20 July 2019
A growing personality cult in China’s current leadership is stoking fears of a return to the Maoist era. Photo: Bloomberg
A growing personality cult in China’s current leadership is stoking fears of a return to the Maoist era. Photo: Bloomberg

How social conscience prompted a China scholar to speak out

As China witnesses a massive return to the ultra-leftist track under President Xi Jinping, the moral courage as well as the social conscience of mainland intellectuals and academics are being severely tested.

While the majority of these elites have been remaining silent, some have chosen to speak out.

Among them is the 56-year-old Xu Zhangrun, a professor with the law school of the Tsinghua University, who has recently published a 16,000-word online article titled “Our present fear and expectations” (or “Our fear”) expressing his grave concern about the ongoing “full-scale revival of totalitarian politics” in the mainland.

Apart from slamming Beijing leaders for trying to turn the clock back to the Maoist era, Professor Xu, in his highly polemical piece, touches on some very sensitive issues such as the Xi personality cult and apotheosis, his removal of presidential term limits, his money-showering foreign aid programs, as well as the June 4 incident.

Rather than beating around the bush or being euphemistic, “Our fear” simply cuts to the chase and pulls no punches in lambasting the political and ideological policies of the current regime.

The article noted that the communist party triggered “widespread and all-out fear” across the nation by bringing back the fearsome Maoist era and reviving the laughable personality cult.

It goes on to explain that such “fear” manifests itself in eight different concerns, which are:

1. Fear for the violation of private property rights; 2. The priority given to ideological initiatives over economic development; 3. Apprehension about the comeback of class struggle movements; 4. Concern about the resurrection of the seclusion policy; 5. Possible future domestic austerity as a result of excessive foreign aid; 6. Compulsory “mind transformation” of intellectuals; 7. Fear for the outbreak of arms race and the “New Cold War”, and 8. The end of glasnost and perestroika and the full return of totalitarianism.

Meanwhile, as opposed to the “8 concerns” it raises, “Our fear” has also put forward “8 expectations”, which are as follows:

1.Calling an immediate halt to personality cult; 2. Restoring presidential term limits; 3. Revoking the special rations available exclusively to top party officials; 4. Abolishing the special privileges enjoyed by retired leaders; 5. Introducing a “Sunshine policy” to enhance oversight of the wealth and assets owned by party leaders; 6. Capping the amount of foreign aid; 7. Avoiding costly pomp and circumstance when holding international conferences, and 8. Vindicating the June 4 incident.

“Our fear” devoted quite a lot of paragraphs to totalitarian politics and apotheosis, particularly the latter.

In the article, Professor Xu sighs deeply that “it is simply beyond my imagination that 40 years into the economic reforms, personality cult is once again becoming all the rage across the mainland, with the god-like statues of our paramount leader being erected in every corner of the nation.”

“Our fear” also expresses deep concern about the ultra-left sentiment that is now prevailing on university campuses across the mainland, which, it says, is highly reminiscent of the kind of fanatical political atmosphere cultivated by the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution.

“By relentlessly waving the big stick, the authorities have achieved a chilling effect among society.”

“If this pincer policy continues in this fashion or even escalates in the coming days, the Chinese people would simply end up becoming a spiritual dwarf and a semi-civilized nation,” Xu adds.

If anything, “Our fear” and its strong criticisms against the ongoing apotheosis of Xi Jinping and his ultra-left ideological approach are in fact a direct reflection of public opinion in the mainland.

And the stance adopted by Professor Xu in the article hasn’t contradicted the official position taken by the party leadership back in the early 1980s on Mao Zedong’s undisputed responsibility for perpetrating the catastrophic Cultural Revolution.

“Our fear” is undoubtedly the most vocal and provocative article on current affairs published in the mainland over the past two years.

Moreover, instead of trying to resonate with readers by appealing to their raw emotions, Professor Xu is railing against the current social and political injustice with rationality, in-depth academic analysis and strong logic.

Mindful of the danger to which he might be exposed by speaking out against the communist regime, Xu says in his article that all he does is spell out some modern political common sense which everybody knows, and he is well aware that by doing so, he is virtually “risking being beheaded”.

Luckily, Professor Xu knew exactly what to do in order to escape persecution. Before releasing “Our fear”, he had already left China and travelled abroad as a visiting scholar.

If in the worst-case scenario, he can’t return to Beijing anymore because of his article, he can at least still go into self-exile in one piece.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 24

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ columnist

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