Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 30 November 2010

Ma Licheng on the Say No Club

A long essay by Ma Licheng, a former senior editor of the People’s Daily‘s commentary page, has been circulating on the Chinese Internet. I received it via the mailing list Minjian International.

The essay, entitled “Yawan de shuzhi” (A tree branch pressed into a bough) starts with the mention of two wallets for sale in the fashionable boutiques of Peking’s Shichahai area, with the text “Chinese people must lead everything” (Zhongguoren bixu lingdao yiqie) and “The whole world must speak Chinese” (Quanshijie bixu shuo Zhongwen). The author then lists four articles published in major Chinese newspapers and magazines, from the highbrow Dushu to the popular Xinjing bao  in July-September 2010 warning of the dangers of the current wave of nationalism. It seems that these warnings are sharper and franker than before, and talk critically about anti-Westernism, “anti-Enlightenment” sentiments, “worship of the state,” and even Fascism. The well-known philosophers Yi Zhongtian and Li Zehou warn of a emerging “national socialism” (guojia shehuizhuyi) that risks to result in warmongering abroad and dictatorship at home.

Much of the essay is taken up by tracing the lineage of the Say No books, of which he reviews eight, along with the responses they elicited. He notes that China’s Not Happy (2009) was met with more ridicule than enthusiasm, and concludes that “Chinese society has begun to mature.”

Ma also reviews two 2010 publications. Zhongguomeng (The Chinese Dream) was written by Liu Mingfu, head of the Institute of Army Construction (budui jianshe, meaning organisational build-up) at the University of National Defense. Liu takes explicit issue with the idea of “peaceful rise” and suggests that China’s rise may have to be accompanied by warfare, a point advocated by other Say No writers (who, however, are not active military officers). He also claims that “China has the cultural gene for being the leader of the world,” a particulary ingenious alloy of social Darwinism, cultural nationalism, and violence-mongering.

The second 2010 book is Zhongguo zhanqilai (China stands up) by former liberal Moluo, who similarly prophesies that “in the future, the world will be politically united by the Chinese people” and described “Western civilization” as diseased cells.  Moluo reserves the brunt of his invective for the May 4 movement’s leading intellectuals: Cai Yuanpei, Chen Duxiu (a founding father of Chinese Communism), Lu Xun, and Hu Shi. In contrast, he gives Hitler and even Japanese militarism some credit for their willingness to stand up to Anglo-American hegemony. In a Nietzschean vein (which also echoes the Leninist approach to ethics, albeit from the perspective of nation rather than class), Moluo states that “the difference between saint and devil has nothing to do with personal morality; rather, it depends entirely on which country’s interests he serves [and] which country’s lives he harms.”

I have not tried to trace Ma’s intellectual background, but it seems reminiscent of a 1980s “reform socialist” who has some sympathy for liberal ideals but not for cultural relativism or for the post-1990 New Left, and remains rooted in an earlier CCP rhetoric (he quotes Deng Xiaoping to support his arguments). Ma states squarely that there are “two types of nationalism: one is healthy nationalism,” like that of Sun Yat-sen, Kemal Atatürk, or Gandhi (?!), and “perverted nationalism,” like that of Napoleon, Mussolini, or Hitler — and that of the Chinese nationalists he criticizes. (Where would Ma put Stalin?)

Ma suggests that Chinese nationalist thinkers generally come from the “left,” and indeed that “in Chinese conditions, the ‘left’ and nationalism are blood brothers.” This seems to be a simplification, as until the 1999 book China’s Road in the Shadow of Globalization, Chinese nationalists were not antiglobalist, and even since then, only some of them show concern for social justice. Moluo is no leftist by any stretch of the imagination. Nonetheless, there might indeed be a growing coalescence between nationalist and labour or rural concerns, which could either be a decisive setback for the identification of these concerns with the liberal human-rights set, or eventually turn them into a battleground between the two, not unlike in pre-1949 China. Indeed, as I recently heard in a presentation by David Palmer, the conservative grassroots charity Yidan Xuetang in Peking, whose main activity is reciting Confucian scriptures in public, is encouraging its members to go to villages and reconnoitre local conditions; it also publishes works by 1940s Confucian rural-betterment activists such as Liang Shuming.

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