“Interview with Professor Yu Keping: Solving the Riddle of China’s Governance”
Introduction and Translation by David Ownby
Yu Keping (b. 1959) is University Chair Professor, former Dean of the School of Government, and Founding Director of the Research Center for Chinese Politics at Peking University in China. He might be seen as among the most “establishment” of Chinese establishment intellectuals, having served as the Former Deputy President of the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, as well as the founding Director of China Center for Comparative Politics and Economics, as well as participating in any number of other initiatives linked to the Party Center. Yu’s influence is suggested by the fact that he was selected in 2008 as one of the 30 most influential figures since reform and opening, and ranked among the “2011 Global Top 100 Thinkers” by Foreign Policy magazine in the United States. More recently, he was selected as the “Most Influential Scholar of 2015” by the Chinese News Weekly, and in 2017, Chinese Social Science Commentary named him the most influential Chinese political scientist in China between 2006 and 2016.
In the West, Yu probably best known for his work Democracy is a Good Thing (English translation published in 2010), among other similar writings (for a sample of his work in English, click here). My impression had been that Yu’s star rose—and then declined—in the decade or so preceding Xi Jinping’s rise to power, and that he had been to some extent shunted aside more recently, but such is not the picture Yu paints in the interview translated here, the first in a series on governance launched by the review Public Management and Policy Commentary 公共管理与政策评论.
Indeed, in this interview, Yu Keping presents himself as a happy warrior, delighted to be a scholar and an educator, and equally thrilled to fulfill his responsibilities as a citizen by working with the Party Center when possible. Cynics may find Yu hard to believe, but I must confess that he reminded me of my former teacher and boss (when I was a graduate student teaching assistant), Ezra Vogel of Harvard University, recently deceased, who consistently exuded a similar air of can-do optimism and shuttled regularly between the worlds of academics, politics, and business. The interview makes no pretense of being “hard-hitting,” and I am sure that, as a veteran insider, Yu has seen his share of power plays and political deals, but I for one am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and imagine that his optimism and spirit of commitment are genuine.
The general topic of the interview is “governance,” a buzzword that became popular in a number of contexts in the 1990s, which is China can either serve as a New Left excuse for Chinese authoritarianism (“responsive governance in China outperforms supposedly representative government in Western democracies;” see authors like Wang Shaoguang on this site), or as a means by which Chinese Liberals can attempt to nudge the Chinese government toward political reforms without pushing the envelope overmuch. As a Liberal, Yu Keping is very much in this second camp, and the arguments he makes in the interview strike me as largely consistent with those we find in Democracy is a Good Thing.
Yu’s approach is that of a consensus builder. Aristotle was right, he says clearly, that democracy is the best form of government, and China is not yet democratic in an Aristotelian sense. At the same time, China is functional and improving. Given the positive developments of the past few decades, Yu argues that the way to move forward is to focus not on the manifest differences between Western democracies and Chinese politics, but on the positive aspects of China’s governance, which he sees as seeds for future progress. Viewing things in this manner, Yu can attempt to make common cause with New Left figures who have a different agenda, and with policy-makers and officials who want results, at the same time attempting to push this “coalition” in his direction. In such a fashion, Yu’s optimism can be sincere and strategic at the same time.
Readers will draw their own conclusions, as Yu’s sunny depiction of China’s future possibilities is quite at odds with much of what we read in the Western press. In any event, the interview is an interesting overview of Yu’s life as a student, scholar, and “insider activist.”
My thanks to Alex Li for drawing my attention to this text.
“When Westerners talk about politics, they mean the multi-party system, free elections of national leaders, the tripartite division of power, etc. From this perspective it is true that we have hardly changed at all. Where have we changed? Our changes are changes in governance, and our state governance is changing. There have been changes between the center and the regions, the government is evolving from a control posture to a service posture and from rule by people toward rule by law, information about politics is changing from closed to open, we are beginning to emphasize democratic rule, rule through law, and scientific governance. None of these changes are what Western scholars see as political change, but they are changes in governance. Those of us who do research should be clear on the point that people have different understanding of the meaning of politics.”
“At the time, many people were advocating political reform, including myself. But political reform is always a bit sensitive, while governance reform is a utilitarian ideal, and there are not many people who oppose it. In addition, governance also provides a tool for general understanding, a common language allowing political science, economics, and other disciplines to communicate. When I was introducing governance theory from outside of China, there were people who copied my articles. This didn’t really upset me, because it showed that people accepted the idea. In the early 21st century, governance has become a hot topic in scholarship, and after the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee in November of 2012, the CCP took the promotion of the modernization of the national governance system and capacity as the overall goal in comprehensively deepening reform, questions of governance advanced to become a hot topic throughout society.”
“But there are many problems that have not been solved. One is social justice, such as the inequalities between rich and poor, city and countryside and various regions, the ‘three big gaps.’ A second is a realistic plan to identify a set of core values. Core values are great, and among the twelve core values, six are political values. But if we want to do more than preach these values, if we want to promote their implantation into society, we need institutions and measures. Before I left the Central Translation Bureau 中央编译局 and returned to Peking University, the last article I wrote for the Peking Daily was entitled ‘We Need to Take Core Values Seriously.’ Right now there are slogans about core values plastered all over the place, but we have to take them seriously, and really go put them into practice. In the absence of democracy, freedom and justice, what is socialism? The reason why socialism is superior to capitalism is because we do a better job on the core values of humanity.”
“The second is to study the modernization of governance with Chinese characteristics, or to look at what is particular about the Chinese version of the modernization of state governance. I think there is still work to be done on this topic. Current official discourse insists that the leadership of the CCP is the most important characteristic, which is indeed an objective fact. But it is too simplistic to believe that if such is the case, there is no need to study the special characteristics of Chinese governance. We need to use academic language and to approach things from the perspective of scholarship, of political science in order to find out what the true special characteristics of Chinese governance are. I am engaged in this kind of work, and when exchanging with scholars outside of China on the topic, I distinguish between official discourse and scholarly discourse. Internationally, people will only accept or admit that Chinese governance is different if we use academic discourse in our generalizations about its special characteristics. But differences and similarities are two sides of the same coin, so a very important question is to identify points of commonality that will enable people outside of China to understand Chinese governance.”
Links to other texts on this site
For texts related to the theme of the CCP, click here.
For texts related to the theme of democracy, click here.
For texts related to the theme of intellectuals, click here. Translation
True Idealism : The Long Road to Knowledge
Question: Professor Yu, could we ask you to first think back on your life as a student from your undergraduate years through your doctorate?
Yu Keping: In 1978, I was working in the production brigade of Zhuji village in Zhejiang, and was deputy brigade head and crop planter, so we might say that I climbed directly out of the fields to take the university entrance exam. My experience as a farmer in my youth left a deep impression on me, and later on when I studied governance, or did research on state developmental strategy, I always thought about what everyday people would think, what impacts these policies would have on them. This became the baseline for my scholarship, a feeling that originated from those early experiences. From the age of 7 I started grazing the oxen for the production brigade, and in school I was always class monitor 班长, which means that I was “king of the children” [reference to a Chen Kaige film from 1987] from a young age.
Before I went to university, I was always interested in natural sciences, or science and engineering. Already in middle school I could make a primitive musket and gunpowder, and I remember trying to make a “permanent magnet.” At the time, people of my generation particularly worshipped Chairman Mao, and it was because of listening to Chairman Mao that I later switched to the social sciences. Chairman Mao said that history was important, philosophy was important, and that politics was even more important, so in university I majored in history, and then at Shaoxing Teachers College 绍兴师专 (now Shaoxing Institute for the Humanities 绍兴文理学院) I was in the Department of Political History. I did my Master’s at Xiamen University in Philosophy, and then my Ph.D. at Peking University in Political Science.
When I applied to the Master’s program I had not yet finished my undergraduate degree, and had no background in the department to which I was applying, and the application for graduate school asked for a certificate saying that I had the appropriate “or equivalent” background. At the time, the head of the Department at Shaoxing Teachers College thought that I was a very good writer, and went out of his way to persuade the dean to issue the certificate of equivalence. To do this is really quite exceptional for a student who had not yet finished, so I have always been grateful to these teachers.
As a graduate student, I switched to philosophy. In the Philosophy Department of Xiamen University I studied Western philosophy and Marxist philosophy, and my Master’s thesis was on the famous English socialist theorist and politician Harold Laski’s (1893-1950) theory of the state. At the time, there were no reference books in Chinese, and my English wasn’t that good, but all I could do was grit my teeth and read the materials in English.
While studying for my Master’s I did something really crazy. In the library I ran across Quentin Skinner’s (b. 1940) The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, and started to translate it, because I thought it was really good. I translated the whole thing, both volumes of it, over 600,000 words, all by hand, because I didn’t have a computer. In 2017, Quentin Skinner visited Peking University, and I hosted a lecture that he gave. When we met, I told him that I had translated his book into Chinese while doing my Master’s, and showed him the draft manuscript. He was amazed, and said “That’s astonishing!” At the time, it was truly a case of the “new born calf does not fear the tiger 初生牛犊不怕虎,” an M.A. student who dared to translate such a huge work.
Just when I had almost finished my Master’s, Peking University for the first time started taking applications from people wanting to do a doctorate in political science, so I applied. There is a story connected to the application process. My M.A. thesis director Zou Yongxian 邹永贤 (b. 1925) believed that the best students should go into academics, the next best work as government officials, and the rest should go into business. He thought I was a good student, and tried to convince me to stay at Xiamen University.
Professor Zou had a high opinion of me, and said that if I stayed, he would put me in charge of a translation series on politics and law. But I had set my sights on studying political science, so I didn’t let Professor Zou know I was applying to Peking University. At this very moment, Xiamen University was setting up a Political Science Institute, and Professor Zou was being promoted from department chair to Dean of the institute, and the new department chair gave me the certificate I needed to apply to Peking University without telling Professor Zou. When he found out later on, Professor Zou threw a fit, but the ship had already sailed, and I was fortunate enough to become part of the first cohort of political sciences Ph.Ds. in the New China.
Looking back at my experience going from Shaoxing Teachers College to Peking University, the biggest change is that the atmosphere surrounding study and research went through changes similar to those in the move from a planned economy to a market economy. Shaoxing Teachers College was like high school, and in every class the teacher would lead the students through a review of the material learned in the previous class, and drill us on the core issues. Arriving at Peking University, it was like we had already transitioned to the market economy, and the motivation to study shifted from outer to inner.
Doctoral programs in China now have many strict requirements, to the point that this is becoming a problem. When I was a part of the international evaluation of Beijing University’s interdisciplinary programs, I actively pushed for changes in the regulations requiring doctoral candidates to publish articles. When I was studying for my doctorate I basically did not go to class, to say nothing of having requirements to publish articles, yet my motivation to study seemed to me greater than what I see in today’s students. When I was a doctoral student I wrote a dozen or so articles, which over time were published in a few social science journals that were little read at the time. Everything I did in terms of study and research as a doctoral student was accomplished through self-study.
Outside of Marxist historical materialism, there was very little in terms of social science methodology when I was a student. To fill in this methodological gap, I read a great many works on political science methodology in English, and took a lot of notes. I eventually organized these notes into a book, called New Methods in Western Political Analysis, which was published by the press of Renmin University. This was my first scholarly book, and was completed while I was a doctoral student. At the time there was no pressure to write articles or books, and everything depended on your individual motivation. Today I often tell students that you have to rely on yourselves to study, because external pressure won’t last forever. You have to make this into internal motivation to make progress in your research, and genuinely motivate yourself to stick to your program.
In the course of my education, the thing with the greatest influence on me was the transdisciplinary training I received over the course of the three phases of my undergraduate, M.A., and Ph.D. programs, which has been meaningful throughout my whole life. Every discipline has its purpose, which will broaden your perspective and enrich your methods. So the impact on interdisciplinarity has had a lasting and deep influence on my scholarship.
Question: In the course of your studies, what aspect of education at the time had the greatest influence on you?
Yu Keping: I think that what has had the greatest influence on me is true idealism, a pure idealism of wanting to contribute to the development of the country, the people, and humanity as a whole. People now tend to say “you’re too idealistic,” as if it has become something to make fun of, but it was not like that at the time, it was a genuine idealism. In the case of my own experience, there was a period when Zou Dang 邹谠 (Tang Tsou, 1918-1999), the University of Chicago professor, was a visiting professor at Peking University, and when he learned about my scholarly background he advised me to go learn about cutting-edge work in Western political science.
At the time, this mean rational choice theory, which required basic math skills, which worked out well because I had taken some math courses at university. Zou then recommended to professor Zhao Baoxu 赵宝煦 (1922-2012) that I go the United States to focus on rational choice theory. But after we had gotten through almost all of the procedures, I changed my mind right before I was supposed to leave, telling my professors that I did not want to go to the United States, but instead wanted to study Chinese politics.
What I was thinking at the time was: why should everyone go to the United States and Western countries to study developed countries? We should get foreigners to come here. If we all work hard, it is entirely possible to build China into a country that will be the envy of the world. My belief at the time was that the crucial point in achieving that goal was the political system, so I devoted myself to studying the reform of China’s political system. For this reason, I also changed the topic of my dissertation from “Rational Choice Theory” to “An Analytic Framework for Understanding Contemporary Chinese Politics.”
The second thing that influenced me was a positive spirit, the idea of consistently pursuing the goal I had set for myself, and never allowing obstacles to stand in my way. People of my generation have experienced so many difficulties, and at the time, all sorts of conditions were shabby. When I was studying at Shaoxing Teachers College, there weren’t enough dorm rooms, so we lived in a jail they had just cleared out for us. This is what fostered my positive attitude, and taught me not to fear hardships. Now I often tell my students: “Until you’re 45, don’t even mention problems, because if everything falls apart you can simply start over, so what are you worried about?” Whether it is a matter for humanity as a whole or problems at the individual level, there is no hurdle that can’t be cleared. Anything is possible!
A third influence has been good relations between professors and students. This means that teachers have to be responsible to their students, which is very important. Teachers do their utmost to develop their scholarship and their personalities in order to help students. This is a basic thing, and is of great benefit to students. These days relations between professors and students are a bit out of whack, which requires rethinking our norms and correcting certain things, and this goes for both the teachers and the students.
Avoid Left and Right, and Stay on the Correct Path: Work Diligently to Solve the Riddle of Chinese Governance
Question: Why did you choose to study governance? Was there a turning point?
Yu Keping: My interest in studying governance comes from the fact that I like to solve riddles. From the time I was a child I always liked strange stories 传奇故事, and I am a little strange myself, so I have always been interested in solving riddles. My life also straddles the China of before and after reform and opening. Before reform and opening, I worked in a commune production brigade, planting two crops of rice and one crop of wheat every year, getting up before dawn and living in extreme poverty. After reform and opening, everyone suddenly got rich, and the country got powerful, all of which was a huge riddle to me! So I wanted to study and understand the reasons behind all that. How did this huge change occur to the same Chinese people, who were living on the same soil?
I believe that the key to the riddle of Chinese reform lies in a change of governance, which is why I focus on governance. In the 1990s I took up a huge cooperative international project on “The Rise of Civil Society and Governance Change in China.” I was the P.I. for the project, which also included people like Sun Liping 孙利平, Deng Zhenglai 邓正来 (1956-2013), Wang Yizhou 王逸舟(b. 1957), and Liu Junning 刘军宁 (b. 1961), all of whom became well-known scholars in China later on. There were also foreign scholars involved, and they introduced us to governance theory. I thought that this could serve as an analytic framework to look at changes in China, so at the end of the 1990s I oversaw the translation of the book Governance and Good Governance, marking the formal import of these theories into China.
Of course, becoming a scholar was also a result of my personality. I value morality, directness, and saying what I think, which sort of disqualifies me from being an official or a businessman, but I fit the world of scholarship. For me, scholarship is freedom. As a scholar, you can challenge your own IQ. Anything else you do comes with limitations, but there are no limits in scholarship, because there are endless riddles to be solved, which means that you can enjoy your scholarship and enjoy your life.
I have lots of hobbies, including car racing, swimming, target shooting 射击, mountain climbing, playing sports 打球, and playing chess. I like all of these, and I’m pretty good at some of them. For example, there are not many people better than me at mountain-climbing, even young people, and when I’m swimming I have the habit of finishing the last 35 meters under water, without taking a breath. I am someone who likes to explore and challenge himself, which is the same logic as in research.
Question: If solving riddles is your motivations, then what riddles are there in Chinese governance?
Yu Keping: I just published a book on Power and Authority 权力与权威 which includes certain riddles I would like to investigate. The first is Aristotle’s question. Aristotle created many disciplines, including physics, biology, economics, ethics, and political science, but he clearly said that politics is the “most important discipline,” the “most exalted discipline.” Why? If I said “political science is the most important discipline,” people would surely laugh at me. But no one dared to laugh at Aristotle.
I have read Aristotle’s works many times, and came up with my “Aristotle question:” why is it that the same people, in the same place, are sometimes poor and sometimes rich? Sometimes wild and sometimes civilized? Sometimes authoritarian and sometimes democratic? Sometimes conservative and sometimes liberal? Aristotle came up with his own answer: the political system that produces and regulates power. In order to find the ideal political system, the elderly Aristotle led more than a thousand students to examine 158 Greek city-states and write a report on what they found, although because of the ravages of time all we have left of this incomplete work is the Athenian Constitution. What he was looking for was humanity’s most ideal political system, and I think he solved the riddle. In the first issue of the 2020 Peking University Academic Review, I published the results of my latest research on Aristotle’s politics, and I argue that his most ideal government is not authoritarian rule or rule by the nobility, but instead a democratic republic. I invite other scholars to engage with this viewpoint.
The second riddle is why Chinese people locate their ideals in the past rather than in the future. In ancient times, people were “constantly talking about the Three Kings and the Five Emperors,” and even in moments of reform they always wanted to “restore the ancient system.” The ideal system, dear to the hearts of all traditional thinkers, was the Zhou political system. Confucius said: “The Zhou had the advantage of viewing the two past dynasties. How complete and elegant are its regulations! I follow the Zhou." How do we explain this? Why did the politics of the Western Zhou have such charisma, winning over Confucius and other great thinkers?
In premodern times, the only credible documentation existing on the political system of the Western Zhou were the 28 chapters of the new text version of the Shangshu 今文尚书. So to solve this riddle, I started to study the political system of the Western Zhou. This year I published The Western Zhou State as Seen from the Yizhoushu 从逸周书看西周国家形态, and I personally believe that I solved that riddle.
A third riddle is: why do Chinese people worship power and official position? It has been more than a century since the Republican Revolution overthrew the authoritarian dynasty, and the People’s Republic has existed for more than 70 years, so why is the problem of official status still so serious, even in the world of scholarship, which should be the most democratic and equal?
To solve this riddle, I started to systematically study and reflect on the basic nature of China’s traditional society. This involves both a macro-level study of Chinese traditional political culture and political institutions, as well as micro-level study of certain important institutions that people have overlooked, such as the system of conferring posthumous titles 谥法制度. Through my own careful research, I solved the riddle of the worship of power: the basic nature of China’s traditional society was not feudalism, but rather “official status-ism 官本主义,” and power was the basic measure of social value.
The fourth riddle is why do we particularly emphasize the need for the small self to be subordinate to the large self, for small families to be subordinate to great families, individual interests subordinate to the public interest? This cannot be a simple question of values, because if there were no real institutional restraints, people would not consciously allow the individual interests of families to be subordinate to the public interest of the state. Thus, what, finally, are the institutions that are shaping the behavioral model of the Chinese people, and how are they shaping China’s family-state, private groups, and the relationship between private individuals and the public?
I discovered that traditional China’s systems of collective punishment 株连制度, collective security 保甲制度, protection of relatives 荫庇制度, and filial mourning 丁忧制度, all worked to shape and strengthen the idea and value paradigm of the family-state, as well as the integration of loyalty and filial piety, which actually broke down the boundaries between private and public, family and state, society and politics. These are the institutions that shaped the forms of the Chinese relationships between individual and group, pubic and private, family and state. I chose the filial mourning system as a case study, and basically solved the riddle.
Question: We might see riddle-solving as the direct reason that you gravitated toward the study of governance, but might there be a deeper motivation as well?
Yu Keping: Scholars in China and the West are all trying to figure out the riddle of China’s development. The classic Western explanation is that the success of China’s reform is because China first reformed the economy did not reform the political system, while the reason reform in the USSR failed is that they began with political reform and did not reform the economy. The influential scholar Susan Shirk, who wrote a book called The Logic of Political Reform in China, is a representative example.
Chinese scholars don’t quite share this viewpoint. Shirk said that China’s politics has not changed, but this is not true either in our individual experience or at the level of official discourse. In official discourse, whenever reform is mentioned, politics are included, and in terms of practice, our political life has changed a great deal. Beginning from the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CCP Central Committee in December 1978, which replaced “taking class struggle as the key link” with economic construction, there have been political reforms in every Party Congress and every State Council work report. And in fact, changes in our government are not only reflected in discourse, but also in the experience of our individual lives.
Why is there this difference between China and the West? I started to think this over and then realized that the reason is that we don’t share the same understanding of politics. When Westerners talk about politics, they mean the multi-party system, free elections of national leaders, the tripartite division of power, etc. From this perspective it is true that we have hardly changed at all. Where have we changed? Our changes are changes in governance, and our state governance is changing. There have been changes in the relation between the center and the regions, the government is evolving from a control posture to a service posture and from rule by people toward rule by law, information about politics is changing from closed to open, we are beginning to emphasize democratic rule, rule through law, and scientific governance. None of these changes are what Western scholars see as political change, but they are changes in governance. Those of us who do research should be clear on the point that people have different understanding of the meaning of politics.
Question: In the early and middle periods of your study of governance, what particular questions did you feel needed to be studied?
Yu Keping: At the time, the questions I was concerned about all had to do with governance, and all were painful social issues. Polarization was already occurring in the late 1990s, with gaps between rich and poor, the cities and the countryside, and among the regions becoming more important, which I called the “three new gaps.” How were we going to resolve this? At the same time, while the people were getting richer, there was still a great deal of dissatisfaction, as in the expression “the more you have the more you want [literally, “he picks up his bowl and eats the meat, then puts down his chopsticks and yells at his wife” 端起碗吃肉，放下筷子骂娘]. Why is this? It has to do with social justice.
In the late 1990s, the crime rate started to go up. How to solve this problem? At the same time, we started to have environmental problems, that accompanied a new wave of market reforms, a result of producing as much as possible without thinking about the environment. Those of us who work on the problems of the day are sensitive to such things, and I quickly realized that serious problems were emerging. At the time I wrote a series of essays about the price to be paid for the advance of modernization and the populism to which modernization could give rise, calling for more importance to be accorded to fairness and justice, reminding people to focus on the heavy price to be paid for modernization.
My feeling is that these questions can only be resolved through good governance, and mere economic development is not enough. At the time, many people were advocating political reform, including myself. But political reform is always a bit sensitive, while governance reform is a utilitarian ideal, and there are not many people who oppose it. In addition, governance also provides a tool for general understanding, a common language allowing political science, economics, and other disciplines to communicate. When I was introducing governance theory from outside of China, there were people who copied my articles. This didn’t really upset me, because it showed that people accepted the idea. In the early 21st century, governance has become a hot topic in scholarship, and after the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee in November of 2012, the CCP took the promotion of the modernization of the national governance system and capacity as the overall goal in comprehensively deepening reform, and questions of governance became a hot topic throughout society.
Question: Could you give us an overview of the big events in China’s governance that you have experienced?
Yu Keping: I have lived through a lot of big events. First was the Cultural Revolution. I was born in 1959, and was 8 years old when the Cultural Revolution started. During the Cultural Revolution I was a Little Red Guard, and was once commander of the Little Red Guards of our commune. We Little Red Guards also had to manage the “five black categories” in the village, and every morning we led them to do a big clean-up of the village, which I remember very clearly. At the time, I thought, these are good people, so why do we have to struggle them? This had a big influence on me. The fact that I always have seen political participation as my duty and my responsibility has a lot to do with these experiences, which is a special characteristic of our generation. Later came reform and opening, which was the second big thing. To have experienced so many things when I was young moved me a lot, and prompted me to start thinking about politics and governance.
Of course, later on there was the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and just recently Trump’s stepping down after losing the election, both of these are big matters of politics and governance. The coronavirus pandemic is all the more a great event that has impacted all humanity, which once again changed my research field. Some time before the pandemic hit, I had decided to simply do my own thing, meaning that I would read old books, the classics of politics, put together a Comprehensive Mirror of Politics 政治通鉴, study the political thought of the Western Zhou and ancient Greece—I would care about current events but not study them. But the coronavirus pandemic is a huge event touching all of humanity, and I felt that scholars have an obligation to pay attention to it and study it, so I focused part of my attention on things going on in today’s society. Right now I am in charge of a huge project called “The Coronavirus pandemic and state governance,” which is based on comparison of 15 different countries and eight regions of China, a research plan of great significance.
When we experience something important, the first thing to do is to think about it, and from a scholarly perspective, doing your best to find the deeper causes for it. Second, you have to do something, wringing some experience or lesson out of the event. Otherwise how do you exercise your responsibility as a scholar? If I say this to people, a lot of them may laugh at me, but this is really how I think. I talk about scholarship and do research; this is my profession. For me it is not an occupation, but a cause.
Question: Looking back, what are the previously difficult problems of governance for which solutions have been found, and what are problems to which people have not paid much attention but which are starting to stand out?
Yu Keping: The most important difficult question was poverty, which now is basically solved. Poverty is a big problem in the development of humanity, and is not just a Chinese problem. The best thing the CCP has done is to solve the problem of how to feed several hundred million people. Some people may think that this answer suggests that I’m asking too little, because this is a problem that the developed countries solved long ago. But when we look at problems, we need to start from China’s reality. In addition, problems concerning the environment and pollution that I worried about before and beginning to be effectively addressed.
But there are many problems that have not been solved. One is social justice, such as the inequalities between rich and poor, city and countryside and various regions, the “three big gaps.” A second is a realistic plan to identify a set of core values. Core values are great, and among the twelve core values, six are political values. But if we want to do more than preach these values, if we want to promote their implantation into society, we need institutions and measures. Before I left the Central Translation Bureau 中央编译局 and returned to Peking University, the last article I wrote for the Peking Daily was entitled “We Need to Take Core Values Seriously.” Right now there are slogans about core values plastered all over the place, but we have to take them seriously, and really go put them into practice. In the absence of democracy, freedom and justice, what is socialism? The reason why socialism is superior to capitalism is because we do a better job on the core values of humanity.
A third is that the cultural transition remains incomplete. At present, traditional culture, Western culture, and Marxist socialist culture all coexist. My hope is that the three of these can quickly blend to form a new culture. They should not stand in opposition to one another but rather blend together, taking the best of all three to evolve into a new Chinese advanced culture. At present we are divided, and on many questions people oppose one another and fight. This is no big deal if it is just a few people, but if groups start to argue, it means that there is a problem of cultural values. If this problem is not resolved, it means that society can fragment, which can be a big problem.
Question: How should research in Chinese governance evolve? What should its main concerns be?
Yu Keping: I would like to see Chinese research on governance develop in three directions. One would be to study common governance patterns and ideals found throughout humanity. Any great people must have ideals for the future. Ideals are not empty thoughts, but instead should follow the universal laws of the governance of humanity, so we need to pay all the more attention to research in this area. At the university, I am holding a small discussion course devoted to this called “Humanity’s Ideal Political Condition.”
The second is to study the modernization of governance with Chinese characteristics, or to look at what is particular about the Chinese version of the modernization of state governance. I think there is still work to be done on this topic. Current official discourse insists that the leadership of the CCP is the most important characteristic, which is indeed an objective fact. But it is too simplistic to believe that if such is the case, there is no need to study the special characteristics of Chinese governance.
We need to use academic language and to approach things from the perspective of scholarship, of political science in order to find out what the true special characteristics of Chinese governance are. I am engaged in this kind of work, and when exchanging with scholars outside of China on the topic, I distinguish between official discourse and scholarly discourse. Internationally, people will only accept or admit that Chinese governance is different if we use academic discourse in our generalizations about its special characteristics. But differences and similarities are two sides of the same coin, so a very important question is to identify points of commonality that will enable people outside of China to understand Chinese governance.
There is no doubt at all that many features of Chinese governance are unique. First, governance is plural, but the Party is the leader. At present, the government, social organizations, residential areas and citizens all participate in governance, as do business enterprises, which again is plural governance under the leadership of the Party. Second is the path [literally, “path dependency” 路径依赖] of incremental reform. Incremental reform is additive, and focused on expanding interests. We chose this over shock therapy, and it comes down to “old folks do things the old way, and younger folks do it the new way,” but the key is to break through barriers when they appear. Third is the strategy of generalizing from specific experiences 以点带面. In our work we use the experimental method, or in academic language “policy trial and error.”
Fourth is the guidance of models 样板引领. Wherever you go in China, people will inevitably show you the best they have, which is a special characteristic of Chinese governance. Of course, from a more negative angle you could say that this consists of “only showing what is positive,” but looked at positively, this is a good thing, because it sets up models that everyone winds up studying, so that you wind up doing tomorrow what I am already doing today. So this serves a normative function, which is a good governance model. Fifth, rule of law and moral rule coexist. In the process of evolving toward governing through the rule of law 依法治国, governing through morality or moral rule are also very important. All of these points are different from what we find in the West.
The third is to study political development. My hope is that research on Chinese governance will eventually integrate the modernization of governance with political development. Everyone is talking about governance now, but governance is ultimately a utilitarian ideal, and the final value ideal is political development. From the perspective of research, this is inevitable.
Question: Looking toward the future, what are the big topics in governance that need to be explored?
Yu Keping: There are many issues that need a lot of work. First is the relationship between democracy and rule of law, Even if I have my own views of this, there is at present no easy solution to this and there is a lot of debate. Second is the relationship between the Party and the government. We have experienced the separation of Party and government, and later on a unity of the two in which they truly cannot be separated. But in terms of this relationship, should the two be united or separated? United to what point or separated to what degree? We have not solved these questions. I am starting to study this question. Third, the relationship between Party leadership and governing the country by law or giving control to the people 人民当家作主. An organic combination of the three is our ideal political model, but if they do not come together, and there are conflicts, what do we do? How do we get to an organic unity? Fourth, the relationship between central and local power, the center and the regions, in the Chinese model. Fifth, the special characteristics of Chinese governance and commonly accepted standards of governance. These are all big questions, and I hope more scholars will come to focus on them, coming up with persuasive and lively proposals.
Question: Where do you think research on Chinese governance makes itself felt in practice?
Yu Keping: In general, research plays a certain role in guiding, influencing, and encouraging practice. I used to work in the Party Center 中央机关, and participated in a fair bit of policy making, I think that I can say that my work and that of my team had a certain positive impact on the practice of modernizing state governance. First, in terms of guidance, we actively promoted good governance, which was universally well received, becoming a popular theoretical point. Next came our role in influencing policy making. For example, our proposals concerning deliberative democracy, government innovation, and social governance all had an impact on policy practice, and many of our concepts made their way into official documents, such as good governance. Finally, the role of encouragement. The idea is to encourage good reforms and innovations, for example we started giving awards for “innovation in Chinese local government” and “Chinese social innovation,” among others.
My understanding is that an important reason that we were able to play these roles is that I worked in the establishment for a long time. In China, if you want to guide practice, there needs to be a feeling of mutual trust, which is easier to establish within the establishment. Outside of the establishment it is very hard to have an impact, because if trust is insufficient then even good ideas are seen as irrelevant. At present, China’s decision-making mechanism is still based on internal decision-making, supplemented by external hearings and consultations. Investigation and research done internally is much more important than external advocacy, and it is also the main basis for decision-making.
At a symposium on my new book, Power and Authority, a famous professor asked me to tell the truth about how much had been cut out, and what parts were cut out. I told him the truth, which was that nothing was cut out. Why? Because of a basic level of trust, meaning they trust my basic viewpoint and conclusions, and also trust that my goal is to promote the progress of the state and the society, and that I understand what policy is about.
Next is to actively participate in public policy discussions. Scholars must have a strong sense of responsibility to push society forward, and must take the initiative to participate in current political life, in policy research and elaboration. If you are a scholar who has set his sights on advancing public interests, then you have to take the initiative to participate in policy making and social practice. Before I returned to Peking University, I spent a great deal of my time in research, and became friends with a lot of reform minded officials within the Party. Through this kind of participation, you can also change or fine tune a part of your scholarly logic, so that your policy suggests better hit the mark, your arguments are more persuasive in practice, which means that your academic work better serves social practice.
Third, you need to have your own scholarly viewpoint, without going to extremes. My own motto is “avoid left and right, and stay on the correct path.” At one point, the right criticized me as being left wing, and the left criticized me as being right wing, but in fact I was in the middle. I don’t go to extremes, and simply agree with people who see things correctly.
Fourth is that your basic viewpoint must be transformed into mainstream discourse, otherwise theory and practice remain separate things, and do not form a whole. People outside of academics cannot understand purely academic language. “Good governance ” and “governance” very easily became mainstream language, which is not the case for “virtuous governance 良治” or the “way of governance 治道.” Deliberative democracy 协商民主 could also be translated as 商谈民主 or 审议民主, which are not wrong, but not as easily accepted by mainstream discourse as 协商民主. Of course if all you want to do is research and you don’t care about having an impact on practice, then you can translate it any way you want to as long as you get the meaning right.
Question: How do you see the relationship between the indigenization and internationalization of research on Chinese governance?
Yu Keping: To put it simply, an organic integration of the two, a dynamic balance between indigenization and internationalization. In the early 2000s, I published an article in the People’s Daily on how to deal with this question in terms of research on governance. In my view, the advance of any discipline is inextricably linked to this question, and some kind of middle ground is necessary, neither extreme works. Disciplines have common principles, and follow common laws and common discursive systems, and every country must share some things in common.
In terms of internationalization, developed countries take the lead in many things, and many things appear first there, but this does not necessarily mean that all these things are Western things. As long as it is part of the common civilization of humanity, whether it is material civilization, spiritual civilization, or political civilization, we should all learn from it. In terms of indigenization, China is quite unique, and we must aim for indigenization, and draw sustenance from it, otherwise, our scholarship will be without foundation.
For example, looking at political science, a discipline that we started to restore 40 years ago, at the outset we leaned toward internationalization, but now we are moving ever closer to indigenization. But my concern now is that if we overemphasize Chinese particularities and indigenization, the idea of political science as common principles and common value that are part of humanity’s knowledge system will disappear. We cannot use sinicization or the idea of uniqueness to resist internalization and globalization.
So I am against both extremes. As for which side we should lean to in any given moment depends on the circumstances at the time. In the early period of reform and opening we were lacking in some very basic knowledge, and had no choice but to import it from the West, so we had to stress internationalization; once disciplines develop to a certain point, and your own country’s experience and practice become more important, naturally you move toward indigenization. In the future, once we have become even stronger and more self confident, we might open up again to internationalization, and we might be more intent on promoting the results of Chinese research internationally. At present, we are too concerned that internationalization will “consume” us, so we put too much stress on Chinese characteristics, to the point that these Chinese characteristics are used to resist universal principles. This harms academic research and the development of disciplines, something we need to understand clearly.
Question: You have published a great many excellent works, but do you have any regrets about your academic life?
Yu Keping: First, I feel like I am very lucky. By nature I don’t need much sleep, I’ve got a lot of energy and good health, and enough time to do my work. I truly am someone who enjoys scholarship and enjoys life. I completely share Aristotle’s opinion that the greatest good is for everyone to have a happy life. If you are an official, you have to fight so that the citizens have a happy life; if you are a scholar , you must both fulfill your social responsibility and at the same time enjoy the research that you are doing. I have always said that people must fulfill their social responsibilities, and many of the things I do, I do for that reason, and I would never harm someone else’s interests to achieve my own. This is the baseline for being a person and a scholar, and it’s too bad that many people have forgotten it.
As for regrets, many ideals that I have for the country are not yet realized, for instance as I said above, I would like for China to become the most admired country in the world, so that our elite does not immigrate to other countries and instead the elite of other countries comes to China. I think this is ultimately doable, but we have squandered certain opportunities in history. I regret this a lot, to the point of being sad about it sometimes.
The Great Way is not an Instrument: Inheriting Scholarship across Generations
Question: You mentioned your research team. What ideas do you have on this front?
Yu Keping: Here I think I know what I am talking about. People you know well, like He Zengke 何增科 (b. 1965), Yang Xuedong 杨雪冬 (b. 1970), Chen Jiagang 陈家刚 (b. 1969), and Zhou Hongyun 周红云 (b. 1973), were all part of my team when I was at the Central Translation Office. They have now all become leading scholars in their fields. From the time they joined the Central Translation Office until now when they are established in their individual fields of research, and are producing excellent results, I always gave them all the help and support that I could, and was a witness to their scholarly maturation, participating myself in many of their research activities. So I have a certain experience in this.
I think the most important element in the construction of a research team is to guide things in the right direction. Scholarly guidance is extremely important. A team must have good leadership: if the leadership is wrong, then you’re done for, and you won’t produce anything worth preserving. At present there are many temptations leading away from this, but your work has to be based on fundamental research, you must continue to reach for the stars. If you are doing practical research, then you can of course cooperate with local governments, but we must keep one foot in basic research, which translates into a sense of scholarly leadership and responsibility. My doctoral advisor Zhao Baoxu helped me immensely in terms of being a human being, being a scholar, and living a good life, but what has had the greatest impact on me has been a sense of responsibility to promote the advancement of scholarship, an inspiration I received from my teacher.
Second, I think we have to create all sorts of opportunities for young people. These opportunities include building scholarly platforms that will allow them to participate in research on important policy decisions and questions. If you do everything yourself, you will wear yourself out and will be unable to lead the team. When I was a dean at Peking University I also took things pretty easy. For me, a good dean needs to do two things. First, be tolerant and all-embracing in terms of freedom of thought. Providing scholars with an open and free scholarly atmosphere is more important than any money you might bring in, and is one reason that Peking University is Peking University. Second, do your utmost to protect the legitimate interests of every student and every scholar. Leave scholarship to the scholars and things will be all right.
In addition, there are two more important things that touch on the humanities. One is to participate in social practice, allowing students to go do fieldwork or even take a temporary position that will allow them to do their work. The other is exchange with the outside world, in both directions, which broadens the students’ horizons. I think this helps young people.
Question: Do you think that there is a generation gap between different generations of scholars?
Yu Keping: I personally have felt no gap when working with the older generation or with young people. Even if generation gaps objectively exist, and I know that each generation has its concerns and its ways of thinking, this does not mean that you can judge the way of thinking of one generation through the lens of another, nor can we impose our standards of judgement on the younger generation. Many people criticize today’s youth for being worse than older generations, but I don’t agree. I like to understand my students. When a university invites me to speak, I often ask that they set up a forum where I can talk with the students. In our department we also have a lunch club for the undergraduates. In these settings, students can ask me any question they wish, and at the end I ask them some questions that will help me understand their values. They don’t have to answer, but if they answer they have to answer honestly. This is the only way I can get to know the students, and our country’s future.
A calligrapher friend of mine made me a gift of an ancient saying: “Great virtue is not confined to officials, the great Way is not an instrument, great faith does not constrain, great ages are not rushed 大德不官，大道不器，大信不约，大时不齐.” This means that moral people do not necessarily have to be officials; that justice can be pursued in all undertakings; that in the pursuit of the ultimate goals of humanity, you need not be constrained by questions of form; that genuine faith does not require concrete prescriptions; and that genuine respect for time does not require accounting for every second. I feel that I myself have inherited this traditional spirit of the Chinese literati, which is “in moments of success, do your utmost for humankind; in moments of failure, nourish your own virtue 达则兼济天下，穷则独善其身.” My sole pursuit, as long as I have an ounce of strength left in my body, is to fulfill my social responsibilities. Otherwise, I will do the research that I can, and hope that this research will fulfill these responsibilities.
Question: Thank you. Do you have any particular final remarks for young scholars?
Yu Keping: I have two hopes.
First, I hope that young scholars and students will pay attention both to politics and to political science. Talking about politics is something Chinese people like to do, but we should also talk about political science, for example how to achieve democratic government, the rule of law, scientific government, how to achieve the modernization of governance, a reasonable distribution of power, so that it plays a greater role and increases both public interests pursued by the state and the rights of the people. Talking about political science and taking it seriously means seeing political science as a science, one of the foundational social sciences, and letting it develop its proper role. At present, there are not many students who apply to political science departments, and my hope is that there will be more young people who will devote themselves to political science research and the cause of the modernization of Chinese governance.
Second, the modernization of the country will not happen without political modernization. Without high-level democratic politics we cannot have the revival of the great Chinese nation. I hope there will be more young students and scholars who come to understand that political progress is the most important, the most profound progress for all humanity, and that more of them will devote themselves to the cause of the political progress of China and all of humanity.
Many people do not understand that political progress is the most profound progress, and are only concerned about air quality, food safety, the education of their children, and other concrete questions that touch them directly. But I always say that intellectuals should ask more questions. Why do houses cost so much? Why is the environment polluted? How do we solve the problem of food security?...All of these questions ultimately are related to power, and all are political responsibilities. If we can get to the point where we rely on democracy and the rule of law, to the point that “power is conferred on the people” or “power is in the hands of the people,” then many problems can be solved.
In sum, if scholars ask one more question, it might become a way to find a solution to yet another pressing problem. Policy-makers should not only listen to scholars’ compliments, and should not merely be open-minded, but should also encourage scholars to publish their independent viewpoints. This is the only way for governance to improve.
 James Legge’s translation is: “The Great virtue need not be confined to one office; Great power of method need not be restricted to the production of one article; Great truth need not be limited to the confirmation of oaths; Great seasonableness accomplishes all things, and each in its proper time.”
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