Rong Jian 荣剑 on Thought and Scholarship in China

Translator’s Preface

It takes some nerve to title one’s essay ‘A China Bereft of Thought’ 没有思想的中国 for this is, surely, an extravagant claim. Yet, as we will discover in Rong Jian’s essay of this title below, he is utterly dogged in his ambition to make the claim stick. He knows he is being deliberately polemical and as he points out early on, the title is likely to trigger a reaction in people before they have even started on the essay. The reaction, in turn, begs the question as to what the author means by ‘thought’ sixiang 思想.

In mainland China, sixiang refers to two quite different modes of thinking. As part of the term ‘Chinese thought’ 中国 思想 (Zhongguo sixiang), sixiang refers to key ideas and arguments constitutive of what we might best describe as ‘intellectual inquiry’ as it has been practised in the Chinese-speaking world. Hence, ‘modern Chinese thought’ or ‘contemporary Chinese thought’ would include ‘philosophy’, ‘theory’ and other varieties of conceptual thinking as these have developed in the Sinophone humanities and social sciences. However, as ‘Party thinking’ 党的思想 (dangde sixiang) and ‘thought work’ 思想工作 (sixiang gongzuo), sixiang is synonymous with ‘ideology’, specifically the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. Because China’s Party leaders are accustomed to presenting their ideas as the nation’s ‘guiding thought’ 指导思想 (zhidao sixiang), they also pretend to occupy the forefront of ‘Chinese thought’ as its vanguard. Doing so allows them, among other things, to justify censorship in terms of protecting the nation from the harm of dangerous and subversive ideas that are at odds with their own.

Rong does not distinguish between these divergent senses of sixiang in his essay, preferring instead to highlight the interdependence of intellectual inquiry and Party thinking. His attention-grabbing title serves as an answer of sorts for the big question he tacitly poses and around which his entire essay revolves: namely, ‘What has Chinese Communist Party rule done for Chinese thought?’ He argues that the CCP’s authoritarian power and the makeshift ideas it calls ‘Party thinking’ have so handicapped China’s capacity for independent inquiry as to render the country ‘bereft of thought’.

The question as to how authoritarian power has affected scholarship and inquiry in China is seldom openly discussed but the effects of authoritarian power are everywhere evident, among other things, in the exercise of self-censorship and the resulting characteristically oblique nature of mainland intellectual discourse.  If the need to not attract unwanted state attention is particularly important for those who write and publish for their living, Rong’s unusual candour perhaps reflects his independence from both the university sector and academic publishing in mainland China. Censorship of his sixiang would not deprive him of his main source of income.

Rong Jian photo

Rong Jian (财经文摘, March 2013)

In the 1980s, he attracted favourable notice in Marxist scholarship. However, the purge on 4 June 1989 of the student-led democracy movement at Tiananmen Square and the prolonged crackdown that followed stymied his academic career. In the 1990s, he chose to work instead in China’s burgeoning art business, establishing a successful career as a collector and curator of contemporary Chinese abstract oil paintings. Rong owns and runs the well-known art gallery Beijing Jindu Art Centre 北京锦都艺术中心 in the Chinese capital’s 798 Art District.

The timing of Rong’s essay is interesting. He first presented it at a seminar in January 2013 at the Unirule Institute of Economics 天则经济研究所 in Beijing. It was then published on Consensus 共识网 on 26 March 2013 and has since appeared on many other websites hosted in and outside China. The first half of 2013 was a time of intense speculation in mainland intellectual circles about the newly incumbent Party General Secretary, Xi Jinping, who had taken up this top leadership role in November 2012. Many had hoped that the plain-spoken Xi, unlike his ineloquent predecessor Hu Jintao (who spoke mostly in Party slogans), would implement reforms that would make the party-state system not only more accountable but also more hospitable to constructive criticism. It was in this generally positive ambience that Rong presented his seminar at the Unirule Institute.

However, all such expectations of greater intellectual freedoms would be dashed by mid- to late 2013. Xi revealed his determination to control and shape public culture to be stronger than Hu’s in August 2013 when his administration introduced new harsh penalties for ‘rumour mongering’.  The arrest and televised humiliation of self-styled ‘liberal’ social commentators whose observations about quotidian injustices had offended the party-state, and whom it now identified as ‘rumour mongers’ soon followed. From then on and up to the present, mainland universities have been subjected to increasing political restrictions and outlets for independent inquiry have been shut down. Consensus, which published Rong’s essay and on which he kept a blog, was arguably the last leading online forum for intellectual debate standing by mid-2016. (The bold and influential magazine Yanhuang chunqiu 炎黄春秋 was silenced in July 2016 via the ousting of its editorial board). By October, Consensus too had ceased to operate.

Rong’s essay has fared somewhat better. As of 28 January 2017, it remains accessible on several mainland-based blogs, including Rong’s column on the Caijing website. The Unirule Institute which hosted Rong’s seminar is also renowned for its defence of intellectual independence. Founded by three economists Mao Yushi 茅于轼, Sheng Hong 盛洪 and Zhang Shuguang 张曙光 who are widely regarded as leading liberal intellectuals, this think tank has, so far, survived Xi’s continuing crackdown. When I wrote this preface on 21 January, I checked the Unirule website to see if it included Rong’s presentation, the 469th in the Institute’s fortnightly seminar series. It did not and the omission was neither noted nor explained. (The Institute’s 2012 list ended with seminar 468 and the 2013 list began with seminar 470.) On 23 January, however, officials at the Cyberspace Administration of China in Beijing had shut the website down for allegedly breaching Internet regulations.

At a two-day meeting on ‘political and ideological work’ at Chinese universities on 8 December 2016, Xi demanded that mainland educators redouble their efforts in disseminating ‘advanced ideology and culture’ 先进思想文化 so as to instil students with Party thinking. Educators, he said, must show ‘resolute support for the party-state’s governance’ 党执政的坚定支持者.

All of this bodes ill for the already perilously diminished circumstances of independent inquiry in mainland China. In this ominous climate, Rong Jian’s ‘A China Bereft of Thought’ bears re-reading. I have taken the liberty of translating this engaging essay into English to help it reach a wider audience.


This translation is part of the ‘Reading and Writing the Chinese Dream: A Collaborative Research, Reading and Translation Project’, funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and supported by the Australian Centre on China in the World at ANU and the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University. Rong Jian’s essay was the subject of a 2015 translation practicum undertaken by students enrolled in the Master of Translation course at Monash University. I thank the students for sharing their views on the challenges of translating this text.  Rong’s Chinese essay can be read here. — Gloria Davies


A China Bereft of Thought

Author’s note

The text below forms part of my research on the history of modern Chinese thought. It is my personal perspective on the production and dissemination of thought in China since the Hundred Day Reform of 1898. The essay is thematically rather than chronologically organised and the focus of my analysis is the mind-set of Chinese intellectuals, in different historical periods, toward revolution, reform and scholarly discourse.

At the start of this year (2013), I was invited by the Unirule Institute of Economics to speak at their 469th fortnightly discussion forum and I presented what I had uncovered to date from researching this topic. I would like to thank my host, Professor Zhang Shuguang, and Professors Zheng Yefu 郑也夫, Xu Zhangrun 许章润, Lei Yi 雷颐, Ma Yong 马勇and Fang Deling 房德邻 for their excellent and inspiring comments on that occasion.  — Rong Jian


I would like to thank the Unirule Institute very much for giving me this opportunity to express my views. I have been posting my writings online for a year but have seldom taken part in academic discussions. As Professor Zhang said in his introduction, I ‘took the plunge’ 下海 into business some twenty years earlier. However, an unexpected catalyst last year led me to post a series of articles online. I had no idea that my writings would provoke such a strong response. Consequently, I reconnected with several old friends and made new ones. All of this has prompted me to contemplate things anew. After I ‘took the plunge’, I did not stop reading and writing – in fact, I read a great deal. In 2003, I resolved to find the time to write one long essay each year. The several lengthy essays I have given to the many teachers assembled here were all written in the last year or two. My presentation today draws on these essays.

Section A:  Chinese thought and its evolution before and after the Reform Era

The last one hundred years of Chinese thought has been a topic of abiding interest to me. With the question of Chinese modernity as my starting point, I have examined and contemplated the changes that have occurred in Chinese thought in the period from the 1898 Hundred Day Reform to the 1930s. I have sought to analyse and assess the three major currents of thought in modern China – liberalism 自由主义, Marxism 马克思主义and conservatism 保守主义. When I first completed this essay, my plan was to continue my research into Chinese thought since the founding of the People’s Republic, to provide a general account of this period of history through which we are still living. As luck would have it, the Unirule Institute invited me to speak on this topic, which forced me to quicken the pace of my research. I hope that today’s discussion will allow me to deepen my still incomplete understanding.

The title of my talk ‘A China Bereft of Thought’ is likely to offend many people who may react and ask, ‘Where, then, would you put those scholars who conduct research on Chinese thought?’ The scholars present here are clearly thinkers, so how can China be without thought? Moreover, there is no shortage of thinkers in China who have produced substantial research over the years. In judging China to be ‘bereft of thought’, I mean the overall situation, in the sense of thought as something that the nation as a whole has produced. Of course, I will also evaluate the state of thinking in the Chinese academic world. The subheading for ‘A China bereft of thought’ is ‘the situation of thought in China around the start of the Reform Era’. The outline below is approximately 10,000 words long. The finished work is likely to be four or five times longer. Let me elaborate my views on this topic in five sections.

A.1 How should we examine the situation of Chinese thought and its evolution?

My way of approaching this topic may differ from those of the scholars present here. After years of working in business, I have perhaps acquired a highly individualistic view of things in some respects. What type of problem-consciousness 问题意识 should one have when examining the situation and evolution of Chinese thought? [1]  I raise this question because it is the first thing we must consider when discussing the production, dissemination, and utility of Chinese thought. In my view, from the end of Qing rule, mainland Chinese society underwent great and turbulent changes. It underwent the experience of unification first under the Beiyang government [1912-1928], followed by the Nationalist government [hereafter KMT] and then the Chinese Communist Party [hereafter CCP].

At the same time, wave after wave of foreign ideas poured into China to produce a never-ending series of clashing theories.  Every idea and theory in the world soon acquired a Chinese version. To this day, clashes in China between left and right and between ‘isms’ remain fierce and irreconcilable.  And so, what path should China take? The question has led to raging debates and a plethora of articles in academic circles. But do these debates actually concern Chinese thought or are they debates about the influence of foreign ideas in China? This question provokes the following questions: in the last century, has China actually produced its own thought? Has the Chinese Revolution produced its own thought? Has the reform process in China produced its own thought? How has the existing field of thought in China been formed? What, ultimately, constitutes key elements of this field of thought? What actual impacts has it had on social change in China?

In this regard, my topic is not an interrogation of Chinese thought over the last century (or since the late Qing) as such. Rather I am exploring what happens to the production and dissemination of thought under an oppressive state power. In reflecting on the work of career academics, I am also undertaking a process of self-examination. I will attempt to answer these questions from three perspectives. First, has the Chinese Revolution produced its own thought? Second, has China’s reform process produced its own thought?  Third, has Chinese academic discourse produced its own ways of thinking? I see these as three enormous questions and I would be interested to know how other scholars see them.

Let me outline my three perspectives on the topic. The first perspective is historical. What types of ideas have helped to form Chinese thought over the last century? Although Professor Qiu Feng 秋风 [nom-de-plume of 姚中秋] is not here today, I think this question is closely linked to his research interests. Let me begin with an evaluation. As an imperial ideology, Confucianism was subjected to an unprecedented attack when the dynastic system ended. I published an article of some 40,000 characters on this topic titled ‘The Chinese view of history and the problem of Chinese modernity’ 中国史观与中国现代性问题 in a journal edited by Deng Zhenglai 邓正来. In this article, I wrote about three discursive shifts in Confucianism: the first corresponded to the political shift in the Han period during which Confucianism became the study of classics; the second was the metaphysical turn of Neo-Confucianism of Song and Ming times; and the third was the shift to ‘plain learning’ 朴学 achieved during the Qing.

My study of Confucianism’s three discursive shifts is a critical response to the argument put forward by the New Confucianists 新儒学 about three stages of Confucian development. New Confucianists argue that the first stage was Han classical learning, the second stage was Neo-Confucianism of the Song and Ming periods and the third stage is modern New Confucianism. This approach takes Confucianism to be a metaphysical entity. Why do I examine Qing-era ‘plain learning’ as the end-stage of Confucianism development? The reason is that, after it became ‘plain learning’, Confucianism was divested of both a political mission and a metaphysical impulse. The greatest achievement of Qing-era ‘plain learning’ was its establishment of a Confucian understanding of procedural justice, derived from ‘evidential scholarship’ and other forms of empirical sciences that were entirely different to Han classical learning and Song-Ming Neo-Confucianism. I have borrowed the legal concept of procedural justice here to highlight how, in its heyday, ‘plain learning’ was based in a series of procedures involving textual research and exegesis; its aim was to verify the legitimacy and propriety of the Confucian texts being examined. It was a mode of inquiry that required neither a political nor a metaphysical purpose. This led ultimately to the formation of a system of academic evaluation in Confucianism. In my view, this was a value-neutral and formal discursive system based in instrumentalist reasoning.

The departure of Qing ‘plain learning’ from politics can be read as the abandonment by Qing-era scholars of both the Confucian tradition of ‘applying one’s learning in statecraft’ 经世致用 and the related disposition of assuming responsibility for society 入世责任. We can also see this phenomenon as an essential condition for the development of academic independence in Qing times. The avoidance of substantive justice issues in Qing ‘plain learning’ was a natural outcome of academic discourse oriented toward procedural justice. In my view, by the time of Qing plain learning, interest in constructing procedural justice was already displacing issues of substantial justice. This form of scholarship no longer gave heed to political and metaphysical concerns.  However, with the revival of New Text classicism 今文经学 during the late Qing, things changed again. ‘Plain learning’, which had flourished during the reigns of Qianlong and Jiaqing, retreated when the Qing empire went into decline.

A new intellectual trend appeared, leading to the revival of the statecraft tradition in the name of New Text classicism. Zhuang Cunyu 庄存与and Liu Fenglu 刘逢禄, representing the Changzhou school of New Text classicism, revived the study of the Gongyang Commentary. This branch of learning prospered when it was further promoted by Gong Zizhen 龚自珍 and Wei Yuan 魏源. Finally, Kang Youwei’s 康有为 method of ‘using antiquity to advocate reform’ 托古改制 brought the inner tensions of Confucian political culture to an extreme point, resulting in the Hundred Day Reform as the very last movement of institutional reform in imperial China. I consider Kang Youwei’s interpretation of New Text classicism to be Confucianism’s last struggle to remain politically relevant. It appeared to emulate Han period scholarship in hopes of restoring its authority in opposition to Qing ‘plain learning’. Instead, it augured the end of Confucianism as a political mission. By the late Qing, Confucian thinking was no longer a useful and effective resource for political reform.

Professors Ma Yong and Lei Yi are the real authorities on these matters. I’m merely offering my own assessment here. On this point, can we use Kang Youwei’s attempts at reconstructing and establishing New Text classicism as an analogy for understanding present-day efforts by Qiu Feng, Jiang Qing 蒋庆 and others to reformulate Confucianism for our times?  Kang Youwei certainly achieved a great deal. As Qiu Feng is not present today, I do not know how he would view this issue. Personally, I think that after Kang Youwei, Yan Fu 严复and Liang Qichao 梁启超, a fundamental, indeed revolutionary, change took place among scholars who had been educated in the premodern Confucian tradition. These were people who had looked out into the world and who could not help but perceive Western ideas as the basis for China’s institutional reform.  In other words, the so-called ‘great change unprecedented in three thousand years’ 三千年所未有之大变refers not only to the sweeping changes which took place outside China – which led European nation-states ultimately to arrive in China via India and Southeast Asia and to encroach on the Chinese hinterland –  but also to the collapse of imperial China’s ideology.

The political and academic legitimacy of Confucianism was fundamentally shaken. It had collapsed for good as an orthodoxy. From a historical perspective, the end of Confucianism’s historical mission (which was also its political and ideological mission) saw the introduction of liberalism to China. The intellectual change represented by Yan Fu’s and Liang Qichao’s ideas was in fact a turn toward Western liberalism. The ideas they introduced were unlike anything in the Confucian tradition, such as those of law, progress, the nation-state, society, liberty and science.

After May Fourth [1919], this intellectual openness became even more comprehensive. All of the world’s ‘isms’ flowed into China during this time, with socialism, Darwinism, anarchism, unionism and Marxism all competing for the attention of Chinese readers. Eventually, three main intellectual currents were formed: liberalism, Marxism and traditionalism with Confucianism at its core. The keywords for liberalism were liberty, constitutional government, reform of the national character, the emancipation of women, education as the foundation, improvement and scientific principles; for Marxism, the keywords were class struggle, violent revolution and the seizure of political power; the keywords for traditionalism were the ones that were already an integral part of premodern scholarship. We must note that although Confucianism’s political role had ended, it continued to matter as an academic discourse. These three major currents of thought formed the intellectual ecology 理论生态 of the day.

It is worth noting that all three were essentially controlled by the intellectual left. At universities and in other ‘intermediate zones’ 中间地带, [2] leftist discourse was the mainstream, whether as left-wing liberalism or Marxism, and the ideas of the extreme- right had little chance of survival. In the ensuing rivalry between these three currents of thought, the discourse of Marxism proved the most authoritative, not only in academe but in public culture. Before the 1930s, the rise of Marxism in China was not the work of political power as the Communist Party was not yet the ruling party. Marxism’s intellectual dominance owed to its systematically ordered set of concepts and the cogency of its explanation of Chinese society and Chinese social development. From 1929 to 1931, there was intense debate among Chinese academics about the nature of Chinese society and Chinese social development. This was a debate which involved practically the whole of China’s intellectual world. Disagreements were fiercest between the KMT left, the Marxists and Trotskyists. However, the arguments of these three rival factions were formulated in a common Marxist vocabulary, reflecting the evident authority of Marxist explanations of Chinese society at that time. Meanwhile, liberalism and Marxism adopted the same critical position against Confucianism.

If we consider the intellectual situation of Republican-era China from the purview of a history of ideas, it is evident that liberalism and Marxism, as the two dominant intellectual currents, were derivative discourses that explained and assessed Chinese phenomena and made forecasts about changes in China using a Western vocabulary. The Chinese intellectual world no longer used an indigenous language of ideas. Confucianism had lost its explanatory power for addressing Chinese problems and even if someone chose to speak in a Confucian idiom, no one would listen. If you wanted to sound authoritative, you had to imitate Western discourses – liberalism or Marxism, these two were necessary for you to properly recognise and understand China. From our vantage point today, these two discourses posed difficulties back then, and still pose difficulties for us today.

A.2 The evolution of the Chinese Communist Party’s guiding thought.

For the CCP, having Marxism as the Party’s guiding thought was of the utmost importance as it was this ideological foundation that enabled the Party to be victorious. As the CCP went from being a revolutionary party to the governing party, its guiding ideology gradually developed a genealogy – from Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought through Deng Xiaoping Theory 邓小平理论 to the Three Represents 三个代表 and the Scientific Outlook on Development 科学发展观. I believe that the newly-installed leader would also be required to propose his own theory, without which he would be unable to secure his place in history. My question is, what impact did these different arguments, which together form the Party’s Marxist genealogy, have on the CCP? And how did they affect the process of social transition in China?

As I mentioned earlier, in the debates over the nature of Chinese society that took place in the 1930s, Marxism already commanded discursive authority and it significantly shaped the intellectual ecology of the time. The CCP was the main organisational vehicle of Marxism then. How did it use Marxism? The way I see it, during the CCP’s Yan’an period, the Chinese Communists had a very rudimentary understanding of Marxist theory. The so-called Marxist theoreticians of the day were merely dabbling in Marxism. Mao was learning and applying Marxism simultaneously in those days. For instance, he asked Ai Siqi 艾思奇 to give him lectures in his cave every night, and he would apply what he learned overnight the very next day. This Marxism of the ravines clearly lacked the wherewithal to compete with the theoretical prowess of the Internationalists led by Wang Ming 王明. Mao was distressed by this. At the time, he had written two major essays: ‘On Practice’ and ‘On Contradiction’. Both subsequently underwent several revisions. In other words, the CCP of those years had not produced any proper theoretical works. These two essays by Mao indicate his level of theorising.

However, the CCP’s theoretical inadequacies not only did not hinder the organisation’s robust development but helped to facilitate it. Overall, the ideological mobilisation pursued by the CCP in its Yan’an period was based largely on practice alone. This involved a kind of pragmatic, strategic or opportunistic thinking that was most visible in the integration of the various strands of thinking within the Party into a half-baked Marxism which then became Party ideology 党内思想. The CCP used ‘the principle of the masses’ 大众主义 (what we now call populism) to mobilise large groups of people; nationalism to legitimise the party’s use of weapons; and Western sayings about democracy and freedom both to destroy the legitimacy of the KMT and to win the support of democratic political organisations.

Different wordings were used to achieve different objectives and to resolve different problems. This proved a very effective strategy for the CCP in the prosecution of its armed struggles. Consequently, the CCP appeared to be well-equipped with a range of theories and to have borrowed from different intellectual resources to establish Marxism as an orthodoxy. In reality, the Party’s theoretical approach was defined by entirely pragmatic interests. The same pragmatism guided the formation of the Party’s ideological line after 1949. Mao’s attitude toward the Soviet Union was shaped by his understanding of Marxism, which could be considered as an entirely Chinese stance. A pragmatic approach to theory persisted under Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun 陈云 in the Reform Era. In effect, Party theory does not involve any discussion of theory, it consists only of methods. There is no discussion of value-outlooks but plenty of interest in the applicability of ideas. Deng Xiaoping’s ‘black cat or white cat theory’ 黑猫白猫论 and Chen Yun’s saying, ‘Look only to facts, not to books or what the higher-ups say’ 不唯书, 不唯上, 只唯实 exemplify this one-thread-running-through-everything line of thought 一以贯之的思想路线.[3]

Accordingly, we must ask why they don’t believe in theories and have no faith in ideals. If Marxism is your guiding thought, why don’t you put Marxism into practice? As I see it, the CCP has no difficulty with using populism, nationalism and Western concepts of liberty and democracy simultaneously to handle different types of practical problems. It has preached but never properly followed 贯彻 Marxist teachings. This is because the Party knows only too well that Marxist theory is useless and this is the crux of the problem. Thus, by Deng’s era, he was keenly aware that Party doctrine was in jeopardy and so simply avoided the topic altogether. He talked about not arguing, not quibbling over whether a theory is right or wrong, not choosing a side, and with these types of issues forming his basic attitude. He spouted Marxism but did not believe a word of it.  Mao once said, ‘Very few in our Party truly believe in Marxism.’[4] I think there’s a lot of truth in this remark.

After Deng Xiaoping, the Party’s guiding thought showed few signs of innovation or development. The ‘Three Represents’ is a half-completed thought. The proponents’ original intention was to build a new value-system for the Party but when they drew fire in the form of a ‘ten-thousand-word riposte’ from the left, they retreated from their ambition to overhaul Party thinking and never raised the issue again. The Scientific Outlook on Development is merely a tool of instrumental rationality. It contributes nothing to the actual concerns people have about values 完全没有价值关怀.

From this we can see that the CCP’s style of government has not required a guiding thought. The Party pays little heed to the approved wordings appearing in its own constitution. This is hard for anyone to understand. As a ruling political party, the CCP is one of a kind. It has neither a set of guiding ideas nor a value system, it possesses no program of government and its Constitution is placed on a high shelf, merely for display. By comparison, when the Republican Party in the United States was in government during the 1980s, it put the ideas of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan into practice. In the countries of northern Europe, democratic socialism is practiced. You could say that even North Korea practices an ideology introduced by Kim Il-sung. What I mean is that in these countries, whether socialist or capitalist, there’s an alignment between theory and practice.

Conversely, what we have in China is a total disconnect between theory and practice, where what is said is not only different from but often the opposite of what is done. Someone once told me that all of China’s problems stem from the fact that the capitalism that is being practised is being preached as socialism. This paradox has persisted for a long time and has remained unresolved to this day. Perhaps there’s a reluctance to resolve it.  Let me now turn to how we might assess the consequences of a mode of government which requires neither theories nor ideas.

A.3 Approaching the problem via the situation of academic production in China

From an academic perspective, ‘plain learning’ of the Qing era  was the first meaningfully modern attempt at establishing a knowledge system in China. Hu Shi 胡适 and Liang Qichao both wrote about this. What ‘plain learning’ produced was akin to a form of procedural justice in scholarship, which had the direct consequence of treating thought as something set apart from real-life and as if questions of substantive justice did not matter at all. Let’s now consider the importance that twentieth century Chinese liberals accorded to intellectual independence. When Cai Yuanpei 蔡元培 headed Peking University, he emphasised the importance of the University’s responsibilities and social effects. Under his leadership, the University became a crucial vehicle for academic independence.

The production and dissemination of ideas in China that followed in the 1930s was a very important stage in the development of modern scholarship in China. What then is the problem with these developments? First, from the twentieth century onwards, Chinese liberal thought derived all of its resources from the West. Chinese liberals have had enormous difficulty in adapting their ideas to local Chinese experience. Second, Chinese academic production has enjoyed a certain degree of independence at different times, because of people like Cai Yuanpei who established the autonomy of the university. But Chinese academics have also remained dependent on political power and this has been so from Hu Shi to Guo Moruo 郭沫若.

The KMT and the CCP alike treated intellectuals as people who ought to serve the party’s ideological needs. After the CCP formed government, it no longer offered any explanation for why academic production should serve political power and the needs of Party ideology. Before the Reform Era, China was basically bereft of thought. In fact, you weren’t allowed to think, you were confined to producing annotations of or professing your faith in Marxism. Since the launch of the reforms and up to the present, academic production has continued to be shackled to political power and the party’s ideological needs. To this day, there is no place for independent inquiry in Chinese academic production. This is the first key issue I have discerned from my investigations of the situation and development of ideas in China over the last century or more, considered as a history of ideas.


Section B: A Revolution Without Thought

To elaborate on what I mean by ‘a revolution without thought’, I pose four questions below.

B.1 What kind of a revolution was the Chinese Revolution?

First, if we describe the Chinese Revolution as a one-off peasant revolution, we must ask how it differs from previous peasant uprisings. Since peasants are the common subject of all such uprisings, why did the [Communist-led] peasant uprising flourish under the harshest conditions, enabling the CCP to seize political power in a very short time? Did the CCP lead a peasant revolution? The biggest difference between the Chinese Revolution and previous peasant uprisings is that the Communist leadership attracted large numbers of educated people to join the party and support its cause. It provided its followers with a cogent set of ideas and theoretical guidance. But what theories did the leaders use to mobilise and organise those they led? We need to pose the question in this manner.

Second, if we describe the Chinese Revolution as a communist revolution, what relation does this revolution bear to Marxist teachings? In fact, very few in the Party were well-schooled in Marxist thinking or knew the original arguments. The twenty-eight Bolsheviks led by Wang Ming played no part in the progress of the Chinese Revolution. Thus, those who knew their Marxism and had a systematic understanding of it had no influence over the Chinese Revolution. In fact, they were ostracised and were ultimately purged from the core of the [Mao-led] Party. How should we assess the relationship between Chinese Communists and The Third International? At first, China took the Soviet Union as its teacher. Later, it turned its back on the Soviet Union to claim its own independence. In this way, we could say that the divergence between China and the Soviet Union is not a divergence within Marxism. What sort of divergence is it then? Therefore, we should ask if the Chinese Revolution was really a communist revolution.

Third, was the Chinese Revolution a nationalistic revolution? If it was, then how should we understand the actions of Chinese Communists during the Sino-Japanese War? How should we understand China’s alignment with the Soviet Union in the early years of the People’s Republic of China, and its reconciliation with the United States some two decades later? How should we understand Mao’s Three Worlds Theory? Was this a nationalistic narrative, or an account of internationalism? If we say that the Chinese Revolution is a nationalistic revolution, then what ideas furnished the revolution with an ideological foundation?

Fourth, in evaluating the Chinese Revolution, we must ponder the insistence of the orthodoxy that this was a revolution of workers and peasants, led by members of the working class. Who made up the so-called working class? Extant Party accounts are full of praise for those who took part in urban uprisings precisely because these acts of rebellion involved workers. However, the facts make clear that workers did not play the main role in the Chinese Revolution. The leadership of the working class was a retrospective fabrication.

Fifth, we must ask if the Chinese Revolution should be considered as a part of the world revolution. What was its global significance? How would an understanding of changes then underway in the world order enable us to gain perspective on the Chinese Revolution? It turns out that we do have a basic judgment of the Chinese Revolution: namely, the victory of the Chinese Revolution is said to have rapidly altered the political structure of the world after World War Two. The socialist camp led by the Soviet Union and China is said to have resisted the capitalist camp led by the United States and England and these two major camps are claimed to have existed in opposition, with an iron curtain between them. However, after China fell out with the Soviet Union, the socialist camp became non-existent. Viewed in terms of the various factors leading up to their occurrence, the Chinese Revolution had several things in common with Russia’s October Revolution. However, the differences between them were far greater. To evaluate the Chinese Revolution using the Russian model is clearly inappropriate. The Chinese Revolution was even more complex than Russia’s and with considerably greater ideological ramifications. How should we view these differences? This is a significant issue we must consider.

B.2. What theoretical resources do we draw on for our historical perspective on China’s revolution?

Regardless of how we understand the nature of the Chinese Revolution today, we must first take stock of the various intellectual resources that gave shape and form to the Chinese Revolution and on which it relied. Over the long term, the view of China’s history as a revolutionary history has overtaken everything and the discourse of revolution came to be seen as the most legitimate. And so, this perspective on history as a revolutionary history controlled how we understood the dynamics of revolution in China. Our understanding of war, violence, murder and the seizure of power was formed within the discourse of revolution: a discourse that granted legitimacy to all of these actions.

Accordingly, we must ask how the CCP’s perspective on revolution was formed As I see it, this perspective was never ideologically or theoretically pure. As mentioned earlier, when the CCP claimed to be unifying Party thinking through Marxism, it was actually using populist ideas to mobilise the masses, drawing on ideas of nationalism to justify armed conflict and military separatism and invoking democracy to oppose the KMT’s authoritarian rule. The Party’s attitude to the use of theory was strategic and opportunistic. In other words, the Chinese Revolution does not represent the triumph of a given theory, nor was it the unique product of a particular set of ideas. In fact, by separating practice from theory, the CCP became a tremendously flexible organisation. At any given moment, it could use whichever banner was available to it to say what it wanted to say, according to the needs of the situation.

In contrast, the KMT did have its own set of ideas and it did want to realise ‘The Three Principles of the People’. This proved to be a problem precisely because the CCP’s approach was evidently superior. The four types of argumentation used by the CCP, outlined earlier, could all be used to attack the KMT where it was most vulnerable. For example, the CCP was able to claim a high degree of ideological unity and it did so by invoking Marxism. The CCP was also adept at using populist language to mobilise those who were at the bottom of society, which happened to be the KMT’s weakest link. Jin Guantao 金冠涛 once noted that the KMT proved capable of mobilising only the middle class and the elite thereby leaving the lowest level of society entirely to the CCP.  Through highly effective mobilisation of the masses, the CCP achieved strength in numbers. Before long, the CCP also gained the upper hand over the discourse of democracy. Around 1945, it was the basic practice of Liberation Daily in Yan’an and Xinhua Daily in Chongqing to publish a daily editorial using liberty, democracy, freedom of speech and opposition to one-party dictatorship as keywords. With the CCP taking charge of the discourse of democracy in this manner, the democratic parties were basically won over. As regards nationalism, we must acknowledge the contribution of the KMT. It clearly succeeded in defeating the Japanese but created a greater enemy in the process. In sum, the CCP’s historical perspective on revolution has made extensive use of four different discourses and of these four, Marxism was by no means the primary discourse.

B.3. How to understand and evaluate Mao Zedong Thought

There is no doubt that the victory of the Chinese Revolution was the victory of Mao Zedong Thought. Mao determined the direction and mode of the revolution to the extent that it’s difficult to say whether the Chinese Revolution could have been won without him. Hence, it is important for us to have a basic judgment about Mao’s ideas. The genealogy that the Party has created for its guiding ideology consists of a huge pile of ideological doctrinal statements that have become clichés. Everything is in the Party’s language, there is little of Mao’s own ideas. So what did Mao really believe?

As I am no expert in the study of Mao’s thought, my analysis is based on direct observation and intuition. First, Mao had an anti-intellectual attitude as many people have mentioned. He was a rural junior intellectual of the Wang Yangming type 王阳明 who gave priority to insight and believed that revolution must first erupt in the depths of one’s soul. He had a lot in common with Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全 [the founder of the Taiping Rebellion]. He hated the traditional knowledge system. He was contemptuous of intellectuals all his life. To him, they were utterly foul creatures and not a patch on workers and peasants. Mao drew mainly on his knowledge of ancient Chinese books and history. Second, Mao was an activist. The emphasis he placed on practice and action indicates he was a natural-born activist. This emphasis on practice meant that having the right strategy was crucial. His aim was to achieve the maximum effect of action. He would make use any means to achieve his goal which meant that he followed no creed. He was opportunistic and given to sudden changes, He believed in the adage that while the winner gets to be crowned king, the loser is despised as a bandit.

Third, Mao’s knowledge of the West was virtually zero. He was utterly contemptuous of the theories associated with liberalism. In his Yan’an period, Mao expressed admiration for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ideas about democracy but purely as a discursive strategy. In his later years, he was completely baffled by why ‘Watergate’ caused Richard Nixon to step down. To his dying day, he could not fathom the mysteries of Western democracy. Fourth, Mao’s anti-intellectual attitude determined the position he took toward Marxism. Ultimately, he was not a Marxist even though he had to claim allegiance to Marxism-Leninism. He was tentative toward Stalinism. Mao said of his ideas that they were Marxism plus Qin Shi Huang [China’s first emperor] and this self-evaluation is accurate. He sought to bring the established systems of ethics and morality, politics, and scholarship under his control. He attempted to make politics synonymous with indoctrination 搞政教合一. He had a monopoly on interpreting Marxism and on knowledge production. Every one of his utterances was exalted as a true principle.

If we look at the words on the page, the extent to which Mao understood Marxism was, at best, a form of Leninism and Stalinism. He lacked basic understanding of the writings of Marx himself. It’s quite likely that there were no works by Marx in Mao’s study. Moreover, he rarely quoted from Marx. For these reasons, he should not be called a Marxist.

B.4. How should we evaluate the effects of ‘a revolution without thought’?

Given the three areas discussed above in this section, we can conclude that the Chinese Revolution led by Mao was a revolution bereft of thought. The theoretical resources on which this revolution drew were quite unlike what the revolution promoted as its ideology in which Marxism occupied the dominant position.  Instead, the ideology was contained in a hybrid discourse that drew from different ideas, values and methods. The success of the Chinese Revolution was advanced by four kinds of discourse which were respectively motivated by realistic, pragmatic, strategic, and opportunistic concerns. There were no clearly defined ideas or theories, instead, the needs and goals of a given moment decided the types of ideas or theories that were proposed.

How then should we evaluate the consequences of a revolution bereft of thought such as this? I think we must first recognize that this was a revolution that lacked a clear ethical-moral boundary. It was one where the end justified the means, enabling people to adjust their strategies for survival and develop as they pleased. This was a highly adaptable revolution that was not weighed down by moral values and concerns. It lacked a clear theoretical direction, and it brimmed with utopian imaginings and longings. Speaking practically, it was a revolution that proceeded blindly and as such, a revolution that had lost its way.

This is my basic evaluation of the Chinese Revolution. Because it lacked theory and thought, the different periods of the revolution were all defined by strategies that aimed to increase one’s strength in relation to the enemy’s. The choice of theory or thought was thus contingent on what would provide maximal benefit to oneself. and the chosen policy or strategy would then be treated as absolutely essential to the life of the party. After 1949, [the militarist and governor of Shanxi in Republican-era China] Yan Xishan 阎锡山 produced a systematic summary of the reasons for the Chinese Communist Party’s defeat of the Nationalist Party.

I agree with most of what he wrote, particularly the point he made about how the Chinese Revolution led by Mao was one where the end justified the means, and all available means were accommodated to achieve an anticipated end.  When Mao found it necessary to speak of democracy and freedom, he would hold forth on democracy and freedom. When the democratic parties sent a delegation to Yan’an [in 1945], Mao told Huang Yanpei 黄炎培 [then leader of the China Democratic Federation] that democracy was essential for changing the ‘periodic law’ of history. However, armed struggle was Mao’s clear response to Chiang kai-shek, for which he used populist methods to mobilise the masses.

For these reasons, the Chinese Revolution as a revolution bereft of thought not only shaped the direction and mode of social change in the first half of China’s twentieth century, it also brought an end to the constitutional framework introduced in 1946 by the Common Program 中国人民政治协商会议共同纲领. The CCP’s implementation of a whole series of institutional arrangements after it took power was similarly affected. Social change continued to be trapped in the orbit of revolution until the end of the Cultural Revolution, when the system was on the brink of collapse. Consequently, revolution retreated and reform appeared.


Section C:  A Reform Without Thought

This topic concerns our evaluation of China’s history of the past thirty years. First, let us consider the political and intellectual contexts against which the reforms took place. The nature and significance of China’s reforms during the 1980s can be likened to the ‘Duke of Zhou’s institutional reforms’ 周公改制 [eleventh century B.C.E.] and ‘Shang Yang’s Legalist reforms’ 商鞅变法 [fourth century B.C.E.]. The Duke of Zhou’s ‘system of rites and music’ enabled the fengjian 封建 [‘feudal’] system to be established.[5] It allowed the emperor, as Son of Heaven, and the regional rulers 诸侯 to control All Under Heaven 天下 [the known world]. This brought about the first historical transformation of Chinese society. Most historians today share this view. On the fengjian system of the Western Zhou period, Wu Jiaxiang 吴稼祥 has provided an analysis in his 2013 book Public State 公天下. Qiu Feng has also written on the legacy of the Western Zhou fengjian system. In 2008, I wrote a lengthy article on ‘the problem of Chinese “feudalism”’ 论中国 ‘封建主义’问题: 对中国前现代社会性质和发展的重新认识与评价 which was published in Literature, History & Philosophy 文史哲 [volume 4, 2008].

The first social transformation occurred in the Western Zhou period [traditionally dated 1122-771 B.C.E.] and was completed under the Duke of Zhou. Essentially, the federation-style system of Xia [traditionally dated 2205-1766 B.C. E] and Shang [traditionally dated 1766-1122 B.C.E.] times in which different [autonomous] tribes formed alliances [with a central authority] gave way to the [more organised] feudal system of Western Zhou in which there was both a horizontal and a hierarchical distribution of power. This power system was both binary and multi-centered. Shang Yang’s Legalist proposal for change furnished the Qin state with the foundational basis for unifying China. This became the second historical transformation of Chinese society which established a centralised system of autocratic rule. This unitary power structure was vertically defined so that power moved upward toward greater centralisation.

In fact, the reforms that occurred in the 1980s had their roots in the Self-Strengthening Movement of the late Qing as did the whole series of institutional reforms that grew out of this movement over a century or more. These interrelated developments constitute the third historical transformation of Chinese society. The goal of the late Qing reforms was ultimately to turn imperial China into a modern democratic republic. A system of constitutional democracy had to be established to integrate nation and state. A federal system had to be built to integrate central and local relations. A cultural system of universal values had to be instituted so that Chinese culture could become integrated. Thus, when we consider the reforms that were launched in the 1980s, we must remind ourselves that it is a model of change within the history of the third transformation of Chinese society and we should recognise its deep historical implications.

How then did the momentous reforms of the 1980s begin? What were the ideas that guided and brought them into being? Under what conditions did these reforms, which were to have completed the third historical transformation of Chinese society, occur? First, we must see that they began with de-Maoisation 非毛化. The term ‘de-Maoisation’ is very general and one which the ruling party clearly does not recognise. However, during the 1980s, most of the Party membership saw that Mao’s Cultural Revolution had already collapsed. Expressions related to the Cultural Revolution such as ‘taking class struggle as the key link’, and ‘continue the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat’ had lost their legitimacy and had fallen outside the scope of what the party found acceptable. Within the Party, people were keenly aware that if they continued along this path, the party and the country would be doomed.

‘De-Maoisation’ began with critical evaluations of the ‘Two Whatevers’ 两个凡是.[6] Then came the theoretical conference of 1979 理论务虚会 and the great debate over ‘practice as the criterion of truth’ 真理标准大讨论 as well as the burgeoning Movement to Liberate Thinking 思想解放运动 that spread across the whole of Chinese society.[7] These activities amounted to a settling of accounts with the legacy of Mao Zedong Thought and they constituted a liberation of thinking within the Party and reflective engagement with the inner logic of Marxism. We can also see it as a struggle between two different varieties of Marxist discourse.

Previously, only people like [leading Maoist ideologues] Chen Boda 陈伯达, Kang Sheng 康生, Zhang Chunqiao 张春桥 and Yao Wenyuan 姚文元had the right to interpret Marxism. Moreover, the power of interpreting Marxism ultimately belonged to Mao alone. Consequently, the Movement to Liberate Thinking meant taking the power of interpretation back from Mao. However, contestations over how to understand Marxism soon produced divisions within the Party. The debates which ensued over humanism and alienation were in effect a struggle over who had the authority to explain Marxism, with [influential Party theorist] Hu Qiaomu 胡乔木 assuming this authority belonged unquestionably to him. His dispute with [the Party’s cultural czar] Zhou Yang 周扬 should be understood as a contest over authority. To occupy a position of authority in relation to Marxism was of crucial importance because Marxism remained the Party’s primary tool for unifying Party thinking. Marxism also furnished the primary evidence for the Party’s legitimacy to govern.

This is also why Deng Xiaoping made Marxism the first of the ’Four Cardinal Principles’ 四项基本原则 he proposed. The legitimacy of Communist Party rule comes from two sources. The first is violent revolution and the second is Marxism. Deng Xiaoping was basically uninterested in theory and thought and his defense of Marxism was pragmatically motivated. He was concerned to maintain the stability of the regime. Whether he believed in Marxism is another matter altogether.

Second, let me propose the following basic view: the reforms of the 1980s began with the people lower down ‘feeling for the stones’.[8] Once they had felt the stones they sought approval for their findings from the people higher up.  Once a given finding was approved, it was allowed to be widely disseminated. Consequently, the reforms were launched in the complete absence of a given theory or a given set of ideas. What there was, was the slogan of reform itself. During that time, there was a certain breakthrough in Deng’s thinking. Theoretically speaking, the 1980 programmatic document ‘On the Reform of the System of Party and State Leadership’ 党和国家领导制度的改革 [a speech Deng delivered on 18 August 1980] was the most thoroughgoing statement of the Party’s existing ideological framework in the thirty years of the party-state’s existence up to that point in time. Nothing since then has come close to the importance of Deng’s words in this document.  However, once it was released, the document was put away on the top shelf as even Deng was not keen to implement his own proposals.

He felt that the proposals were difficult to achieve as the resistance to them was too great. To attempt to implement them by force would lead to many unintended consequences. Thus, I consider the reforms of the 1980s as occurring in a situation where practice produced a dramatic theoretical change – by exceeding the limitations imposed by the existing theory – as opposed to one where practice was guided by theory. What was the greatest limitation? It was Marxism, the first of Deng’s Four Cardinal Principles. Clearly, this was a highly dogmatic Marxism. The substance of reform was the opening of a very small space in the planned economy by means of which the people lower down could ‘cross the river by feeling for the stones’ 摸着石头过河. In other words, during the reforms of the 1980s, theory trailed practice while also constraining practice. The reforms were bereft of theory and were indeed a process of ‘crossing the river by feeling for the stones’. Accordingly, there was nothing to serve as theoretical guidance for a methodical approach to the implementation of the reforms.

Third, let us consider the theoretical genealogy of reform once debate was no longer allowed. In Deng’s speeches during his Southern Progress in 1992, besides affirming the economic reform path of marketisation, he made the momentous decision that there was to be ‘no debate’ 不争论 [about socialism vs. capitalism], which effectively ended theoretical discussion [on the relative merits of socialist and capitalist modes of development].  As I see it, Deng stopped debate because, on the one hand, he was unable to overturn the theoretical edifice of Marxism which provided Communist Party rule with its sole source of legitimacy, which was why he had to make it the very first of his ‘Four Cardinal Principles’. On the other hand, Deng saw clearly that Marxism was a huge obstruction to the smooth implementation of China’s economic reforms.

I think Deng understood that the Marxism of the party-state was a huge impediment for its own progress. The Party could not abandon the deity of Marxism, and its members were not well-versed in the Marxist classics and even if they were, the Marxist classics were not helpful for the present realities in China, Deng thus chose simply to sidestep Marxism altogether and to insist that there be ‘no debate’.

In this, we see Deng’s cleverness at work, but it was also his only option. His pragmatism came in handy here. Deng said he wanted to blaze a trail for China but the trail he took was shaped by the obstructions put in the path of China’s reforms by Marxism. That said, Deng’s ‘no debate’ directive had a positive effect on non-official and local reforms. It allowed people, as it were, to use the left indicator to turn right, which reflected the divergence between theory and practice. This divergence has dogged the entire process of reform in China such that progress needs to be measured in terms of the degree to which practice has effectively exceeded the limitations imposed by theory.  Deng’s ‘no debate’ directive can be said to have produced three versions of Party theory. The first is the theory of Socialism with Chinese characteristics中国特色社会主义理论 credited to Deng, and an updated version of his [1962] black-cat-white-cat 黑猫白猫 remark.[9]

The second is the Three Represents proposed by Jiang Zemin, which sought the backing of universal values for Party theory but failed to develop further once it encountered resistance. The third is the Scientific Outlook on Development advanced by Hu Jintao. Each of these three versions of Party theory prevailed for a period of ten years and represented the approach of the respective administrations led by Deng, Jiang and Hu. Deng’s pragmatism meant that his theoretical propositions lacked a value orientation. Development was the hard truth that preoccupied him. When Jiang promoted the Three Represents, he wanted to introduce social values and concerns but did not proceed. By the time of Hu’s Scientific Outlook on Development, values had taken a huge step backward for this was a concept that was purely instrumental. Hu’s Scientific Outlook was absent of social values and concerns. Overall, these three versions of Party theory lacked clarity.

Fourth, in relation to intellectual debates, the party-state adopted a position that was neither left nor right. Within the Party, there have been two factions, the conservatives and the reformists, since the 1980s.  Because these two factions stopped debating each other in the 1990s, disagreements came to be seen in terms of siding with the left or the right. The policy orientation and decisions of this period as well as divisions between left and right emerging in society all contributed to this development.

For example, people saw the economic reforms implemented under Deng and the complete expansion of these reforms under Jiang as the work of the right. Conversely, Hu’s subsequent move to advance the state sector at the expense of the private sector was considered as having a leftist complexion. The point is that while these top Party leaders all tended left in their theoretical outlook in the strategies they adopted, they were neither left nor right.  When they felt it necessary to assert their power, they suppressed the left and the right alike. What they sought was a form of theoretical equilibrium.

The foregoing, I believe, indicates a fundamental lack of theoretical thinking on the part of the governing party 执政党. It lacks a guiding ideology that is genuinely aimed at unifying theory and practice.  To this day, the governing party confines itself to the utilitarian and opportunistic mode of thinking that prevailed under Mao. This one-thread-running-through-everything mode of thinking has proven to be a serious intellectual hindrance to the deepening of reforms in China.

Genuine reform requires the clarification of one’s guiding ideas, for such clarification would indicate that the mooted reform has a theoretical goal to which one has made a clear commitment.  To properly determine the path and policies of reform, one needs to have a clear idea of the direction one is taking and the kind of value-perspective one must defend. In other words, the principles of social development or the universal values to which one subscribes must be clearly articulated. One simply cannot afford to be vague or adopt an ambiguous attitude where everything is contingent on the needs of a given moment. We have now reached the terminus of a process of reform that is bereft of thought. It’s time for reform to be equipped with an unequivocal guiding ideology. At present, no such guiding ideology can be discerned and we are still relying on vague statements such as ‘Don’t take the old road, don’t travel a deviant path’.[10]

What road then should we take? So far, we’ve been given neither a definition nor a sufficiently clear theoretical outline to assess. Consequently, we’re all speculating, the left and the right alike, as to what the governing party has in mind. No one knows for sure. All that we can be sure of is that, without a properly stated position, China’s reform path will remain unclear.


Section D: Academic production that is bereft of thought

Let me now consider academic production from three aspects.

D.1 The state of inquiry since the launch of China’s reforms

I would summarise post-Maoist intellectual inquiry as follows: intellectual production in the 1980s, academic production in the 1990s and the production of ‘isms’ in the 2000s and since. These three phrases are sufficient to encapsulate the production, dissemination and effects of ideas in China of the last three decades or more. I did not coin these phrases. In the 1990s, people used the expression, ‘The thinkers retreated and the academics came to the fore’ 思想家退场,学术家出场, to signal the difference between the 1980s and 1990s. We need to establish what people understood by ‘thinkers’ and ‘academics’ in this expression.  What did inquiry or thinking mean in the 1980s?

As I see it, inquiry 思想 took two forms in the 1980s: one involved thinking about Marxism in self-reflective, self-critical and self-renewing ways. A new kind of Marxism was used to attack the old approach to Marxism. What was this new Marxism? It took the form of what people referred to as humane and practical Marxism. It was an innovative way of reworking Marxism from within. The other line of inquiry in the 1980s was the whole range of things people were saying about liberalism and democracy derived from Western formulations. In short, self-reflection on Marxism and the renewed acquisition and interpretation of liberalism were the two main endeavors of the 1980s. Marxism and liberalism both belong to Western thought. They have not developed out of Chinese experience nor have they undergone theoretical refinement and innovation in China. This is important to bear in mind when we consider the intellectual legacy of the 1980s. Marxism and liberalism dominated academic inquiry in China at the time to the extent that I cannot think of a distinctive area of inquiry outside these two domains.

In the 1990s, a process of academic professionalisation began where, as mentioned earlier, ‘the thinkers retreated and the academics came to the fore’. [The philosopher] Li Zehou 李泽厚 has written about this. The main feature of this academic professionalisation was a burgeoning variety of disciplinary specialisations. The meta-narrative of Enlightenment, no longer sought-after, was displaced by discipline-based research and important academic achievements in fields such as economics, history and law were soon evident. As my training was in philosophy, I had an interest in developments within it. Previously, Marxism was the dominant discourse in departments of philosophy and it was a discourse produced by rereading and repeating existing arguments presented in various philosophical textbooks. By the 1990s, however, different varieties of Western philosophy had entered China. Every few years, China’s philosophical journals would feature a range of new terms and notable thinkers. The 1990s also provided a prime opportunity for Confucianism’s revival. Formerly attacked when anti-traditional forces held sway, Confucianism now prospered as tradition gained authority. Should we consider the 1990s to be a decade in which scholarship flourished? At the very least, we can say that compared to the 1980s, the 1990s appeared to be a scene of academic flowering across different disciplines.

By the twenty-first century, debates in mainland intellectual circles, whether over ideas or academic issues, had deteriorated into ideological contests. Everyone sensed that inquiry was once again becoming politicised. All manner of ‘isms’ appeared of which the most influential were liberalism, social democracy, statism, neo-authoritarianism, neo-conservatism, nationalism, populism, patriotism, classicism and Confucian constitutionalism. These varieties of ideas all took a side – whether on the left or on the right – and made an impact on how people saw China because of this. The opposition between left and right had become irreconcilable. ‘Left’ and ‘right’ were no longer considered merely differences of opinion or perspective. Instead they had become strongly held positions and clashes between ideological opponents were increasingly intense.

‘Left’ and ‘right’ now marked two opposing sides in society with a clear boundary between them such that people can make out straight away from what you’ve said whether you’re on the left or the right. On social media, bloggers with a large following also made their positions very clear and were utterly uncompromising when waging verbal war with their rivals. This is a new phenomenon in China that has appeared only in the last decade. When I say that academic production in China is bereft of thought, I am referring to this shift from academic endeavours of the 1990s to the ideological contests of the 2000s and since. Let us now consider how the mechanisms and inner workings of academic production in China have led to this situation.

D.2 The main mechanisms of academic production in the Reform Era

With academic production in the 1990s located mainly in state-run institutions, the state could exercise a great deal of control over it. The scholars who are present here seem to have evaded the state’s control. They are the few who have survived despite the system. The state exercises control mainly through its bureaucratic management of mainland Chinese universities. Moreover, the institution of publishing in China lacks independence and every form of knowledge production must satisfy the standards set by the state. If the intellectual content of a given manuscript fails to meet the state’s standards, it will be excluded from the normal publishing channels.

The state has provided massive subsidies for academic production within its system.  It has basically taken control of academic production by determining which topics are of national importance. The state has made a clean sweep of things by restricting university professors and research personnel to work only on these topics. Those who accord with the state’s Diktat will reap varying levels of benefits for their academic production.  This is the basic mechanism of exchange between the state and the academy. The rapid expansion of the state’s financial resources has resulted in an unprecedented level of state control over intellectual and academic endeavour, exceeding what the dynastic regimes of premodern China achieved. Today, power has corroded academic production across the entire nation such that thought and scholarship – considered as a national product –  are ultimately ideologically constrained to serve the state as its tool.

Under these conditions of strict control, however, the market-led process of reform, especially from the 1990s onwards, had opened a new channel for marketable academic products. This is a development outside the [party-state] system and one that led to the publication of several good works of intellectual inquiry and scholarship.  That said, this market for academic products was and remains unable to fully free itself from state control. To run a profitable business, publishers had to avoid a clash with the authorities. They used inventive strategies to publish their academic wares. In the 1990s, these publishing practices produced a modest change in the ecology of mainland intellectual life, as did the emergence of non-official academic institutions such as Unirule Institute.

The productive capacity of this non-official academic sector is severely limited as it receives neither state nor commercial support. This sector is in a situation of negative growth. Many of its academic institutions have encountered difficulties making it impossible for them to continue. Having to fend for themselves has already led several to run out of steam. How can academic institutions, beholden to state power, produce works of intellectual independence?  Even thinkers and intellectuals operating on the fringes of or outside the [party-state] system are unable to fully escape it.  One can either stop doing intellectual work or revise one’s work to accord with the standards for publishing laid down by the state. In this regard, the academic flourishing of the 1990s was hollow for it obscured the deficiencies of intellectual life in China.

D.3 Vacuous academic production

Let’s begin by noting that state control over academic production in China has meant that academics must be ever-mindful of the types of products the authorities favour. We may describe the state as well-disposed, at best, to the expansion and renewal of those forms of knowledge that serve a functional, methodological, practical or technological need: the kind of knowledge that is devoid of both ultimate concerns and intellectual creativity. Academic publications that have resulted from state-funded research are mostly garbage. These publications not only provide no assistance whatsoever for China’s intellectual advancement, they have had the opposite effect of destroying people’s capacity to think and to defend the values they hold dear.

The growing vacuousness in mainland intellectual life is also the result of ideological clashes among academics. These are clashes over the use of Western ideas in China rather than home-grown Chinese theories. The war of words between China’s left and right essentially revolves around Chinese understandings of the differences between the left and the right in the US. Both sides draw on Western intellectual resources to discuss Chinese issues yet their arguments are a clear departure from Western thinking, value-perspectives and approaches. Consequently, many people have become at a loss for words.   These Chinese debates over isms are neither centred on China nor faithful to the Western ideas they employ, which is why Chinese academics have found themselves unable to make any progress.

Finally, let us consider the Confucian revival Mr. Qiu Feng has been studying. On the surface, it would appear to be the reconstruction of a knowledge with China at its very core. At present, however, its prospects of becoming the intellectual mainstream in China are dim. The Confucian narrative contains elements of constitutionalism and can lend itself to politicisation. However, the important thing for us to observe is whether and the extent to which it has any impact on present-day society in China.  In this regard, Jiang Qing’s so-called political Confucianism and Qiu Feng’s constitutional Confucianism appear to me, even at their very best, as incapable of surpassing Kang Youwei’s re-reading of the early classics to promote a New Text revival.

Academic production that is bereft of thought is cut from the same cloth as revolution and reform pursued without thought. Together, they reflect a China that is bereft of thought. Following the total eclipse of traditional Chinese thought centered on Confucianism, the production and dissemination of Chinese thought has had to draw on the intellectual resources of the West for a century or more. This process occurred alongside the subjection of Chinese thought to systematic state control. Thus, Chinese thought was reduced to a useful tool. It became a loincloth for covering up the state’s imposed ideology. If we reflect on the situation and development of Chinese thought over the last century, we are bound to ask ourselves the question– Can we rebuild a thinking China?


Section E: To rebuild a thinking China

Based on the foregoing analysis, let me reiterate that the Chinese Revolution and the reforms undertaken since 1978 have both lacked an intellectual soul. Neither revolution nor reform has benefited from clear theoretical guidance. Neither was motivated by ultimate concerns.  Instead people espoused conflicting forms of theory and practice that were riven with contradictions and this was because pragmatism and opportunism guided the actions that were taken. The stated theoretical programs and guiding ideas have been merely rhetorical and a form of strategic discourse. The future of China lies in rebuilding a China rich in thought, in restoring the unity of theory and practice and in the development of values that accord with human justice.

The first thing we must do is to build proper mechanisms for producing thought. These mechanisms require freedom of speech and an independent publishing system. They are also contingent on the demise of the present system whereby the state controls the production of thought.  These mechanisms also require the abolition of state-imposed standards on intellectual production and a clear distinction to be drawn between thought and ideological propaganda. The producers of thought must be allowed the freedom to discuss, write and publish their arguments as they see fit. This would ensure that thought can be independently produced and disseminated. State funding for intellectual production should be based on academic measures and the system must ensure equal treatment for all academics. Only when there is freedom of speech and freedom of publishing will Chinese thought genuinely flourish. Only then will China become a great civilization and a country rich in thought.

Next, we would need to establish a market for ideas. The Nobel laureate in economics Ronald Coase once gave China this piece of advice: ‘A vibrant market for ideas is both a precondition for scholarly excellence and an indispensable moral and epistemic foundation for an open society and a free economy.’ [10] A market for ideas implies that intellectual products can circulate freely; that there are no restrictions on their dissemination. This is especially pertinent in the era of the Internet in which an open market for ideas is the precondition for the flourishing of ideas.

From a market perspective, the dissemination of ideas requires us to invalidate the idea of [the state’s] power [over the market]. To a certain extent, thought is power’s natural enemy for thought both criticises and defines power. Ideas that have relied on people in power for their dissemination may enjoy preferential treatment during a period of authoritarian rule but such ideas lack the vitality to endure beyond the period of authoritarian patronage. The credibility of a given theory cannot be sustained by power. Rather, it rests on the capacity of that theory to solve real problems. Moreover, the dissemination of ideas within the market for ideas is propelled by demand. Only those ideas that satisfy the spiritual needs and ultimate concerns of ordinary citizens can exert an influence on their actions and behaviours. People will surely reject those ideas that go against their normal needs.

Third, this market for ideas implies the fullest exchange of ideas with all varieties of ideas jostling for attention. It allows a system capable of accommodating a plurality of ideas to be established, to produce a true situation of a hundred flowers and blooming and a hundred schools of thought in contention. The flourishing of thought alone ensures that intellectual products will be diverse and innovative.

Fourth, we must establish thought that is anchored in Chinese subjectivity 建立中国主体性思想. This is a huge topic. In saying that we need thought anchored in Chinese subjectivity, I am not proposing a departure from the broad road of world civilisation, nor am I calling for a rejection of universal values. Rather, we need to build discursive system suited for discussing China’s past, present and future, premised on a world civilisation and universal values. This is an issue of abiding interest to me. The two journals I have distributed today contain articles I have written on the concept of a Chinese historical perspective. As I see it, there are four aspects to consider in relation to thought that is anchored in Chinese subjectivity. First, this form of thought must take a Chinese historical perspective as its principal guide. What I’m calling a Chinese historical perspective is essentially a way of discerning how Chinese history differs from European history in terms of its developmental features and human experience.

On this basis, we would develop a Chinese yardstick to re-discover and rewrite Chinese history as a history which has long been obscured by European history.  This would thus allow us to distinguish between Chinese and European historical perspectives. Second, Chinese thought that is anchored in Chinese subjectivity must accord with Chinese experience past and present. Third, awareness of real-life Chinese problems must guide our thinking.  Fourth, our goal is to advance universal justice and happiness for the whole of humanity. These are the four aspects of what I am calling thought that is anchored in Chinese subjectivity.

The issues I have raised here today are underdeveloped and require more work. For a long time now, the governing party has enjoyed a monopoly on ideology and the production of thought. It has turned Marxism into the key source of its political legitimacy. However, the Party leaders are well-aware that there is no market demand for Party thinking, and that Party thinking is in fact useless. Yet they continue to rely on the formulations that make up Party thinking to justify their being in power. This is a problem for the Party leadership. Non-official thinking produced within society is critically-oriented and resistant to the Party’s formulations. Most of non-official thinking draws on Western knowledge paradigms and liberalism and social democracy should be considered, in this regard, as belonging to the same knowledge system.

At present, many people are asking if we can resolve the opposition between non-official and official modes of thinking. Is Qiu Feng’s constitutional Confucianism an attempt to provide us with an alternative path? Is this a third path that would serve as an intermediary between Western-informed non-official thinking and Party thinking? Methodologically, this is an advisable path to take but the question of what formulations we would use to understand and explain Chinese problem requires much more work. For scholars, the present situation of Chinese thought and the problems it faces have become increasingly clear. Everyone should be able to analyse these problems from their own perspective and propose solutions to these problems. The production of independent ideas of positive value is contingent on free and open debate among thinkers and on their capacity to exchange their ideas to the fullest. It is by this means alone that together we can advance Chinese thought.


Appendix: My response to the comments of experts 

The comments from my fellow-scholars were most relevant.  As Lei Yi and Ye Fu have both pointed out, I have yet to address such questions as what is Chinese autonomy 中国的自主性; what is thought that is anchored in Chinese subjectivity and what is Western discourse as a system. I am also aware that if we want to depart from Western formulations and concepts, then we would have no way of expressing ourselves and no words with which to form our thoughts. I mentioned the need for us to construct a Chinese historical perspective. Is it valid to speak of a Chinese as opposed to a European historical perspective? This will also require more work. When my presentation was published, someone criticised me for producing a statist narrative and using statist rhetoric.

China’s development for the last two thousand years has indeed been state-led. We cannot deny this. China’s state-led structure, understood as an organisational system 国家主导的体制 has remained intact to this day. This enduring state-led structure is the object of my inquiry. The question is, should it be regarded as a form of statism?

This is where we must consider the differences between Chinese and Western understandings of the concept of the state. The Western concept of the state entails a narrative that includes the ideas of constitutionalism, democracy and liberty as these ideas have emerged and developed in the West, reflecting the history of their usage over time. If we now choose to assign a ‘universal value’ to these ideas and transplant them in China’s discursive terrain, we will, indeed, encounter a whole raft of enormous difficulties arising from the shift of these ideas from a Western to a Chinese discourse.

Professor Zhang Shuguang mentioned just now that in proposing a need for thought that is anchored in Chinese subjectivity, I seem to be ignoring the fact that the work of scholars such as Qiu Feng is already premised on the idea of a Chinese intellectual tradition extending over two thousand years. He thus finds my attempt to establish a new way of exploring Chinese thought as anchored in Chinese subjectivity unconvincing. What I am calling thought anchored in Chinese subjectivity or a Chinese historical perspective is merely an abstract proposal at present. I am still uncertain as to how to develop these concepts intellectually or to reach an empirical conclusion about them. It would be absurd to treat Qiu Feng’s work as our only source of information on what constitutes China’s intellectual tradition. At present, there is little new thinking besides the accumulated Western and Confucian intellectual resources already available to us. This is the predicament of intellectual production in China today that I have tried to address in my lecture today.

When I pointed out we don’t seem able to take a step without leaning on the crutch of Western thought, I am including myself as someone for whom Western thought is indispensable. My critics have pointed out my reliance on Max Weber’s concepts of procedural justice and instrumental rationality, which are clearly Western in origin. On this point, we need to ask the question as to whether we are up to the task of productively transposing Weber’s concepts into Chinese intellectual discourse.

The bigger issue, however, and this is what Ye Fu raised, is whether our existing range of theories are adequate for explaining China’s present-day problems. The criteria and measures we use must be able to explain Chinese realities. Otherwise these theories would lack vitality. When we consider the ideas that have flooded into China for the past century, we should judge them for their effectiveness. Whether it be liberalism, Marxism or other isms, we should be asking whether and how effective they have they been in solving Chinese problems. To assess liberalism in this way, would not make us feel optimistic about its prospects in China, of that I am certain. This is because liberalism would and has encountered restrictions from the political system in China. However, we should also consider whether theories of liberalism create their own limitations on the concept. I dealt with this question in my article, ‘The third wave of Chinese Liberalism’ 中国自由主义第三波 in which I reflected on the types of changes that liberalism would have to undergo and the types of discursive adjustments that would need to be made before a liberal argument could provide an effective response to the problems in our midst.

I find myself in agreement with Ye Fu’s comment that I am ultimately asking only one question. My question in fact goes beyond asking why it is that China lacks great ideas and great thinkers.  There are many thinkers in China and many excellent thinkers are present at this seminar here. My question is in fact a criticism of the system in which we find ourselves. For several years now, I have devoted my energies to promoting the social critical tradition in Marxism, with the aim of critiquing the existing power structure in China. This is a power structure unlimited in any way by institutional and legal restraints, let alone by moral constraints. Indeed, we would not be able to find an enduring set of ideas, beliefs, meanings or values within this power structure.

Thus, if this power structure continues to develop, it will gravely endanger China. Hence my question should not be read as asking what tasks we have yet to complete within Chinese scholarship, or that I am implying that Western critical discourse is not effective in explaining Chinese problems. Instead, I want us to be alert to the fact that the political system and institutions that have developed out of the Chinese Revolution and the process of [post-Maoist] reform are the result of pragmatic, opportunistic and strategic actions taken in response to the problems of a given time. There really are no theoretical norms or a program, no ultimate concerns or a general direction to speak of. My main goal is to provide a critique of the flaws of the system. In this regard, I have focused on the structural and intellectual causes of these flaws.


Translator’s Notes

[1] The frequent use of ‘problem-consciousness’ in Chinese intellectual discourse indicates a widespread view that effective problem-solving comes of asking the right questions.

[2] A term in Republican-era CCP discourse for areas perceived as under neither socialist nor capitalist control and which were thus ideological battlegrounds.

[3] The expression 一以贯之 first appeared in The Analects 4:15:

The Master said, ‘Shen, my doctrine has one single thread running through it.’ Master Zeng Shen replied: ‘Indeed.’ The Master left. The other disciples asked: ‘What did he mean?’ Master Zeng said: ‘The doctrine of the Master is: Loyalty and reciprocity, and that’s all.’  (From Simon Leys, The Analects of Confucius [New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997], p.17)

[4] The author misquotes Mao here as saying ‘我党真信马列的人不多’.  What Mao was reported to have said on 23 April 1975 was: ‘我党真懂马列的不多’. See: See also ‘The Campaign to Study the Theory of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ at

[5] Fengjian, an important political concept in pre-modern China, has been used since the early twentieth century to translate ‘feudalism’ as a Marxist concept, both complicating what fengjian means and making ‘feudalism’ an always inadequate translation. For an account of modern uses of fengjian, see Viren Murthy, ‘The Politics of Fengjian in Late Qing and Early Republican China’ in Kai-wing Chow, Tze-ki Hon and Hung-yok Ip eds., Modernities as Local Practices, Nationalism, and Cultural Production: Deconstructing the May-Fourth Paradigm on Modern China (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008), pp. 151-182.

[6] The ‘Two Whatevers’ refers to the following official statement which appeared in a 7 February 1977 joint editorial of the CCP’s three leading outlets, People’s Daily, Red Flag and People’s Liberation Daily: ‘We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave’ 凡是毛主席作出的决策,我们都坚决维护;凡是毛主席的指示,我们都始终不渝地遵循. The term was a derogatory reference to Mao’s immediate successor, Hua Guofeng, used by Deng Xiaoping and other critics of Hua to highlight his unsuitability to lead post-Maoist China as an unthinking Mao loyalist.

[7] On these developments, read Xu Jilin, ‘The Fate of an Enlightenment – Twenty Years in the Chinese Intellectual Sphere (1978-98)’ translated by Geremie R. Barmé and Gloria Davies, in Merle Goldman and Edward X. Gu eds., Chinese Intellectuals between the Market and the State (London: Routledge 2002), pp.183-203.

[8] In the period following Mao’s death in the late 1970s, several Party leaders were fond of using the folk saying, to ‘cross the river by feeling for the stones’ 摸着石头过河, to present the Deng Xiaoping-led policy of Reform and Opening Up as adaptive and responsive to change while being always mindful of the need for social stability. An article attributes the earliest use of the saying to Chen Yun (1905-1995), an influential Party leader who helped to facilitate Deng Xiaoping’s rise in the late 1970s. Chen, who reportedly first used the saying in a speech he presented decades earlier on 7 April 1950, made frequent reference to it in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The saying forms the first part of a traditional two-part riddle-pun 歇后语, whose omitted corollary in the second part is ‘safely and surely” 稳稳当当.  See Han Zhenfeng 韩振峰, ‘So who proposed “crossing the river by feeling for the stones” as the approach to reform?’ 究竟是谁将“摸着石头过河”作为改革方法提出?, 6 January 2015, Interestingly, Han’s article makes no mention of Hua Guofeng who had also frequently used this saying in the late 1970s. In the post-Maoist 1980s and 1990s, Chen and Deng became hailed as the two leading members of the CCP’s ‘eight elders’ 八大元老 responsible for developing the party-state system after Mao’s death. Because Deng quoted and popularised this expression, it has often been wrongly attributed to him. (My thanks to Warren Sun for alerting me to Hua Guofeng’s many references to 摸着石头过河, starting with an address to other Party leaders on 27 December 1977).

[9] Deng’s remark was: ‘It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice’ 不管黑猫白猫, 捉到老鼠就是好猫.

[10] In his final political report to the CCP Congress in November 2012, Hu Jintao, as the Party’s departing General Secretary, stated, ‘We cannot take the old road of seclusion and stagnation, and we must not change our banner to travel along a deviant path.’ 既不走封闭僵化的老路, 也不走改旗易帜的邪路.  See also David Bandurski, ‘CCP congress enters the Weibo era’,  China Media Project, 8 November 2012, at

[11] The original statement appears in Ronald Coase and Ning Wang, How China Became Capitalist (Palgrave MacMillan, 201), p.203. Rong appears to have quoted from Deng Yuwen, ‘Coase’s warning: A market for ideas is the crux of China’s successful transition’ 科斯的忠告:思想市场是中国转型成功的关键,