Liang Jing, 2008 and China’s ‘National Destiny’

Overseas political commentator ’s new piece, translated by Dr. David Kelly of the China Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney.

Since the 1990s, China’s rapid social transformation has brought much uncertainty to individuals, leading Chinese people to seek everywhere for spiritual resources. This is the case both with the people and the elite. The need for faith stimulated the rise of Falun Gong and the revival of folk religion, stimulated in particular the astonishing development of Christianity in China, emboldening some of the intellectual elite who are critical of autocratic politics to convert to Christianity. A trend is thus emerging among the ruling elite, a return of interest in “guoxue” [national studies] and “guoyun” [national destiny]. [1] A mysterious figure catalyzing this development is the somewhat legendary Nan Huaijin [南怀谨]. Mr Nan made an influential forecast regarding China’s national destiny: “the time of turmoil that we are in will probably not continue for too long; extrapolating on historical principles, since the year 1987 our ethnic prosperity and national destiny should have begun turning toward the prosperity of the reigns of Emperors Kangxi [1661-1722] and Qianlong [1736-1796], and may continue two or three centuries.” [2] I don’t claim Mr Nan made this statement to please the CPC, but the CPC leaders’ mentality of trusting to luck was undoubtedly encouraged by it.

The intensifying domestic and international crises in , above all the global financial crisis triggered by the US, was a major test of Mr Nan’s predictions. If correct, China will have headed off disaster. Since the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997, China has been in an age in which the nation has been run by slaves and mediocrities, leaving huge and deep social trauma, and building up high risk of disorder. The sudden onset of the global financial tsunami took place at China’s political, economic and social Achilles heel; what does this bode for China’s national destiny? The greatest test for China’s “national destiny” of the crisis that broke out in was the fact, plain for all to see, that the power to decide the fate of 1.3 billion people lay in the hands of some very mediocre and incompetent leaders. Hu has never had any language of his own, and has difficulty really communicating. During the decade of silence when Hu Jintao was Emperor In Waiting, many people hoped that some profound stratagem lay behind his inscrutable “poker face.” It is now realised however, six years after his accession, that the emperor has no clothes; Hu responds to all changes by not changing at all, and his sole intent is to “retire quietly.” For a China once again setting sail on stormy seas, will disaster beyond redemption be brought by such a captain? At a recent meeting in commemoration of 30 years of China’s reform, Hu had a new saying that surprised many: “bu zheteng” [don’t flip-flop]. It now seems that some important information was transmitted in this much-pondered phrase.

Hu Jintao’s “don’t flip-flop” was, it seems, a response to “Charter 2008.” In other words, he could not adopt the advice of Chinese political dissidents, and carry out constitutional democracy in a big way. This response of Hu’s was of course not surprising—he had already displayed this attitude by ordering Liu Xiaobo’s arrest. “Don’t flip-flop” may also however have been Hu’s a response to power struggles in high levels of the CPC. In the face of increasingly serious internal crisis, the high Party levels are anything but peaceful; there are those want to cool things down, and my sense is that there those as well who are pushing for Hu’s replacement to be brought forward. Hu’s “don’t flip-flop” is in answer to these two forces; at least on the surface, he wants to preserve the current Party power structure.

Hu Jintao, however, has never said anything of his own, and this time was no exception. The real source of “don’t flip-flop” was Xi Jinping. When newly appointed Zhejiang Party Secretary, Xi used the expression, “even with the best ideas you can’t flip-flop.” [3] The fact that Xi’s idea was introduced into Hu’s speech showed that the 2008 crisis has accelerated the new generation of Party leaders stepping into their roles. As a result, China’s national destiny is to a large extent linked to the leadership not only of Hu Jintao but of this whole new generation of leaders. What, then, was the message conveyed by this new generation saying “don’t flip-flop”? The message, coming from the mouth of an heir to the red revolution, was in my view quite profound. As has been pointed out online, “don’t flip-flop” is a tacit admission and self-examination of decades of disastrous flip-flopping by the CPC.

The question is, was the late Qing Dynasty not trying to avoid flip-flopping? A question raised by China’s history of over a century of flip-flopping is, can the Chinese people do without it? In other words, why do the Chinese keep flip-flopping? This may be a vital issue in determining China’s national destiny. My criticism of “Charter 2008” is that while its moral courage is praiseworthy, it lacks depth of thinking. One defect is its failure to answer a key question: why is it that despite centuries of struggle the Chinese people’s dream of constitutional democracy has remained unachievable? Is it only because there are always bad people in power?

Why was the sound and realistic reform strategy of Chen Baozhen [4] obliterated in Kang You-wei’s opportunistic 1898 coup, and not vice-versa? Why did Sun Yat-sen, who in order to seize power did not scruple to betray national sovereignty, become a national hero, while the robustly reformist Li Hongzhang was saddled with the name of traitor to the nation? Why did the born hoodlum Chiang Kai-shek win power in the Guomindang, while Chen Jiongming, that outstanding personality who provided the revolutionaries with a base in Guangdong, was cast aside by both Nationalists and Communists? [5] Why did Hu Shi lose the limelight to Lu Xun? Why was Mao Zedong able to topple Liu Shaoqi, rather than Liu curb Mao? Why could the moral indignation of university teachers and students help the conservatives topple Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, yet prove unable to stop Jiang Zemin making China’s universities into hotbeds of slave philosophy and culture, and corruption? The emergence of “Charter 2008” and the “don’t flip-flop” response show that China reached a crossroads in its destiny in 2008. Compared to Putin’s appointment of opposition leaders as regional leaders, the dialogue of “xiangyuan” [6] taking place between China’s powerholders and opposition makes it hard to accept Nan Huaijin’s optimistic forecast of China’s national destiny.

* Liang Jing, “2008 yu Zhongguo de ‘guoyun'” [2008 and China’s ‘national destiny’], Xin shiji, 29 December 2008 [梁京: “2008与中国的’国运'”, 新世纪,2008年12月 29日 (URL pending).].

[1] Seeker of Learning, “Xuejie gaimo yidai zongshi” [Academic model, master of his generation], wenxue.folo, 24 February 2004 [问学: “学界楷模 一代宗师 “,2004年2月 24日(http://wenxue.folo.cn/user1/11344/archives/2007/33964.html).].

[2] Nan Huaijin, “You Laozi dao Sunzi—Nan Huaiqin” [From Laozi to Sunzi—Nan Huaijin], 29 December 2008 [南怀瑾: “由老子到孙子—南怀瑾”, 2008年12月 29日 (http://www.success001.com/b/2/nhj/laozi.htm).].

[3] “Yangshi ‘Dongfang shikong’ shengwei shuji xilie zhuanfang: Xi Jinping” [CCTV’s Oriental Horizon series of interview with provincial party secretaries: Xi Jinping], Dongfang shikong, 29 December 2008 [“央视《东方时空》省委书记系列专访:习近平”,东方时空,2008年12月 29日 (http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2003-11-16/11182145564.shtml).].

[4] (Translator’s note) Chen Baozhen (Chinese: 陳寶箴; pinyin: Chén Bǎozhēn; 1831-1900), was a Chinese statesman and reformer during the Qing dynasty. Chen was born in Xiushui in Jiangxi province and obtained the second highest degree in the imperial examinations in 1851. During Self-strengthening movement, Chen became closely associated with Zeng Guofan efforts to rearm China. In 1895, he was appointed governor of Hunan province, where he carried out a reform program with the aid of Tan Sitong and Liang Qichao. Chen’s sympathies to the Hundred Days of Reform attracted criticism from his superiors, and he was dismissed from his post in 1898. He died in Nanjing two years later. (From Wikipedia; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chen_Baozhen).

[5] (Translator’s note) For a similar view of Chen Jiongming see John Fitzgerald, Awakening China (Stanford University Press 2004), ch. 4.

[6] (Translator’s note) xiangyuan may be translated as ‘hypocrite’ or ‘goody-goody.’ Confucius (Lun Yu 17.13) calls them ‘thieves of virtue:’ they assume a character which is not their due. In Mencius’ description, they are ‘eunuch-like, flattering their generation.’ Wan Zhang, speaking as the naive man, objects that “…their whole village styles these men good and careful. In all their conduct they are so. How is it that Confucius considered them the thieves of virtue?” Mencius (7b 37.11) replies, “If you blame them you would find nothing to allege. If you criticized them you would find nothing to criticize. They agree with an impure age. Their principles have a semblance of integrity and sincerity [zhong xin 忠信], their conduct is a semblance of disinterest and purity; all men are pleased with them, and they think themselves right, so that it is impossible to proceed with them to the principles of Yao and Shun. On this account, they are called the thieves of virtue.”

December 30, 2008, 12:08 AM
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