On May 6, several Chinese liberals were detained for “picking quarrels” after organizing a low-key seminar at a residence in Beijing. Philosopher Xu Youyu (徐友漁), lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志強), film critic Hao Jian (郝健), writer Hu Shigen (胡石根) and online dissident Liu Di (劉荻) were picked up by the police after a group photograph taken at the meeting was made public.
Since assuming office, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has been tackling corruption with one hand and clamping down on human rights with the other. Evidently, his mindset differs little from former Chinese presidents Jiang Zemin (江澤民) and Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
When Jiang was president, the Chinese authorities’ standard comment when the international community raised questions about democracy and human rights was: China’s 1.3 billion people need to eat. Recently, a Taiwanese capitalist caused an uproar when he espoused a similar view, proclaiming: “Democracy does not fill one’s stomach.”
Undeniably, people need to eat. However, must people choose between democracy or food, not both? One need only look at Western democracies, the wealth of which show that democracy does not get in the way of people eating. Free thought and creativity thrive in a liberal and democratic society, and along with systems of wealth distribution, these factors make it easier for everyone to eat their fill.
When Jiang first became president, China’s economic development was just beginning. In such conditions, it might be forgivable for Chinese authorities to say that making sure everyone got enough to eat was the most important thing.
However, by the time of Hu’s presidency, China had become capable of feeding its population, but democracy did not advance one iota. This pairing of economic progress with democratic regression makes it quite clear that the failure of China’s democratic evolution has nothing to do with the question of eating one’s fill. There must be some other reason and it boils down to the self-interest of the Chinese Communist Party and its leaders.
In recent years, China has been promoting Confucianism and setting up Confucius Institutes around the world, yet it pays scant attention to the philosopher’s message that “all under heaven are equal.” The party’s monopoly on power brings to mind the writing of 17th-century philosopher and political theorist Huang Zongxi (黃宗羲), who warned that rulers who substitute their selfish interests for the common good are uncomfortable about it at first, but soon get used to it.
The detentions show that suppression of free speech in China has gone from bad to worse since Xi took the helm.
English poet John Milton wrote: “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature … but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”
How right he was. China today spends more on “preserving social stability” than it does on national defense, creating a situation akin to a pressure cooker. If the Chinese authorities do not institute reforms of their own accord, they will end up on the receiving end.
Writing during the final years of the Qing Dynasty, philosopher and reformist Liang Qichao (梁啟超) wrote that China would have to change regardless of whether its rulers liked it. He advised that those who transform willingly change as they wish, but those who resist change put the agenda in the hands of others.
Seeking change through democratic reform is the only way forward for China. Are the authorities willing to set aside their own selfish interests and those of their party? The detentions of Xu and his colleagues give no cause for optimism.
Ho Hsin-chuan is a professor in National Chengchi University’s philosophy department.
Translated by Julian Clegg