Sebastian Veg

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By Sebastian Veg

When Peking University Professor Kong Qingdong’s diatribe on Hongkongers and their lingering colonial infatuation swept over the Internet in late January, the widespread and growing uneasiness about mainland Chinese in Hong Kong suddenly had a face. Triggered by a viral video of a Hongkonger telling off a mainland family in the subway because their daughter was eating dry instant noodles, Kong’s interview sparked a wave of predictable but nonetheless justified outrage in Hong Kong. It took place against the background of the annual mainland shopping spree over Chinese New Year (in a previous episode, Dolce and Gabbana staff in Tsim Sha Tsui sparked protests by telling passers-by that only mainlanders were allowed to take pictures of the shop) as well as growingly acrimonious debates over mainland women giving birth in the emergency rooms of Hong Kong hospitals in order to secure permanent residency for their children, and over Guangdong-registered vehicles’ right to drive freely in Hong Kong. It was followed by a counter-campaign in Apple Daily and other Hong Kong newspapers depicting mainlanders as locusts looting Hong Kong, pushing up property prices and free-riding on the—albeit minimal—welfare provided by the SAR government.

Professor Kong, in a true cadre-style tirade with a thin varnish of May Fourth anti-colonialism, referred to Lu Xun’s 1927 critique of colonial Hong Kong and his denunciation of xizai 西崽, the fake-foreign devils populating Shanghai’s concessions, chastised by Lu Xun for being “dogs to the foreigners but wolves to their fellow Chinese.” He conceded that Hong Kong had some advantages, “for example the legal system” or fazhi 法制, but, he hastened to add, this was only necessary because Hongkongers’ suzhi 素質, or “human quality” was so low. In China, he went on, there is no need for the rule of law because social harmony is achieved by raising the people’s moral qualities, an echo of teachings of his 73th generation forefather, Confucius. Suzhi is one of the terms popularized by the CCP that has come to feel natural on the mainland (the more traditional term would be pinzhi 品質, or “moral fibre”) and served to legitimize the quasi-apartheid system instituted by Mao and based on the distinction between urban and rural residence permits (hukou). In this logic, urban residents are commonly associated with high suzhi, as opposed to peasants and—according to Kong—Hongkongers. Interestingly, and regrettably, many Hong Kongers have phrased their resistance to the mainlanders’ “invasion” in very similar terms. The anti-“locust” and anti-pregnant mother campaign, vocally relayed by the local democrats, has not focused on the values that make Hong Kong unique and different from China, but on the insufficiently “civilized” habits of mainlanders.

While a December poll suggested that the feeling of Chinese identity among Hong Kong citizens was at an all-time low (immediately provoking a furious denial on the private blog of a Central liaison office employee who protested that the questions had been asked in an “unscientific” way: as Hong Kong is not a country, it has no identity attached to it), there has been little reflection about what makes the current waves of immigration from China different from the many previous ones that were, over time, fused into the distinctive culture that has made Hong Kong unique. Not all the people leaving Guangdong or Shanghai throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were, after all, political refugees; many were simply relatives from across the border hoping for a better life. Yet it seems that Hong Kong is now more apprehensive about losing its difference. The question is what exactly that difference is. Formulating it in the discourse of suzhi means that mainlanders are derided for failing to form orderly queues, for speaking loudly in public places, and for flouting established social rules, like eating or drinking in the MTR. Rarely in this debate have Hong Kong’s distinctive values been characterized by critics of mainland presence as “democratic,” based on freedom of expression, mutual respect and equality not only before the law but also in social interactions. The ever observant Chinese political commentator Chang Ping, whose work-visa application to Hong Kong has been placed indefinitely on hold by the SAR government, noted in the South China Morning Post op-ed “Brothers in arms” that what Hongkongers might legitimately resent is not the presence of mainlanders in Hong Kong as much as what we might call the “cadre culture” that characterizes many of the compulsive Chinese shoppers on the New Year spree: a type of behavior by a very specific type of person underlining that they are powerful and somehow above the law—a type of behavior resented by many ordinary citizens on the mainland. But Hong Kong’s democrats in particular have failed to provide any kind of political reading of the population’s uneasiness: instead they have indulged in populist escalation, calling to revise the Basic Law to deprive Hong Kong-born children of mainland mothers of the right to permanent residency. The democrats are often criticized for having no political program beyond democracy, but perhaps it would be more exact to say that their understanding of democracy oftentimes seems limited to an orderly queue of people lining up—in front of a ballot box they may never reach.

More generally, fifteen years after the handover, the relationship between China and Hong Kong is as complex as ever. The Dengist calculation, according to which the “decolonization of minds,” as enforced through “patriotic education,” would produce “patriotic” citizens (i.e. Beijing loyalists) in Hong Kong and therefore lay the foundation for “safe” universal suffrage, has not translated into reality. On the contrary, it has produced a group of young, vocal anti-Beijing activists, who seem to speak for the entire post-80s generation, aggravated by rising housing prices and growing social inequality which the handover has entailed. In the larger picture, however, this group remains a minority, squeezed between a super-elite of tycoons and businessmen with interests in China, and a large working class, steadily growing by the effect of immigration from the mainland, which has no particular feeling of cultural identity in Hong Kong. As it already did in colonial times, this working class sees itself to a strong extent as part of a larger Cantonese culture, totally disconnected from the lifestyle of the English-speaking elite. The democrats try to cater to this part of the population by framing the issue of mainlanders in Hong Kong in populist terms (“they will take your hospital spots”), while seeming to ignore that this part of the population massively votes for the pro-Beijing DAB (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong). Contrary to what has happened in Taiwan, however, the sense of a Hong Kong identity that is both local and democratic has little or no grassroots base in the larger population. Those commentators who have recently engaged in colonial nostalgia might do well to remember that this division of society is exactly the product of the colonial regime.

This is the context in which the two elections of 2012, the chief executive on March 25 and the LegCo elections in September, will take place. Interestingly, the profiles of the three candidates competing for Chief Executive seem to tally almost exactly with the three social groups outlined above. Henry Tang represents the pro-Beijing elite of tycoons and businessmen; Albert Ho, the pan-democrat with no chance of winning, the squeezed middle class; and Leung Chun-ying the pro-Beijing populist who scares the tycoons, the loosely pro-Chinese working class. In this context, in which a political definition of democracy seem to have largely disappeared from the values deemed to define Hong Kong, and even from the entire campaign debate, one may wonder, with a pinch of nostalgia, whether “Hong Kong identity” has not simply become a stand-in for what in another context has been called the déjà disparu—Hong Kong’s democratic culture.

Sebastian Veg is the director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (Hong Kong). He has published a monography on Lu Xun and European modernism, and his current research interests are in the area of literature and intellectuals in modern and contemporary China.


By Sebastian Veg

During a recent trip to Taipei to observe the January presidential and legislative elections, like many people with little first-hand knowledge of Taiwan, I was struck by the unique traits of Taiwan’s democracy. The elections also seemed relevant to many debates in China, not only because they were closely followed and tweeted by critical voices on the mainland, but also because of their significance against the broader historical and geographical context of the history of modern China, a connection which holds true even if one subscribes to the view that Taiwan had no previous connection with this history before 1945 and was drawn into against its will. While Taiwanese democracy is usually discussed as a model of post-authoritarian transition (which of course it is, as demonstrated by the peaceful and consensual electoral process this year), possibly for China to emulate, I believe Taiwan’s experience also fits into a wider timeframe reaching back to Republican history.

I attended the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party)’s final campaign meeting on the eve of the election in Banqiao, held almost entirely in Hoklo and culminating in Lee Teng-hui’s emotional statement “entrusting Taiwan” to Tsai Ing-wen. The candidate then appeared on stage, and began speaking almost exclusively in Mandarin, at which point a sizeable number of people around me began to ostensibly leave the stadium, highlighting—albeit in a rather anecdotal way—Tsai’s difficulties in appealing to the green grassroots while positioning herself as a responsible candidate attractive to “light green” or “light blue” urban elites. The political polarization along the blue-green divide highlighted by Tsai’s difficulties may seem puzzling or parochial to the visitor, recalling the similar bipartisan divide in Hong Kong between the pro-Beijing parties and the pan-democrats, the latter often appearing to have nothing to offer to the voter beyond their endorsement of universal suffrage, sorely lacking a more coherent agenda on social and tax policy, environmental or cultural issues. In Taiwan however, the DPP is not only a nativist, Taiwan-centred (or pro-independence) party: it has progressively acquired a double identity as an advocate for political democracy (as well as social, labour or environmental rights) and a party deeply rooted in local identity, in a way that the Hong Kong pan-democrats (despite their own variety of colonial history) are not.

This somewhat paradoxical combination (local politics are rarely seen as a stronghold of democratic values) of course has undeniable roots in Taiwan’s own particular history, marked by its double colonial experience in the two halves of the last century. However, the binary that the DPP forms with the KMT (Kuomintang, “nationalist” party) also echoes and makes sense within a century-old dichotomy in Chinese history: as early as May Fourth times, the political debate at the republican end of the spectrum revolved around whether democracy should be based on a nation-state or on local polities. Today’s KMT in Taiwan remains (despite its occasional neo-Confucian leanings, in particular its moralistic attacks on Chen Shui-bian) an heir to the pro-Western modernizers of the late Qing and early Republic, who believed that establishing a democratic regime on Chinese soil would depend on the Chinese people’s ability to reproduce the political structures that had emerged in Europe and America since the late 18th century. The first necessity in this perspective was, as is well documented, to transform China from an Empire into a nation-state, forging the somewhat fanciful idea of a Zhonghua minzu 中華民族 (or “Chinese” nation), encompassing the five ethnic groups materialized by the stripes on the new Republican flag. An entirely different streak of democracy activists took inspiration from the egalitarian traditions in local culture to oppose Confucian hierarchy and advance a utopian social agenda that did not predicate achieving a democratic polity on the existence of a nation-state. These Jeffersonian activists, many of them inspired by the early Zhang Binglin (who coined the name of the new state, Zhonghua minguo 中華民國, before inventing the expression liansheng zizhi 聯省自治 or federal self-government) and his esoteric commentaries of minor heterodox classics, took part not only in the New Culture movement in the late 1910s, but also in the provincial autonomy movement in the early 1920s. The provincial constitutions they drafted, as argued by Prasenjit Duara, were seen by some as a more principled base for democracy than an uncertain nation-state dominated by Beijing power politics. Many May Fourth intellectuals joined forces with their former classmates who had entered the military and were styled “warlords” but in fact shared a common background with them, like Chen Jiongming, recently discussed as a possible ancestor of self-governing experiments in Lufeng (Wukan). This federalist movement for the realization of democracy through provincial constitutions was subsequently vilified as “separatist” and effectively airbrushed out of history books, in the narrative forged by Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT in the 1930s, much of which was recycled by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) after 1949.

Therefore, while it would be hard to deny that the DPP is deeply Taiwanese, one might argue that it is not entirely surprising that the first stable institutionalized democracy in a culturally Chinese context was realized by the democratic accession to power of a party whose agenda is at odds with the nation-state paradigm consistently advanced by the KMT, and inherited from the late Qing (and hence shared by the CCP). As Frank Muyard writes: “the DPP has a bottom-up, grassroots concept and practice of the nation and nationalism, like all small/local territory-based and democracy-based movements of national self-determination against colonialism or ‘alien’ domination; there is no claim to rule over other territories/national groups ‘stolen’ or part of a former imperial state.” This raises a series of questions about the concepts of modern Chinese politics. The usual translation of the name of the KMT as the Nationalist Party, while well-entrenched, may be worth a moment of reflection. In theory, “National Party” might have been a more appropriate choice, or even “Citizen’s Party”; in practice, however, the English translation put forward at the time (which must have been approved by Sun Yat-sen), demonstrates the perennial subordination of the citizen (guomin 國民) to a guo 國, a nation-state on the Western model.

Incidentally, this point was raised recently when critical voices in Hong Kong opposed a project to step up guomin jiaoyu 國民教育 in Hong Kong schools, translatable as “citizen education” or “national education”, but which was widely rendered in English as “patriotic education,” in a telling revelation of how many Hongkongers continue to view the notion of guo as imposing some form of lip-service to patriotism (while Hongkongers tend to favour the word siman/shimin “citi-zen” 市民; on the mainland, the preferred term is now gongmin 公民). In this sense, this debate and others raise the question whether Hong Kong, although it shares its local identity with a much larger Cantonese-speaking area on the other side of the border, may also develop a truly democratic culture based more closely on its local identity and unique historical experience, which reaches deeper than the “rule of law” discourse that all too often serves as a convenient stand-in for political democracy. In Taiwan, while the KMT victory also points to the reassuring security of a well-tested historical model offered by China’s oldest political party, which has succeeded in shedding most of the stigma of its long-time single-party status, the DPP’s encouraging result, which for many commentators points to a possible victory in four years, raises the question of how a more “respectable” DPP will fit into the cross-straits political game. Can the DPP complete its transition to a party that promotes Taiwan as a full-fledged nation-state without reproducing some of the exclusionary traits of the KMT? Can it embrace, as it sometimes did in the 1990s, a more culturally open, inclusive conception of the polity? Can it perhaps, in this way, even serve as a model for a new type of citizen activism in China, tracing its roots back to the early years of the Republic? In this sense, the strategic dilemmas of the DPP over the coming years, however disconnected they may be from Chinese politics, also point to the challenges that the democratic movement continues to face on the mainland.

Author’s note: I would like to thank my colleague Frank Muyard for his generous guidance on this occasion and feedback on the present essay. All opinions expressed here are of course purely my own.

Sebastian Veg is the director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (Hong Kong). He has published a monography on Lu Xun and European modernism, and his current research interests are in the area of literature and intellectuals in modern and contemporary China.


By Sebastian Veg

A century ago, China’s 1911 Revolution ushered in a constitutional monarchy, rapidly followed by the proverbial “first Republic in Asia,” with Sun Yat-sen as its short-lived first president. Although political change had been expected, the revolution itself came as something of a surprise at the end of a decade of political reforms known as the “New policy” (新政 xinzheng) by the Manchu court, which had already largely transformed the organization of the Chinese state. The abolition of the century-old system of civil service examinations, the election of various provincial-level assemblies (albeit by a very small franchise) which fostered the power of the local gentry, the establishment of modern schools and universities, and the influx of western commodities and techniques under the motto “Chinese learning as substance, Western learning as function” (中學為體,西學為用 zhongxue wei ti, xixue wei yong) all took place during the last years of Qing rule. When the revolution finally occurred, it came as the icing on the cake of an incremental institution-building process that had taken place over the preceding decade.

However, the top-down reforms launched by the court throughout the 1900s were at the same time being outpaced by the growing radicalization of China’s intellectuals, many of whom spent this decade in Japan. While Kang Youwei’s idea of a constitutional, Confucian monarchy had appeared as revolutionary in 1898, by 1911 Kang was seen by most progressive thinkers and activists as a hopeless and eccentric reactionary. Even Liang Qichao, one of the most prominent and widely-read advocates of constitutionalism and an admirer of the British system, was outflanked by the cultural and political vanguard represented by activists like Zhang Binglin (Zhang Taiyan), the editor of the influential Minbao 民報 published in Tokyo. Zhang and many of his followers, in particular the group known as the “Tokyo anarchists”, criticized what they saw as the pro-Western bias in the institution-building process and advocated a different kind of democracy, rooted in social equality and inspired by archaic and often esoteric Chinese thinkers.

The 1911 revolution, whether because of the initial weakness of its proponents or through a series of unlucky historical coincidences, rapidly led to the restoration of Yuan Shikai to the imperial throne. The long-anticipated democratic system and the greater social and civic equality that was to result from it remained elusive, prompting a decade of soul-searching among China’s intellectuals. The most famous product of these reflections was without doubt Lu Xun’s Ah Q, the epitome of a revolutionary who is unequipped and unable to become a citizen. How were China’s Ah Qs to be made into citizens? This became the foremost preoccupation of the country’s intellectual elite for many years, setting them apart from the world of power politics. The New Culture movement, with its emphasis on education and individual autonomy, was followed by cultural agendas that became increasingly utopian as politics became more cynical and polarized. When Duan Qirui sent his troops into Beijing, Lu Xun’s brother Zhou Zuoren took his Beijing University students to study in the countryside, emulating the Japanese “New Village movement.” As Chiang Kai-shek massacred supposed communist sympathizers, Liang Shuming set up utopian rural schools in China’s remote backwaters. “Real” democracy was always seen as outside the corrupt institutions of party politics; however, the utopian vision of “fostering citizens” never led to the desired changes in the political system. Similarly to Weimar Germany, the Republic of China was a time of great freedom and intellectual ferment, but also a Republic without republicans, a regime whose institutions no one was prepared to invest in.

In this manner, mistrust of institutions remained strong among critical Chinese intellectuals for most of the century, and was notably instrumentalized to great effect by Mao during the Cultural Revolution – which is not to say that “organic” intellectuals did not crave recognition from the state when the opportunity arose. However, it was only after the beginning of Reform and Opening up (改革開放 gaige kaifang) that the Chinese elite again warmed to the theme of institution building: throughout the 1980s – a decade of intellectual ferment and political reform in many ways similar to the 1900s – the feeling dominated that an institutional compromise was possible between inner-Party reformers and idealistic intellectuals. After the violent crackdown of the 1989 student movement, a similar pattern emerged: rather than embarking on an uncertain long march through the institutions, many of China’s foremost critical thinkers once again took refuge in other realms: academia, legal activism, grassroots civil society organizations, personal investigations of recent history, documentary films, or emigration. Only Liu Xiaobo, loyal to the spirit of the 1980s, reaffirmed his commitment to formulating an institutional alternative, demonstrated most clearly in the Charter 08 he co-authored. On the whole, however, institutional reform was seen as both hopeless and useless (a point tragically demonstrated by Liu’s arrest) and the real battles were elsewhere.

It took almost one century from the fall of the Bastille until French citizens of all political stripes could to come together at the funeral of Republican icon Victor Hugo, a sign, according to historian François Furet’s famous pronouncement, that “Revolution had entered port.” This has not happened in China. To the contrary, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, with its carefully crafted historical narrative, took great pains to avoid sketching out a possible political consensus on how to define the nation in the 20th century, closely confining itself to the cultural bric-a-brac of its “5,000-year history.” This absence of even a minimal consensus on the nature of the Chinese polity speaks eloquently to the open legacy of 1911. One hundred years on, the divide between an institutional apparatus that seems less and less amenable to reform and an aspirational form of democracy that has not yet found a satisfactory institutional translation on the Chinese mainland remains as deep as ever.

Sebastian Veg is the director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (Hong Kong). He has published a monography on Lu Xun and European modernism, and his current research interests are in the area of literature and intellectuals in modern and contemporary China.


China Perspectives coverThe latest issue of China Perspectives focuses on the topic of “Gao Xingjian and the Role of Chinese Literature Today.” Below appears a slightly modified version of the issue’s editorial essay, written by journal editor Sebastian Veg. It is posted here with permission

By Sebastian Veg

Chinese literature and its significance or insignificance is a continued subject of heated debate in China. From May Fourth, when anti-traditionalist thinkers called on literature to assume a pioneering role in transforming subjects into citizens, to its use as propaganda during World War Two and on both sides of the Strait after 1949, it was seen as a crucial vector of political ideas. During the “Enlightenment” of the 1980s, literature was again called upon to play a central – though politically very different – role in helping society come to terms with the officially still taboo traumas of the Cultural Revolution. However, “Enlightenment” this time was not only synonymous with anti-traditionalism: critical reflection on the iconoclasm of the Cultural Revolution, emphasizing literature’s role as a moral conscience, also led to an enthusiastic rediscovery of cultural tradition, often against May Fourth ideals, among the writers of the “roots” (xungen) movement. It was only in the aftermath of the failed Tiananmen protests of 1989 that younger writers began to substantially question the need for literature to play a central role in society and in intellectual debate.

Perhaps inevitably, while its significant social role was extolled, debates about Chinese literature were routinely accompanied by anguished doubts about its intrinsic, aesthetic, or intellectual value, whether because of its alleged break (voluntary or as the result of an irresistible historical trend) with Chinese tradition or, on the contrary, because of its continued subordination of aesthetic autonomy – viewed as a defining aspect of the “high modernism” that ensures writers international recognition – to socio-political concerns. Soul-searching about why Chinese writers did or did not deserve a Nobel Prize for Literature took place throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, with official organs such as the Writers’ Association actively lobbying on behalf of members such as Ba Jin and Ai Qing. Liu Xiaobo on the other hand, then the “angry young man” of Chinese literary criticism, in a talk at the literature Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (chaired by Liu Zaifu) in 1986 and several subsequent articles attacking “scar literature” and the roots writers, also called for an end to Chinese writers’ “childish” obsession with the Nobel Prize. [1]
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Wang Lixiong and progressive democracy

This essay continues the discussion of Wang Lixiong’s work begun in Part I, which ran at China Beat on March 9, 2009.

By Sebastian Veg

Having analyzed the issues of colonialism, cultural rights of Uyghur populations, and the question of a Han nationalist revival, Wang Lixiong concludes the book by three “letters” to his Uyghur friend Mokhtar, in which he reframes the discussion on Xinjiang within his more general ideas on political reform in China. His reluctance to consider Xinjiang as “different” from other regions in China (while he is less reluctant to do so in the case of Tibet) is not unproblematic; nonetheless his voice is important because he is a critical intellectual “on the edge” who has visibly not entirely renounced influencing the debate in Beijing policy circles.

Wang Lixiong has some deep-set doubts, both about the practicality of independence as a goal for Xinjiang (due to the presence of a large Han population and their control of resources), and about what he calls “large-scale democracy”. In another text, he expresses his agreement with a draft Constitution prepared by a group of dissidents (Yan Jiaqi and others), under which Tibet would receive a high degree of autonomy and the possibility to determine its own status after 25 years, while Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia would only be granted the status of autonomy through a two-thirds vote in the National People’s Congress.

While Wang insists that he doesn’t mind one way or the other whether Xinjiang becomes independent, he emphasises alternatives to independence: the guarantee of genuine religious freedom, and the possibility of controlling labour migration by a work permit system that would apply to “cultural protection zones” (including Tibet), and which would serve to prevent desertification, degradation of the environment, and growing water shortages (p. 439). For Wang, democratisation in China, as opposed to a higher degree of autonomy, might be prone to nationalist manipulation and internal fracturing. He therefore calls for an embrace of the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” of a high degree of autonomy within the framework of a federal China, going so far as to propose that the Dalai Lama become the chairman of a provisional government.

Nonetheless, his three “letters to Mokhtar” reveal some of the contradictions underpinning his thoughts on political reform in China. The first letter, devoted to terrorism, is very much in the apocalyptic mode of his science-fiction novel Yellow Peril. In his second letter, he insists on Chinese nationalism. For Wang, China did not experience the nation-state model before 1911, and at that time its first formulation included Xinjiang and Tibet in Sun Yat-sen’s “Republic of five races” (Han, Man/Manchu, Meng/Mongolian, Hui/Muslim, Zang/Tibetan). He adds that nationalism has always been an essential part of CCP ideology, and now the only portion remaining. For these two reasons he believes that democratisation would not necessarily solve the nationality question (p. 444).

Whereas the Soviet constitution, no matter how misused, originally foresaw regional autonomy on paper by virtue of its federal nature, Wang asserts that no similar provision exists in the PRC Constitution, and that as a result, if China began unravelling, there would be no framework to stop the process from spreading to Guangdong or Shanghai. Conversely, he worries about an independent Xinjiang continuing to break down along ethnic lines into myriad autonomous micro-states, underlining that Uyghurs represent a majority of the population in only about one third of the territory concentrated in Southern Xinjiang, where there is no oil and resources. He wonders about the rights of the Hui (although one could easily object that there are Dungan populations in most of Central Asia), and highlights that Tibet, by contrast, is practically a mono-ethnic area. This is somewhat troubling, as in his articles on Tibet Wang argues against the viability of Tibetan independence, despite its ethnic homogeneity, on the grounds that the small Han elite controls the most productive sectors of the economy and the most dynamic groups in Tibetan society (“Zhuceng dijin zhi”, art. cit.).

Wang’s assertion about the lack of a legal framework is not quite true: China’s Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy (Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Minzu quyu zizhifa), revised in 2001 and largely disseminated though a 2003 State Council White Paper on the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), could provide a legal framework for autonomy (though not for secession, like the Soviet constitution), even though it clearly remains a political fiction at the present time (as was the Soviet constitution). More largely, within the context of the international conventions ratified even by the present Chinese government, as well as other international declarations, a stable body of norms regarding minority rights and rights for indigenous populations would be available to guarantee either substantial autonomy for Uyghurs within China, or for Han within an independent Xinjiang. In this respect, Wang Lixiong seems to remain captive to conventional views in China that describe international covenants as instruments of power play: he describes them as merely a pretext for American or Western intervention in Xinjiang aimed at destabilising China, and quotes the theory of “precedence of human rights over sovereignty” or renquan gaoyu zhuquan.

His third letter deals with his system of proposed “progressive democracy” (dijin minzhu) and the implicit critique of liberal democracy it contains. Wang calls the latter “forum democracy” (guangchang minzhu, p. 457), and believes it can only exacerbate interethnic tensions, which will be fanned by the elite, a phenomenon not unknown in “mature democracies” (he cites support for the Iraq war). “Large-scale democracy” (daguimo minzhu) will polarise political debate and lead straight to fascism (p. 460), as opinion leaders in Xinjiang will want to settle scores with China, the media will pour oil on the fire to make money, and the “masses,” who love heroes and lofty speeches, will follow populists and opportunists.

Nonetheless, he sees democracy as the key to resolving ethnic conflicts, the problem being not democracy itself but “large-scale democracy.” Therefore, Wang goes over old ground by proposing a system of indirect elections, based on natural villages, in which votes would take place by household, each household selecting one representative (one wonders how women would fare in this system of representation), thereby allowing for direct deliberative democracy by consensus. The elected representative automatically becomes a voter on the higher level, and so on, preserving the direct and participatory nature of democracy (p. 464). In fact, this blueprint clearly reveals Wang Lixiong’s misgivings about representation and vote by majority. He favours consensus over voting, pointing out that all elections are problematic, even in the United States (the 2000 presidential election inevitably comes up), not to mention in a Tibetan village in which a majority of inhabitants are illiterate.

Although he writes that in this system policy decisions on various levels should not interfere, he gives no guiding principle, not even a philosophical one, to explain how responsibility should be divided. The implicit assumption is, in fact, that voters are not qualified to deal with any matters beyond their immediate experience, and that the only decisions taken on each level are those that directly affect the life of the constituency. “Regarding larger matters that go beyond the borders of their immediate experience, it is very difficult for the masses to gain a correct grasp” (p. 466). This is a highly elitist system, the most worrying aspect of which is that it relies on the spontaneous generation of a social elite to foster democracy, rather than on an institutionalised system of checks and balances. Although Wang insists that this system will ensure that China does not break apart by guaranteeing both autonomy and cohesion (p. 468), one cannot help but wonder whether China and Xinjiang would not be better served at the outset by a full implementation of China’s own Autonomy Law, to be completed by other guarantees of the rights of minorities as set out in international laws and norms. Interestingly enough, while he is so wary of representative democracy, Wang Lixiong entirely trusts his own electoral system to guarantee individual and collective rights by its intrinsic mechanisms rather than by formalised norms (p. 469).

For these reasons, although Wang Lixiong has gone further than most Chinese intellectuals in exploring the rights and claims of ethnic minorities and how they fit into the political problems of China as a whole, this book remains somewhat disappointing. It is true that he paints a sympathetic portrait of “ordinary Uyghurs,” far removed from the usual clichés of official discourse, exoticism, or commonly repeated slurs — an important accomplishment that may act as bridge towards even-minded ordinary Han Chinese citizens. But just as he portrayed Tibetans as prone to blindly following Maoism as a new religion during the Cultural Revolution, smashing their own temples and Buddhas, and then blindly reviling Mao when he proved not to have been a god after his death, his view of Uyghur intellectuals as influenced by terrorism and Islam seems excessively culturalist in relation to modern, secular Xinjiang. His analyses of several issues appear uninformed. Leaving aside academic research, he is weak on government policy; a close reading of Hu Jintao’s readily available 2005 speech to the State Commission on Ethnic Affairs could have yielded important insights: one of Hu’s central tenets is that any form of increased autonomy remain subordinate to the “three inseparables.”

Nonetheless, Wang’s openness to dialogue and public discussion of his ideas, without any taboos or prerequisites, is an important step towards weaving the concerns of Uyghurs or Tibetans into the debate on the democratisation of China — taking into account, of course, that the present book cannot be published on the mainland. In this capacity, as also demonstrated by his March 2008 initiative on Tibet, Wang Lixiong is one of the closest examples of a public intellectual in China. In this context, his writings also demonstrate that, despite what the Chinese government publicly states, there is no consensus in China over the fact that no price is too high to ensure that the CCP remains the dominant force in Xinjiang or Tibet. His ideas may even trickle, gradually and windingly, to the corridors of power. Wang Lixiong opposes independence for both Xinjiang and Tibet, but his willingness to discuss practical measures such as migration restrictions or enhanced religious freedom also serves as a reminder that Chinese intellectuals are not necessarily Han nationalists.

Part 2 of 2.
The full text of this review essay is published in China Perspectives, no. 2008/4. The author is a researcher at the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China.

Wang Lixiong, “Zhuceng dijin zhi yu minzhu zhi: Jiejue Xizang wenti de fangfa bijiao” (A Successive Multilevel Electoral System vs. a Representative Democratic System: Relative advantages for resolving the Tibet Question ), (19 September 2008).
The Autonomy Law is available on See also: Information Office of the State Council, “History and Development of Xinjiang,” May 2003,
This is the object of the debate between Wang Lixiong and Tsering Shakyar. See Wang Lixiong, “Reflections on Tibet,” art. cit., and the rebuttal: Tsering Shakyar, “Blood in the Snow,” New Left Review, no. 15, May-June 2002. The gist of Tsering Shakyar’s argument is that Mao-worship in Tibet was no more blind than elsewhere in China, and that traditional Tibetan society remained dynamic and changing despite its religious characteristics. Woeser also documents the importance of the Mao-cult among Tibetans in Shajie: Forbidden Memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution (Taipei, Dakuai wenhua, 2007).
The “three inseparables” (sange libukai) are: the Han cannot be separated from minorities, the minorities cannot be separated from the Han, and the minorities cannot be separated one from another. See: “Hu Jintao zai Zhongyang minzu gongzuo huiyi shang de jianghua” [Hu Jintao’s Speech at the Central Nationalities Working Committee], May 27, 2005, (12 August 2008).


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