Cai Xia Reflects On Her Break From The Party

A former professor at the powerful Central Party School, Cai Xia is now an unlikely dissident. After a secret speech in which she called the Party a “political zombie” went viral, Cai was expelled from the Party. She now lives in exile. At Foreign Affairs, Cai published an essay detailing her rise through (and rising disillusionment with) the Party apparatus until her final, dramatic, break this summer:

[…] My newly acquired understanding of the democratic transition in Spain, along with what I already knew about those in the former Soviet bloc, led me to fundamentally reject the Marxist ideology in which I once had unshakable faith. I came to realize that the theories Marx advanced in the nineteenth century were limited by his own intellect and the historical circumstances of his time. Moreover, I saw that the highly centralized, oppressive version of Marxism promoted by the CCP owed more to Stalin than to Marx himself. I increasingly recognized it as an ideology formed to serve a self-interested dictatorship. Marxism, I began to hint in publications and lectures, should not be worshiped as an absolute truth, and China had to start the journey to democracy. In 2010, when some liberal scholars published an edited volume called Toward Constitutionalism, I contributed an article that discussed the Spanish experience.

[…] More than a month before the 18th Party Congress of November 2012, when Xi would be formally unveiled as the CCP’s new general secretary, I was chatting with a veteran reporter from a major Chinese magazine and a leading professor at my school who had observed Xi’s career for a long time. The two had just wrapped up an interview, and before leaving, the reporter tossed out a question: “I hear that Xi Jinping lived in the Central Party School compound for a period of time. Now he’s about to become the party’s general secretary. What do you think of him?” The professor’s lip twitched, and he said with disdain that Xi suffered from “inadequate knowledge.” The reporter and I were stunned at this blunt pronouncement.

[…] In April 2016, the text of a speech I had given a few months earlier at Tsinghua University—in which I argued that if ideology violates common sense, it deteriorates into lies—was published on an influential website in Hong Kong. The timing was bad: Xi had just announced that some of the free inquiry taking place at the Central Party School had gone too far and urged greater supervision of its professors. As a result, in early May, I was called in again by the school’s disciplinary committee and accused of opposing Xi. From then on, the CCP blocked me from all media in China—print, online, television. Even my name could not be published.

[…] When I learned of this outcome [of Lei Yang’s case], I sat at my desk all night, overcome with grief and anger. Lei’s death was a clear-cut case of wrongdoing, and instead of punishing the police officers responsible, their superiors had tried to use the people’s hard-earned tax money to settle the matter out of court. Officials were closing ranks rather than serving the people. I asked myself, if the CCP’s officials are capable of such despicable actions, how can the Party be trusted? Most of all, I wondered how I could remain part of this system. [Source]

Some of China’s “statist” thinkers have also abandoned Marx, but this time in favor of a second German philosopher: Carl Schmitt. A former Nazi jurist and prominent conservative thinker, Schmitt argued that legal order is based on sovereignty, which rests in a dictator who can bring about “a total suspension of the law and then…use extra-legal force to normalize the situation.” PRC academics have increasingly cited Schmitt’s work to justify China’s sweeping, and ever continuing, crackdown on Hong Kong. In 2018, Peking University professor Chen Duanhong cited Schmitt to justify the need for a Hong Kong National Security Law: “The survival of the state comes first, and constitutional law must serve this fundamental objective.” At The Atlantic, Chang Che examined the rise of Schmitt in the Chinese academy and how his theories have driven China’s foreign policy:

China’s fascination with Schmitt took off in the early 2000s when the philosopher Liu Xiaofeng translated the German thinker’s major works into Chinese. Dubbed “Schmitt fever,” his ideas energized the political science, philosophy, and law departments of China’s universities. Chen Duanhong, a law professor at Peking University, called Schmitt “the most successful theorist” to have brought political concepts into his discipline. “His constitutional doctrine is what we revere,” Chen wrote in 2012, before adding, of his Nazi membership, “That’s his personal choice.” An alum of Peking University’s philosophy program, who asked not to be identified speaking on sensitive issues, told me that Schmitt’s work was among “the common language, a part of the academic establishment” at the university.

[…] Why has a Nazi thinker garnered such a lively reception in China? To some degree, it is a matter of convenience. “Schmitt serves certain purposes that Marxism should have done, but can no longer do,” Haig Patapan, a politics professor at Griffith University in Australia who has written on Schmitt’s reception in China, told me. Schmitt gives pro-Beijing scholars an opportunity to anchor the party’s legitimacy on more primal forces—nationalism and external enemies—rather than the timeworn notion of class struggle.

[…] One lesson from Chiang’s rule is that threats from abroad can stoke authoritarianism at home. And for almost a century, even as power transferred from Chiang’s Nationalists to Mao Zedong’s Communists, fear of “enemy” infiltration—the seedbed for fascism—lingered in China’s national psyche. “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?” Mao asked in the very first line of his Selected Works. Later, from 1989 to 1991, 500 articles in the People’s Daily, the state-controlled paper, contained the phrase “hostile forces.” The perceived threat of invasion, or at minimum suspicion of outsiders, continues to inform contemporary politics. Such anxiety lends credence to the anti-liberal theories of Carl Schmitt, who once proclaimed that all “political actions and motives can be reduced to that distinction between friends and enemies.”

Other voices still speak in China’s rapidly narrowing public sphere. Activists like Xianzi and entrepreneurs like Sun Dawu have articulated different visions of China’s social order. Rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, a prominent critic of Xi Jinping, and Geng Xiaonan, herself not an activist but rather “someone who provides practical succor to prisoners of conscience,” were both vocal in their dissent until their arrests. Tsinghua professor Xu Zhangrun has been an outspoken critic of Xi’s policies and was fired from his position and briefly detained as a result. At SupChina, Ian Johnson profiled Reading the China Dream, a website dedicated to translating and amplifying Chinese voices across the political spectrum:

“It’s obvious Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 wants to stifle plurality, but it’s not clear to me that he’s succeeding in broad terms or can keep it up,” Ownby said in an interview. “There are a lot of smart Chinese out there and they keep generating lots of material.”

[…] The thinkers are divided into categories according to a schema popularized by the thinker Róng Jiàn 荣剑: classic liberals (those who want a more open political system), Marxists (those defending something like the status quo), and traditionalists (those who look to the past, especially Confucianism, for answers).

[…] But Professor Chien from Taiwan said another reason for the lack of translation is that the world has “written China off as a totalitarian monolith.”

“This does not help positive interaction between intellectuals from the two sides,” Professor Chien said. “And the one-dimensional perception will overflow and affect public opinion in the West.”[Source]

Of course, Xi Jinping’s voice dominates all others. State-funding for social sciences research has skyrocketed under Xi. In 2018, 8% of those projects were tied directly to his ideology, with none tied to those of his predecessors Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin. Xi’s ideological control means the language used to introduce him is exceptionally important within China, which makes a recent error repeated by both Xinhua and CCTV all the more curious. At China Media Project, David Bandurski explained why the title “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military” is a faux pas:

[…] As we have previously written, Xi’s banner term, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想), which first appeared in October 2017 at the 19th National Congress of the CCP, is on a winding path toward formalization as the shortened and more potent “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想), putting Xi on par with Mao Zedong. Despite some rather careless and premature references in academic literature and mainstream news reports outside China to “Xi Jinping Thought,” it is worth remembering that “Xi Jinping Thought” has in fact not yet emerged, not formally, and this is a distinction that certainly has not escaped Xi and his acolytes at senior levels, who are busy trying to achieve this transformation.

[…] But the point of Xi Jinping’s banner term is to subsume all of Xi’s ideas. There is meant to be one banner, the umbrella phrase under which all lesser banners fly. And any suggestion of equivalence between the lesser thoughts and their parent phrase would serve to diminish the gravity of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” This is the serious problem in the Xinhua article, the “and” drawing an equivalence between Xi’s banner term and “Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military.” [Source]


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