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Xi’s China, the Handiwork of an Autocratic Roué

Li Xueren/Xinhua via Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping arriving on a visit to Tibet, July 21, 2021

Translator’s Note: Xu Zhangrun was, until last year, a professor of jurisprudence at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious colleges. A celebrated lecturer and author of numerous works on the law, he was a noted essayist, and also the editor of a major series of books on legal reform.

In July 2018, Xu published “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes,” a point-by-point critique of the policies of Xi Jinping’s government. Since then, he has been subjected to relentless persecution—his life’s work has been outlawed, his online presence deleted, and his career destroyed. Dismissed by Tsinghua in 2020, stripped of his pension, housing, and teaching credentials, Xu now lives in a book-filled apartment in the far western suburbs of Beijing, getting by on his savings. He is forbidden from leaving the city or accepting help from friends.

In February this year, Geng Xiaonan, a noted cultural activist and Xu’s most outspoken supporter, was sentenced to three years’ jail in a far-flung women’s penitentiary. Tried on charges related to her publishing business, few observers doubt that the real reason for her punishment was her advocacy on behalf of Xu Zhangrun and other dissidents.

Even with numerous sound-sensitive CCTV cameras trained on his apartment, and regardless of continued abuse and interrogations, Xu persists in his writing. His latest book, Ten Letters from a Year of Plague, has just appeared through an independent Chinese publisher in New York.

The following essay, adapted and edited in translation, was written to mark the third anniversary of the publication of “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes.”

— Geremie R. Barmé


In March 2018, the Chinese legislature approved revisions to the constitution that effectively put an end to the already minimal political advances achieved following the economic reform policies originally introduced by the Communist Party in late 1978. Although the revisions [which abolished term limits on national leaders, making it possible for President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely] unsettled China’s legal world, the outrage was expressed sotto voce; the disquiet barely went beyond what in the Soviet Union used to be called “kitchen table talk.”

Meanwhile, in public, a host of obsequious legal scholars vied to offer fawning praise for the new dispensation. Seemingly unabashed as they betrayed previous held views, they gave no hint of any internal moral struggles or sense of ambivalence about their conversion. Quite the opposite: many appeared to relish the fact that they were able to navigate the situation so adroitly. Instead, they focused their energies on how they could best realign themselves and pursue professional advancement.

At this crucial juncture, China’s political, business, and academic elites revealed a core of craven self-interest and vacuous hypocrisy. The display was even further evidence of the degraded state of our nation’s public life, one that has long been characterized by brazen political opportunism, systemic corruption, and the celebration of populist thuggery.

Various edicts were issued from on high that banned all public discussion, let alone disapproval, of the constitutional changes. The authorities made it quite clear that dissent would be severely punished. In particular, legal scholars were cautioned to keep their own counsel.

At the time these changes were being proposed, I bumped into a colleague from Tsinghua University who had long enjoyed a seat on the National People’s Congress [the legislative body that would soon rubber-stamp the constitutional reforms]. He was quick to tell me that he, too, was outraged by the mooted changes. They were, he assured me, indeed absurd, an egregious act of revanchism. In the same breath, he said: “But I’m just letting off steam. Of course, when the time comes to vote, I’ll be raising my hand along with everyone else. No one is crazy enough to paint a target on their back.”

His attitude was evidently shared by a majority of the men and women who had a substantive say in the matter [with the revision passing by 2,958 votes to two]. Fear drove them to come up with various rationalizations for their actions, and so our country is now under the sway of a Great Reversal. This came to pass not in stealth, but openly and with the acquiescence and complicity of China’s intelligentsia. Their stance has proved to be little different from that of the imperial slave-subjects of yesteryear; it has hastened China’s lurch back into the familiar old rut of totalitarianism. What has all of this wrought? It is more than evident: we now live in a nation beset by mounting domestic and external challenges.

I believe that legal scholars like me are akin to a priesthood that serves natural law, rather than merely justifying the requirements of the state. We should be the guardians of a system of justice based on due process, one that ensures equality before the law; a system that is underpinned by the conviction that all citizens can and should feel secure in an environment of unthreatened coexistence. That is why, in 2018, I decided that to remain silent at such a critical moment would be a betrayal of my life’s work. If even people like me shied from speaking out at such a time, what hope was there for Chinese society?

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My belief that it was incumbent upon educators like me to give voice to their indignation and concern publicly led me to write “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes,” an in-depth analysis and critique of the state of modern China. It was in a mood of immense relief that I published it online in late July 2018; I had acted out of a duty to speak up and my hope was that my words would reach as wide an audience as possible. I even dared to think that what I had said might embolden others to raise their voices.

“Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes” was a warning to my compatriots, alerting them to things that were happening right here and now. It was an appeal calling on people to protect China’s reforms—hard-won advances derived from the immense sacrifices that countless numbers of our fellow citizens had made over four decades. It was also an exhortation to people to do what they could to prevent China’s further backward slide, one that I believe might all too easily lead to a new civil war. My admonition was also born of the anxiety that China could yet again find itself isolated by the international community.

Naturally, my essay was an open challenge to the powers-that-be, and I knew full well that by publishing it, I was courting disaster. Yet I was at peace with myself, and awaited with equanimity what fate had in store for me. As expected, the punishments rained down on me with increasing severity until, in the summer of 2020, the authorities finally bared their teeth.

They resorted to the tried-and-true methods of the proletarian dictatorship: they destroyed my livelihood and they incarcerated me. They hoped to repress my heresy by crushing my spirit. The only thing that they have managed to do, however, is to turn me into a semi-exile under partial house arrest in my own land. I was mentally prepared for all of this, and all that I had expected has duly been visited upon me. I regret nothing.   

What does dismay me, however, is that since I published “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes,” everything I feared might happen has come to pass, and new evidence in support of my case emerges every day. The “Eight Fears” that I identified in July 2018 are now a reality. In the space of three short years, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic, the totalitarian tendencies of the Chinese party-state have become more evident. What was already an obnoxious oligarchy has now been replaced by a Chinese version of the hrerprinzip, along with a brutal form of purge politics based on the Leninist-Maoist model.

Populist statism and institutional statism have become intertwined and now aid and abet what I have previously called “Big Data Totalitarianism.” In tandem with this, mainstream global politics have undergone profound changes in recent years. On the international stage, the politics of the “war on terror” is giving way to a new anti-Communist animus aimed at China. Previously, the People’s Republic enjoyed a collaborative and relatively harmonious relationship with the international community. That has seen a sea change as many nations have radically revised their views of our country and the direction it is taking. By generating imaginary enemies in all quarters, China is further isolating itself, even if the vast scale of the People’s Republic will ensure its continued international influence, at least for the time being.

As for my “Eight Hopes,” they remain nothing more than wishful thinking.

Today, China is yet again confronting a question that has long bedeviled it: Where do we go from here? As the Covid-19 pandemic gradually passes—and along with that crisis, the justification for the heightened totalitarian approach the government has employed to deal with it—China will, I believe, once more see support for a republican constitutional system that enjoys the benefits of a resilient and vital democracy.

I recall that in early 2020 the political philosopher Slavoj Žižek argued that the best way for the world to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic was to implement a version of “war communism.” Such wrongheaded sophistry suggested a cure to a medical crisis that would merely serve to open the door to a far more insidious infection of the body politic. Žižek’s summons to totalitarian politics is nothing less than an invitation to disaster. His proposal was absurd, ill-conceived, and delusional.

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I have often referred to China’s party-state governance model as “Legalist-Fascist-Stalinism.” The rulers overwhelmingly concentrate on what are traditionally called the “Rivers and Mountains”; this [imperial concept] is their patria. When confronted by such questions as “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? And how do we get rid of you?” the Chinese system is struck dumb, unable to respond.

More to the point, it is a system completely lacking the kind of democratic processes that can ensure a peaceful transfer of power. Without a stable political process of succession, the fate of the nation ultimately relies on armed might and coercion. In the final analysis, the authoritarian party-state system stands in stark opposition to historical progress, to human love, and to normal political life. That is why, to this day, it enjoys no real popular appeal.

Above, I observed that China has lurched back into “the familiar old rut of totalitarianism.” Despite appearances, the Communist Party has never veered far from that path. Its fundamental nature has remained unchanged and, whenever it has weathered a crisis, the Party merely redoubles its efforts. Whatever it may achieve is always hamstrung by the energy it puts into denying all other political possibilities and by its dogged refusal to evolve. The obdurate pursuit of power and the insatiable appetite for self-approval have created a system that, at its heart, is paranoid and brittle. By treating the people as nothing more than objects that demand a constant regime of stability maintenance, or even as enemies that must be corralled, it further drives itself into a cul-de-sac.

For well over a decade, China has seen an ostentatious kind of performance that I think of as “The Politics of the Successor Playboys.” It has been dominated by two scions of the Party nobility.First [during the ascendancy of Bo Xilai], there was a parade of comely policewomen in the cities of Dalian and in Chongqing, as well as the “Red Songs and Black Attack” movement [a neo-Maoist campaign supported by Bo, active from 2009 to 2012]. For his part, Xi Jinping has devoted considerable energy to pursuing vanity projects, like his so-called toilet revolution [to improve public bathrooms], and launching a series of policies aimed at cleaning up the country’s urban aesthetics. These include a concerted effort to demolish unsightly buildings and force low-income residents out of prime city real estate, and a raft of regulations aimed at standardizing shop signs and eliminating displeasing overhead wires and cables. Even the dead have not been spared his zeal, and farmers are now forbidden to exercise the traditional practice of burying deceased family members on their own land. So strictly do local officials enforce this ban that they seize and burn handcrafted coffins.

Then there is all the hue and cry about the “One Belt, One Road” initiative and the much-vaunted policy of eliminating extreme poverty, something that was supposedly carried out according to a predetermined timetable. All of these appear, superficially at least, to be major achievements that reflect a purportedly daring political vision. In reality, they are symptomatic of a particular brand of political willfulness; they are a modern-day version of Mao’s revolutionary romanticism. More than anything, they are smug displays of delusional hubris.

As ever-new projects and vanity policies are pursued with immoderate enthusiasm, we are actually witnessing the handiwork of an autocratic roué. The accumulated political, social, and economic bounty that was painstakingly acquired since 1978, one that carried in its wake the promise of a modicum of political evolution, has been squandered. Now we are seeing the reckless depletion of the remaining reserves of China’s reform era.

This is further proof that for a nation to play a meaningful part in the modern international world, it is insufficient to revel in possessing an almighty state with limitless political power. What is necessary is the building of a civilized society and a political system that is underpinned by a meaningful culture of law. There is no escaping the fact that nations need a form of politics grounded in a constitutional order. By that, I mean a modern constitutional framework that protects the freedom and human rights of its citizens. In the present era, this is still the best path for any truly rational society.

To advocate on behalf of such a system is not merely a self-serving and pragmatic response to historical inevitability; rather, if China is to hope for collective political salvation, it is a necessity. China and the Chinese people lack a truly resilient political system; we are instead burdened with one that, despite its formidable appearance, is inherently fragile. It is threatened to its core by every tempest.

Meanwhile, we must cope with our anxieties as best we can, holding on to what inspiration we can. Even as this age of darkness advances, I know that regardless of my benighted circumstances, my soul rises up, confident in humanity’s better future.

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