The Five Vermin 五蠹 Threatening China

On 31 July 2012, the overseas edition of People’s Daily ran an analysis of China’s three- to five-year ‘window of opportunity’. The essay declared that this is a crucial moment in global affairs, one in which the Communist Party-led People’s Republic must continue to maintain stability, leverage its economic might and enhance its strategic options. The analysis of this fortuitous period was the work of Yuan Peng 袁鹏, head of the American Research Centre of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) in Beijing 中国现代国际关系研究院美国所所长. Titled ‘Where Are the Real Threats to China?’ 中国真正的挑战在哪里 Yuan’s essay offers a sobering study of the short- and medium-term factors influencing the wellbeing of the People’s Republic.

Previously, we have introduced the work of another analyst who has taken advantage of the 2012-2013 party-state leadership transition to offer unvarnished advice in public to the incoming leaders.

In late-August, early-September Deng Yuwen 邓聿文 of the Central Party School published ‘The Political Legacy of Hu-Wen’ 胡温的政治遗产 to widespread comment (see our 8 September 2012 excerpt from Deng’s analysis, ‘The Ten Grave Problems Facing China‘). Yuan Peng’s article is in a somewhat different register (and, given its appearance in People’s Daily, it also enjoyed a different imprimatur), although it too has led to no small measure of public discussion, and even outrage.

Yuan offers an unsentimental view of the global environment. His particular concern is not the common fear of direct military conflict with the United States (although he also addresses this),[1] but rather the fortuitous advantage that China presently enjoys due to the international malaise in the wake of the post-Global Financial Crisis, one that, given the right leadership, could well work in favour of the People’s Republic. The essay provides, therefore, valuable insights into the canny calculations of one prominent analyst. Its message was, however, not greeted with universal equanimity. For, among other things, Yuan controversially identified what his critics immediately dubbed the ‘New Black Five Categories of People’ 新黑五类 that threaten China’s social stability and party-dominated top-down reform (groups that he claims are being infiltrated and manipulated by the American imperium for its nefarious ends).

The original Black Five Categories 黑五类 date from China’s High-Maoist era when the children of the five denigrated social categories of class enemies were subjected to constant political harassment. The Black Five Categories were: Landlords, Rich Peasants, Counter-revolutionaries, Bad Elements and Rightists 地主、富农、反革命分子、坏分子、右派分子. During the extreme Cultural Revolution period (c.1964-1974) when class background and class struggle were core social determinants, the children of the Black Five Categories of People were actively (and legally) discriminated against when it came to such opportunities as Communist Youth League and Communist Party membership, state job allocations following schooling, employment generally, as well as in regard to joining the People’s Liberation Army, being promoted within the workplace, and in relation to their personal lives, marriage and housing allocations. Following the gradual phasing out of extreme class-based policies in the 1970s, the Black Five Categories were re-classified as ‘young people who could be productively re-educated [and integrated into society]’ 可以教育好的子女 (although the policy was officially introduced in the late 1960s, it meant little). Discrimination against them nonetheless continued into the 1980s.

The New Five Black Categories: inspired by Yuan Peng’s essay this Internet image offers a reworking of the ‘Five Friendlies’ 福娃, mascots of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Yuan Peng’s 2012 repertoire of what are now popularly known as the ‘New Black Five Categories of People’ includes: rights lawyers, underground religious activities, dissidents, Internet leaders and vulnerable groups 维权律师、地下宗教、异见人士、网络领袖、弱势群体. His naming of these groups led to widespread debate, mockery, angry outbursts and, in once case, even a civil suit launched by a lawyer who claimed that Yuan was guilty of defamation. One blogger even went so far as to accuse the CICIR analyst of ‘spruiking Fascism’. (It should be noted that discussions and criticism of ‘Sino-Fascism’ have been widespread in public debate since the mid- to late 2000s when retro-Maoist and Neo-Leftist Chinese thinkers began lauding ideas related to ‘statism’, ‘neo-authoritarianism’ and theories originating with Carl Schmitt, the pre- and Nazi-era German jurist and political philosopher.)

As we have discussed previously in The China Story Journal, at times of power transition and relative socio-political uncertainty various individuals and groups vie to influence incoming leaders, and their shadowy backers. To identify threats, to formulate responses and to offer a schema for the future are all a natural part of the intellectual armoury of pro-state strategists, be they in China or elsewhere. The outrage among members of the five categories of people named in Yuan’s essay, and more broadly, is understandable, but equally easy to comprehend is Yuan’s stance as a member of a key government think tank, the primary role of which it is to evaluate dispassionately threats to the stability of the party-state and its strategic posture in the context of the local and global environments. For readers in- and outside China, Yuan’s essay offers an important insight into how one informed analyst is suggesting China’s incoming leaders should calibrate their policies in response to the perceived international and local situation. For this reason, we think it important to offer a translation of his essay, along with the original text.

Of course, Yuan’s clumping together of disparate activist and social groups reminds the student of Chinese history and thought of the attack by the philosopher Han Fei (韓非, ca.280-233BCE) on the notoriously named Five Vermin or Termites 五蠹 (wŭ dù).[2] Listed in Book Forty-nine of the philosopher’s collection Han Feizi 韓非子, the Five Vermin or ‘obnoxious people’ are described by Derk Bodde as including:

…men of learning whose eloquence throws the laws into doubt, talkers who promulgate false statements, wearers of swords who assemble their own adherents, and courtiers who use bribery to advance their own interests.[3]

Han Fei warned that, for the state to survive, these obnoxious people must be eliminated.[4] Of course, some may well construe state analysts themselves as being dangerous ‘talkers who promulgate false statements’. Yuan’s analysis offers a big picture view that by inference appeals to China’s leaders to calm any saber-rattlers. In September, however, the three- to five-year ‘window of opportunity’ envisaged by Yuan during which the People’s Republic could avail itself of relative regional military quiescence was suddenly beclouded by the escalation of rhetorical violence between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

Nonetheless, of the ‘New Five Black Categories’ in Yuan’s analysis, four are not new. Nor indeed is the discussion of social anomie or unruly elements, given the fact that the Chinese party-state is presently much taken with the theory and practice of ‘social management’ 社会管理. What caused particular offence (apart from Yuan’s clear identification of perceived ‘threats’) was that ‘vulnerable groups’ 弱势群体 were included in the list. Critics were appalled that in a booming modern China that boasts of its aspirations to achieve global status the groups most deserving of support, protection and care were being identified as an incipient danger. That such a suggestion came from an analyst working for a government think tank that was itself created to protect the Chinese revolution, and its own elevation of the formerly dispossessed and oppressed classes of the country seemed nothing less than confronting. To offer the state policy advice that overtly targets the marginalised and disempowered appeared, to many, as inhumane and in blatant contradiction of the Communist Party’s founding principles and avowed value system.

Yuan describes the internal threats to China and the anti-China strategies supposedly formulated by the US to undermine the People’s Republic. In many respects, this is a contemporary recasting of Mao Zedong’s critique of the ‘peaceful evolution’ 和平演变 strategy first articulated by US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in the 1950s.[5] This denunciation of the West was re-iterated by Deng Xiaoping in the aftermath of the events in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989,[6] and today features regularly both in official and unofficial Chinese discourse.

Yuan’s essay is a timely reminder that Chinese strategic calculations are often holistic and integrative, weaving internal and external factors, current affairs and historical consciousness into a skein of argumentation.—Geremie R. Barmé

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 Where Are the Real Threats to China?

中国真正的挑战在哪里

China should maintain its self-confidence in the face of unfolding strategic opportunities while simultaneously remaining fully alert to internal challenges. In reality, the actual challenges facing China are not imminent; rather they lie five to ten years in the future. The real dilemmas are not global or even regional; rather they will be generated by internal systemic changes and our social ecology. The real threat is not military conflict; it is the problems arising in the non-military arenas of finance, society, the Internet and diplomacy.

中国应该对发展的战略机遇保持自信,但也必须充分认识到自身的挑战所在。事实上,中国真正的挑战不是眼前,而是未来5-10年;真正的难题不是国际和周边局势,而是内部的体制变革和社会生态;真正的威胁不是军事冲突,而是金融、社会、网络、外交等非军事麻烦。

In the coming five- to ten-year period, there will be a leap from the quantitative to the qualitative in the Sino-American [economic and strategic] balance. International analytical organisations are generally of the view that China’s GDP will surpass that of the United States around the year 2020. At that time, China’s military and scientific-technological strengths will enjoy a concomitant increase. Currently, US strategists are contemplating three basic questions in relation to China’s rise:

  • How to respond to the resource, energy and economic challenges created by the rise of a great power with a population of 1.3-1.5 billion people?
  • How to respond to the challenges created by a rising socialist great power in terms of political system, developmental model and value system? And,
  • How to respond to the military and security challenges related to a great power that still has unresolved issues concerning its sovereignty and territorial integrity?

未来5-10年,中美力量对比将进一步实现从量变到质变的飞跃。国际权威机构普遍预计,中国经济总量超美大约在2020年左右。届时,中国军事、科技实力也将有实质性提升。美战略界目前在集中思考3个有关中国崛起的根本性问题:如何应对一个13亿-15亿人口大国的崛起带来的资源、能源和经济上的挑战?如何应对一个社会主义大国的崛起带来的政治制度、发展模式和价值观念上的挑战?如何应对一个尚未完全解决主权和领土完整的大国所带来的军事安全上的挑战?

Not yet a clear and present danger to the People’s Republic? Source: Wikipedia

These are but the opening gambits in the Sino-American ‘Great Game’. True strategic contestation lies in the future. The strategic challenge that requires thoughtful consideration is the Sino-American relationship that will unfold after China surpasses the US economy. To meet this challenge requires that in the shortest time frame we undertake a psychological adjustment and a strategic recalibration so as to resolve the abovementioned issues.

这意味着,中美目前的博弈只是序曲,真正的战略较量还在后头。如何尽快调适心态、调整战略、破解上述难题,迎接经济总量超美之后的中美关系,成为必须思谋的大战略问题。

The three- to five-year window is crucial for all great powers to free themselves from present encumbrances and to heal wounds. All countries are concomitantly undertaking the following: engaging in enhanced internal systemic reform while seeking greater strategic space externally. In the US, this takes the form of the ‘new policies’ initiated by the Obama Administration and the strategic pivot to Asia and the Pacific. In the European case, it revolves around the reform of systemic mechanisms in the face of the fiscal crisis along with an active engagement in developments in West Asia [the Middle East] and North Africa. For Russia, the ‘Putin-Medvedev System’ is hopeful of economic revival while internationally they foster a ‘Eurasian Federation’ and a consolidation in the Far East.

未来3-5年,是各主要大国脱困疗伤的关键期。各国目前都在不约而同地做着一件事:对内深化体制性变革,对外谋求战略性空间。美国体现为奥巴马 ‘新政’和战略重返亚太;欧洲体现为围绕债务危机的体制机制变革和对西亚北非变局的积极介入;俄罗斯则利用‘普梅体制’对内谋求经济复兴、对外打造‘欧亚联盟’兼及巩固远东。

Once the US and the various European nations have weathered these conditions a new era of reform, as well as an unfolding technological and productive revolution will overwhelm the period of strategic opportunity that China has been enjoying. The real test facing China now is how to assess calmly the global environment and redouble efforts to complete systemic transformation and economic-social re-engineering to achieve optimal comprehensive national strength in the present.

一旦美欧诸国渡过难关,完成新一轮体制性变革,辅以正在酝酿的新一轮技术革命和产业革命,则将真正冲击中国战略机遇期。如何冷观周边形势,将工作重心尽快转向国内体制机制完善和经济社会再造,赢得最终的综合国力竞争,是中国当前真正的考验。

In this three- to five-year period the eastward strategic move being undertaken by the United States is aimed at successfully realising a re-balancing of the Asia-Pacific environment in keeping with US interests. In so doing the United States is not in comprehensive competition with China. Their emphasis is on taking advantage of the territorial conflicts China has with relevant countries so as to profit their strategic rebalancing, yet at the same time avoiding an unnecessarily early military confrontation with China.

未来3-5年,美国战略重心东移重在实现有利于美国主导的亚太格局的再平衡,而非同中国的全面对抗;重在利用中国同相关国家的主权矛盾尽快完成新一轮亚太战略布局,而非过早卷入同中国的军事冲突。

During this period, the US will avail itself of various non-military means to delay or hinder China’s progressive rise. In so doing it will hope to gain strategic advantage, revitalise itself and consolidate its hegemonic position. The main ways in which the US is doing this are:

  • Using the exchange rate of the Renminbi as an entré, and a short-term strategy of opening up China’s fiscal markets so as to comprehensively infiltrate China’s ‘third industry’. The overall aim is to control the pulse rate of China’s development and, in the process, to gain massive financial advantage;
  • In the name of ‘Internet freedom’ transforming the traditional mode of pursuing top-down democracy and freedom. Utilising rights lawyers, underground religious activities, dissidents, Internet leaders and vulnerable groups as core constituencies with the aim of infiltrating China’s grass roots so as to carry out a bottom-up process to create thereby conditions to ‘transform’ China.
  • Strengthening alliances and enhancing partnerships while undermining China’s relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Pakistan and Myanmar, while kick-starting the US-Russian relationship to put China on the back foot diplomatically and undermine a rising China’s external environment and to limit our strategic space.

In this way the US is using a ‘global [or 360-degree] environment’ encompassing ‘sea, air, space and the Internet’ to pursue its goals of undertaking dialogue and determining relevant protocols in the hope of actually weakening China’s strategic challenges to the US in all of the above arenas.

这一阶段,美将更多利用非军事手段滞缓或干扰中国崛起进程,获取战略实利,实现国力重振,确保霸权地位。其主要手法包括:以人民币汇率为突破口、以金融保险市场开放为阶段性目标,全面打入中国第三产业,以期在掌控中国发展命脉的同时牟取巨大经济金融利益;以‘网络自由’为旗号,改变‘自上而下 ’推进民主自由的传统模式,以维权律师、地下宗教、异见人士、网络领袖、弱势群体为核心,以期通过‘自下而上’的方式渗透中国基层,为中国的‘改变’创造条件;以强化同盟国关系、提升伙伴关系、分化离间中国同朝、巴、缅关系、重启美俄关系等方式,造成中国外交被动,松动中国崛起的外部环境,压缩中国崛起的战略空间;以‘海、空、天、网’等‘全球公域’问题为抓手,推进相关对话、制定相关准则,以期实质性弱化中国在上述领域对美的战略挑战。

From this, it is obvious that it is necessary for China to change its traditional thinking processes and strategic calculations. Rather than place a key emphasis on dealing with limited external military threats it should concentrate on the comprehensive re-engineering of its internal systems and operating modalities. Herein lies the crux of whether China can successfully respond to the strategic challenges that presently confront it.

由此可见,中国宜转变传统思维方式和战略观念,将国家安全防范的重心由局部的外在军事冲突风险转向全面的内部体制机制重塑。这是中国能否再一次成功应对当下战略挑战的关键所在。

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Notes:

[1] See also, Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell, ‘How China Sees America: The Sum of Beijing’s Fears’, Foreign Affairs, vol.91, no.5 (September/October 2012): 32-47.
[2] These are given in the ‘Five Vermin’ 五蠹 chapter of Han Feizi as:  學者 [儒家]、言談者 [縱橫家]、帶劍者 [遊俠刺客]、患御者 [逃避兵役的人],以及商工之民 [商人和手工業者]. For more on Han Fei’s relevance to modern China, see Lin Yutang’s 林語堂 1930 speech ‘Han Fei as a Cure for Modern China‘, reprinted in China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 30/31 (June/September 2012).
[3] From Derk Bodde, ‘The Idea of Social Classes in Han and Pre-Han China’, in Wilt L. Idema and Erik Zürcher, eds, Thought and Law in Qin and Han China: Studies Dedicated to Anthony Hulsewé on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1990, p.35.
[4] The original in Han Feizi reads:

是故亂國之俗:其學者,則稱先王之道以籍仁義,盛容服而飾辯說,以疑當世之法,而貳人主之心。其言古者,為設詐稱,借於外力,以成其私,而遺社稷之利。其帶劍者,聚徒屬,立節操,以顯其名,而犯五官之禁。其患御者,積於私門,盡貨賂,而用重人之謁,退汗馬之勞。其商工之民,修治苦之器,聚弗靡之財,蓄積待時,而侔農夫之利。此五者,邦之蠹也。人主不除此五蠹之民,不養耿介之士,則海內雖有破亡之國,削滅之朝,亦勿怪矣。

[5] See Qiang Zhai, ‘1959: Preventing Peaceful Evolution’, China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 18 (June 2009).
[6] Geremie R. Barmé, ‘The Harmonious Evolution of Information’, originally published by China Beat, and reprinted in China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 21 (March 2010).