It is a lack of freedom that allows us to understand what freedom is.
It is in ourselves that we discover why people have been willing to
risk so much for freedom. Taking a further step toward joint action,
we discover that we are not alone and that our voices can resonate
far and wide. We don’t start out believing that an unseen force
guarantees freedom’s victory, but we fight for it all the same.
An Exiled Editor Traces the Roots of Democratic Thought in China
Hu Ping is the editor of the pro-democracy journal Beijing Spring, based in New York. But in 1975, he was 28 and living in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, a recently returned “educated youth” who had been sent down to labor in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.
While waiting to be assigned to a new workplace, he wrote an essay that would become a classic of modern Chinese liberalism. The essay, “On Freedom of Speech,” could at first be circulated only through handwritten posters on the city’s streets. In 1979 it appeared in the underground magazine Fertile Soil, and it went on to influence a generation of democracy advocates.
Mr. Hu was admitted to Peking University in 1978 and in 1980 was elected as a delegate to the local people’s congress. In 1987, he began doctoral studies at Harvard, then moved to New York a year later to serve as chairman of an organization supporting China’s burgeoning democracy movement. The Chinese government canceled his passport, consigning him to exile.
In his new book — “Why Did Mao Zedong Launch the Cultural Revolution?,” published in Taiwan by Asian Culture — Mr. Hu argues that contemporary Chinese concepts of democracy and freedom are not imports from the West, but a response to political oppression at home and a growing appreciation of the need for restraints on state power. In an interview, Mr. Hu discussed how the Cultural Revolution shaped his thinking, the unexpected course of President Xi Jinping’s career and why he rejects assertions that democracy is a foreign concept and therefore inappropriate for China.
How did the Cultural Revolution shape your political thinking?
My generation was imbued with official ideology from childhood. As a supporter of communist theory and the communist system, I enthusiastically participated in the Cultural Revolution at first. But I became very disillusioned by the extreme brutality that emerged during the movement, especially because the vast majority of victims were targeted merely for expressing alternative views. I myself was denounced more than once because I had different views stemming from my disgust at the persecution of people for speech crimes. This led me to gradually form a concept of freedom of expression.
Later I went to the United States and read Harvard Prof. Judith N. Shklar’s essay “The Liberalism of Fear.” Professor Sklar pointed out that modern Western liberalism arose from a revulsion against religious and political persecution and led to an insistence on protecting human rights and limiting political power.
The Chinese rediscovery of liberalism was based on a very similar experience. The Cultural Revolution gave rise to a widespread and deep-seated horror that led a few people to formulate an explicit concept of freedom and gave the majority the desire and basis to accept this concept. Even quite a few Communist leaders developed an appreciation for freedom because of their personal suffering.
One example is Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, who was purged in a literary inquisition in the 1960s but re-emerged after Mao died [in 1976]. While serving as vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Xi Zhongxun proposed drafting a “law protecting alternative views.” He said the history of the Chinese Communist Party demonstrated the disastrous consequences of suppressing dissident opinions.
The prevailing view at that time was that it was wrong to treat “opposing the party and opposing socialism” as a crime because there was no clear standard for what constituted opposition, and any alternative political viewpoint should be tolerated. Xi Zhongxun probably had never read John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Isaiah Berlin or Friedrich Hayek. His concept of tolerance and freedom arose mainly from personal experience, especially the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and his reflections on that experience.
How would you compare the liberalism of the 1980s with political thought after the suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen movement?
The failure of the 1989 democracy movement made ordinary people negative or indifferent toward politics, and cynicism ran wild. This created a strange phenomenon: The concept of liberalism spread much wider than before 1989 but carried far less power. In the years since 1989, although there have been quite a few liberal scholars, dissidents and rights defense lawyers making heroic efforts to practice and promote the concept of freedom — beginning with the concept of freedom of speech — harsh political suppression and an indifferent social climate have prevented a breakthrough and made it very difficult to build up the kind of social mobilization that existed in the 1980s.
With political reform now stalled or even in retreat, some people in China are worried about a recurrence of the Cultural Revolution. Why has Xi Jinping declined to follow the example of his father in promoting democratic change and instead concentrated power even further?
The Cultural Revolution in its strictest sense can never occur again. The fact that people are worried about its recurrence reflects how Xi Jinping has strengthened dictatorial rule, suppressed civil society and tightened controls over expression. In the past, many people thought that Xi Jinping might have inherited his father’s open-mindedness, little imagining that once he took power, his manner and actions would make him more like Mao’s grandson than Xi Zhongxun’s son. Xi Zhongxun proposed drafting a “law to protect alternative views,” whereas Xi Jinping has banned “improper discussion” [of central party policies].
Many people once believed that economic development and the growth of a middle class in China would be accompanied by progress in human rights. But by the logic of the Chinese government, economic development was built on the suppression of human rights, so how can it now abandon this suppression?
In other words, the Chinese government thinks: “We’ve only done so well because we’ve been so bad. If we hadn’t been so bad, things wouldn’t be so good.”
Your generation’s experience of the Cultural Revolution fostered the emergence of politically liberal ideas in China. Could remembrance of the Cultural Revolution contribute to the development of liberalism and political change today?
A sensitive topic such as the Cultural Revolution should become less sensitive with the passage of time, and the authorities should be expected to gradually relax restrictions on discussion of the Cultural Revolution. But the reality is just the opposite: The authorities are controlling discussion of the Cultural Revolution even more harshly than they did 10 or 20 years ago. Xi Jinping wants to revive the personality cult and dictatorship of that era, so he’s particularly unwilling for people to reflect on the Cultural Revolution.
Half a century has passed since the Cultural Revolution was set in motion, and the “young militants” of that time are entering their twilight years. As the authorities continue to suppress discussion of the Cultural Revolution, the average person, especially the young, has only the vaguest impression of that time. Throw in the events and changes China has experienced in recent decades, and the collective experience of the Cultural Revolution has become less of a force for promoting China’s liberalization. Even so, we have to keep at it.
It is a lack of freedom that allows us to understand what freedom is. It is in ourselves that we discover why people have been willing to risk so much for freedom. Taking a further step toward joint action, we discover that we are not alone and that our voices can resonate far and wide. We don’t start out believing that an unseen force guarantees freedom’s victory, but we fight for it all the same.
Follow Luo Siling on Twitter @luosiling.
last updated 10/29/16 18:33