China’s Remnant Liberals Keep Flame of Liberalization Alive

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 3

Hu Deping, son of reformer Hu Yaobang, Lecturing on Politics

China seems to have entered deep winter as far as political reform and human rights are concerned. While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership seems to have pulled out all the stops to stifle dissent, intellectuals both inside and outside the party still are pushing the ideal of liberalization. In a recent article in the party theoretical journal Seeking Truth, CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao reiterated the imperative to “unshakably going down the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics”—and staying away from the deviant path of Western-style political norms. “Enemy forces in the international arena are stepping up conspiracies to Westernize and divide us,” he wrote, adding that the party must “forever ring the alarm bell” against “infiltration from the West” (Qiushi, January 1). In the past two months, three dissidents known for their Internet articles about non-violent political liberalization—Chen Wei, Chen Xi and Li Tie—were given sentences of nine or ten years for “inciting subversion of state power” (New York Times, January 20; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], January 20). 

Last month, Yu Jie, an internationally known writer and moderate reformist renowned for his advocacy of universal values such as civil and democratic rights, was forced to leave the country after having been subjected to torture in jail. In an article released upon his arrival in the United States, Yu quoted one of his jailers as saying “As far as we, the state security [department], can tell, there are no more than 200 intellectuals in the country who oppose the Communist Party and are influential.” “If the central authorities think that their rule is facing a crisis, they can capture them all in one night and bury them alive,” the security agent warned (Human Rights in China, January 18; Los Angeles Times, January 18). Is it true that just a few hundred from China’s academic and intellectual circles are challenging the CCP with their advocacy of ideas deemed dangerous and subversive by President Hu?

It is a well-accepted fact that after the Tiananmen Square crackdown—and the demise of icons such as former CCP general secretaries Hu Yaobang (1915-1989) and Zhao Ziyang (1919-2005)—the influence of reformist intellectuals has been on the wane. Yet it is significant that remnant liberals both in and out of the party have in the past several months staged a vigorous campaign to hold aloft the flickering flame of reform. A handful of organizations somehow tolerated by the authorities, such as the Hu Yaobang Historical Data Web, and two semi-official journals, the China Economic Structure Reform Monthly and the Economic Observer, have organized several “salons” to discuss new directions for political reform. Nationally-known figures who serve as patrons of these brainstorming sessions have included Hu Deping, the eldest son of Hu Yaobang, and Jiang Ping, the renowned jurist and former president of the Chinese University of Politics and Law. Hu Deping, a former vicedirector of the CCP United Front Department, is a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Perhaps due to the status of these public figures, these conferences seemed free from palpable interference from police or state security officers (Ming Pao, January 19; Radio Free Asia, January 19).

Take, for example, the salon held just before Chinese New Year to mark the 20th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s nanxun, or tour to southern China. In early 1992, the late patriarch tried his best to revive economic and ideological liberalization, saying famously that “without reform, there is only the road to perdition.” More than 200 old and middle-aged intellectuals, including many CCP members, took part in the Beijing event. In his opening remarks, Hu Deping called upon the nation’s intellectuals to “develop further the nanxun spirit.” Referring to the Guangdong authorities’ placatory treatment of protests by peasants in Wuhan Village, Hu said “Only when the rights of peasants are upheld will political stability in rural areas be upheld” ( [Taipei] January 20; [Beijing], January 29;“The Grim Future of the Wukan Model for Managing Dissent,” China Brief, January 6).

Other participants went on to demand the full-scale introduction of international political ideals into China. For example, economist Han Zhiguo, who is in his early 50s, advocated a multi-party system with universal suffrage, freedom of the media and even the “nationalization” of the military forces. “Without a one-person, one-vote [electoral system], Chinese people have no sense of dignity,” he said. “The U.S. government doesn’t fear anybody except its own people. The Chinese authorities are afraid of everybody—except their own citizens.” Veteran foreign-policy scholar Zi Zhongjun added “Taiwan has pulled ahead of China” in democratic politics. “Mainland China has yet to make this transition,” she said. “There have even been signs of retrogression” (Ming Pao, January 19; Voice of America, January 19).  

In yet another much-noted salon held last autumn, these feisty intellectuals heaped aspersions on efforts by leftist cadres, such as Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, to revive Maoism. The seminar was held to mark the 20th anniversary of the CCP’s passage of the “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party” (henceforward “Resolution”), which was Deng’s assessment of the Cultural Revolution as well as Chairman Mao’s role in Chinese politics. Hu Deping made a thinly veiled attack on the ultraconservatives’ efforts to reinstate Maoist precepts. “Some people are doing things to commemorate the Cultural Revolution, and this is a step backward,” Hu said. “We didn’t criticize ourselves enough in the ‘Resolution’ 30 years ago. Yet the bottom line of the ‘Resolution’—the negation of the Cultural Revolution—must not be breached. Recently, there are people who want to wage another Cultural Revolution.” Jiang Ping, who also spoke at this conference, then laid into the Hu Jintao leadership’s attempt to use “fostering stability” as an excuse to impose authoritarian rule. The famous jurist decried two fallacies in Chinese politics: the idea that “stability overrides everything” and the claim that “China is a special case.” “Yet who should determine what constitutes stability?” Jiang asked. “This concept [of enforcing stability] is against the principle of the rule of law.” “Excessive stress on [China’s] uniqueness means ignoring the common beliefs and values of mankind,” he added. “Universal ideas about constitutional government, the legal system and human rights are most important” (Ming Pao, August 28, 2011; Lianhe Zaobao [Singapore], August 28, 2011) 

The fact that the activities and speeches of intellectuals such as Hu Deping and Han Zhiguo are not reported in the official media does not mean they remain voices in the wilderness. Thanks to the exponential growth of the Internet, the curious among China’s 450 million netizens have access to transcripts of these avant-garde salons. While the security departments have slapped heavy sentences on the likes of Chen Wei and Chen Xi to warn dissidents not to spread “destabilizing” or “anti-socialist” ideas on the Internet, the information superhighway is replete with politically incorrect materials. For example, during the seminar held last month to commemorate Deng’s nanxun, hundreds of Nitizens sent text messages to the organizers to mark the seventh anniversary of the death of general secretary Zhao. “We should hold high the torch of reform first raised by Zhao,” wrote one user (Ming Pao, January 20; Apple Daily [Hong Kong] January 20). 

The fact that news about Taiwan’s recent presidential elections was widely circulated in China shows that China’s estimated 50,000 Internet police officers only can slow the spread of liberal ideas through Internet-based communication platforms, such as the Chinese equivalents of Facebook and Twitter. The Taiwan elections, including videos of the fair and efficient vote-counting exercise, were given extensive coverage by a number of semi-official websites. One popular portal even held a poll on mainland readers’ views of the presidential candidates. While the incumbent, President Ma Ying-jeou secured the majority of the virtual ballots, Tsai Ing-wen, who represented the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, garnered a surprising 20 percent. Moreover, the video of Tsai’s concession speech, which cited the “importance of a viable opposition party,” was widely read by at least well-educated netizens in the cities (, January 14; The Economist, January 21; Apple Daily, January 16).

The big question is whether calls for a faster pace of democratization made by well-known intellectuals as well as anonymous Netizens have a significant impact on the CCP’s policies, especially at a time when the party elite seems to be lurching toward ultra-conservatism. It is notable that two Politburo members, Premier Wen Jiabao and Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang, seem to have responded to public sentiments about reforms. Much has been written about the fact that Wen has persevered as the sole Politburo Standing Committee member who has repeatedly talked about the importance of political reform. (See China Brief, “Premier Wen’s ‘Southern Tour’: Ideological Rifts in the CCP?” September 10, 2010). During his swing through the Middle East last month, the premier discussed with his hosts the spate of democracy movements that had erupted in North Africa and the Middle East. “It is the responsibility of every government to seek benefits for its people,” Wen said. Turning to China, the premier reiterated that “we don’t just need reform of the economic structure; we also need [commensurate] reform of the political structure.” [China News Service, January 11; Ming Pao, January 12.]


Guangdong Party boss Wang Yang, who won praise in the national media for his conciliatory handling of the Wukan demonstrations, also has committed himself to expanding reformist initiatives begun in his province by late patriarch Deng. “Reform is the root and soul of Guangdong,” Wang likes to say. Using language that seems reminiscent of Deng’s instructions, Wang said recently that “the worst thing that could happen to reform is stagnation.” “Rather than getting stuck in debates, why not give [new-fangled] things a try?” he asked. While it is true that Wang has talked more often about economic rather than political reform, he recently passed regulations to make it easier for Guangdong-based NGO to be registered properly. Moreover, Guangdong newspapers and websites have remained the most daring and thought-provoking media in the whole country (New York Times, December 31, 2011; Southern Metropolitan News [Guangzhou], November 23, 2011; People’s Daily, November 23, 2011) .

For former deputy chief editor of People’s Daily Zhou Ruijin, China’s reform has “encountered layers upon layers of contradictions and obstacles.” In a piece on Deng’s nanxun that is extensively circulated on the Internet, Zhou wrote “China’s reform has once again reached the most crucial moment.” “Only reform can relieve our anxieties,” Zhou indicated, adding that such efforts must now be centered on “political reform, without which economic and social reforms cannot go deeper” ( [Beijing], January 15; BBC News, January 24). Even though China has attained quasi-superpower status, the CCP leadership seems disturbed by the possibility of deep-seated social contradictions—as well as “peaceful evolution” coming from the West—tearing asunder the party’s mandate of heaven. While the noises made by liberals in and out of the CCP do not seem powerful enough to affect the decisions of its mainstream factions, the party leadership is ignoring their views at its own peril.