters is constant support for the self-indulgent celebratory behavior of the “Core Leader” whose favor is sought through adulation of the peerless achievements of the system. Within this self-regarding bureaucracy there is even less interest in the role that this country and its people play in a globally interconnected community.
The bureaucrats allowed the situation to deteriorate to a shameless extent, but even then their shame knew no bounds, for their actions served only to harm average people. The Core was steadfast as inefficiencies and chaos proliferated. What they have focused on in particular, however, is the tireless policing of the Internet. They have unleashed the dogs and are paying their minions overtime to blockade the news. Information has been getting out regardless, proof that even while the government resorts to the tactics of a police state, and the National Security Commission accrues ever greater powers to itself, it can never truly achieve its vaunted aims.
The ancients observed that “it’s easier to dam a river than it is to silence the voice of the people.” Regardless of how good they are at controlling the Internet, they can’t keep all 1.4 billion mouths in China shut. Yet again, our ancestors will be proved right. Nonetheless, since all their calculations are solely concerned with maintaining their control; they have convinced themselves that crude exercises of power will suffice. They have been fooled by the self-deception of “The Leader,” a confidence which deceives no one. Faced with this virus, the Leader has flailed about seeking answers with ever greater urgency, exhausting those who are working on the front line, spreading the threat to people throughout the land. Yet still the vacuous slogans are being chanted—Do this! Do that!—overweening and with prideful purpose, He garners nothing but derision and widespread mockery in the process. This is a stark demonstration of the political depletion of which I am talking here. The last seven decades [of the People’s Republic] have taught the people many lessons about the hazards of totalitarian government. This time around, it is the virus that is proving the point once more and in the most undeniable fashion.
One can only hope that our fellow Chinese, both young and old, will finally take the lesson to heart and abandon their long-practiced slavish acquiescence. It is high time that people relied on their own rational judgment and avoided sacrificing themselves on the altar of the power holders. Otherwise, you will all be no better than fields of garlic chives, giving yourselves up to being harvested by the blade of power, time and time again. [The term “garlic chives,” Allium tuberosum, is often used as a metaphor to describe an endlessly renewable resource.]
2. Tyranny in a New Era of Political License
Secondly, tyranny ultimately corrupts governance as a whole and undermines the technocratic system that has taken decades to build. There has been a system-wide collapse of professional ethics and commitment.
There was a time, not too long ago, when moral imperatives found fellowship with systemic self-interest in a manner that led to a vast corps of competent technocrats taking the stage. Over time, they formed a highly capable coterie of specialists and administrators even though, as anyone would readily admit, it produced managerial arrangements that were far from ideal. After all, the new technocracy was one riven by its limitations and beset by serious problems of every kind. Nonetheless, one of the reasons that China’s technocratic class evolved and managed to work at all was that by combining administrative competence with a system that allowed for personal advancement on the basis of an individual’s practical achievements in government, countless young men and women from impoverished backgrounds were lured into pursuing educational self-improvement. They did so with the aim of devoting themselves to both meaningful and rewarding state service. Of course, at the same time, the progeny of the Communist Party’s own nomenklatura—the so-called “Red Second Generation” of bureaucrats—proved themselves to be all but useless as administrators; they occupied official positions and enjoyed the perks of power without making any meaningful contribution. In fact, more often than not, they simply got in the way of people who actually wanted to get things done. But enough of that.
Unfortunately, as a result of the endless political purges of recent years [carried out in the name of an “anti-corruption campaign”] and along with the revival of “Red Culture,” the people in the system who have now been promoted are in-house Party hacks who slavishly obey orders. As a result, both the professional commitment and the expertise previously valued within China’s technocracy, along with the ambition people previously had to seek promotion on the basis of their actual achievements, have been gradually undermined and, without any great hue and cry, they have now all but disappeared. The One Who Must Be Obeyed who talks about the importance of transmitting “red genes” through the reliable Party body politic, the man with the ultimate decision-making power and sign-off authority, has created an environment in which the system as a whole has fallen into desuetude. What remains is a widespread sense of hopelessness.
The bureaucratic and governance system of China we see now is one that values the mediocre, the dilatory and the timid. The mess they have made in Hubei Province, and the grotesque posturing of the incompetents involved has highlighted a universal problem. A similar malaise has infected every province and the rot goes right up to Beijing. In what should be a “post-leader era,” China has a “Core Leader system” and it is undermining the very mechanisms of state. Despite all the talk one hears about “modern governance,” the reality is that the administrative apparatus is increasingly mired in what can only be termed inoperability. It is an affliction whose symptoms I encapsulate in the expressions “organizational discombobulation” and “systemic impotence.”
Don’t you see that although everyone looks to The One for the nod of approval, The One himself is clueless and has no substantive understanding of rulership and governance, despite his undeniable talent for playing power politics. The price for his overarching egotism is now being paid by the whole nation. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy is directionless, although the best among them get by as best they can. They would like to take positive action, but they are hesitant and fearful. For their part, meanwhile, bureaucratic schemers take advantage of the muddle and, although they have no desire to be proactive, they are good at making trouble. The situation works to their advantage; they shove the competent bureaucrats aside and create in their place an environment of overall chaos.
3. A New Era of Attenuated Governance
Furthermore, the day-to-day governance of China is in a state of terminal decay. This manifests itself in two ways:
In the first place, the economic slowdown is now an undeniable reality, and all indications are that things will only get worse over the current year. This presenting the nation with a situation unrivaled since the economic downturn that followed in the wake of the 1989 “disturbances” [that is, the 4 June Beijing Massacre]. This can only serve to exacerbate further the already problematic situation resulting from the aforementioned “organizational discombobulation” and “systemic impotence.” Equally undeniable is the state of things more broadly including:
A collapse in consumer confidence;
Widespread panic about the longterm security of private property;
Administrative and academic frustration and pent-up anger;
A general shutting down of society as a whole; and,
A depressed cultural and publishing industry.
What is thriving, however, is all that ridiculous “Red Culture” and the nauseating adulation that the system heaps on itself via shameless pro-Party hacks who chirrup hosannahs at every turn.
Of particular and profound concern are the massive miscalculations that have been made: first, regarding the uprising in Hong Kong; and, then, in forecasts about the elections in Taiwan. In the pressing political reality [of the situation in Hong Kong] there has been a continued blatant refusal to abide by the undertaking stipulated in the Hong Kong Basic Law regarding general elections [for the Chief Executive of the territory]. Repeated missteps in the Special Administrative Zone have been followed by clumsy and haphazard moves that have led to the complete collapse of public confidence in political leadership. The upshot is a fundamental disaffection towards Beijing among the masses of a place that is, in reality, the most prosperous and civilized part of Chinese territory. The whole world has witnessed the ugly reality of the polity that lurks behind this situation.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, as the Sino-American relationship continues moving into uncharted territory, the fact that for the Superpower politics are not merely about grand claims that no one has a right to comment on the internal affairs of such nations, all of these happenings [in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which Beijing emphasizes are solely a matter of China’s “internal affairs”] have a direct impact on the unfolding fate of our own nation. And, at this very juncture, The Axelrod, befuddled as usual, is for his pains also having to deal with an America led by a man who repeatedly “trumps” him by virtue of his own unpredictability [here the author alters the Chinese transliteration of Trump’s name to read “extremely befuddling,” that is someone who “stumps” everyone]. What you end up with is one big mess. There is a proliferation of online comments that claim He is aiding and abetting the Yankees pursue their “Imperialist Steadfast Desire to See Us Destroyed.” In other words, [canny commentators are suggesting that] He is helping the U.S. achieve the very things it could never have dreamed of accomplishing itself. This is not just a way to ridicule him, it is a profoundly painful reality for all of us.
Secondly, the power holders have in recent years accelerated their attempts to stifle all signs that China might be developing a civil society. Censorship increases by the day, the impact of which is to weaken and obliterate those very things that can and should play a positive role in alerting society to critical issues. In response to the coronavirus, for instance, at first the authorities shut down public disquiet and outspoken commentary via censorship; they then simply shut down entire cities. First people’s hearts die and then Death stalks the living. It takes no particular leap of the imagination to appreciate that along with all of these acts of crude expediency soulless pragmatism can make even greater political inroads. Given the fact that the country is, in effect, run by people nurtured on the “Politics of the Sent Down Youth” [that is, of the Cultural Revolution era—today’s leaders came of age during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period of unparalleled political cynicism] this is hardly remarkable. After all, we are living in a time when what once passed for a measure of public decency and social concern has long quit the stage.
One could go so far as to say that from the highest echelon to the very bottom of the system, this lot represent the worst political team to have run China since 1978. That is why I believe that it is imperative that the nation act on and truly put into practice Article 35 of the Constitution. That is to say [we ourselves should advance Five Key Demands]:
- Lift the ban on independent media and publishing;
Put an end to the secret police surveillance of the Internet and allow people their right to freedom of speech so they can express themselves with a clear conscience;
Allow citizens to enjoy their right to demonstrate as well as the freedom of assembly and association;
Respect the basic universal rights of our citizens, in particular their right to vote in open elections.
[And, fifthly,] It should also be a matter of pressing urgency that an independent body be established to investigate the origins of the coronavirus epidemic, to trace the cover-up and to determine the responsible parties and to analyze the systemic origins of the crisis. Then and only then [after the coronavirus epidemic has passed] can we truly engage in what should be a meaningful “Post [Anti-Virus] War Reconstruction.”
4. A New Era of Resuscitated Court Politics
Added to this is the re-emergence of court politics or palace intrigue. The lurch towards the totalitarian along with a concomitant ratcheting up of policies aimed at insinuating the Communist Party into every aspect of civil government has, as we have noted in the above, resulted in the near paralysis of normal bureaucratic operations. The system lacks any real sources of positive motivation and the concentration of authority along with the concomitant impotence of actual power means that the Tail [or underlings] can all too readily Wag the Dog—ergo the existence of a Security Commission that imposes harsh punishments as part of the mechanisms used to keep the show on the road and the bureaucratic game ticking over. Due to the lack of freedom of speech and the absence of a modern bureaucratic system, let alone the absence of anything even approaching a “His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition,” the whip itself knows no restraint and the National Security Commission [established by Xi] rules through an iron fist with each layer of bureaucracy answering upwards until it reaches the pinnacle, The Sole Responsible Person. And that individual is but a man of flesh and blood who cannot possibly “be across” all aspects of governance. A Party-State system that has no checks or balances, nor indeed a rational allocation of duties and responsibilities, inevitably results in the rule of a clique of trusted lieutenants. Hence you have the equivalent of a court and the politics pertaining to one. Put in the most obvious way, the “collective leadership” with its “Nine Dragons Ruling the Waters” [prior to Xi Jinping’s rule, there were nine members of the ruling Politburo Standing Committee. Xi’s leadership saw this number reduced to seven] and its concomitant claque of rulers is no longer operable. And with its relative decline in efficacy, the One Leader’s inner circle becomes a “state within a state,” something that the Yankees have taken to calling the “deep state.”
Following the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, a bureaucracy was established to carry out basic administrative tasks. Even Mao was able to tolerate someone like Premier Zhou Enlai running his part of the government. With the appearance of the Revolutionary Committees and Security Organs [which replaced the police and the judicial system as a whole during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 until the 1970s] that existing system was overthrown, but in the four decades [after Cultural Revolution policies were formally rejected from 1978], for the most part a modicum of balance existed between the roles of Party leader and state leader [that is, between the General Secretary of the Communist Party and the Premier who was head of the State Council, and the formal structures of government]. Even though the Party and State were still melded, the state bureaucracy had the task of implementing Party directives. It is only in the last few years that a new kind of hermetically sealed governance has come to the fore and, due to the nature of hidden court politics, it is one that has enabled a sole power-holder while giving license to the darkest kinds of plotting and scheming. It is a rulership structure that stifles change and forecloses the kinds of changes that could support regularized forms of governance. With the way ahead reduced to something akin to a “political locked-in syndrome,” and since a meaningful retreat is all but impossible, the system is under constant strain. It is virtually impossible for anyone to act in any meaningful fashion. Instead, all are forced to look on in impotent frustration as the situation deteriorates. This may well go on until things are simply beyond salvaging.
Faced with such a situation, the social economy ends up in tatters, and the basic ethical web of society as a whole is rent by the prevailing winds of political fashion, so much so that people’s already fragile sense of citizenship ends up being further depleted. In the absence of anything that can meaningfully be called civil society, there is no hope that any kind of mature politics can evolve. The brittleness of the situation is such that, whenever there is the slightest disturbance—let alone a major disaster—everyone is endangered, and they are certainly powerless to help each other. That is why what may start out as a molehill can all too readily become a mountain.
The present chaos in Wuhan has thrown Hubei into confusion, but as we have noted before, the root cause of the expanding problem is in Beijing: The One who devotes himself energetically to “Protecting the Mountains and Rivers and Maintaining Rulership Over the Mountains and Rivers” [of China. “Rivers and Mountains” is a poetic expression for China as a unified entity under authoritarian control]. His self-interest is not grounded in the sovereignty of the people, nor in a system of governance that is about “building a nation on the basis of civilization, or freedom.” The end result of His style of rulership is, as commentators on the Internet have widely remarked of late, that although “Major Tasks Can Be Accomplished by Concentrating Power” in times of crisis the reality is that “Major Mishaps Are Also Generated by Overly Concentrated Power.” The coronavirus epidemic is a clear demonstration of this.
5. A New Era of Big Data Totalitarianism and WeChat Terror
They now turn to rule over the people by means of what could be dubbed “big data totalitarianism” and “WeChat terror.” Although the fundamental nature of the Communist Party has remained unchanged over the past decades, it has articulated its ideology in a constantly mutable fashion. Throughout it all, however, their underpinning form of nationalism has been cast in terms of “the revitalization of the great Chinese nation,” while the general aspiration for wealth and power has been formulated under the slogan of “[achieving] the Four Modernizations” [of agriculture, industry, defense and science and technology]. And so the twists and turns have followed one upon another, including the Three Represents [of the Jiang Zemin era that stated that the Party “represents the means for advancing China’s productive forces; represents China’s culture; and, represents the fundamental interests of the majority of the Chinese people] and the The New Three People’s Principles [reformulated from the Republican era, 1912-1949] right up to the “New Era” announced under Xi Jinping.
The Three Represents and the ideas [and policy changes of the time] represented a relative apogee of possibility; since then there has been an evident downward curve which, in recent years, has indicated that the Communists are ever more obsessed with control over their Rivers and Mountains, in particular by means of big data totalitarianism. Of course, the relative move away from the totalitarian controls of the Maoist era [in the 1980s and 1990s] seemed to presage a possibility that the system as a whole might yet be able to transition into something else. However, following the Beijing Olympics in 2008, that trend all but petered out as Mao-style means of control were re-instituted. This has been even more evident over the past six years [under Xi Jinping].
As the technologies being deployed to create China’s big data totalitarianism have been developed with the largesse possible because of unlimited government budgets, we are now experiencing a 1984-style of total surveillance and control. In practice this allows for what could be called “WeChat terrorism,” something directly targets China’s vast online population. The masses are, through their taxes, in fact funding a vast Internet police force that is empowered by the party-state to oversee, supervise and track every statement and action made by everyone in the country. This new canker on the body politic is a direct product of the system itself. People now live in constant anxiety, for they know that the imposition of this kind of Internet terrorism is not limited merely to the suspension or shutting down of personal WeChat accounts, or the larger enterprise of banning whole chat groups [which are a vital way for individuals to debate issues of interest]. Everyone is mindful that the online terror can all too readily escape the virtual realm and become overtly physical; that is the cases when the authorities use what they have learned online send the police to deal with online users in real-time. The resulting widespread social disquiet fosters an atmosphere of constant self-censorship and people are beset by nagging worries about what inexplicable punishment may befall them at any given moment.
This is how all potential for public discussion is being stifled. By the same token, the very channels of communication that should in normal circumstances exist for the dissemination of public information are strangled, and a meaningful, civic early-warning system that could play a crucial role at times of local or national emergency is thereby outlawed. What we have in its place is an evolving military tyranny that is underpinned by an ideology cobbled together from strains of traditional harsh Chinese Legalist thought wedded to an admix of the Leninist-Stalinist interpretation of Marxism along with the “Germano-Aryan” form of fascism [the author encapsulates this unique formulation in the shorthand: Fa-Ri-Si 法日斯, or “Legalistic-Fascist-Stalinism”]. There is increasing evidence that for all of its weighty presence, this is in fact a self-deconstructing structure that undermines normal governance in favor of systemic atrophy. And this is why we see, when it is confronted with a major public health emergency such as now, the so-called “All Powerful Totalizing System” under the Chairman of Everything leads to real-world effects that expose the profound inadequacies of the system as a whole which, among other things, has left the country without even enough face masks to go around.
As I write, in the city of Wuhan, and within the province of Hubei, there are still countless numbers of people who have not been able to receive adequate medical attention and who have been abandoned to wailing in desperate isolation. How can we possibly know how many people have been condemned to an early death as a result? This then is the reality of the so-called “all-powerful state,” the “good-for-nothing” nature of which is now on display for all to see. It is a system that has systematically outlawed society and the civil realm [a translation of the capacious term minjian; see Sebastian Veg, Minjian: Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals], cut off all other sources of information apart from its own and given licenses only to its own propaganda apparatus. A nation such as this may well attempt to strut, but it is little more than a crippled giant, that is if it can even be called a giant.
6. A New Era That Has Shut Down Reform
The last cards in the deck have all been played and the possibilities for further meaningful reforms have been locked out. Or, to put it more directly, the Open Door and Reform policies are dead in a ditch. From when [Xi Jinping declared], in late 2018 that “we must resolutely reform what should and can be changed, we must resolutely not reform what shouldn’t and can’t be changed” right up to the publication of the Communiqué of the Fourth Plenary Session [of the Nineteenth Party Congress] last autumn, we can say with certainty that the Third Great Wave of reform and opening in modern Chinese history [the first dates from the self-strengthening movement of the 1860s] has petered out. The shutting down of reform is a process that, in reality, began six years earlier [following the rise of Xi Jinping in late 2012].
Observing the trends in global history throughout the 20th century it is fairly evident that right-wing governments have proven, when forced by pressure or circumstance, that they may well be able to evolve and overcome their systemic dilemmas without having to resort to mass blood-letting. Even in the case of the “Eastward Wave of Soviet Change” [Su Dong Bo, literally “the (politically transformative) wave that broke over the Eastern Bloc controlled by the Soviet Union.” This clever shorthand is based on Su Dongpo, the name of a famous Song-dynasty poet]—in particular in the case of the socialist governments of the Eastern Bloc under Soviet control—even they managed a peaceful transition, something that, at the time, was both surprising and a relief. However, in China today, the authorities have blocked off any possible passage to imaginable change and we must seriously doubt whether any form of peaceful transition might even be conceivable. If that truly is the case, one cannot help but think of the old poetic line [from the Yuan dynasty] that, “The people suffer whether the state prospers or fails.” One can only hope that in the wake of the coronavirus, the people of China will rethink their situation and that this ancient land will awaken to its predicament. Might it, perhaps, be possible to initiate a Fourth Wave of Reform?!
7. A New Era of Isolation
Given the logical progression of things discussed in the foregoing, China looks like it will, once more, be isolated from the global system. The modern global system is one that took shape in the Mediterranean [with the rise of the European trading powers] and reached an apogee on either side of the Atlantic Ocean [with the imperial dominance of the United Kingdom and the United States]. Over the centuries, China has engaged in any number of tugs of war with that system, variously rejecting or embracing it. Back and forth it has gone as the nation has lurched forward and careened back over the years. For over three decades, a hard-won and painful realization led to this country “bowing in humble acknowledgement” [as the author titled an essay in late 2018] as well as “actively pursuing change,” right up to giving birth to its own new form of engagement that would, over time, become itself something of a new mainstream.
It is a sad reality, however, that in recent years China has increasingly acted imprudently and against its own interests. Furthermore, it has demonstrated that the “Open Door” has opened just as far as it is going to and that the totalitarian impulses of the Extreme Leftists have led them to take a stand; they will not tolerate any further advances that may possibly lead to a peaceful transition and enable China finally to evolve. That’s why this place has actually set itself at loggerheads with the modern global system. Despite this, and after all the back and forth, China by virtue of its sheer scale and a generally more open mindset was gradually finding its place in the modern world system and even becoming an important player in it. Its mere presence also required people to engage with new interpretations of staid geopolitical narratives related to the meaning of “the center” and “the periphery.”
However, the country’s increasingly aggressive international posture in recent years was out of kilter with both realistic assessments of actual national strength as well as overall trends in global affairs as a whole. Added to all of that was the changing internal dynamic of China that has seen a steady drumbeat that has served to egg on an enhanced regime of what I have termed “Legalistic-Fascist-Stalinism.” In combination all of this has evoked alarm and trepidation among other players in the new great game of global politics; they are now alert to the potential rise of a Chinese “Red Empire” [for more on this, see Xu, “China’s Red Empire—To Be or Not To Be”]. Just as China has trumpeted the concept of a global Community of Shared Destiny, the international community is itself rejecting it. How tragic is that! Instead of embracing a real community, China is increasingly isolating itself from it.
No matter how complex, nuanced and sophisticated one’s analysis, the reality is stark. A polity that is blatantly incapable of treating its own people properly can hardly be expected to treat the rest of the world well. How can a nation that doggedly refuses to become a modern political civilization really expect to be part of a meaningful community? That’s why although mutually beneficial economic exchanges will continue unabated, its civilizational isolation will remain an unavoidable Chinese reality. This has nothing to do with a culture war, even less can it be encapsulated in—and dismissed by—glib terms of a “clash of civilizations.” Nor is it simply a matter of some new wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, or Sinophobia or China put down, despite the fact that right now, for the moment, dozens of countries have imposed travel restrictions on people from the People’s Republic.
I would remind readers that fears of a Yellow Peril, that long occluded and sclerotic ideological construct, must invariably re-emerge as the present China scare advances. Internationally, the due appreciation for universal values and human rights was hard won and it only achieved widespread acceptance following a tortuous period of contestation. They have long been a standard element in the treaties and agreements that underpin the international community. China’s own international engagement and its worthiness of enjoying a substantive place in the international community depends too on how these philosophical issues are understood and treated [that is, if China can evolve to accept internationally recognized universal values]. Who over time will prosper and who will move against the tides of history—that is, who will end up being isolated—these are questions that can only be answered as some places are isolated by others or decide to self-isolate and end up alone. Such places will only be able to find their assumed pulchritude reflected back at them in the mirror of their imperial self-regard.
The way to turn things around, to re-establish the image of China as a responsible major power that can shoulder its global responsibilities, demands that the internal affairs of this country must be sorted out; that can only happen if we as a people join together on the Great Way of Universal Human Values. What is of particular importance is that this nation needs to ground itself substantively in the concept that Sovereignty Resides in the People. But it still all comes down to how this country manages its own affairs. I believe that the only way for China to end its global and historical isolation and become a meaningful participant in the global system, as well as flourish on the path of national survival and prosperity, is to pursue a politics that embraces constitutional democracy and fosters a true people’s republic. When that time comes, and in accord with the flow of events, it is not unimaginable that China might even be worthy of joining the G7, which would in turn become the Group of Eight or G8.
8. A New Era in Which to Seek Freedom from Fear
The People are no longer fearful. These are the common people—men and women who strain to make a living, a populace that has put up with so much trepidation, a vast population that has only with the most extraordinary difficulty freed itself from all of those myths about Power—they are a people who will not forever be willing to hand over submissively to a tyrannical system the minuscule freedoms they enjoy, and their right to work for a better life. Indeed, why should they submit to a system that in its arrogance arrogates unto itself the sole right to proportion life and death, and survival itself?
Now, as a result of this Great Virus, the People are enraged and they’ve had enough. They have witnessed how the facts were hidden and how the health and safety of the common people was ignored by an unfeeling bureaucracy. Even before now, they have repeatedly paid a heavy price, that levy demanded to support the grandiose displays of celebration and self-congratulation that the party-state uses to advertise prosperity and peace. All the while they are treated as straw dogs [that is, sacrificial victims to be dispensed with at will]. They witness the ever-increasing death toll, yet they are being shut down on WeChat and forced into silence while the power-holders extol their own heroism and shamelessly heap plaudits on themselves. Mass sentiment can be summed up in the line [made famous in Bei Dao’s 1976 poem]: I—DO—NOT—BELIEVE! And they won’t put up with it any more.
Well may they say that the human heart is ineffable and inexplicable; it is something that above all else has no practical use. It seems that experience has repeatedly proven this to be a fact; it cannot simply be deemed wholly unreasonable. After all, what about Big Cock Li [Li Peng, whose personal name, Peng, is also a term for a mythical huge bird], the man [who was directly responsible for the Beijing Massacre of 1989 and the nationwide repression that followed in its wake]? Millions bayed for his blood, but he peacefully lived out his allotted time [dying in July 2019 at the age of ninety-one] even as the masses wanted to spit on him in disgusted outrage. How can one not lament the fact that Heaven does not deliver justice? Although, if truth be told, Heaven too suffers along with all of us. If we are to believe that what makes us what we are is the heart—our sense of human decency—rather than the bestial organs of wolves and dogs, then it is the heart too that responds most meaningfully to the vicissitudes of life—be they joys or sorrows, disaster or good fortune, fairness as well as to profit, loves and hates. It is but human to be conflicted by wants and needs, to be prone to the agonies of separation and hopes for happiness. It is in that heart that a way forward may be forged, through thickets of pain as well as despite the rotten realities of our world.
When humanity itself is tested to the very point of extinction, know that this may presage the true “End of His Days.” As for those addle-brained morons and all of those smarmy gadabouts who think nothing bad can ever happen to them, they are but an undifferentiated mob: they make no positive contribution to history, nor indeed does the course of unfolding events change because of their existence, or anything they do.
9. A New Era in Which the Clock Is Ticking
The deplorable reality is evident and the countdown has started—the time to establish a meaningful constitutional order is upon us. It should be recognized that the March 2018 revision of China’s Constitution [which allowed for Xi Jiping to stay in power beyond the limited term in office previously stipulated by law] opened the door to all manner of evil. It has legislated that a totalitarian specter may once more cast a long shadow over us. However, at that very moment, things were taking an unexpected turn; just as that stampede into the past began, systemic decay became increasingly evident. Putting aside the issue of disgruntled popular sentiment, in the above we have already noted the bungled policies related both to Hong Kong and to Taiwan, as well as the disorderly fashion in which the Sino-American relationship has been unfolding. Added to all of that is an overall economic decline that eludes simple resolution as well as the real-time international isolation that China has been experiencing [due to its increasingly aggressive foreign posture]. All of these things are symptomatic of policy failure, yet further proof that “Strong Man Politics”—a phenomenon that cuts against the very nature of modern political life—produces results that are at glaring variance with the avowed aim of their author [that is, Xi Jinping].
Amid this suffocating situation, there is a widespread anxiety that we are caught in a stalemate. People are bedeviled and straining to think of ways to break through the logjam and inaugurate new possibilities. There has, of course, been a fervent hope among many that certain internal dynamics may possibly result in a situation that can clear the way; perhaps something welling up from below that may positively influence those above. Just as such a pipe dream seemed to capture people’s imaginations, developments in Hong Kong and Taiwan showed how the periphery can suddenly throw the centre off kilter. Events in those places have been so dramatic in fact that they may even offer a ray of hope. For it is perhaps, only perhaps, that with such a path forward—one in which the periphery gradually influences the centre and makes imaginable some kind of peaceful transition, that a particular Chinese Way out of our present political conundrum may be found. Perhaps too the “besieged city” [of Wuhan], beset as it is by crisis, may also prove to be a Jerusalem—a place of hope and peace; an old city proffering new hope.
To put it another way, a breakthrough originating from the periphery may augur once more [as it did in the 1890s, the 1910s, the 1940s and again in the 1980s] a moment that favors a push towards meaningful constitutional and legal rule in China. We may well be at just such a juncture; even as the faint light of a new dawn is promised on the horizon, we nonetheless remain in the gloaming—we are no longer lost in the pitch dark of night, yet still the roseate promise of a new day eludes us. Still that bastion of power holds itself together tightly, a crumbling edifice reluctant as ever to acquiesce to the popular will. But, look there, the draw bridge that leads a way out [that is, the promise offered by events in Hong Kong and Taiwan] has been lowered just so far. Is this not a time spoken of by prophets—even though many will fail and fall before the dawn light ushers in a new day?
I present these Nine Points for the consideration of my fellow countrymen and women. It is all too obvious and mere common sense. But let me reiterate my key point: when a nation has yet to enter a normal state of rule; when its people and their civilization are yet to transition into a truly modern era, we must continue forward with fortitude and hope; we must strive to bring about constitutional democracy and realize a true People’s Republic. We have now been part of this long-breaking wave of modernity for over one and a half centuries [since the fledgling reform movement of the 1860s in the Qing dynasty]. It is herein that we play a role. That’s right, we, We the People, for [as I have previously said] how can we let ourselves “survive no better than swine; fawn upon the power-holders like curs; and live in vile filth like maggots”?!
As I write these words I reflect on my own situation which also dramatically changed in 2018 [when the author published his famous anti-Xi Jeremiad]. For having raised my voice then, I was punished for “speech crimes.” Thereafter, I was suspended from my job as a university lecturer and cashiered as a professor, reduced to a minor academic rank. I was placed under investigation by my employer, Tsinghua University; my freedoms have been curtailed ever since. Writing as I do herein, I can now all too easily predict that I will be subjected to new punishments; indeed, this may well even be the last piece I write. But that is not for me to say.
Confronted by this Great Virus, as all of us are right now, I feel as though a vast chasm has opened up before us all and I feel compelled to speak out yet again. There is no refuge from this viral reality and I cannot remain silent. To act in any other way would be to betray my nature. In Western philosophy, they call it “righteous indignation;” it is a kind of fury that results from repeated abrasion. Our own thinkers speak of it as humanity combined with a sense of justice. It is [what Mencius] called “the true way of the human heart” and, thus agitated, I—a bookish scholar who dares to think of himself as an “intellectual”—am prepared to pay for it with my life. [Here the author quotes the Confucian text Mencius: “Benevolence is the heart of man, and rightness his road. Sad it is indeed when a man gives up the right road instead of following it and allows his heart to stray without enough sense to go after it.” Translated by D.C. Lau, Mencius, Book VI, Part A: 11.]
In the end, it is about Freedom—that Transcendent Quality; well-spring and fulcrum of conscious action; that secular value proven to be the most divine aspiration of humankind; that innate sensibility that truly makes us human; that ineffable “suchness” that we Chinese share with all others. The spirit of the world, that spirit incarnate on earth, makes possible a glorious unfolding of Freedom itself. This is why, friends—my countless compatriots—though a sea of flames confronts us, can we let ourselves be held back by fear?
Oh, Vast Land beneath our feet, it is You that I now address:
You inspire the most profound feelings, yet you can be cruel in your dispensation. Despite the bounty of your promise all too often you assail us with ceaseless troubles. Bit by bit you gnaw away at our patience, inch by inch you chip away at our dignity. Are you deserving of all of our praise or are you worthy only of our curses? One thing there is that I do know, and it is a hard-won truth: at the mere mention of you my eyes fill with tears and my heart gasps. And so it is that I say unto You, in the words of the poet [Dylan Thomas]:
I will not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And that is why people like me—feeble scholars though we are—are useless, for we can do nothing more than lament, take up our pens, avail ourselves of what we write to issue calls for decency and advance pleas on behalf of Justice. Faced with the crisis of the coronavirus, confronting this disordered world, I join my compatriots—the 1.4 billion men and women, brothers and sisters of China, the countless multitudes who have no way of fleeing this land—and I call on them: rage against this injustice; let your lives burn with a flame of decency; break through the stultifying darkness and welcome the dawn.
Let us now strive together with our hearts and minds, also with our very lives. Let us embrace the warmth of a sun that proffers yet freedom for this vast land of ours!
Drafted on the Fourth Day of the First Lunar Month
Of the Gengzi Year of the Rat [28 January 2020]
Revised on the Ninth Day of the First Month [2 February]
As a snow storm suddenly assailed Beijing