Retired Peking University sociology professor Zheng Yefu is known for his outspoken political views. In a recent essay that went viral on Chinese social media, Zheng argues that the Party’s attempts to protect and privilege political and economic elites through “social stability maintenance” is itself contributing to the demise of the nation’s social cohesion and wellbeing. As proof, Zheng cited the trend of the children of the elite increasingly choosing to settle abroad. The essay has been archived at CDT Chinese, and is translated below:
China’s current and varied dangers, both named and nameless, are putting tremendous pressure on its rulers. Incalculable manpower and resources are being spent in response to these real and imaginary destabilizing elements. It is called “maintaining social stability,” and it is enormously costly. Beijing has outfitted more than 10,000 buses with safety officers, and this of course is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the expense of maintaining social stability. But the absurdity and expense of stability maintenance is already evident. So are the results. A dozen or so years ago, nearly all central and local TV stations had talk shows on social issues. These have long since been wiped out. Now it’s rare for the media to say anything about society that is distinguishable from the government’s own voice, never mind political questions. All levels of the administration take strict precautions against journalism, free discourse, and protest. They cling to old habits and defend their property to the death. They annihilate threats until there are practically none left. They watch for threats that haven’t yet materialized. And what is all this meant to accomplish? To protect the country, the power of the state, the “Rivers and Mountains” (江山). From this fact alone, we can understand why they space no cost or effort.
The point of this text is to ask, for whom the country is being defended? “For The People” is, among many answers, the most orthodox, and yet it is also the most irrational, an illogical and incoherent turn of phrase. Over the past several thousand years, ordinary Chinese people’s understanding of the “Rivers and Mountains” has never involved or implicated “The People” as such, because the Rivers and Mountains only belonged to a small minority. As the old poem says, “Under the whole heaven, / Every spot is the sovereign’s ground.” If the Rivers and Mountains actually belonged to The People, then villains would be so rare that the land could go undefended.
The small minority, like the rest of society, is stratified. In essence, the Rivers and Mountains belonged to various kings prior to the advent of the feudal system under the Western Zhou Dynasty, then to the emperor with the establishment of the Qin autocratic monarchy. During the Ming, the Rivers and Mountains belonged to the imperial house of Zhu, then to the Aisin Gioro clan under the Qing. In North Korea, the Rivers and Mountains belong to the Mount Baekdu bloodline (the Kim Dynasty).
The imperial bureaucrats often got their share of the action as well. Families that had served officialdom for generations would shed tears of gratitude and say, “We’ve been blessed by the country for generations.” The logical corollary of such gratitude is to help the imperial family protect said country. But no matter how you increase the number of people with a stake in the country or with jurisdiction over it, it still doesn’t belong to The People. Therefore the ancients said: “Rich meat eaters [a reference to the ancient notion of meat eaters as the rich and powerful and even short-sighted] plot the country’s rise and fall, while the rise and fall of the country concerns everyone.” This means a country changing its surname is the affair of a small number of people, while the loss of civilization concerns everyone. Interesting and strange that The Communist Manifesto’s logic is so similar: the working class has no country.
Yuan Shikai’s failure in proclaiming himself emperor was a warning to Mao Zedong, who wisely chose to be emperor without taking that title. Concerning that title, he still lacked something: the ability to pass the throne to his heir. Of course, this was also because no longer had a son. Now China’s rulers are doing the strenuous work of protecting the country, but because the imperial power system—inextricably linked to blood lineage—no longer exists, the question remains: for whom? For ancient China and modern North Korea, this was (and is) not an issue. For the current Chinese dynasty, it is a very real concern. This question has two layers. The first: for whom is the country being protected? The second: do those who are protected endorse their protection?
In short, China is currently protecting the country for a privileged class of society. Generally speaking, people with a vested interest in the status quo want to maintain it. The privileged class is mainly composed of senior officials, the wealthy, and their offspring. This shouldn’t be hard to understand. But the meaning of protecting the country has always included hereditary transmission. This brings us to the second question, one much harder to solve. This is because the ruling clique has run into a problem seldom seen in human history, that is, the high proportion of children and grandchildren of the privileged class who wish to migrate abroad rather than hold state power. For many reasons, they would rather be average people in Europe or America than privileged elites in their parents’ country.
First of all, China’s natural and social environment differs immensely from those of Western countries. China’s drastically worsened circumstances are precisely due to its rulers and privileged class, who have sacrificed the natural environment and obliterated social justice in their quest for profit. They haven’t hesitated to pollute their own homeland—outrageous, but true. The social environment’s process of deterioration is even more of a karmic retribution for short-sighted stupidity. The privileged got rich destroying an embryonic legal system, and soon after felt the crisis of the loss. Thus the descendants of the homeland-destroying privileged class were forced to go abroad to seek a clean and safe life.
Secondly, a family suddenly getting rich causes huge changes for its later generations. Most of these people don’t want to go all in on “ambition and self-improvement.” They just want to lead a life of pleasure and ease.
Thirdly, the protective measures put in place by their parents’ or grandparents’ generation daunt their descendants. The astronomical cost of social stability maintenance is unsustainable, yet to cut off that stability maintenance spending is to abandon the country, and how could that be good? Widespread popular grievance further makes them understand that their homeland, once securable by force and trickery, has become a powder keg. Looking all around, thinking about it over and over, they would rather not inherit the country.
The fourth point is actually a precondition for the above-mentioned three. During the 40-year period from 1980 to 2020, China opened its long-shut national gateways. Innumerable compatriots traveled abroad by means of official duty, university studies, business, or tourism. After personally experiencing the China-West difference, a considerable number of compatriots emigrated to foreign countries. Thanks to their many-faceted advantages, the privileged class stands out with the highest proportion of emigres. The large-scale exodus of the ruling clique’s offspring was unheard of among the Ming and Qing elite, as well as the current North Korean elite. This exodus, and the three antecedents mentioned above, allows the children and grandchildren of China’s privileged class to vote with their feet: I don’t love my homeland, I love the U.S.
I am not concerned about the authorities discrediting the judgments made above. In fact, I hope doubt impels them to start a two-pronged investigation. First of all, how many offspring of high-ranking officials (at the provincial level or above) and rich people (with assets 50 million RMB or above) have already left the country? Secondly, do the scions of high officialdom and the wealthy who are still here wish to remain and defend the current system, or take their chances abroad? Admittedly, this two-pronged investigation would be of interest to citizens, but it would first have to be understood by the ruling elite. This is because it relates to a basic fact: do your progeny need you to protect the country for them? If not, all your waking anxiety and sleeplessness, your toil and trouble and scheming, what are they for?
The seemingly peaceful choice of a generation of children is actually a terrible blow to their parents. In Guangdong, back when Xi Zhongxun heard that people were sneaking into Hong Kong, he raised the need for reform. Today, the privileged class’s offspring compete to emigrate. The implication for the Red Homeland’s inheritance is bleak. Protecting the country has already lost most of its meaning. All that remains is the pitiful goal of protecting the current regime. If they acknowledged this, the people involved would likely bid farewell to their subjective ideas and exchange for pragmatism, changing their entire approach.
Faithful readers who have read my humble essay will ask: As a scholar who considers himself a long-term critic of the government, how can you begin from the perspective of the powerful, rather than that of the enslaved and oppressed? Please allow me to answer. Contemporary China is most characterized by its absurdity, which has its origins in the absurdity of its rulers. They have trussed up the whole society. My intention is to point out the source of the rulers’ absurdity. Only when their absurdity has been weakened or restrained can society’s absurdity be alleviated.
Don’t believe that the rulers are naturally foolish. It is power that renders them decrepit and muddle-headed. It is the weight of authority that causes them to mistakenly believe themselves to be omnipotent. It is the yamen mentality [a reference to hasty enforcement in imperial bureaucracy] that causes them to mistakenly believe that any direction they run madly toward is a good one. Only striking them where they are vulnerable will wake them up. Their weak spot is their offspring. They can suppress the subjects of the kingdom, but cannot control the rational choice of their own legitimate descendents to integrate with the world and have a civilized life.
All people are selfish. Don’t fear the rulers’ selfishness, but demand they rationally plan for their own self-interest. Only when they rationally, realistically plan, can society have a dialogue with them, compromise with them, and strive for a solution that lets both sides win. [Chinese]
Translation by Alicia. Edited by Anne Henochowicz.