I thought you all might get a kick out of a passage from a longer reading I (Jeremiah) assigned to my history class this week. It was written by Liang Qichao in 1903 after a trip to the United States.
Now, freedom, constitutionalism and republicanism mean government by the majority, but the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people are like those in San Francisco [the behavior of the Chinese workers in Chinatown horrified Liang]. If we were to adopt a democratic system of government now, it would be nothing less than committing national suicide. Freedom and constitutionalism and republicanism would be like hempen clothes in winter or furs in the summer; it is not that they are not beautiful, they are just not suitable for us. We should not be bedazzled by empty glitter now; we should not yearn for beautiful dreams. To put it in a word, the Chinese of today can only be governed autocratically; they cannot enjoy freedom. I pray and yearn, I pray only that our country can have a Guanzi, a Shang Yang, a Lyucurgus, a Cromwell alive today to carry out harsh rule, and with iron and fire to forge and temper our countrymen for twenty, thirty, even fifty years. After that we can give them the books of Rousseau and tell them about the deeds of Washington…”
A few thoughts:
1) It’s now been almost 60 years of authoritarian rule, clearly Liang’s timetable was a bit off in terms of seeing the benefits of a strong state. So, what’s the new schedule? CCP ideology also called for a period of ‘tutelage,’ part of which was a stage of democratic centralization.* At this point should we completely forget about it: the CCP can scrub the whole ‘political tutelage’ part of its ideology and simply admit that it wants to rule unchallenged forever? Or is Liang’s optimism shared by others and progressive liberalization of the political system is a desirable course for both state and party? Will there be a day when Rousseau takes the place of Lenin as a political model?
2) Along those lines, I hear sentiments similar to Liang’s, both in today’s China and on this very site, to the effect of ‘most Chinese couldn’t handle western-style freedoms/political systems’ it would be ‘unsuitable because it might lead to chaos.’ And I’ve heard this in many places: from people in villages all the way up to professors at universities and businesspeople in Beijing. Here’s the kicker: No matter whom I talk to it’s always other people ‘who aren’t ready.’ Nobody says, “I’m the problem.” The professor blames the businessman, the businessman blames the peasants, the peasant blames his neighbor, the mingong blames her old uneducated uncle, the uncle blames his less-educated wife. But I’ve never heard anybody say, “Yeah, I’m an idiot and I can’t handle freedom. Please keep the Party ruling in perpetuity lest I pull a nutty.” Everybody’s afraid of chaos, but nobody thinks they would be the cause of the chaos.
3) If, as so many commenters here suggest, the CCP is doing such a fine job these days, better than the US government even, why not relax controls on speech, media, unblock the internet, etc. in China? What’s the downside? And I mean this as a sincere question: If CCP support is so widespread among Chinese (and Tibetans and Uighurs) inside and outside China, as some here have maintained, then the Party shouldn’t have anything to worry about, right? Some might argue, “well, they don’t want the debate because it would be divisive.” How would it be divisive if the Party is so universally acclaimed?
These are questions that I think about a lot. I’m not throwing any bombs here, I’m simply interested in learning the rationalization behind some of the rhetoric that I’ve heard and read, and hope to understand better the thought process. Finally, I am not advocating any one position, all I’m doing is looking for some perspective.
*A good example is from another class reading, this one by Mao Zedong, The Dictatorship of the People’s Democracy, published July 1, 1949: “The democratic system is to be carried out within the ranks of the people, giving them the freedom of speech, assembly, and association. The right to vote is given only to the people and not to the reactionaries….Q: ‘Don’t you want to eliminate state authority?’ Yes, but we do not want it at present, we cannot want it at present. Why? Because imperialism still exists, the domestic reactionaries still exist, and classes in the country still exist.”
Liang Qichao from Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, Patricia Ebrey, ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993)
Mao Zedong from Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume II, Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, eds. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2000)
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.