Deputy Director Central Translation Office and Researcher
LESSONS FROM THE COLLAPSE OF SOVIET COMMUNISM SEEN IN THE LIGHT OF HISTORICAL NIHILISM
December 19 2017
A 2017 document by Ji Zhengju, who works in China’s Central Translation Office (English translation here) attributes the collapse of the Soviet Union to “historical nihilism,” specifically the repudiation of the Soviet heritage by the ruling elite, leading to general social demoralization and a collapse of the legitimacy of the system. The Soviet collapse has an understandable fascination for the Chinese rulers. Only China, along with North Korea and Vietnam, survived the general crumbling of the socialist systems between 1989 and 1992, but given the structural similarities between the Chinese and the Soviet Russian systems, the Chinese rulers have to fear that what happened to the Russians could happen to them. A survey of the various Chinese explanations for the Soviet collapse, taking into account the Chinese context of the time at which they were offered, would be an interesting exercise for a student of comparative politics.
Luo Yuan (罗援, b. 1950), a retired PLA rear admiral, is known for his hardline anti-American views. The speech at an awards ceremony for defense scientists and engineers, translated/paraphrased here, is a reaction to the so-called trade war initiated by US President Donald Trump in the spring of 2018, imposing higher tariffs on various Chinese imports. The action was the product of long-standing American complaints against Chinese practices: overt and covert state subsidies to state-owned enterprises or nominally private enterprises actually controlled by the state; restrictions on foreign firms operating in China; forced technology transfers; casual theft of intellectual property . . . The heat of the conflict was no doubt enhanced by China’s growing economic power, its spreading global influence, and ever-improving military capacity—and perhaps reinforced by certain personality traits of the American president.
Xu Zhangrun (許章潤, b. 1962)，who taught jurisprudence and constitutional law at Tsinghua University (until he was suspended March of 2019), in the summer of 2018 published an extensive critique of recent political trends in China. While not actually mentioning Xi Jinping by name, Xu rakes the general secretary over the coals, tearing down Xu’s program, mocking the “China Dream,” and targeting especially the elimination of “term limits” for the head of state. In the decades prior to the 19th Party Congress in 2018, the constitution limited the head of state (State Chairman, nowadays usually translated “President”) to two terms of five years each. This was removed in the spring of 2019. China’s head of state is pretty much a ceremonial office (the control of government operations is vested in the Premier of the State Council, and the real boss of the regime is the General Secretary of the Communist party, a position Xi Jinping holds as well as his State Chairmanship). The elimination of this term limit is, then, symbolic: it indicates Xi’s intention to remain as top boss indefinitely, perhaps for the rest of his life. Xu takes this as indicative of the end of the reform movement that began shortly after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, a sign that China is moving backwards toward a Stalinist-Maoist totalitarian system. Continue reading Some Reflections on Xu Zhangrun’s “Our Current Fears and Expectations” (July 24 2019)
The dragon is a gentle beast. If you indulge him and humor him, you may ride on his back. But beneath his throat there are transverse scales a foot long, and if you touch those scales, he will kill you. The lord of men also has transverse scales. Someone who is able to avoid touching the ruler’s transverse scales is well on the way to mastering the art of persuasion.
This is a passage from the Han Feizi, considered to be one of the early masterpieces of Chinese prose. The book named for its assumed author, Han Fei (c.279-233 BC), the major thinker in the “Legalist” tradition. The Legalists believed that the way to public order was through a strict set of laws rigorously and impartially enforced. They assumed human beings were inherently self-seeking: each one of us is out for one’s self. The way to stable order is to assure that good behavior, as set forth in the laws, is rewarded, and that violations of the laws punished. Good behavior will then accord with self-interest. There is much in Han Fei’s thinking that is consistent with contemporaryrational choice theory.