Qin Hui 秦晖 is an economic historian best known for his work on peasant studies and an influential public intellectual. He teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Qin’s academic research is focused on land ownership and peasant wars and, in the last two decades, he has written on many different aspects of China’s rural economy. As a leading figure in rural studies, Qin’s acerbic comments on a wide range of social issues, particularly those concerning China’s rural population and migrant workers, have earned him many fans. He is a sought-after media commentator in print, on TV and online.
Qin’s sardonic advocacy of the legalization of slums (see 清华大学教授秦晖建议深圳率先兴建贫民区, China News Service) and his mocking praise of China’s ‘low human rights advantage’ (see 秦晖：’低人权优势’惊人竞争力, Window of the South), have drawn criticism from intellectuals across the political spectrum. While ‘leftists’ accuse him of being a ‘worshipper of the West,’ conveniently disregarding his frequent jabs at ‘Western centrism’, neo-liberal ‘rightists’ are unhappy with many of his uncompromising views about securing social justice for China’s rural and urban poor.
Qin’s interest in China’s peasantry began when he was ‘sent-down’ to the countryside, as one among the millions of ‘rusticated educated youth’ (下乡知识青年). Qin, the son of government officials, spent nine years living in rural Guangxi during the Cultural Revolution. The experience did not scar him. In an interview with New Left Review (‘Dividing the Big Family Assets‘), he reminisced fondly about his relationship with the villagers:
My good relations with the villagers came mainly from my intention to transform myself into a ‘real’ – and model – peasant. When the villagers were reluctant to be drafted for infrastructural labor away from home, I’d always volunteer to go. Though I had resolved to be truly independent, declining my parents’ offer to send me parcels, I did ask my family to get medicine for the village. So the peasants eventually took to me.
In 1978, Qin sat for the newly-reinstated university entrance examination. He was admitted to Lanzhou University where the historian Zhao Lisheng 赵俪生 introduced him to peasant studies. While there he met his wife Jin Yan 金雁, a fellow-historian specialising in Eastern Europe and Russia.
Peasant wars, according to Chinese Marxist-Leninist historiography as developed from the 1930s, were the force behind the cyclical rise and fall of dynasties and thus took pride of place in historical studies in the Mao era, from the 1950s to the 1970s. The party-state congratulated itself for having abolished private land ownership and for having thus solved recurring problems that had plagued China for millennia. The official historical narrative presented peasant wars as historic episodes of class struggle, in which the peasants failed to defeat the dynastic system because they lacked revolutionary theory and genuine leadership. This risible line of argument began to fall apart following Mao’s demise.
In the 1980s, peasant wars were newly explained as the result of peasants being pushed into abject poverty through the seizure of arable land by local gentry and power-holders. This view remains the main argument behind the Party’s land policy which, to this day, prohibits free land trading. Qin challenged this orthodoxy, arguing that the exploitation of peasants was not nearly as significant as factors such as natural disasters, bad weather and high and injurious taxation (see 秦晖：土地私有会造成土地兼并与农民战争是误解, Southern Metropolis Daily). He pointed out that, historically, land-owning farmers in China’s north were more likely to rebel than the tenant farmers in the south. Qin also argued that China’s pre-modern governments were often unable to prevent overtaxation, citing the seventeenth-century scholar Huang Zongxi’s 黄宗羲 observation that despite the Ming dynasty’s initial efforts to reduce taxation, eventually taxes rose and even exceeded previous levels. In 1997, Qin coined the phrase ‘Huang Zongxi’s Law’ to suggest that post-Maoist efforts at reform were similarly short-sighted and under-resourced. In 2003, then newly appointed Premier Wen Jiabao quoted Qin to present the government as genuine in its efforts to alleviate rural poverty. Wen promised that under the government’s fee-for-tax reforms, the dire situations described under ‘Huang Zongxi’s Law’ would not be allowed to develop (see 当年的’皇粮国税’问题, Investor Journal).
Qin’s critical independence is also evident in his remarks about Confucianism and ‘cultural determinism.’ In his 2004 book Ten Expositions on Tradition 传统十论 he argued against the notion that China is a Confucian country. He stated that while most dynastic rulers paid lip service to Confucian ideals, they were actually ruthless Legalists who ruled through fear and coercion . Qin coined the expression ‘Confucianism on the outside and Legalism on the inside’ 儒表法里 to sum up his view of pre-modern China; the phrase soon gained traction in intellectual circles (see 秦晖：中国文化最大的问题是儒表法里, Sina Finance). Qin has been highly critical of those whom he calls ‘cultural determinists,’ academics whom he regards as pro-Party thinkers working to justify the status quo of one-party rule. In the article, ‘My View of History‘ (我的历史观, 13 October 2006), Qin argued that everyone has responsibility for shaping contemporary society and the nation’s future. He has consistently opposed the view that China’s democratisation must be gradual and introduced by the party-state.
Qin is also known for criticizing the ‘China Model’, a term widely used since the late 2000s, based on the idea that China’s economic success is the result of one-party rule. He describes the model as ‘low welfare and lack of freedom paired with economic globalisation’. Against nationalistic academics like Zhang Weiwei who promote the China Model as worthy of emulation by underdeveloped countries, Qin argues that, although many countries praise China’s ‘economic miracle’, they have no intention of following the China Model. This is because their more democratic systems won’t allow them to bring their human rights down to China’s level. With tongue-in-cheek, Qin grants that China’s lack of democracy has given it a ‘low human rights advantage’. He has also poked fun at the idea of China as a ‘great power’ 大国 (see his web interview with SouthCN), noting that it would not endear people to China since ‘great powers’ have historically been repressive military regimes. This kind of wry humour is a feature of Qin’s oeuvre. Other noteworthy observations from Qin include his description of China’s economy under Mao as an ‘command economy’ as opposed to a Soviet-style ‘planned economy’ and his reference to the corruption-ridden post-Maoist economic system as a process of ‘dividing the big family assets’.
Qin’s refusal to pick a side in the often vitriolic debates between intellectual factions in China baffles mainland readers who are accustomed to seeing ‘rightists’ and ‘leftists’. (On strategic uses of ‘right’ and ‘left’ by both the party-state and intellectual combatants, see Geremie R. Barmé on ‘Totalitarian Nostalgia‘ and ‘New China Newspeak‘). Qin argues that the very particular ways in which the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ are used in China makes them practically incoherent. According to Qin, whereas debates between the right and the left in the West reflect political differences on questions of liberty and welfare, in China, the government ‘imposes taxes like a left-wing government while displaying the stinginess of a right-wing government toward the people’. The result, as he puts it in a 2004 article for the Southern Metropolis Daily, is that the world’s richest government ‘uses the left as an excuse to rob, and the right as a pretext to divide the spoils [among the rich and powerful]’. In the same article, he notes that the system in China has ensured that migrant workers remain underpaid and enjoy few or no social benefits in the cities where they live, cities that need their labour yet refuse to grant them residential permits. Qin quips that slums in China should accordingly be upheld as a legal right. Political scientist and consultant David Kelly has written on and translated Qin Hui’s work (see, for example, his ‘Guest Editor’s Introduction’, in The Mystery of the Chinese Economy, special issue of The Chinese Economy, vol.38, no.4 (July–August 2005): 3–12).
- Qin Hui’s Sina microblog: http://blog.sina.com.cn/qinhui