Yesterday, I wrote about how the battle over ideas — or, more appropriately at times, ideologies — has shown signs of heating up in China in recent months. The hawks of China’s Maoist “left” have stepped out more boldly, and we have seen at the same time that the pro-reform “right” has become exertive, perhaps a reason itself for so much leftist drum-beating. Today, I want to look at another political/intellectual force that has gained some momentum inside the Party, and which I will resist labeling except through the man who stands at its center — the writer and thinker Zhang Musheng (张木生).

Zhang Musheng, whom many fans describe as an intellectual powerhouse, is an expert on rural development. His book A Study of Problems Facing China’s Farmers (中国农民问题学习) was quite influential among educated youth in the 1960s, and ushered him on to the intellectual scene. The book and its core views also influenced the rural economic system reforms that followed from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.

It so happens that Zhang Musheng is also a former protege of Chen Yizi (陈一咨), the Chinese Communist Party reformer who ran the Research Institute for the Reform of the Economic System in the 1980s, and in this capacity was a key advisor to former Premier Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳), and who fled China following the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, eventually founding the Center for Modern China in Princeton, New Jersey.

Zhang is important now because he and his latest book have come to represent a certain political force in China, promoting the idea of “new democracy to save the Chinese Communist Party” (新民主主义救中共). He has said in a provocative affirmation of Chinese Communist Party rule that stresses the demand for change: “Only the Chinese Communist Party can save China; only new democracy can save the Chinese Communist Party.”

More on that in a moment . . .

Zhang is backed politically by a number of important leaders in China’s military, including Liu Yuan (刘源), the son of Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇), the former chairman of the People’s Republic of China (1959-1968) who was labeled a “traitor” and finally ousted by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution in 1968 (and was a big fan of new democracy, which Mao was not). It was Liu Yuan who wrote the preface to Zhang’s new book. A serious test of translation powers, the preface is a passionately worded, almost snarling piece that discusses history, culture, national identity and war — and of course new democracy.

Here are two choice quotes from Liu Yuan’s preface:

“If China hopes to roll with the globalization trend of “democracy,” I’m afraid it will be like drawing a tiger and ending up with the likeness of a dog, not getting at all what we expected. Rather than bringing in a stone that might shatter the jade [ie, result in chaos], why don’t we just have confidence and just use our native born new democracy, which Chinese Communist Party member Mao Zedong raised and Liu Shaoqi put into practice?”

“In the path our nation has taken, we have really tossed about. The American, Japanese and Soviet systems, we’ve eaten them raw and skinned them alive, copying them entirely. The Yugoslavian, Singaporean and Hungarian models, we’ve treated them like quick-fix cures. Shock therapy, color revolutions, crumbling and changing flags, these too have been recommended to us like magic turtle soups. [Zhang] Musheng uses the metaphor that we’ve ingested a thousand remedies to the point that we suffer from vomiting and diarrhoeia.”

Here are some quick Cliff Notes from CMP Director Qian Gang on what “new democracy” refers to:

Before the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, the banner it held up was that of new democracy (新民主主义). At that time, the Communist Youth League was actually called the Youth League for New Democracy (新民主主义青年团). New democracy is not the same as socialism. It preserves aspects of capitalism, including the protection of individual economic activity in the countryside. Mao Zedong wrote an essay called, “The Doctrine of New Democracy” (新民主主义论). But Mao Zedong hoped to move quickly to socialism, and so he did not favor new democracy. By contrast, Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇) was much more in favor of new democracy. In the early stages of the PRC, he encouraged capitalists to develop the economy. In 1956, the CCP completed its so-called “socialist transformation” (社会主义改造) and moved from new democracy to socialism.

As I suggested, Zhang Musheng’s book is creating something of a splash this month. A recent “forum” in Beijing to introduce the book, Changing Our View of Culture and History (改造我们的文化历史观) — published by the Military Affairs and Science Press — was reportedly attended by a powerful constellation of political, military and intellectual stars. Liu Yuan was there. So were five other top People’s Liberation Army generals. So were key figures associated with the left. So were former Freezing Point deputy editor (and CMP fellow) Lu Yuegang (卢跃刚), Caixin Media editor-in-chief (and CMP fellow) Hu Shuli (胡舒立), and Yanhuang Chunqiu editor-in-chief (and CMP fellow) Wu Si (吴思).

“Guests came from the fields of military affairs, history, economics, education and other areas, offering multiple perspectives for interpretation of the book [and its significance],” wrote the Beijing Morning Post.

As I mentioned yesterday, this is a time when internal Party rancor seems to be rising and China’s patina of exuberance is backgrounded by deep sense of insecurity and foreboding. Thirty years of economic development have indeed achieved a “miracle.” But what now? How do we deal with the mountain of crippling problems that stem from that very success? An endemic culture of corruption, a yawning gap between rich and poor, growing social instability. Arguably, that anxiety is felt more keenly on the right, perhaps best encompassed by Wen Jiabao’s portentous words in Shenzhen: “Without the protection afforded by political reforms, we will lose the gains [we have made] through economic reforms, and our goal of modernization cannot be achieved.”

Zhang Musheng and Liu Yuan, too, suggest China is at a political/social/economic crossroads. But their focus — not easily characterized as “left” or “right” — is on returning to the Chinese Communist Party to this root idea of new democracy. Some see Zhang Musheng as a practical thinker and a division healer. As Major General Liu Yuan writes approvingly: “What he calls for is a straightforward building of institutions, not for political slogans and claptrap. His mastery surpasses the ‘new left’ and the ‘old right’, passes the ‘mainstream’ and the ‘non-mainstream.'”

I can’t comment on Zhang straightforwardness, but it is clear that however Liu Yuan may affect a distaste for “political slogans and claptrap,” he is certainly a fan of “new democracy” as the best new slogan for a re-invigorated Chinese Communist Party.

And that may be exactly the point. For Liu Yuan, the “new democracy” his father hoped to put into practice may be the best slogan to take the Party beyond the internal rancor, throw a “democratic” bone to the mob, and preserve the very lucrative status quo of crony capitalism (权贵资本主义).

At any rate, Zhang Musheng is someone to keep an eye on — as are his influential fans. For a bit more background, the following is a translation of Zhang’s recent interview with Netease Books about his latest work and his views on the current situation facing China. Of particular interest is his reading of “great nation” histories as histories of imperial plunder. That is a reading that cannot apply to China, however, which has risen without foreign conquest. So he concludes, talking about the exploitation of farmers as the root of China’s miracle: “We have plundered ourselves.”


Zhang Musheng Discusses New Democracy and the Future of China’s Reforms
May 9, 2011
Netease Books

Zhang Musheng says, only the Chinese Communist Party can save China; only new democracy can save the Chinese Communist Party. You can choose not to believe him, but you must not be silent, nor do you have cause for concern. You must engage him in debate. The age of “avoiding debate” (不争论) has passed, he says. We have drilled through “chaos”, and an age of “debate” is coming. Tolerance is more important than freedom. Truth (if there is such a thing), will certainly become clearer the more it is debated.

Interviewer: Lei Tian (雷天)
Interviewee: Zhang Musheng (张木生)

Editor’s Notes: A discussion forum on the release of a new book recently drew participation from six People’s Liberation Army generals, and the gathering had all the trappings of a strategic planning session ahead of battle. It was a roomful of people, old, middle-aged and young, concerned about their country and their people. General Liu Yuan (刘源), the son of former PRC Chairman Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇) “made a great effort” to recommend this new book, Changing Our View of Culture and History (改造我们的文化历史观). The author of this new book, Zhang Musheng (张木生), created a “Zhang Musheng whirlwind” among educated youth in the 1960s with his book A Study of Problems Facing China’s Farmers (中国农民问题学习), in which his core views pointed the way to the rural economic system reforms that would follow more than a decade later. He uses a single phrase to describe the gist of this new book: “By reading the words of Li Ling (李零), we can plan the destiny of our nation.”

Just a few days after this small-scale but high-quality discussion forum, the liberal scholar Xiao Han (萧瀚) sent out a microblog post saying that this book was “a furtive expression of new nationalism (新国家主义),” and that it “would possibly become one source of the next set of state ideological theories.”

Is this new nationalism? And will it become a source for state ideological theory? That’s hard to say.

But “furtive” is something one cannot see — this is clearly a manifesto.

Talking with Mr. Zhang Musheng has three great advantages. The first is that he has quite a temper, but he does not flaunt his seniority, even if you ask him: Why should the Chinese Communist Party stay in power? He’ll discuss this kind of question directly with you. He is about looking for solutions to suit problems, not seeing posts and deleting them [ie, censoring the views of others]. He speaks energetically and bravely. Secondly, he goes right to the heart of questions, whether he is criticizing absolute power or capitalist logic, and he speaks straightforwardly, with courage and character. Third, since the 1980s, he has stayed clear of politics, and has never stopped reading, and when he speaks he can talk boundlessly, with great knowledge and insight.

He says, only the Chinese Communist Party can save China; and only new democracy can rescue the Chinese Communist Party.

You can choose not to believe him, but you must not be silent, and you need not worry [when you’re interviewing him]. You must debate him. The age of avoiding debate, he says, has passed.

We have drilled through “chaos”, and an age of “debate” is coming. Tolerance is more important than freedom. Truth (if there is such a thing), will certainly become clearer the more it is debated.

Recorded remarks of Zhang Musheng:

We have been brought to this point today under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. This is a historical fact, something irreversible. Nor can we “suppose,” or ask “what if?” I am confident that environments are always stronger than people, and that coming to this point it [the Party] must reform. And so, to use a proverb, “There will be balance [of power], there will be constitutionalism, there will be different parties within the Party, and opening up and freedom of public opinion, including freedom and independence of thought, can all ultimately be resolved within a single party.”

If we had trade unions and farmer’s associations, even under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, and their anti-corruption and balancing mechanisms went further in using the law to check the ruling Party itself, unlike today where everything is bound up together — could it [the Party] not develop in this direction [toward greater democracy]? I believe it is entirely possible. We could surely proceed slowly, step by step. What Hong Kong and Singapore have accomplished, the Chinese Communist Party can surely accomplish.

If the Communist Party does not recover its leadership and control as principally a representative of workers and farmers, then there is no way out for you [the Party] whatsoever, and no legitimacy. So you cannot regard them (the workers and farmers) as [weak and] disadvantaged groups. Today, what kind of farmers are our farmers? On average they have 13.5 years of schooling, and for workers it goes without saying [that this is even higher]. Go back to the past, go back to the era of Mao, and they all belong to what you would call the intellectuals. So these masses aren’t such fools [as you might imagine]. We are talking about 800 million mobile phones sending out short messages, and 460 million notebook computers exchanging ideas. There’s no way of comparing this to your so-called staging demonstrations, airing views and writing big-character posters, or to the great networking — it is so much freer than it was at that time.

I believe there is a group among the next generation of leaders (that have ideals, thinking beyond their own interests). Just think, the 70-80 million members of the Chinese Communist Party largely encompass all of the elite in our society, and the basic question is who should hold the banner [who should lead], who should solve the problems we face. Different environments call for different solutions.

China’s current problem, such a big country, with 1.3 billion people — if you let it take a corrupt path the ordinary people are not going to allow it. The legitimacy of the ruling party will be steadily lost, a problem that is already quite severe. I say this is a burning issue that brooks no delay. There is the problem of heading towards corruption and disintegration, but faced with this danger a group of people rises to face it head on and come up with a solution to the problem . . .

When he was an active Party official, Deng Liqun (邓力群), [a hardline leader of the Central Propaganda Department in the 1980s], pushed the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign [of 1983] and the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign [of 1987]. After he stepped down, he himself wanted democracy, wanted discursive power (话语权). Now our Party is so open-minded that it can support an extreme leftist Utopia [online publication] and a rather right internal Party journal like Yanhuang Chunqiu.

The “falsehood, bluster and emptiness” (假大空) of our bureaucrats today stems from a lack of confidence, this lack of confidence is because they have no true beliefs or convictions, and without true beliefs or convictions what are they to China? What does China want? What is China? They aren’t clear about it. So now we talk about our (officials) also becoming disadvantaged groups. Why is that? Because they have power, and power brings corruption, and the outcome of corruption is that they might possibly be found out by the people [through the Internet, by media, etcetera]. So they believe they are weak because even though there are loopholes in internal Party supervision [that they can exploit], they can’t say exactly when they might be dragged out by the public, particularly in this information age, with our Internet society. So they feel that they’re now soft and time — these are their reasons.

Today you don’t just have collusion between bureaucrats and capital, commercial profiteers propping up corrupt officials. You also have the commercializing of leadership, the capitalization of power, and the criminal networking of political power, all very serious.

I’m not saying there’s not crony capitalism, there is. But it’s wrong to use crony capitalism to define the nature of society. Can crony capitalism really become an “ism”? Does it have the capacity to become an “ism”? What banner does crony capitalism hold up? Clearly, it cannot be a doctrine unto itself. It cannot become a kind of independent force. It has to borrow other doctrines to make its bread. What we are playing with now is a form of “chaos”, and this “chaos” must be broken up.

The Dream of a Strong Nation is Actually a Dream of National Plunder (强国梦其实是抢国梦)
[NOTE: This phrase, which Zhang Musheng uses in the interview below, plays on a homonym of the words “strong” and “rob”, which are both pronounced qiang but with different tones and characters.]

Netease Books: Hello, Teacher Zhang. I’m really happy you agreed to do this interview with Netease. I’ve read your book Changing Our View of Culture and History, and I’ve reviewed your speeches and previous essays. In your book, and in various speeches, you’ve said that “if the Communist Party does not represent the majority of people, it is definitely finished.” Last year, the “My Father is Li Gang” case had a major impact, both online and in print media, and it should be seen as a classic case of conflict between the government and the people. Chairman Mao once said, “The world is yours, and it is also ours, but when it comes down to it, it is yours.” But this saying has been changed by web users to say that “when it comes down to it, it is the government’s.” In many cases, including the recent Yao Jiaxin Case (药加鑫案) and others before, we see that web users immediately go and make conjectures about possible government connections. So we can see that officials now have amassed substantial popular grievance. In your book you talk about how the old man Du Runsheng (杜润生), [a former CCP central official who helped frame China’s rural policies in the 1950s-1970s], once mentioned in an essay one grassroots cadre’s views at the time. And you said that when the system was right, they [the cadres] were the ones doing good things; and when the system was wrong, it was very possibly they who were doing bad things. How do you view the current bureaucracy? Do you feel that [political] system reforms are hanging over our heads?

Zhang Musheng: First I just want to say that you pack a whole lot of questions all into one pile. In fact, the core of what you are asking is about these three decades of economic reform. In my own words I would say that [economic reforms] have gained great achievements such as the world could never have imagined, and have also brought major problems such as the world has never before solved. These problems are what in the past the ordinary people quite directly referred to as cadre-mass tensions (干群矛盾). Now we call them government-public tensions (干群矛盾). These tensions have already reached the point where they are irreconcilable and must be resolved.

You ask whether [reforms are] hanging over our heads. I would say they can’t for a moment be delayed. Actually, there is no need for me to answer you. Comrade Wu Bangguo (吴邦国) already said it during this [year’s] “two meetings” [of the NPC and CPPCC], “Reform and opening can wait, the problems of the people (民生问题) must be moved to the front.” Perhaps 80 percent of what Premier Wen Jiabao said in his press conference was on the issues of the people’s livelihood (民生问题). He even said a mass of flattering tongues isn’t work a single man speaking the truth — I’ll listen to whomever can speak the truth [NOTE: This phrase borrows from Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian from the 1st century BC]. All of this had an attitude of urgency, not brooking delay.

A most basic difference here, actually, if we want to resolve tensions between the government and the people, a mainstream view with a strong following holds that, you’ve read [economist] Wu Jinglian’s (吴敬琏) books on 30 years and 60 years, [I suppose, meaning Major Trends in Chinese Reform: the Next 30 Years and 60 Years of China’s Economy]. I’m guessing you’ve definitely read these.

Netease Books: Yes, I’ve read them.

Zhang Musheng: And then there are the suggestions of Qin Xiao (秦晓). As soon as he stepped down [as chief of China Merchants Group] he couldn’t restrain himself, but had to declare himself a firm believer in universal values. The media are not even worth mentioning, probably a landslide [in favor of universal values]. Which is to say that the solutions you guys (the Communist Party) once had are no longer of use. Only universal values will do, it’s only a question of degree. For example, Du Daozheng (杜导正) [of the liberal Party journal Yanhuang Chunqiu] believes that the CCP [can/should] lead, but that the Party must reform, that it must change. Zhu Houze (朱厚泽) has even said, if you guys (the Communist Party) hope you can return to [ideas of] new democracy (新民主主义) you can’t possibly solve the problems [we face]. Li Shenzhi (李慎之), [the prominent public intellectual and former Chinese Academy of Social Sciences deputy director who passed away in 2003], wrote in Fifty Years of Somber Wind and Rain (风雨苍黄50年) that you . . .

Netease Books: . . . You just call it quits.

Zhang Musheng: Call it quits. The other day, [during the forum attended by General Liu Yuan], Wu Si (吴思) said that in the past our belief in Marxism was premised entirely on the idea that capitalism could not resolve its own problems, but in fact experience has shown that capitalism has been able to resolve its problems in every successive crisis it has faced.

Netease Books: Yes, including the recent financial crisis.

Zhang Musheng: Including this recent financial crisis. Everyone says this, whether you’re talking about the mainstream media [ie, Party media] or many thinkers. Meanwhile, those who are on the left, relatively speaking, like Zhang Quanjing (张全景) [of the CCP’s Party Building Directorate] or Li Shenming (李慎明), [vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences], talk a lot of things that are our (Communist Party) traditions, our traditional theories. But what notions do they give the ordinary people? They are too old. Like Cheng Enfu (程恩富), setting up a Marxism Research Institute in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and he’s given so much investment. All other sections of [CASS] must step aside for them, but the ordinary people have no interest at all in what they have to say — it’s just too old.

Netease Books: That’s right.

Zhang Musheng: So this brings us to how I see these issues. On the one hand, I think that the most ultimate questions the world faces are ones for which ready answers can’t be given. If I have to say I have an ace in the hole, something I prescribe that I guarantee can cure any problem whatsoever, and I can guarantee too that it won’t have any bad side effects, that’s definitely a fake medicine I’m offering. This is what I think.

But all major questions are resolved little by little, step by step, with the passing of time. The methods of the past, all these methods of rebellion, methods of revolution, methods of betterment, methods of reform. All of these are particular solutions for particular problems [ie, on a case-by-case basis]. Today if you ask me to make a judgement, I would say that while China faces major problems, it has also amassed capital such as it might never have imagined before.

Netease Books: Yes.

Zhang Musheng: Today our state-owned enterprises, if they make real calculations, hold capital of around 100 trillion yuan in capital. In terms of deposits, both domestic and overseas, they hold about 100 trillion. So concerning the problems we face that we must solve, we have the material means, and this is different from the past.

Netease Books: Can you talk about where this money has come from? Should we explore the origins of this money?

Zhang Musheng: About the origins of this money, let me tell you the simplest of truths. Our 250 million farmers have, in the three decades of economic reform and opening, contributed 200,000 square kilometers of land (300 million Chinese mu), and on this 200,000 square kilometers of land, some have made only 1,000 yuan per mu, and at the most others have made 20-30,000 yuan per mu. But they have generated an economic miracle. Last year, land transference fees (土地出让金) in our country amounted to 2.9 trillion yuan (445.7 billion US$), once again having a massive price scissors effect (剪刀差) on our farmers.

This is one [source]. There is another [source], and I’ll just list one example here, looking at our farmers. These 250 million farmers, some people have estimated this, they have created the equivalent of about 60 trillion US dollars in export products, creating for the country foreign exchange reserves of around three trillion [US$]. Of course, while you can’t say this was all their doing, they constitute the chief force of manufacturing, and this is a basic fact. So I think we can say quite clearly where this material base we now have came from.

If you look at our total consumption, our household consumption, it stands at only 35 percent of GDP. In the United States that figure is 70 percent. So how is it that our government in China has managed to become the world’s richest government? It’s not just richer than America in relative terms, but richer in absolute terms. This can all be accounted for.

Netease Books: You say in your book that the primitive accumulation of imperialism, including capitalism, lay principally with the plundering of other nations, using war to plunder the resources and markets of other countries.

Zhang Musheng: The dream of the great nation is the dream of the “take nation” (强国梦是”抢国梦”).

Netease Books: That’s right, the “dream of the take nation.” So what about socialism? Especially in the case of China, [what can we say about] the primitive [capital] accumulation of socialism [?]. That there were no resources to be taken from other countries, so [we have] plundered our own people [?].

Zhang Musheng: We have plundered ourselves. When you plunder yourself you can take quite a bit as well, particularly in a country like ours with such a massive population.

Netease Books: So farmers are the subject [of the plundering]. And the first phase is the plundering of our peasants through industrialization (工业化抢农民). The second phase, the urbanization process of opening and reform [ie, the period roughly since the mid-1990s], also plunders the farmers. So now, having amassed such capital, how do we bring about the next stage of reforms?

Zhang Musheng: This is not where the debate is focused right now. The topic to be debated is how the Chinese Communist Party is unable to solve the problem of corruption, how the Chinese Communist Party is unable itself to solve the problem of checks and balances. [NOTE: Zhang’s point is that first the internal problems facing the Party must be addressed, then the question can be asked about where reforms should head next.]