How to deal with an epidemic: a short documentary by Takeuchi Ryo

This short documentary by the Japanese film director, Takeuchi Ryo, shows how the city of Nanjing has managed not only to limit COVID-19 infections to 93, but to reduce them very quickly to 0. He and his family live in Nanjing, a city I have visited many times and where I have good friends. Note the integration of strict controls everywhere, the widespread deployment of technology (focussing on contactless interaction), and the uniform use of face masks and gloves.

Clearly a model for the rest of the world.

The China Model: Bruce Aylward, head of WHO-China joint mission

Here are a series of sections from news conferences and interviews by Bruce Aylward, who is head of the World Health Organisation – China joint mission. They concern the COVID-19 outbreak. There are some overlaps between them, but the first deals with the immense collective response by the whole Chinese population, where the social good is paramount:

The second and third urge the rest of the world to follow China’s example and experience, of what is called the ‘China Model’:

There is also an interview on the China Daily website, where Aylward explains how the differentiated approach in China works. In each area, the response is tailored to what is needed. Not only has this experience been learned through the poverty alleviation project, but it also provides a model for how to deal with COVID-19 outbreaks elsewhere. It is worth noting that even Canada is following the China Model. It is unfortunate that in Australia the regime had thrown up its hands and said it is unable to do anything, which is really admitting that the health system in Australia – after years of cutbacks – is now in a pretty bad condition.

The final interview has Aylward finish by saying, ‘If I had COVID-19, I would want to be treated in China’. I cannot agree more.

 

Washing Brains: How to Understand Chinese Marxist Research

Some foreigners say that our ideological reform is brainwashing. As I see it, they are correct in what they say. It is washing brains, that’s what it is! This brain of mine was washed to become what it is. After I joined the revolution, [my brain] slowly washed, washed for several decades. What I received before was all bourgeois education, and even some feudal education … At that time, none of us knew anything about how the Chinese revolution was to be promoted! (Mao, Zedong. 1957. ‘Speech to Chinese Students and Trainees in Moscow’ )

I begin with this text from Mao Zedong, since it expresses very well an experience of my own from the last decade or so. Mao was addressing Chinese students studying in Moscow, when he was part of a 1957 delegation to the Soviet Union.

How is this text relevant for my own experience? Whenever you dig into research material on China, you soon encounter two different frameworks, two different languages. On the one hand, there is whole language that has been developed and is used by ‘China watchers’. They are typically informed by the Western liberal tradition and use terminology and assumptions deriving from this tradition. On the other hand, we have the Chinese Marxist approach, which is informed by the reinterpretation of thousands of years of Chinese history and thinking in light of an overall Marxist framework. The differences between the two frameworks and languages becomes clear when we look at a few examples.

1. History of the Reform and Opening Up, from 1978.

Among ‘Western’ historians, there is an overwhelming tendency to divide the Reform and Opening Up into two periods, with 1989 and the Tiananmen incident being the fulcrum. This division applies particularly to economic and political history.

By contrast, this periodisation does not appear in Chinese scholarship. This is not due to some mythical ‘repression’ of information – a beloved trope of ‘Western’ China watchers – but simply because 1989 does not mark a major turning point. For example, in my recent research on the socialist market economy, a three-fold periodisation is more common: the breakthrough, in which socialism can also engage in a market economy (1979-1982); the transition, in which planning and the market are combined (1982-1989); and the establishment of a socialist market economy (1989-1993).

2. Socialist and Post-Socialist.

Related to the previous point, it is reasonably common in ‘Western’ literature to find a distinction between the ‘socialist’ and ‘post-socialist’ phases of China’s recent history. The terms are left suitably vague, but they often turn on the distinction between a planned economy and a market economy. In this respect, they assume the old 1932 slogan from Count Ludwig von Mises: ‘the alternative is still either Socialism or a market economy’. The Count was of course one of the godfathers of a now defunct neoliberalism, but his deceptive slogan influences the distinction between socialism and post-socialism: socialism inescapably entails a planned economy, while a market economy is by definition capitalist.

When dealing with Chinese approaches, it is very soon clear that this distinction simply does not work. To begin with, China has by no means abandoned a planned economy; instead, both planning and market are components, or institutional forms, of an overall socialist system that determines the nature of the components. In this light, it is misleading to speak of ‘post-socialism’.

There is a further problem with this distinction: it seeks to draw Chinese developments into a European framework, where Eastern Europe and Russia are now in a ‘post-socialist’ phase. Few indeed are the ‘Western’ researchers who realise that this effort to align China with European history is distinctly unhelpful.

3. Approach to Politics.

This one is fascinating: when ‘Western’ interpreters deal with Chinese politics, they inevitably focus on what is perceived to be ‘factional’ struggle within the CCP. Why? The overwhelming assumption is that politics is antagonistic, that it must involve struggle between opposing camps. Of course, the effort to examine the inner workings of the CCP relies on hearsay, unnamed ‘sources’ and so on.

Occasionally, a ‘Western’ interpreter is forced to admit that the CCP has remarkably little factional struggle and that it a rather stable political party. This admission moves a small step towards Chinese approach, for which we should use the terminology already developed by Marx and Engels. When envisaging what socialist governance might look like, they speak of ‘de-politicising’ governance. What does this mean? More and more dimensions of governance are no longer determined by class struggle and antagonism. This applies to policing, law courts, policies and even elections.

Yes, elections can be and indeed are de-politicised in China. From local village and city-district elections (direct) to election (indirect) of the president, these are all based on qualifications and merit for office and not through populist rhetoric by opposing political parties. Even more, China’s 9 political parties do not engage in class-based antagonisms, but work in a consultative and critically constructive manner.

4. Deformation of Language.

This deformation is an ongoing problem in ‘Western’ approaches, but let me focus on one example. It is common to speak of ‘conservatives’ and ‘reformers’, in which the ‘conservatives’ are those who hold the Marxist-Leninist line (from Deng Xiaoping onwards) and the ‘reformers’ are those who would turn China into a bourgeois state with a capitalist system.

Obviously, Chinese research provides a very different framework, between communists who ensure that China follows Marxist policies, and liberals who seek to turn China into the chaos and populism of a ‘Western’ system. That the latter are also potentially guilty of treason should be obvious.

I could offer many more examples of the differences between the two frameworks and languages, but the point should be clear. Of course, within each framework there are many debates and differences of opinion, but one must assume the framework to engage in such activities.

A question remains: do the proponents of the two frameworks actually listen to one another? It is more common for Chinese researchers to engage extensively with Western liberal scholarship, but it is criticised and appropriated within a Chinese Marxist approach.

It is far less common for ‘Western’ researchers to engage with Chinese Marxist research. Instead, their typical approach is as follows: they begin with a brief mention of official government positions, which are quickly dismissed as mere ‘rhetoric’ and ‘ideology’; they suggest they are dealing with ‘actual’ conditions, and then perhaps cite newspaper articles, occasionally providing the Chinese title to give an impression of ‘serious’ research; they may also cite one or two scholars with Chinese names to give the piece some ‘credibility’, but who typically live outside China, write in English, and assumes the same framework and language. Obviously, this is a rather shoddy way to undertake scholarly research, indicated by both the method – if it can be called that – and the conclusions reached.

To return to Mao Zedong: it is precisely this whole Western liberal framework, with its in-group language, that needs to be washed out of one’s brain to approach the material afresh.

Believing in Ghosts in Hong Kong

In an earlier piece, I proposed that the dominant narrative concerning China in a small number of former colonising countries (usually known as ‘the West’) is like believing in ghosts. What is the narrative? It is the pure fancy that the Communist Party of China is a ‘secretive’ and ‘paranoid’ outfit, which is terribly afraid of its own people whom it monitors all the time, and is scheming for world domination. Nothing new here, since the same was believed concerning the Soviet Union.

How is this like believing in ghosts? If you believe in ghosts, then you can fit all sorts of odd things into your narrative. It might be a weird dream, a creak in the corner, a door closing by itself, a misplaced set of keys, and so on. All of these and more become part of your belief, confirming what is clearly false. And if you run out of a few twisted facts, you can simply make them up.

In short, if you believe that the CPC is an ‘authoritarian’ bunch with ‘evil intent’, then there are spooks everywhere. Boo!

In that earlier piece, I gave a number of examples, from Xinjiang, through Huawei to the Social Credit System in China. But let me focus here on the recent drug-fuelled violence in Hong Kong, with significant financial and logistical support from outside.

The narrative promoted misleadingly in a few ‘Western’ media outlets and government agencies has had a number of intriguing phases.

Phase 1 of the Ghost Story: The false idea of a ‘groundswell’ of popular opposition to ‘authoritarian’ measures.

This phase turned on deliberate misrepresentation of a modest extradition bill. The bill itself was simply standardising procedures for crimes such as murder (a murder case, with the culprit fleeing to the island of Taiwan, was in fact the immediate trigger for the bill). But through social media and deliberate misinformation, the extradition bill was pumped up into a measure instigated by the ‘authoritarian regime’ in Beijing, so that anyone and everyone in Hong Kong could be whisked away at any moment.

Behind this phase were a couple of assumptions: first, the obvious one is a ‘Western’ liberal paradigm of ‘authoritarianism’, a loose term used for any country that does not fit into the mould of the ‘Western’ bourgeois state.

The second is that Chinese people, and especially those in Hong Kong, are supposedly longing for Western ‘freedoms’, bourgeois ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’ and … Facebook. There were desperate efforts to show that the majority of people in Hong Kong supported the riots, although this flew directly in face of the fact that the majority are resolutely opposed to the riots and see themselves very much as part of China.

However, this assumption that people everywhere hanker after Western ‘freedoms’ is so strong in parts of Western Europe and North America that it underlies what passes as foreign policy in these places. While trying to claim the high moral ground, they use it consistently to intervene in and disrupt the sovereignty of many countries around the world, with the result that such countries are singularly unimpressed.

Curiously, this assumption leads to profoundly misguided policies. As they say in China, ‘seek truth from facts’ (Mao Zedong and especially Deng Xiaoping promoted this one). And what are the facts? In international surveys, Chinese people show between 86 and 90 percent trust in government and public institutions, along with confidence in the direction in which the country is headed. The more educated and younger the respondents, the higher the level of trust and support.

Phase 2 of the Ghost Story: ‘Beijing’ is ‘pulling the strings’.

When it became clear that the one country – two systems policy was being followed strictly, and that the local government in Hong Kong, headed by Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, was standing firm, another piece of the narrative came to the fore: ‘Beijing’ was ‘pulling the strings’ behind the scenes, making sure that the ‘puppet’ leader was doing its bidding.

Now it was time for pure fabrication. Supposedly, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor (to use her full name) had her resignation turned down. This lie was swiftly shown for what it was. This did not stop the ‘pulling strings’ line, which now relied on a standard approach in some places: using gossip, propagated these days through social media. Thus, they promoted by whatever way possible the belief that every step taken by the Hong Kong local government and its police to quell the riots were directed from ‘Beijing’.

A few points are worth noting? First, this approach was taken since the PLA garrison in Hong Kong had not been deployed, and troops from the mainland had not moved in. This turn of events was disappointing to some anti-China ideologues, if not the rioters themselves, so they had to find another line.

Second, it was a classic case of ‘look over there’. There is more than ample evidence of systemic interference in Hong Kong by government agencies from the United States and the UK, at times through NGOs and at times by direct political interference. For some time now, significant funds have flowed to the rioters, as well as logistical support. For example, more than 1000 Hong Kong police officers have been ‘doxed’, with their names, addresses, phone numbers, bank information, and so on, hacked and then spread widely. The result had been significant harassment of their families. Doxing requires a high level of logistical support, along with the assistance of compliant social media outfits like Facebook. How to respond to these embarrassing facts? Cry ‘look over there’ and blame ‘Beijing’.

Third, let us ask what is actually taking place. Since tensions in Hong Kong society had risen to the surface, extensive research for the sake of informing policies began. This research focuses on – to name a few – the problematic educational system in Hong Kong, extremes in poverty and wealth (more than one million people in Hong Kong live in poverty, in a city of seven million), the flawed political structure bequeathed by the UK, in which vested interests have an inordinate say in the Legislative Council and any resolution must have a two-thirds majority. We can expect much more in-depth research and reforms in these and other areas.

Of course, the whole idea of ‘pulling the strings’ is based on the ‘authoritarian’ paradigm, which shows profound ignorance of what the one country – two systems policy entails.

Phase 3 of the Ghost Story: The lie of Hong Kong police ‘brutality’.

With the initial protests fading away as people woke up to themselves, smaller and smaller groups raised the level of violence on the streets. They would typically be dressed in black, wear face masks or gas masks, and take drugs to bring on a type of ‘beserk’ behaviour. In their armoury they had petrol bombs, bamboo spears with knives attached, batons, baseball bats, lethal slingshots that fired large ball-bearings, and some began carrying guns.

They set about vandalising, smashing and burning public transport facilities, banks, shops, police vehicles, the airport and many other facilities. They would beat up any isolated police officer (most recently setting an officer on fire with a Molotov cocktail) or indeed member of public that condemned their acts. As the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions has opposed the violence, service centres of the federation have been vandalised and forced to close for repairs. These service centres provide medical, welfare and other community services to workers, especially its members but also the wider public.

Obviously, none of this was reported in the biased media outlets or indeed statements from some ‘Western’ foreign ministers and even leaders. Instead, they focused on supposed police ‘brutality’. And of course, ‘Beijing’ was behind it all.

The facts are quite different. The Hong Kong police have been exceedingly restrained, using measures only where needed to counter the escalation of violence by a small minority. For example, the anti-face mask law, with stiff penalties for covering one’s face in any public gathering, came in to effect on 5 October, 2019. This is quite late in the piece, follows international practice, and was instigated in response to widespread urging in Hong Kong. Indeed, the police have widespread support in Hong Kong and the mainland, with ‘I support Hong Kong police’ being displayed on many shop windows, on social media and so on.

Phase 4 of the Ghost Story: Supposedly, people on the mainland are ‘denied’ information about Hong Kong.

This one really runs through the whole story, but it was revealed to me by a question while I was in Western Europe: ‘What about Hong Kong, do the people in China know what is going on?’

The assumption behind this question is obvious: Chinese people are supposedly ‘denied’ information about the world and their own country.

Not long after I was asked this question, I returned to China. Not only are the news outlets regularly providing detailed and complete information about Hong Kong, but in everyday conversations people express their deep concern about what is happening. The foreign interference is clear, which they resent, and they are troubled by the overturning of central Chinese values, especially harmony, security and stability. Above all, they are not anti-Kong Kong, but instead feel for what ordinary people in Hong Kong are suffering (in light of the economic downturn in response to the riots) and hope that the situation will be stabilised soon.

I found that here one could gain a sense of the all the facts in relation to what was going on in Hong Kong. Thankfully, this is also the case in the vast majority of countries in the world, which increasingly do not listen to the biased material being pumped out of a few former colonising countries.

Non-political elections

In Engels’s key work, ‘Dell’ Autorità’, which was originally published in Italian in the midst of the struggle with the Anarchists (who were popular in Italy) and their ‘anti-authoritarian’ push. Engels writes: ‘All socialists are agreed that the political state [Stato politico], and with it political authority [l’autorità politica], will disappear [scompariranno] as a result of the coming social revolution, that is, that public functions [funzioni pubbliche] will lose their political character [carattere politico]’. But what, exactly, does political character mean?

The answer is simple enough: by political character both Engels and Marx mean the reality of class struggle and its manifestation in the state. Thus, the manifesto observes, immediately after mentioning the political character of public Gewalt absorbed into the state: ‘Political Gewalt, properly so called, is merely the organised Gewalt of one class for oppressing another’. I do not need to reiterate the details of Engels’s work on the state as a separated public power here (emphasis on separated), except to point out that if public Gewalt – with the senses of power, force and even violence – loses its political character, it ceases to be a manifestation and instrument of class struggle and thus coercion. Clearly, public Gewalt is not necessarily separated from society, for it may take other forms.

The formulation may be relatively simple, but the implications are far-reaching. On this matter at least, Marx offers a couple of hints, of which the second is the most interesting.

In his cryptic notes on Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy, Marx refers to what may be called non-political elections. How is this possible? Are not elections inherently political? This is so for those who have been indoctrinated by the Western liberal tradition, in which elections are the manifestation of regulated class conflict within the bourgeois state. So let us see what Marx suggests, all too briefly. He begins by pointing out that the character of an election depends in its ‘economic foundation [ökonomischen Grundlage]’, on the ‘economic interrelations [ökonomischen Zusammenhängen] of the voters’. That is, if economic relations are antagonistic, and if classes have formed and are engaged in class struggle, then elections will be ‘political’. What if this situation does not apply and economic relations are not antagonistic? Then ‘the functions have ceased to be political [die Funktionen aufgehört haben, politisch zu sein]’.

Marx then specifies the sense in which he uses politisch, or, rather, its absence. First, there are ‘no ruling functions [keine Regierungsfunktion]’. I have stressed the sense of rule and reign that are part of the semantic field of Regierung, since ‘government’ or even ‘administration’ (also senses of the word) are too weak and do not capture Marx’s sense. This meaning appears in the second point: ‘the distribution of general functions has become a routine matter [Geschäftssache] which entails no domination [keine Herrschaft]’. By this point, Marx is not speaking about the period of the proletarian dictatorship, but afterwards, when antagonistic contradictions have ceased. Now we come to third point, where he observes: ‘elections have nothing [hat nichts] of today’s political character [politischen Charakter]’. If political character means what pertains to antagonistic economic relations and class conflict, characteristic of the bourgeois state and its electoral system, then without that context, elections will lose, will have nothing of the political character of today – not only in Marx’s context where the bourgeois state was gradually being implemented across Western Europe, but also in those parts of the world today that are influenced by this tradition, either in Europe itself or in some of its former colonies.

Do non-political elections already take place today? Let me offer an example drawn from elections in China. Elections are held more regularly than in bourgeois states, both direct and indirect. Thus,  elections internal to the Communist Party are held at all local branches. In a village, in a small company, in a school – wherever there are three or more party members a branch is formed and elections are held for local posts, especially the local branch secretary. Why three? Only then can you have elections to such a post. In society as a whole, elections are held for the local National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC). These elections are held annually, are direct and include candidates from all nine political parties.

At higher levels – from the provincial to the national – elections are indirect. That is, people are elected from the lower and local bodies, and are subject to assessment as to whether they have the appropriate skills and experience. Thus, the national NPC and CPPCC require significant electoral processes each year. Thousands of representatives from across the country, from all classes, minority nationalities, religious groups and other sectors of society, are elected to the two bodies. I cannot go into more detail here, but the question remains: do these elections have a political character? No, for the system is known as a ‘multi-party cooperation and political consultative system [duodang hezuo he zhengzhi xieshang zhidu]’, which designates that the system of elections that is not based on class conflict but on non-antagonistic relations among the different groups and their representatives.

Thus, in many respects elections have already lost their political character in China.

The Greening of Beijing

For the past two weeks I have walked well over 100 kilometres – in Beijing.

Until now I have regarded my little corner of the city as an oasis, outside of which is the bewildering maze of one of the largest cities in the history of human civilization. To be sure, I am accustomed to taking the massive metro system to all corners of the city. But this practice makes no difference to the sense of living in a maze. One speeds along underground, emerging at one’s destination in another part of town.

Walking is completely different.

Initially, I simply set out to find a bicycle shop for local supplies for my new Brompton foldup bicycle. Before I knew it, I had checked my Baidu map (much better than the woeful Google maps) to locate another bicycle shop. By the time I found it and returned home, I had walked in a south-westerly loop of about 10 kilometres.

I was hooked in a way that I had not expected. The next day I walked north to a church and bookshop, ambling back via another route. Soon enough I was off again, walking north again to find the old Summer Palace grounds, known in these parts as Yuanmingyuan. Having been inside before and knowing the ruins (a result of one of the European colonial rampages in the nineteenth century), I preferred to walk there and find another way home.

Now it was time for a serious hike. To the west of where I live begin the mountains that encircle Beijing. A favourite is Xiangshan, Fragrant Mountain, which I have climbed in the past. But now I decided I would walk to Xiangshan, a distance of some 14 kilometres. On the way I found the Beijing Green Belt, a carefully designed strip that runs along the western reaches of town. Soon enough I was striding along, absorbing the trees and the first blossoms of spring. Few were enjoying them at the time, for people were flocking to Xiangshan and its fabled spring flowers. By the time I reached the village itself, at the foot of the mountain and outside the city, I was done, so I took the new metro back home.

More walks followed, to the massive Yuyuantan Park, south of where I live and full of people out and about and celebrating spring. But I was most thrilled by Xizhuyuan Park, or Black Bamboo Park. It had been a chance discovery on another walk, a green space that set a whole new standard for such spaces.

Originally it had been a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) minor palace area, but it had been closed for many a long year. What had they been doing in the meantime? It turns out that the Beijing City government had been working on a new plan for the greening of the city. Black Bamboo Park would be one of the model green spaces. It had opened only recently.

Inside I was amazed. The old buildings had been restored, but more importantly trees and birds and plants were everywhere.  As I walked along the lake, a ranger with much excitement pointed to the water. There was a turtle – an amphibian that is most sensitive to environmental conditions since it moves between water, land and air – enjoying the clean water of the lake.

After my first visit to this particular park, I was able to map out an ideal walk. Initially I would head west along Wanquanzhuang Road, deep in the outer regions of Beijing where few foreigners tread and where locals do their thing. Then I would pick up the western Green Belt, along the Nanchang River, which was yet another new development. The river itself had been cleaned up and its environs were full of trees, blossoms and recreational spaces. It led me to the Black Bamboo Park, where I once again relished the breakthroughs in green planning and implementation. For the final leg, I walked along some four kilometres of the major Zhongguancun Road, but I did so by walking through one green space after another.

By now I had walked in all directions of the compass, east, north, west and south. I had hiked into the centre of the city, to its outskirts and the mountains, to historic sites of colonial humiliation, and along the ever greater number of green spaces.

Above all, I was most struck by the greening of Beijing. Not so long ago Beijing was a leitmotiv of the worst of city living. Row upon row of high-rise building, with an air quality that had become proverbial. Indeed, some foreigners and Chinese people from other parts assume that Beijing is still like that.

Not any more: the city government has been fully aware that residents would no longer put up with such conditions, so it had set about for many a long year to clean up the city. Some of the strictest environmental laws in the world are enforced ever more strongly, but this is only a beginning. Whole new standards have been set for a greening of the city. The air quality would be tackled through many policies that has seen it gradually improve year upon year. Green spaces would abound, with designer planning and implementation, as only the Chinese know how. And water quality would be at a level where sensitive animals would feel at home, whether turtles or the fabled ducks – not the type of Beijing Duck that you eat at a restaurant.

How is all this possible, especially in a city that had become a parable for environmental degradation?

Long-term planning is the answer. A stable government that is able to implement five-year plans. This is of course a communist local government that is committed to a green Beijing. Forget the ‘Greens’ of bourgeois democracies, with their liberal policies that have become political footballs. Only a communist government committed to ‘ecological civilisation’ can achieve what I experience here in Beijing.

Chinese Trust in the Government

The overwhelming majority of Chinese people trust their government like no other country on earth. This may seem strange to some foreigners who routinely mistrust their government. Yet the statistics speak for themselves. For example, the Edelman Trust Barometer of 2019 notes a rise in the general public’s trust of the government and public institutions to a staggering 86 percent. Meanwhile, the monthly Ipsos surveys indicate that on average 90 percent of people have confidence in the direction in which China is headed. And in the five-yearly World Values Survey, the vast majority trust the government to promote human rights in China and throughout the world.

Why is this the case? One reason is of course the effect of Xi Jinping’s leadership, with effective rule by law and its closely associated Social Credit System, anti-corruption campaign and recovery of both traditional Chinese and Marxist values.

Yet, this is only part of the story. The assumption of trust in governance runs deep in Chinese society – assuming of course that the government in question has earned that trust. To understand how this works at a deeper cultural and social level, we need to go back a few centuries.

He Xiu’s Three Worlds

Important here is a certain He Xiu, who lived from 129 to 182 CE. He Xiu wrote a commentary on a commentary; more precisely, he wrote a commentary on the Gongyang commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (reputedly edited by none other than Confucius). This particular history is not so important here. Instead, He Xiu[1] introduced a crucial distinction between three terms:

  1. What is ‘rumoured [suochuanwen]’.
  2. What is ‘heard [suowen]’ and thus reliably recorded.
  3. What is ‘seen [suojian]’ and therefore verifiable.

The importance of this distinction can hardly be underestimated. What is rumoured concerns words and indeed a world that is ‘decayed and disordered [shuailuan]’. This is a world of chaos in which the heart is ‘course and unrefined [cucu]’, the country is broken up into small warring states and the records virtually non-existent. Rumours abound of skulduggery, assassination, intrigue and inappropriate behaviour in light of established rituals. In other words, hearsay and gossip are highly unreliable, to be mistrusted at every turn.

By contrast, the world that is reliably reported is one that has written records, which enables the unity of the many different Chinese peoples. It is clearly better that rumour, hearsay and chaos, but it still has its problems. The best is the world that is ‘seen’ and therefore empirically verifiable. One has first-hand evidence, or what is now called scientific evidence, truth from facts (shishi qiushi), as Deng Xiaoping said on many occasions. This verifiable world is united, whether distant or nearby, large or small, and even the heart (xin) or inner being is now deep and thoroughly known (xiang).

In Chinese history, the prime body responsible for reliable records and verified facts is of course the government. Indeed, these are signs of good governance and thereby one that can be trusted.

He Xiu’s distinction has many further ramifications today, whether the refusal of newspapers to engage in gossip, the scepticism concerning oral traditions, the transparency of political statements, or the need for any government statistics to be based on solid research. Let me focus on three examples.

Mao Zedong’s Works

The first concerns editions of Mao Zedong’s works. In China, there are two main editions, The Works of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong Wenji) and The Selected Works of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong xuanji). Apart from these two, there are a number of other small collections, relating to early writings or those on specific topics. These have all been carefully produced by the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, which is fully resourced and responsible for reliable editions of all works in the Marxist tradition.

At the same time, there are a number of other editions of Mao’s works, the most notable being Mao Zedong ji, published in 20 volumes in Japan. While most Chinese scholars have copies of this edition, they are also suspicious. Why? An individual scholar has edited the works rather than a major institution funded by the government. Is it reliable? Can it be cited? Not sure. One has to wary indeed when relying on such material. And the five volume collection, Mao Zedong Thought Lives Forever, published without a place, date or editorship during the Cultural Revolution, is way beyond any form of reliability.

Number of Christians in China

The second example concerns the number of Christians in China. This has been the subject of what are now called the ‘Internet Wars’. The official government figure is 38 million, which foreigners interested in such matters disregard since they suspect that the government wishes to downplay the numbers. Instead, they postulate more than 100 million, based on an anecdote: supposedly Ye Xiaowen, the former director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, mentioned in a closed-door meeting at Peking University in 2006 that there were more than 100 million Christians in China. The problem here is that those who like to cite this anecdote provide no source for the statement, third-party evidence or indeed check with Ye Xiaowen himself. It turns out that – according to scholars who were actually present at the event – Ye Xiaowen had never said that there were more than 100 million Christians in China, but he did say that there were at that time more than 100 million religious believers. The difference is obvious, and the foreigners who like to peddle this number draw on unreliable rumour.

By now I am drawing on an article published in early 2019,[2] based on a long-term project at Peking University: the ‘China Family Panel Studies’. Carefully calibrated so as to be relevant to Chinese conditions, relying on a vast survey sample with multiple follow-ups, this sociological survey found in 2016 that there were 39.69 million Christians in China (about 2.8 percent of the population), of which 28.29 were ‘open Christians’ and 11.67 million ‘hidden Christians’. The ‘open Christians’ can mostly be attributed to the many legal forms of Christianity in China, such as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches (Protestant) and the recently united Roman Catholic Church, while the ‘hidden Christians’ are mostly from the illegal ‘house churches’.

While these figures are derived from a completely independent sociological survey, it is scientifically based and relies on the assumption that one can only trust what is recorded and verifiable. Tellingly, it is very close to the government figures for Christians in China, for the government does not release figures unless they are based on what can be verified.

As for the speculative foreigners, they are simply relying on hearsay and rumour.

Concept of (U)topia

The third example concerns utopia, which in the Western European tradition refers to both a no-place and a good-place. Typically, writings about utopia postulate a world yet to be realised, on a distant island (Thomas More’s Utopia), in the distant future (William Morris’s News From Nowhere), or even on another planet. The accounts are typically imaginative, hearsay upon hearsay, if not rumour itself. Obviously, if the world in question does not exist and therefore cannot be experienced, one must rely on nothing more than rumour and imagination. In other words, it is a transcendent world, much better than ours, but one that we cannot know empirically.

Let us go back to He Xiu, for his threefold distinction of rumoured, recorded and verified is actually the background to a major contribution to the Chinese tradition concerning what is often known as ‘utopia’. But his proposal is completely opposed to Western European assumptions. In more detail, He Xiu proposed three worlds:

  1. The ‘decayed and disordered world [shuailuan]’, which is characterised by rumour and gossip (suochuanwen).
  2. The world of ‘rising peace [shengping]’, which is determined by what is heard and recordable (suowen).
  3. The world of ‘great peace [taiping]’, which can only be known by seeing and is therefore verifiable (suojian).

By now you can see what has happened. What in the Western tradition is called ‘utopia’, based on rumour, is actually the world of decay and disorder. What cannot be known is highly undesirable, with plots, skulduggery and lack of unity.

By contrast, the world of rising peace can be recorded, leading to unity at least within the country and relative stability and security. But the most verifiable world is precisely that of the ‘Great Peace’ or what is also called the ‘Great Harmony [datong]’. This world can hardly be connected with the Western tradition of utopia, although not a few have tried to do so. Why? It is not a world of rumour and innuendo, but one that can be verified empirically and through scientific investigation.

Thus, ‘utopia’ is a particularly bad term to use in this context. If we stay with the Greek origins of the terms, the best term would be topos, a definite place, and the Chinese tradition concerning the Great Peace and the Great Harmony would have to be called ‘Topian Thought’.

Trusting the Government

Let us return to question of trust in governance. As mentioned earlier, throughout Chinese history, the body responsible for recording and verifying information has been the government itself. Given the size of the country, government has always been a somewhat large affair, and in this respect at least the communist government carries on a long tradition. Of course, it has a distinct trajectory determined by Marxism, but it is still responsible for the most reliable information, for it has the best resources to ensure such information.

I would like to close with an unexpected contribution from He Xiu, a contribution carried through in the later tradition via Kang Youwei’s Book of Datong and Deng Xiaoping’s evocation – in a communist framework – of the old Confucian category of a xiaokang society (one that is moderately well-off, healthy and peaceful). For Deng Xiaoping and even more those who followed – Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and especially Xi Jinping – this xiaokang society is the goal of the initial socialist phase of the new China, to be achieved by 2020.

This xiaokang society is equivalent now with what He Xiu called the world of ‘rising peace’. Most importantly, it is a world that about which one has reliable knowledge and is therefore able to provide reliable records. What does this mean for the core political program of achieving a xiaokang society in all respects by 2020? Is it merely political spin, a vague promise with little content? Not at all: it entails detailed and innovative planning, targeted projects, scientific analysis and rigorous assessment of results. For example, Xi Jinping has identified a peaceful and law-abiding country, environmental protection, and poverty alleviation as the three greatest challenges. Massive resources and initiatives have gone into each, with the Social Credit System, a wholesale shift away from environmentally destructive practices, and a last great push to lift the final 10 million people out of poverty (850 million since 1978).

Will these targets be achieved? Final assessment will tell. But one thing is clear: without them, a xiaokang society in unachievable; with them, it will be achieved. But such a society must be thoroughly recordable and verifiable. Trust in government turns on this fact.

Notes

[1] He Xiu. 1980. Chunqiu gongyangzhuan zhuxu. 28 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, p. 2200. Many editions of this work exist, in 28 volumes. It may also be found at https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&res=642006&remap=gb.

[2] Lu Yunfeng, Wu Yue, and Zhang Chunni. 2019. ‘Zhongguo daodi you duoshao jidutu? Jiyu zhongguo jiating zhuizong diaocha de guji’. Kaifang shidai zazhi 2019 (1):1-14. http://www.wyzxwk.com/Article/shehui/2019/01/398823.html.