Zhang Qianfan, “Left and Right in China and the West: A Trans-Oceanic Misunderstanding”
Introduction and Translation by David Ownby
Zhang Qianfan (b. 1964) is Professor of Law at Beijing University, a leading advocate of constitutional democracy in China, and a prolific writer in both Chinese and English (see his CV from his university web page) . He is a controversial figure in China. His textbook on constitutionalism was removed from bookstores in early 2019 as part of a state crackdown against work “promoting Western ideology” (see China Digital Times for an article on the crackdown that includes an interview with Zhang). More recently, he has been outspoken in defending Dr. Li Wenliang, the Chinese covid-19 whistle-blower, as well as speaking out for Xu Zhangrun, the Tsinghua University law professor who has been the target of attacks over the past few months for daring to criticize Xi Jinping.
The text translated here was published on October 2, 2020 on a Chinese-language website situated in Europe (China: History and Future), which allows Zhang to be all the more outspoken; Zhang’s essay is thus not an example of what can be published in China, but remains an example of what at least some Chinese intellectuals are thinking. I might add that “China: History and Future” targets principally mainland Chinese intellectuals, and the fact that they are reaching that audience, despite Chinese censorship, is suggested by the fact that a mainland Chinese colleague emailed me the text on October 8.
The major thrust of Zhang’s piece is a full-throated defense of constitutional democracy. This may be music to the ears of some Chinese liberals, but Zhang struck me as almost naïve in his fulsome praise of natural law and the wisdom of the majority. More interesting to me was the pretext for Zhang’s essay: the fact that the liberal world in China is being rent asunder…by the politics of Donald Trump’s America. There have of course always been differences between Chinese liberals, just as there are differences between liberals elsewhere. Some prefer freedom over welfare while others prefer welfare over freedom. In China, these differences had until recently been papered over by a general liberal consensus that the possible return of a totalitarian state was a more urgent concern, and Chinese liberals saw the United States as the most effective counterweight to that eventuality. Trump’s election reshuffled the deck.
In Zhang’s telling, many Chinese liberals—particularly those whose leanings are more conservative/libertarian—were first drawn to Trump because of his anti-China rhetoric. These liberals are of course patriotic, but dream of the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party and see Trump as the most likely vehicle toward the realization of that dream. The attraction, however, was more than simply transactional, and many Chinese liberals came to embrace what they understood as the core of Trump’s agenda: a denunciation of political correctness.
For some, this embrace is “principled” in that they worry that the US is losing its way as it invests ever more in multi-culturalism and endless social justice crusades (for other texts on this site that explore these themes, see here, here, and here, among others). For others, however, the embrace is more “tribal,” and Chinese netizens denounce “white liberals” (a Chinese slur which means something like “woke”) with something akin to the passion of American trolls whose goal in life is to “own the libs.” Of course, these are not the same “tribe,” which is precisely Zhang Qianfan’s point.
Zhang provides a few tantalizing hypotheses as to how Chinese liberals and netizens got sucked into Trump world (Chinese are hard-workers and don’t like big government giveaways; many Chinese are racist and don’t like Black Lives Matter), but his primary concern is that Chinese liberals’ mistaken embrace of the American right will further weaken an already threatened liberal presence in China. Trump’s authoritarianism and disdain for the norms and institutions of constitutional democracy will influence his “liberal followers” in China and ironically lessen their reflexive dislike of the Chinese Communist Party, which is similarly authoritarian and thuggish. Understanding of the intricate workings of a constitutional democracy is, after all, only skin deep in China outside of academic circles. The more inroads a Trump-like discourse makes into China, the less power the former consensus against totalitarianism wields and the more fractious the liberal “coalition” becomes.
Beyond this core argument, Zhang’s broader explorations of the different meanings of left and right in different times and places are interesting in and of themselves. The frankness of the text—which I think is part Zhang himself and part the fact that the piece is published outside of China—is also refreshing, as are his reflections on certain of his colleagues, inside China and out.
“Partly as a result of the increasingly heavy political climate at home, more and more of the nation's attention is turning abroad, particularly to the United States, where the political polarization of left and right has exacerbated the liberal divide at home. After the election of Donald Trump, the anti-Trump faction and ‘Trump fans’ fought like cats and dogs in China. Some Christians and advocates of religious freedom began to hail the ‘triumph of evangelicalism,’ while conservative scholars strongly recommended Russell Kirk’s Roots of American Order and emphasized the Christian origins of the American constitution. After the George Floyd incident, there was a surge of protests around the United States, including some vandalism, which drew the scorn of many Chinese, and an already deeply-rooted racism quickly made itself felt again in China.”
“The seeming convergence of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in China and the West has become a transatlantic misunderstanding. This misunderstanding will not only cost us allies in the fight against totalitarianism, but has already created a confusion of values within the world of Chinese liberals, and may even change the very meaning of ‘liberalism.’ If Chinese ‘liberalism’ is opposed to equality, to ‘one man, one vote,’ to the separation of church and state and secularism, and to at least some freedoms (such as gay marriage) for religious reasons, and if they advocate a particular religious belief as a kind of national orthodoxy, then what’s left of liberalism?”
“As to why a significant number of Chinese liberals have put Hayek on a pedestal, this may have to do with limitations in what we choose to import and what we choose to read. If this is the case, then it is dangerous. Our fathers and grandfathers read only Marx (and the vast majority of our so-called Marxists only read the ‘Communist Manifesto’), so they only knew Marxism as ‘the truth,’ and we all know how that worked out.”
“Why is it that so many on the right in China are so disdainful of ‘white liberals’ and seem to despise them even more than the extreme left in China? Apart from the above-mentioned cognitive simplification and the misalignment of left and right under different frames of reference, is there also some kind of utilitarian logic at work? It's obviously risky to criticize the government in China. It’s a little bit risky to fight with the extreme left, and some might feel like its not worth it if you get your posts removed and your internet accounts shut down. But there is no risk at all in letting off steam by beating up on ‘white liberals’ with whom you have no relationship whatsoever. Webmasters are happy to see the liberals tearing each other apart, and will not interfere.”
China's liberals are splitting apart. This rupture is intensifying as the countdown to the U.S. presidential election begins.
Some twenty years ago, Chinese Big V celebrity bloggers used the Internet to rise to fame in China, as evidenced by the Sun Zhigang 孙志刚 (1976-2003) incident during the SARS outbreak in 2003. At the time, the country's many liberal groups each had its own cause, but their different paths led to the same destination, and their goals and ideals seemed to be consistent. Human rights activists focused on individual cases to eliminate abuses of public power and instances of social injustice; hepatitis B carriers banded together to fight for equal treatment; "House Churches" were spreading like wildfire; and "independent candidates" were springing up everywhere to run for office…
But within a decade, as these activities came under increasing "scrutiny" and suppression, divisions began to multiply within the liberal camp, and within a mere decade or two, the camp was quite splintered. First we saw the parting of the ways of the reformists and revolutionaries, moderates and radicals, mainly in the radicals' attacks on the reformists, accusing them of peddling "false hope." Then there were cases of feminists complaining to the media about the "unwritten rules" in the world of China’s establishment intellectuals, which led certain establishment intellectuals to accuse the feminist movement of cooperating with the government to suppress civil society. More recently, "conservative" liberal groups have accused "white liberals 白左" of "political correctness," as the divide among liberals has shifted from domestic to international affairs, especially different perspectives on American politics.
Partly as a result of the increasingly heavy political climate at home, more and more of the nation's attention is turning abroad, particularly to the United States, where the political polarization of left and right has exacerbated the liberal divide at home. After the election of Donald Trump, the anti-Trump faction and "Trump fans" fought like cats and dogs in China. Some Christians and advocates of religious freedom began to hail the "triumph of evangelicalism," while conservative scholars strongly recommended Russell Kirk’s Roots of American Order and emphasized the Christian origins of the American constitution.
After the George Floyd incident, there was a surge of protests around the United States, including some vandalism, which drew the scorn of many Chinese, and an already deeply-rooted racism quickly made itself felt again in China. The slogan ”Black Lives Matter” was derogatorily translated as "Black Lives are Expensive 黑命贵," and otherwise normal speech in support of racial equality has been denounced as the "political correctness" of the "white liberals."
The fragmentation of the forces of freedom is, of course, the delight of totalitarianism. This social fragmentation is both the result of a long period of totalitarian rule and a condition for its continuation. For contemporary China, this is quite normal, because it is only in the last forty years that China has begun to emerge from totalitarianism, and for the most part, while people are open to different ideas and messages, they have not had the opportunity for political practice.
In the absence of practice, many ideas are nothing but words, and while people may think they understand something, in fact they have no personal experience of it. It is only through the collision of different positions, ideas, and interests that human thought progressively takes form. It is only when racists are rebuked by those who are they objects of discrimination that they realize that their racial views are detrimental to others and to themselves; it is only when the advocates of theocracy are themselves oppressed by the regime or are attacked by others who are being oppressed that they realize that separation of church and state is a guarantee of social peace; it is only when "independent candidates" win elections and deliver good public services that people see the benefits of electoral democracy and parliamentary politics for themselves, and stop laughing at "rubber stamps."
When people do not have the opportunity to practice freely what they preach and engage in mutual criticism and correction, many debates over principles are muddled, an endless back-and-forth that gets progressively more verbally violent, and finally unable to reach consensus on fundamental issues or arrive at a contractual commitment to fight totalitarianism together. Totalitarianism is able to divide and conquer: attack the right and the left applauds; attack the left and the right cheers. Totalitarianism earns the support of someone whenever it attacks, the ever-lasting, overweening master of all.
The best solution to this problem is to allow relatively free political practice in transitional countries where authoritarianism is waning and regulations loosening, and to allow people to slowly adjust to liberal and democratic political ideals. At present, if political practice in one's own country is only sporadically possible, then following political developments abroad is the next best thing. Although focus on American politics had led to ruptures among Chinese liberals, bad things can be turned into good things; by examining in advance the various problems that arise in the process of embracing freedom, we can prevent problems before they occur, reduce internal conflicts, and prepare our minds for the future, when the transition may come with fewer detours and setbacks. The key is to understand what it is that we are talking about, and not rush to judgment without grasping the concept or the pertinent facts, otherwise things will only get murkier.
Chinese liberals basically share the same viewpoint about China; after all, we were born and raised here, we have ourselves experienced our country’s past and present reality, so there is not that much cognitive dissonance when it come to understanding the essence of the country's problems. But when it comes to opinions on people and events in Europe and the U.S., Chinese liberals wind up in endless fights, which suggests that this problem is quite serious when it comes to Chinese opinion of foreign politics.
This is normal, because without the experience of living abroad for a long period of time or reading broadly, most people's knowledge of foreign countries is limited to the Chinese version of the outside world available on the Internet or via WeChat, and these materials may be highly selective, a kind of "customized news." For example, many Chinese liberals are fans of Thatcher and Reaganomics, but how much do they really know about conservative economics and its social consequences? I suspect that many of them were conservative from the outset, and read articles that speak well of conservatism while ignoring critical articles, or simply dismissing them as fake news.
But the same person might not necessarily identify so closely with conservatism if he had lived for years in Europe and the United States and thus had first-hand knowledge of the effects of conservative economic policies. For this reason, the position of many Chinese people on foreign politics is often the product of wishful thinking and a substitute for informed judgment.
This situation is particularly common—and serious—when left and right in China and abroad seem to be converging. Because China practiced extreme left politics for a long time in the past, it is only natural to oppose it now, but the two “lefts” in question are not the same, and the extreme left in China has nothing to do with the so-called “white liberals” in the West. The terms "left" and "right" are inherently complicated and confusing labels, which might lead to confusion or even turn friends into enemies, thus depriving the cause of constitutional democracy in China of half of its international allies.
Unfortunately, some liberals in China have made this mistake, and erroneously assume that anyone who is more "left" than they are is far left, resulting in the growth of anti-leftism. These same liberals, even as they criticize "political correctness," seem to insist on putting themselves in a "politically incorrect" position—a position opposed to racial equality, to "one man, one vote,” and insisting on the orthodoxy and greatness of a particular religion. This tendency is, of course, dangerous, because if you move to the far right in opposing the extreme left, then the word “liberal” must be placed between quotation marks.
Another element adding to the confusion is that some Western leftists mistakenly believe that they are on the same page as China’s "New Left" at home, and if they are not careful they will fall into the trap of the extreme left.
As a result, the seeming convergence of "left" and "right" in China and the West has become a transatlantic misunderstanding. This misunderstanding will not only cost us allies in the fight against totalitarianism, but has already created a confusion of values within the world of Chinese liberals, and may even change the very meaning of "liberalism." If Chinese "liberalism" is opposed to equality, to "one man, one vote," to the separation of church and state and secularism, and to at least some freedoms (such as gay marriage) for religious reasons, and if they advocate a particular religious belief as a kind of national orthodoxy, then what’s left of liberalism?
Up and Down, Left and Right: A Misalignment of Two Sets of Coordinates
As we all know, the division between left and right originated in the French Revolution of 1789. At that time, on the right side of the three-tier parliament were the royalists who supported the old system, and on the left were the representatives of the "third estate," such as the Jacobins. The main demands of the left wing were opposition to the monarchy and support for the revolution, republicanism, and secularism. The essence of the French revolution was a left-wing political revolution in which the "third estate," the bottom of the social order, overthrew the monarchy and the privileged classes, including the first estate (the clergy ) and the second estate (the nobility), with the goal of achieving social equality and ending all forms of hierarchical oppression.
Since the left wing's goal is to oppose vested interests, it is often impossible to achieve this through institutional means, and thus it tends to be radical in its tactics and is prone to take risks and advocate violent revolution. The right wing, on the other hand, is relatively conservative, advocating the maintenance of the existing system or, at most, repairing its deficiencies through incremental improvements.
By the nineteenth century, the left had split into extreme factions such as anarchism and Marxism. Their goals were largely similar, both seeking to establish a utopian society without classes and distinctions, and without government and oppression. However, Marx, and especially Lenin, advocated the realization of this goal through violent revolution and a highly centralized, all powerful "dictatorship of the proletariat."
Marxism was once the dominant ideology of the European left, but in the late nineteenth century, social democrats such as Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) in Germany parted ways with the revolution and turned to reformism, advocating the protection of workers’ rights through parliamentary electoral politics. In the United States during the same period, influenced mainly by the populist doctrines of Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and others, different left-wing groups emerged, such as trade unionism, progressivism, and "social liberalism," which believed that social equality could be achieved through the redistribution of wealth.
After the two World Wars of the 20th century, Marxist-Leninist regimes were established in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China, while Europe and the United States entered the era of the welfare state based on Keynesian economics, whose basic features were constitutional democracy, state intervention, and income redistribution. By the 1970s, post-modernism had produced a variety of left-wing groups, whose main thrust was the same as that of the French Revolution: to oppose the oppression of hierarchy and class and to achieve greater equality.
Secularism rejects the contemporary vestiges of the church hierarchy, feminism wants to overthrow the patriarchy, homosexuality challenges traditional marriage laws that discriminate against them, animal protectionism defends the rights of animals to be free from human cruelty, and environmentalism emphasizes human co-ownership of the earth and nature. Of course, there are anti-establishment leftist groups in these countries, such as Trotskyists in Britain who continue to preach the seizure of power by force, and environmental terrorists in the United States who use violence against people or the destruction of property to make environmental claims, but their presence has been completely marginalized.
In the ideological adjustment of the post-War period, mainstream leftist politics in Europe and America have long been fully integrated into the framework of constitutional democracy. The left-wing mainstream has completely abandoned violent revolution and class struggle, and the struggle between left and right has reverted to the original nature of parliamentary politics in the early days of the French revolution, becoming a policy struggle to rationally convince the majority of voters to support their respective positions under conditions of free speech and electoral politics.
It is only in the framework of constitutional democracy that it makes sense to talk about the "left" and the "right," which communicate their different positions fully through freedom of expression and translate their political demands into legal policies through electoral democracy. Left and right have differing political positions and interests, but share a social contract and commitment to natural law principles, elements of which include: (1) the protection of fundamental freedoms of thought, conscience, expression, information, assembly, and association and the rejection of discrimination on the basis of sex, race, geography, etc.; (2) universal, equal, free, and secret periodic elections for the legislature and the executive bodies; (3) the independence of the judiciary and administrative neutrality, which includes civil servants, the police and the army.
The struggle between left and right is thus transformed into a peaceful competition for common ground, each with different interests, positions, and views, but sharing the fundamental rights and institutions of the social contract embodied in the constitution.
In countries where the constitutional transition has failed, what we call "left" and "right" have become incompatible, leading to violent struggles and even civil wars to determine who is the winner; the victor not only establishes one-party rule and the cult of the individual, but also creates a totalitarian regime with one doctrine, one party, and one leader. In 1917, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union established the world's first totalitarian state. It is easier for the left to move to the extreme left and fall into totalitarianism than for the right, and left totalitarianism is more thoroughgoing. This is because the extreme left is (at least nominally) more utopian than the extreme right in its pursuit of social harmony, especially in terms of the equalization of wealth and the nationalization of the "means of production," ideals that cannot be achieved through peaceful reform but can only be imposed through the violent establishment of oppressive regimes; in general, the greater the gap between ideals and reality, the more totalitarian a regime becomes.
I already discussed this in detail in my long article, "The Construction and Deconstruction of Totalitarianism." Once totalitarianism is established, the original ideal soon becomes irrelevant, and the ideological struggle mutates into struggles for power involving the dictator himself; both Stalin's "Great Purge" and Mao Zedong's "Cultural Revolution" are clear reflections of this. Although ultra-leftist slogans are chanted every day, fewer and fewer people take them seriously. In fact, a totalitarian regime must make limited compromises to be able to rule, and official policies and propaganda have to move closer to a pragmatic, middle position; the government not only reins in the rightists, but also often suppresses the leftists who still maintain the ultra-leftist ideals. This was a common phenomenon toward the end of the Cultural Revolution and in China today.
An interesting question is whether the Nazis were far left or far right. They are of course usually classified as far right, because their distinctive features were anti-communism, anti-Semitism and anti-democracy, and they did carry out a severe crack-down on the German Communist Party during their time in power, but the full official name of the Nazis was the “National Socialist German Workers' Party.” Prior to 1919, it was simply the “German Workers Party;” “socialism” was added later, mainly to attract members of the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party. Although the Nazis nationalized some industries while in power, they in no way embraced the communist vision of public ownership as their ultimate goal.
Thus it is true that the Nazis were not very "socialist;" in fact, they opposed Marxist notions of class struggle and social equality. For the Nazis, class was not important as race and nationality, and German workers and capitalists received equal praise. Hitler and other Nazi leaders themselves also explicitly denied that they were either left or right, insisting that they were "ambidextrous." They denounced both left-wing communism and right-wing capitalism, claiming to have found a third path where the individual submits to the collective, and the economy submits to politics. The old Nazis were monarchists, and Wilhelm II, who was forced to abdicate, supported the Nazis at one point; the new generation of Nazis was more committed to overthrowing the Weimar Republic and establishing a totalitarian regime.
In fact, there were two factions within the Nazis, left and right. Hermann Goering (1983-1946), the representative of the conservative faction, urged Hitler to reconcile with the corporate world, while the radical Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) opposed Jewish-dominated capitalism and emphasized the proletarian background of the Nazis. After the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, the conservative wing of the party grew in strength, and Hitler met with giants of industry several times, asking them to help the country traverse the period of difficulty. The business community also actively cooperated with the Nazis in order to prevent the rise of the Social Democrats or the Communists.
By the time they came to power in 1933, the Nazis had gained the firm support of the core industries of steel, coal, chemicals, and insurance. Hitler called for the SS to violently purge the party of leftist elements, but SS leader Ernst Röhm (1887-1934) had his own anti-capitalist agenda and was quickly removed by Hitler as a result. Hitler himself had opposed capitalism because of his anti-Semitism, but was equally opposed to communism and social equality, arguing that inequality and hierarchy were better for the nation. He praised Stalin more than once, also largely because the latter had removed Jewish communist leaders such as Trotsky. In general, the core themes of Nazi ideology were racism, hero-worship and the totalitarian state, and thus should be seen as far right. However, as the Nazi leaders openly stated, right and left were not important; what was important was to use the totalitarian state to promote German supremacy, nationalism, and the extermination of the Jews.
Thus, once the "left" becomes the extreme left or the "right" becomes the extreme right and either one succeeds in establishing a totalitarian regime, the former horizontal differences between left and right policy positions are transformed into a vertical systemic struggle between supporters and opponents of totalitarianism. In China, what are called "rightists," or "liberals," can be broadly divided into radicals and conservatives, but all of them have one common characteristic, which is opposition to a totalitarian state. In fact, mainstream Chinese liberals support democracy and equality, and speak for the broad public and the underprivileged, and perhaps should not be grouped together with "rightists" in the contemporary Western sense.
This is because the Western criteria for defining left and right are different from China's and have nothing to do with the state; depending on the outcome of the vote, in the West anycountry can be ruled by either the left or the right. During the Republican period, although the Kuomintang also practiced one-party dictatorship, the concentration of political power was highly incomplete due to internal and external problems, and there was still considerable freedom in society, thus the leftists at that time were the true left, and those who supported the communist revolution were the extreme left. When the Communist Revolution succeeded and the totalitarian state was firmly established, left and right in China were defined in terms of attitudes toward state power.
In 1957, Mao Zedong put forward the idea of "letting a hundred flowers bloom, letting a hundred schools of thought contend," which provoked a wave of criticism of the regime from intellectuals, and the following year they were all branded as "rightists.” In fact, their views may have had nothing to do with a right-wing standpoint. "Rightist" meant that the regime was originally leftist, so criticism of the regime necessarily became "rightist." Of course, many of the policies pursued by the regime were themselves leftist, such as the Great Leap Forward and the People's Commune, while others were of course rightist, like the responsibility system. But the fundamental criterion for defining left and right in a left-wing totalitarian state is the attitude toward the regime, not the nature of particular proposals. Whether it is Mao Zedong's opposition to the “right” and the “left” (in the form of “left opportunism”) or Deng Xiaoping's statement that "China should be vigilant against the right, but particularly against the left," both reflect the fact that totalitarian rule really has no true left or right.
For this reason, this is where left and right come from in contemporary China: the state is the central focal point, and serves as the reference point for left and right; those who oppose the totalitarian state and demand freedom and democracy are the "rightists," while those who support the totalitarian state are "leftists." Of course, China's "leftists" are also a mixed bag. The “Maoist left” whose ideas are stuck in the Cultural Revolution believe that reforms like Deng’s that abandoned Maoism represented the return of the “extreme right.” Among establishment intellectuals, the “left” is made up mostly of those with a vested interest in economic reform, who support statism and one-party rule, who are subservient to the system and expect to maximize their personal gain from it, but do not subscribe to egalitarianism or public ownership unless it is in their personal interest. They are thus clearly not “leftist” in the Western sense of the word.
In my 2012 article, "The Freedom Faction and the Democracy Faction in China," I divided the Chinese left into six types. One of these is similar to the Western left in that it tries to realize left-wing ideas through constitutional rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of association, but the Chinese authorities likely classify them as "rightists." The other five groups are apologists for totalitarianism, and I won't discuss them here.
In short, the criterion for dividing left from right under constitutional democracy is the attitude towards equality, while the criterion for dividing right from left under a totalitarian regime is the attitude towards totalitarianism. Since the criteria are different, what left and right mean and the nature of the left and right camps are also different. A Chinese leftist is not the same as a Western leftist, and the same goes for rightists. I have consistently pointed out to the distinction between "this shore" and "the other shore." We still live on this shore under the shadow of totalitarianism, while they live on the other shore of constitutional democracy. On the other side, there is a real left and right—the left wants welfare, the right wants freedom, and both left and right strive to realize their political demands within the framework of constitutional democracy.
On this side, it does not matter what is left or right; totalitarianism defines what is “correct,” and anything that is not correct is "wrong;" the "leftist" mainstream subscribes to totalitarianism, while the "rightists” oppose it, and that’s all there is to it. The older generation of scholars in China, such as Guo Daohui 郭道晖 (b. 1928), Xie Tao 谢韬 (1921-2010), Gao Fang 高放 (b. 1927) and others, who advocated "true socialism,” were in fact leftists in the Western post-Marxist sense, but the authorities here would put them in the "rightist" camp. From this we can see that the "Western left" could make common cause with the Chinese “right,” both opposing the totalitarian state.
Is the Western Left Extreme Left?
However, under the long-term influence of a simplistic totalitarian mindset, many on the right in China have confused the Western left with the extreme left. Totalitarianism not only concentrates power, but also preaches an extremely simplified view of the world, as if everything is without question either black or white, left or right. There are left and right in both China and the West, so it is only natural that the right in China should stand together with the right in the West, and place itself automatically in the camp of the American Republican Party or the British Conservative Party, as if only the right in Europe and the United States are their allies, and the left in the West is their enemy, just like the extreme left in China. In recent years, the right's verbal attacks on "white liberals" and "political correctness" have been increasing, and many rightists' contempt for "white liberals" even exceeds their contempt for China's extreme left.
This is an obvious distortion. Since I am an academic myself, most of the people I know in Europe and the United States are also academics. Academics in Europe and the United States are generally left-wing, and therefore most of belong to what are called "white liberals," which includes China experts. Over the past few decades, such prominent figures as the legal scholar Jerome Cohen (b. 1930), the political scientist Andrew Nathan (b. 1943), and the literary scholar Perry Link (b. 1944) have been associated with writings calling for human rights and the rule of law in China and criticizing the totalitarian system.
They are all "white liberals," one reflection of which is that they are all very disgusted with the right-wing politics of Donald Trump. The European and American scholars I know are all very nice, they all sincerely respect China, and are very friendly to Chinese people. Some of them may not know much about China and might be confused about some issues, but does their appreciation of Chinese culture lead them to think the Chinese system is also good? There are actually very few such people, and at least among legal scholars who study China, I have not met any.
Jerome Cohen helped Chen Guangcheng 陈光诚(b. 1971), the activist known as the “blind lawyer,” settle in the United States, Andrew Nathan edited and published the Tiananmen Papers, and Perry Link personally accompanied the scientists and dissident Fang Lizhi 方励之(1936-2012) and his wife to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, where they took refuge for some months.
These people have been unable to enter China for years, so how “left” can they be? Even if scholars outside the field of Chinese studies may be less aware of the nature of events in China, it is easy to explain things to them. At least, all of them have a clear position on the 1989 incident and sincerely hope that China will follow the path of freedom, democracy, and rule of law. Can we view these people as being the same as the extreme left in China?
As for the academic criticism of right-wing politics in the West, that's another country’s affair, and we're better off remaining neutral. I lived and studied in the US for 15 years, but always considered myself a foreigner. Having returned to China for 20 years, I am all the more unfamiliar with the social and political realities in the United States, and I dare not make hasty judgments. My friends include both Democrats and Republicans; I occasionally talk about politics with them, and to be honest, I think there is some truth on both sides. It amazes me that many liberals in China think of the Democrats as communists.
Let's take a look at the position of Bernie Sanders, who is the most leftist of the Democrats. He calls himself a "democratic socialist", so many people think he wants to carry out Chinese "socialism" in America. But what exactly is his "socialism?" Sanders' domestic policy advocates labor rights, shop-floor democracy, universal single-payer health insurance, free college tuition, and a "Green New Deal"—creating jobs to address climate change—while his foreign policy advocates disarmament and resolving international disputes through diplomatic/political rather than military solutions, and more consideration of labor rights and environmental protection in the context of international trade. In an interview, he explained his definition of "socialism":
“I don't believe the government should take over the supermarket down the street or own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and working families who produce America’s wealth deserve a decent standard of living and that their incomes should rise, not fall. I trust privately owned businesses that prosper, invest, grow, and create jobs in America, not companies that close their doors in America and high-tail it abroad to increase their profits by exploiting low-wage labor.”
To put it simply, Sanders is a fan of the "Scandinavian model," which is what he calls "democratic socialism," which is indeed more "left" than most of what we find in the U.S., but is clearly neither Nazi "national socialism" nor the "dictatorship of the proletariat" of the Soviet Union or China. Is it really scary that his "socialism" is said to have many fans among American college students? The key word here is not socialist "doctrine" but rather the distinction between "state" and "dictatorship.” The key question to ask is not whether there is equality in society or how much welfare the poor get, but what the state does and how it does it. Does the state respect fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and property rights? Is there "genuine universal suffrage?" Is there an independent judiciary? There is nothing to fear from any doctrine as long as it is not imposed by "dictatorial" means through the state.
Once, Peking University invited the dean of the law school of a Norwegian university to give a lecture. I was curious about the Scandinavian model and wanted to find out what the "secret recipe" was. The impression I got after asking about it was that it is nothing special. Norway is a constitutional democracy similar to Germany, but with better social welfare and higher taxes for the rich, and a somewhat better free press, electoral process, and rule of law than the United States, and that’s all there is to it.
Many Chinese liberals have a superstitious belief that the US is the best in the world at everything, but it clearly is not. If you look at reliable annual surveys like those carried out by Freedom House, you will see not only that the United States does not have the highest per capita income, but it also consistently lags behind the "white liberal" countries of Europe on the above institutional indicators, while the "Scandinavian model" has long been at the top of the list. Of course, you can question whether the high-tax, high-welfare model is sustainable, or even whether it might slide into some kind of "national socialism," but these are questions for which the arguments are complex and the answers uncertain. You obviously cannot equate the Scandinavian model or Sanders's "democratic socialism" with communism, as if the day Sanders takes office will mark the end of America.
In any event, as a foreigner living in a country with neither freedom nor welfare, why do you care? Why do you have to take an unconditional stand for one side or the other? In fact, if I were an American university professor, I would probably join the leftist camp as well. This is because America's rightward bias compared to Europe often leads to too much freedom and not enough equality.
The fact that the current pandemic has expanded so rapidly, and that even today there is no clear downward trend in sight is a reflection of the problems caused by too much freedom. Many Americans are reluctant to give up inconsequential freedoms, like wearing a mask, for which they are paying an extremely high price. The George Floyd incident that occurred during the pandemic exemplified the lack of equality, as it is not uncommon for police officers to disproportionately enforce the law for reasons of racism.
In such a social environment, it is a scholar’s duty to pursue justice and criticize the abuse of public power. This is entirely consistent with my role in China when I criticize the plight of human rights and the rule of law, when I advocate freedom of thought and expression, religious freedom and separation of church and state, when I oppose discrimination in all its forms, and when I call for the protection of the property rights of landless peasants and those evicted from their homes. In the United States, all of this belongs to the “left,” but in China, it is typically "right."
Given this, what is the point for us in using China's "right" to oppose the West's "left?" Don't forget that what we want to oppose is the totalitarianism of our own country, not the left or the right in the United States. In any constitutional democracy, the mainstream left and right are both anti-totalitarian and thus are our friends. If we oppose either the left or right among these friends, not only are we likely to offend and lose half of them, but we may even turn ourselves into a member of the totalitarian camp. The antithesis of totalitarianism is constitutional democracy, and if you oppose one wing of constitutional democracy, be it the left or the right, could the next step not be to oppose constitutional democracy itself?
This is not an exaggeration, but a real danger that is already occurring. The George Floyd incident has fed a fairly widespread racist sentiment in Chinese society, which means that the virus of Nazi-style totalitarianism is not far away from us, and “us” even includes some "liberals." Many Chinese derogatorily refer to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, spawned by this incident, as "Black Lives are Expensive," and their arguments against it make little sense in either constitutional or logical terms. A lot of the opposition comes from the notion that “all lives matter,” and not just Black lives.
That's fine in and of itself, but it's funny to use it against BLM because that is the same position BLM itself holds. The reason behind BLM is the belief that Blacks suffer discrimination, and that's why the emphasis is on respecting Black lives, and not on opposing respect for other people's lives. Of course any movement requires a focus, and cannot put on an all-encompassing, consistently correct face of "cosmic truth." Many people equate BLM with some of the violent behavior associated with the movement, but any demonstration is likely to be accompanied by violence, as has been the case with the street protests in Hong Kong over the past year.
Yet clearly we cannot equate violence with demonstrations, otherwise we are caught in a dilemma: either we embrace a "double standard" or we tout a totalitarian logic like that used by China’s public security forces for 70 years, when they have refused to authorize any assembly on the grounds that it "disturbs public order." The correct attitude is obviously to condemn violence, but to support peaceful freedom of speech and assembly, rather than to deny freedom of expression to views one does not like under various pretexts, otherwise one becomes an supporter of the logic of totalitarianism.
The attitude of many Chinese toward this movement stems partly from their own racism and partly from their unconditional embrace of the Trump administration, yet many of the statements made by Trump himself and his senior members of his administration about the movement are inappropriate. For example, Trump himself has repeatedly accused BLM of "treason," a presidential version of "l’État, c’est moi."
Attorney General Barr said on Fox TV that Antifa was hiding among peaceful demonstrators, cloaking themselves in the First Amendment to "highjack" the movement and instigate violence, without showing any hard evidence that the violence that occurred in BLM was instigated by Antifa. He also says that BLM is a political conspiracy by the Democrats to get Trump out of office. In a democracy, what's wrong with that? What campaign doesn't have a specific political agenda? As for Barr's claim that the Democrats have "abandoned traditional values" and are treating the political seizure of power as a "secular religion" and "an alternative to religion," it's even more outrageous.
The Attorney General's statement only demonstrates his incompetence and a lack of even a basic understanding of the First Amendment. As Attorney General, the only question he should ask is whether there is violence in the BLM movement itself. If there is violence, then arrest the people carrying it out, and if there isn’t, you put up with it. It’s as simple as that, and has nothing at all to do with "religion," "traditional values," or "political aims.” In fact, he shouldn't even be speaking on a platform as obviously right-wing as Fox. Perhaps Trump can, because he is, after all, a politician, although it is still unseemly.
But the Attorney General must respect political neutrality, and cannot let political interests override constitutional principles. This is precisely the biggest problem of the Trump administration: it is completely normal to have differences between left and right, but the common bottom line is to uphold freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, separation of church and state, administrative neutrality and other principles of natural law, yet too often, this administration has openly disrespected these principles.
Therefore, we must abandon the notion that the "left" is wrong and the "right" is right. In China, this is indeed correct, because the "right" is right in the sense of being anti-totalitarian, but in a general sense, the proposition does not hold. In a constitutional democracy, left and right are normal political positions and interests, and who is "right" or "wrong" is not the point. As long as one agrees with and practices the natural law policies belonging to the aforementioned social contract, one belongs to a constitutional democracy; otherwise, one belongs to an authoritarian or even totalitarian regime.
The totalitarian state violates all principles of natural law, a phenomenon that is very familiar to anyone who has lived in one. We cannot equate the left and right of the totalitarian state with the left and right of a constitutional democracy. The essence of constitutional democracy is precisely to allow different positions and demands to be expressed through freedom of expression and to occupy the stage of national power through electoral politics.
Evaluation of the Left and Right Coordinate Systems
Nor can we take anyone else's position as our frame of reference and assume that being against the "left" is naturally correct. I've noticed a cognitive illusion, let's call it over-correction or a "reactive force:" when we oppose something and push against it, a reactive force pushes us in the opposing direction, and we wind up on the other extreme. We might start out simply opposing the extreme left, say, for example, on the issue of egalitarianism, and without knowing it we unwittingly wind up in the camp of the extreme right. As we will see, over-correction seems to exist in all countries, it’s only a matter of degree.
Even in constitutional democracies, there are still many people who are dissatisfied with the status quo, which is meant to be a characteristic of progressive societies, where dissatisfaction leads to continuous evolution and improvement. It is only in constitutional democracies that dissatisfaction can be expressed freely and then improvement occurs through elections and legislation.
In autocratic states, the path to improvement is blocked, which gives rise to radicalism. Dissatisfaction with the extreme left becomes opposition to the left in general, including opposition to normal left-wing stances in constitutional states, and having confused them with the extreme left, the opponents wind up turning themselves into the extreme right. These extreme judgments, the product of reaction, imply a lack of fixity on the part of the one making the judgments, the lack of an independent standard of evaluation. We should not take any person or any thing as the standard by which we measure anyone or anything, but rather should employ our own standards. It is only by using one's own principles as a "fixed point" that judgment possess ultimate value.
Our "fixed point" is constitutional democracy, the social contract, the politics of natural law; this is the standard by which another person or thing is measured. We oppose egalitarianism, but this cannot mean opposition to equality, which suggests condoning racial discrimination. We support religious freedom, but this cannot become merely the "freedom" of a particular denomination, or the control of the State by one particular denomination, in which case there can be no freedom for other religions.
We oppose "populism," but we cannot for this reason oppose democracy, universal suffrage and "one person, one vote." In fact, "populism" is merely the use of slogans or practices that appear on their face to be "democratic," but which in fact violate certain natural laws of politics, such as bypassing political parties and the traditional media and establishing direct contact with the masses of voters through the stunted language of social media like Twitter. How similar is this to the "Führer's dictatorship?" That is why, if I were voting as an American, I would probably not vote for Trump, because ever since he has been in power, he has been hostile to the press in a country where the free press is important.
Many Chinese liberals have supported Trump in large part because of his tough stance on China. I also largely share the view that international and domestic affairs should treated separately. That many Chinese liberals would "vote" for Trump, reflects a Chinese viewpoint from a Chinese perspective. Whether the recent hardening of US attitudes is the true expression of the Trump team's international strategy, or an emergency move to capitalize on the mood in the US following the pandemic to try to turn the tide of the election, we will only know after the election in November.
However, I agree that the U.S. policy towards China since Trump took office is no longer limited to diplomatic rhetoric, but has been translated into trade sanctions and other "body blows [lit. “real hammers” 实锤]." This is obviously more real than the liberal lip service paid to “dialogues” about human rights and the rule of law, but to take Trump as the "savior" of China's freedom and democracy is raising expectations too high. Because in China, the door is closed to both reform and revolution, there is no domestic force strong enough to resist totalitarianism, which has left the liberals deeply anxious and looking to the US as their "savior."
The problem is that no outside power can be the savior of another country unless there is a direct and lasting confrontation of interests between the two. In particular, democratic regimes will certainly focus first on the livelihood of their own people, rather than throwing their people’s money away on foreign causes or acting as the international leader of the “communist movement;” hence, other country’s problems will never be their primary focus. Trump’s strong point comes from his background as a businessman, which leads him to clearly insist on “America first;” he is only truly engaged when interests are in play, whether the interests be individual or national.
However, interests are always changing. Whether there is a long-term irreconcilable conflict between the interests of China and the U.S. is not a matter of an a priori decision, but depends on the strategic interaction between the two sides; if the perceived interests of the two sides change, then the Trump administration's strategy toward China will change accordingly. Moreover, if China-US relations deteriorate over the long term, then the US strategy toward China will also be stable over the long term, and there will be no need to place our expectations of the US on a particular party or even a particular individual.
As a matter of fact, Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, is trying to be more hawkish than Trump on China, and it seems that the biggest hawk will win the most votes. Of course, the actual China policy of the two candidates will only be known after they have been in office for awhile. In short, the U.S.-China relationship depends on the two countries' perception of their core interests, and there is no systematic difference between the two American parties on that front; the appeasement of the Democrats and the toughness of the Republicans exist only the imagination of Chinese "Trump fans," and the actual situation is obviously not so simple.
With regard to domestic politics in Europe and the United States, my general attitude is that there is no need for us to get too deeply involved. After all, that is a matter for other countries; we neither have the skin in the game nor the knowledge to be in a position to judge someone else’s influence, merits, or veracity. Whoever wins, I generally respect the results of democratic political choices, unless they clearly violate the "laws of God," i.e., natural laws. After all, the person got the votes, and respecting the results of the election simply means respecting the majority opinion. In a society of free speech and relatively complete information, what reason is there not to trust the choices of the majority?
In an environment where speech is not free and citizens have to rely on tidbits of information about American politics, are their judgments on the subject more trustworthy than those of the majority of Americans? Of course, voters make mistakes, but there must be clear evidence that they did indeed make the wrong choice, and that the mistake was widespread and systematic enough to allow a wrong candidate to win the general election. The electoral system itself can also be distorted, and not always ensure that the candidate receiving the majority of popular support wins, as in the US Electoral College "winner-take-all" system, where Trump in 2016 received fewer popular votes than Hillary, but not much fewer.
Even if a certain election chose the wrong person, there is no need to be anxious about all elections, because in a mature constitutional democratic system, it is not so easy for bad people do bad things. There will be another election in a few years, or in the worst-case scenario the bad person can be impeached before the election. In short, we need to trust the election results of a constitutional democracy and its ability to self-correct, and not be so quick to judge for others in matters we know little about.
We should adopt the same attitude towards the policies chosen by a constitutional democracy. In fact, the rational voter does not vote for the person, but for the policies that the person represents; a rational "Trump fan" can like Trump the person, but he likes him mainly because he likes the policies he promised to deliver during the electoral campaign, and if he simply likes Trump, and doesn’t care about Trump’s policies, then he is not "rational." The social welfare policies adopted in the post-war era by the United States, and especially by the developed countries in Europe, outrage many "conservative” Chinese liberals because they see it as a form of “socialism” in which lazy parasites freeload on the backs of others.
Of course, the welfare system has its problems, and there may be systemic deviations in democratic politics, but the Chinese conservative view of Western politics and economics basically stopped with Hayek's theories, which I fear are far from adequate to provide a valuable critique of the problems of contemporary democratic societies. Chinese judgment is based on nothing more than our hatred of the planned economy, and it is clear that the economic system of others is not simply a "socialist planned economy." In other words, what we have figured out, other people know it too. They have many economists, political scientists, and legal scholars involved in government decision-making, and they are all free to speak and publish, so why haven't they adopted Hayek's recommendations?
The problem with Chinese opposition to far-left policies is that the policies in question are not far-left, but only slightly left, and after so many years and so many different administrations, Western policy makers have long since weighed the pros and cons of left and right with considerable precision. Why are we so confident in our own narrow judgments when we know so little about it?
In a free and democratic society, all sorts of doctrines that benefit the nation have a chance of becoming national policy because of the existence of free expression and electoral politics. If your brilliant ideas are never recognized, it could also be that society has been unfair to you, but it's more likely that your solution itself is not sound. After so many years, the fact that so many countries have not adopted Hayek's doctrine policy leads me to believe that he had his chance, but unfortunately his doctrine is not considered a viable economic policy by mainstream economists and politicians.
As to why, you probably need at least a Ph.D. in economics to figure it out. Of course, his doctrines are still valuable and useful in critiquing the dominant post-war economic model of capitalism and state intervention, just as Marxism has its value as well, but the number of their fans is in the minority. As to why a significant number of Chinese liberals have put Hayek on a pedestal, this may have to do with limitations in what we choose to import and what we choose to read. If this is the case, then it is dangerous. Our fathers and grandfathers read only Marx (and the vast majority of our so-called Marxists only read the “Communist Manifesto”), so they only knew Marxism as "the truth," and we all know how that worked out.
With today's material conditions and ease of information access, we can no longer limit ourselves in that way. If you have read through at least everything from Smith to Keynes, and preferably taken some courses, with notes and commentaries, and you still think that Hayek's or Friedman's doctrine makes the most sense, then I accept that you are responsible for that judgment. And to jump through all those hoops, it’s no exaggeration to say that you might as well get a Ph.D. in economic history. If you are convinced of the "truth" of a doctrine solely on the strength of your imagination without fairly extensive reading and comparison, then that "conviction" may well be nothing more than a stubborn mistake.
In sum, our frame of reference is the system of constitutional democracy, not the particular position of any individual. We cannot, for one reason or another, use the position of someone in a constitutional democracy (such as the President) as a frame of reference for measuring others in the system and their positions. Evaluations produced by a "misplaced frame of reference" are bound to be biased, especially when the two-party system of the United States itself has been polarized. If we take Trump's position as a frame of reference, given that he is the most right-wing of the conservative camp, then the left will necessarily look extremely radical, not much different from the communist far-left position.
If we mistakenly believe that there is no difference between the Democrats and the Communist Party, then we also misposition ourselves. For instance, if we were 100,000 miles away from the far left and 20 miles away from the Western left, and we equate the two, we put ourselves in the position of an extreme right 100,000 miles in the other direction, and we wind up opposing democracy and equality and supporting religious interference in politics. True liberals must return to their constitutional democratic roots, a position from which neither the Western left nor the Western right is too distant from us.
How the Right's Cognitive Errors Occur
If this is the case, why is it that so many on the right in China are so disdainful of "white liberals" and seem to despise them even more than the extreme left in China? Apart from the above-mentioned cognitive simplification and the misalignment of left and right under different frames of reference, is there also some kind of utilitarian logic at work? It's obviously risky to criticize the government in China. It’s a little bit risky to fight with the extreme left, and some might feel like its not worth it if you get your posts removed and your internet accounts shut down. But there is no risk at all in letting off steam by beating up on “white liberals” with whom you have no relationship whatsoever. Webmasters are happy to see the liberals tearing each other apart, and will not interfere. Of course, you can’t talk about Chinese politics, so talking about American politics can also be considered a kind of experience, as long as you find the appropriate target and do not engage in indiscriminate venting.
But at a deeper level, I believe that the cognitive errors of the liberals are the result of a "reverse brainwashing" that occurs in a totalitarian system. The totalitarian propaganda machine spews out a lot of brainwashing material on a daily basis to weaken the intellect and block opposing views and information, which has indeed weakened the intellectual capacity of the majority of Chinese citizens in terms of political judgments, leaving them without the basic facts needed for reasonable judgments, and without the logic and habits of rational arguments.
The positive brainwashing of the totalitarian regime has created a large number of ignorant people with stunted minds and Internet trolls 五毛 with ulterior motives, all of whom neither know nor care that this country once had an insane cult of leader worship that led to a great famine, not to mention the Cultural Revolution and other unparalleled man-made disasters. They refuse to face the facts, even if you beat them over the head with them. The vast majority of people, out of fear, laziness, or ignorance, is willing to be brainwashed by the totalitarian propaganda machine; they abandon thinking and are happy to "pretend to be asleep," exemplifying what Arendt called the "evil of mediocrity."
Faced with such a mass of intellectually limited and extreme people, surrounded by obnoxious brainwashing on a daily basis, some oppressed and indignant liberals can find no one worthy of debate, nor can they cultivate their own habits of rational debate, leading anti-totalitarianism down the dead end of extreme oversimplification. Most of them are anti-establishment out of "pure class feeling," but they do not have much knowledge of constitutional democracy, especially of political practice abroad. In fact, they are subconsciously influenced by their totalitarian education, and their mode of thinking is quite simple, like the concept of good and evil within "class struggle," where the line between friend and foe is clear: the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and the “enemy” of my friend is my enemy as well.
This simplistic way of thinking, fostered by totalitarianism, is good enough at home, because it's never wrong to be anti-totalitarian, but it won’t work to simply transplant it abroad. In the 1960s, the French left was very appreciative of totalitarian China, and the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre personally handed out Mao’s "little red book" in the streets. Their logic was that they were disappointed with the Soviet Union, and since Mao Zedong's China was fighting with the Soviet Union at the time, China naturally became the "friends" of the French left.
In fact, with the exception of Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China, they knew almost nothing about Red China. Today's Chinese liberals cannot afford to make the same kind of basic mistakes again. The ins and out of Euro-American left-right battles are obviously not as clear-cut as the struggle between totalitarianism and anti-totalitarian, and each side makes a certain amount of sense but can also go too far. Neither side has the right to claim to be right, which would be usurping the position of God.
However, people who have long lived in totalitarian states can easily take on totalitarian habits, putting themselves in the place of God and being overconfident in the correctness of their position. Free and equal opportunities for debate rarely exist, and the absence of basic freedoms does not prevent everyone from imagining himself as a God who is always right: in a theocratic state, he will be God’s representative; in an atheistic state, he will be God himself. When two “Gods” fight, if you are right, I am evil, and of course there is no room for tolerance, so a normal exchange of views can easily degenerate into a spiral of personal attacks.
The incompatibility and polarization between left and right is rooted in each side’s deifying itself and demonizing the other, claiming that the other either he is mentally retarded or possessed by the devil. This pattern of discourse is also quite common among liberals, many of whom have not developed the habit of genuine tolerance.
Voltaire's famous phrase "I don't agree with everything you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it" is often repeated, but it only reflects the flippancy of the revolutionary public intellectual: since you are thoroughly convinced that everything your opponent says is wrong, is his freedom of speech really worth “defending?” This makes it sound like you are "generous" enough to "tolerate" other people's nonsense. This "tolerance" is itself arrogant and self-righteous.
As Hu Shih said, "tolerance is more important than freedom," and true tolerance is based on personal equality and mutual respect. The logical starting point of constitutional democracy is the fundamental equality of human judgement, according to which governments are no more "right" than ordinary people, and therefore may not instill "right" values in their people, but must subject their actions to the tests of constitutionality and legality. But the same logic applies to people, and between left and right. No matter who we are or what position we take, neither of us is God and we all make mistakes, so we all have to have this self-knowledge: When I don’t agree with your viewpoint, I certainly consider myself to be right, but I have to admit that you may also be right, and thus both sides have to make room for peaceful debate.
We may have confidence that we need spare no effort in criticizing totalitarianism, but such a stance is inappropriate when transposed onto the left-right debate that occurs in a constitutional democracy. Many Chinese liberals do not seem to be able to adapt to the difference in the two systems, and when discussing the Western scene still treat left and right positions as black and white, instead of with the tolerance they deserve.
In addition to over-simplification and overconfidence, another habit that totalitarian states have nurtured is a penchant for exaggeration and extremes. All systems have problems. Traditional Chinese ritual teachings certainly had problems, so some people generalize and argue that "rituals eat people," and then condemn tradition as a whole. One cannot deny that capitalist private ownership is exploitative and creates a gap between rich and poor, so some people advocate violent revolution and public ownership, and even building socialism in countries that have not known capitalism.
Unfortunately, the modern extremism train has caught up with China and has taken us all the way to left-wing totalitarianism. Are we now going to extend this habit, and because welfare states have problems, practice "laissez-faire" in a country that has almost no welfare at all? Laissez-faire may seem very "liberal," but it traces its intellectual pedigree to Spencerian social Darwinism: the reason why the state does not intervene in the economy at all is to turn economic competition into a primitive struggle for the survival of the fittest, accomplishing the rapid material elimination of the weak. This is the only way a nation becomes stronger.
Since a strong nation is the goal, can the state intervene even when it’s posture is to stay out of the way, by pushing eugenics, for example? Just as anarchism can easily slide into to left-wing totalitarianism, "laissez-faire" is only one step away from the far right. Equally frightening is the habit of thinking that a leftist problem requires a far right solution and a rightist problem requires a far left solution. This will not only lead us to errors in economic policy, but we will also wind up embracing discrimination when we oppose egalitarianism, forgetting the dangers of theocracy when we oppose atheism, and swapping opposition to the tyranny of the majority for opposition to a democratic system of "one man, one vote." We oppose excess in one direction, but push too hard and go to the opposite extreme.
Sadly, the development of social media and the diversification of information sources have failed to effectively challenge and counterbalance extremist views through the confrontation with different viewpoints. Instead, extremist viewpoints have been able to circle the wagons and enhance their self-confidence through the "customized messages" exchanged in the information bubbles in which many people spend their time. In fact, this is true not only in China, but also in the United States.
In his article "The Causes of Political Polarization in the United States," Professor Larry Diamond, an expert in comparative politics, cites "customized messages" as one of the major causes of political polarization in the United States. Originally, the three main sources of information for American voters were the three major television networks, and although political views differed, there was essentially only one version of the truth. From 1949 through 1987, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enforced the rules of the "fairness doctrine," which required broadcasters' licensees to present controversial topics in an honest, fair, and balanced manner.
But in 1987, during the Reagan administration, the FCC abolished this policy, and in 2011, the administrative rules attached to the "fairness doctrine" were removed from the Code of Federal Regulations. With this change in federal policy, the U.S. media has become somewhat politicized, deviating from the professional practice of political neutrality, especially with the emergence of numerous right-wing political "talk shows.”
In addition, in the Internet era, information sources are more diverse, political facts appear in multiple versions, and voters of different ideological spectrums can "get what they want." As a result, left and right have become strangers to one another, non-communicative animals, with no common language or cognitive consensus. The leftists only watch CNN, and the rightists only watch Fox News; pro-Trump groups and anti-Trump groups each follow their own understanding of politics, drifting ever further apart, becoming ever more extreme.
In a certain sense, the “progress” of the freedom of the press has in fact become a reversal, returning to a situation like that when modern media had just emerged, and the Democratic and Republican parties both had their own newspapers. Old newspapers like the New York Times used to be known as “party rags.” Later, with the commercialization of the media, they gradually became independent newspapers, free of political attachments. Now, some of the media are taking on an increasingly political flavor, fueling the political polarization of the American electorate.
The Chinese official media, of course, have traditionally had stronger “party spirit” than their American counterparts, but the development of new media since 2000 for a time brought some hope for a liberalized press in China. I used to be very optimistic, and I still support the liberalization of social media, but I have since discovered that one should not be overly optimistic. After the state blocked of blogs and Weibo, WeChat has become an alternative tool for the dissemination of information and views, but WeChat groups are basically groups of people with similar values and a high degree of homogeneity.
It’s sad to say that all kinds of fake news run rampant in WeChat groups, especially information about foreign countries that is difficult to verify, so it is extremely easy to spread falsehoods. A post widely circulated in the right-wing WeChat group claimed that: "The White House staff under Trump contains 140 people less than under Obama'. The staff serving the first lady of the United States, for example, has been reduced by 39 people. Melania uses only 5 staff members, while Michelle had 44.” The final conclusion was that, "Trump has set a great example, a truly great example for all Americans".
Since this information is often used to prove the "hypocrisy" of "white liberals" as well as Trump’s "greatness," I went online to verify the claims. It is true that the number of senior presidential appointees has decreased significantly since Trump took office. But on the one hand, it is not necessarily the case that the smaller the government, the better. For example, the left generally blames Trump for not appointing the right people, perhaps because he's a "political novice" who doesn't know the system well enough, but also because he doesn't want too many career bureaucrats getting in his way, which has meant that the normal performance of certain federal functions has suffered. The White House staff has also been reduced, but some of the reduction is to functional offices.
In 2014, for example, after the Ebola outbreak in Africa, Obama established the Center for Global Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response under the White House National Security Council, which was disbanded by Trump in 2018, leaving the president without a full-time staff member reporting directly to him on global pandemics, cyberattacks, and terrorism. In addition, while the size and budget of the White House have indeed been reduced, the reduction is quite limited. In 2019, the White House has a paid staff of 418, 36 fewer than in Obama's tenure. Melania has a staff of 11, while Michelle had 24; it's true it's more than double, but it's not as much of a gap as the WeChat post made it out to be (there's also a post that says Melania only has one staffer).
The average annual spending in the White House under Obama was almost $43 million, equivalent to its FY2016 level; the first two years under Trump averaged less than $40 million, but also $42 million in 2019. So we see a little savings, but an extremely limited amount, and with the elimination of core department staff, it is not clear that the necessary work is getting done.
However, this is the kind of fake news that makes many on the Chinese right agree with the final conclusion of the post: that the President is "a good example for all Americans." How different finally is this from the Maoist left’s insistence that Mao was "great leader who was a good example for all the people of China"? This illustrates that "right" does not mean right. As a matter of fact, the thinking pattern of the extreme right is highly similar to that of the extreme left. The only way to avoid such basic mistakes is to take the facts for what they are, and not to read only the news that pleases you, treating the rest with "selective blindness."
In the absence of this, WeChat circles will inevitably be closed-off, one-sided, extreme, delusional意淫, and unable to communicate with other groups. It would seem inconceivable that such an outcome could occur today in an environment of relatively free speech. But the polarization of party politics in the United States shows us that this is not impossible, which suggests that China, which has long been under totalitarian rule, needs to be even more vigilant.
After Biden's recent confirmation of Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris, there was another post circulating on the right in China about how "left" she is, including one about her decision, while she was California Attorney General, not to prosecute any case of theft when the value of the stolen merchandise was less than $950. In 2014, when Harris was California Attorney General, California did hold a referendum on Proposition 47 (California is a “referendum state”) to change the designation of theft and certain other non-violent crimes involving $950 or less from a felony to a misdemeanor. So it's not a matter of not prosecuting the case, it's a matter of not going to jail.
The purpose of this reform was to focus police and judicial resources on more serious and violent crimes and to relieve pressure on California's prisons, which are consistently overcrowded. Police, prosecutors, and judges are limited and valuable resources, and this type of reform is a trade-off that must be made in any country governed by the rule of law. Now five or six years into its implementation, it is entirely possible to use data to determine whether this reform has served those purposes or whether it has encouraged petty theft. If the gains haven’t outweighed the losses, the worst that can happen is that California voters will repeal it and will be the end of it; the fact that Act 47 hasn't been repealed yet at least shows that it's not as harmful as the post makes it out to be.
In fact, Harris herself did not take a public position on Proposition 47. In a democracy, no official, no matter how big, has the capacity to decide whether a particular bill lives or dies, so what's the reason for blaming this on Harris? You can get a basic idea of Harris’s political stance just by checking Wikipedia, so why should you believe these slippery rumors? It is true that in China, where there is no freedom of speech, what the government defines as "rumors" are often "distant prophecies," but in a country where there is freedom of speech, or where the Chinese government has no incentive to restrict speech (e.g. on questions of Harris’s political character), people still believe and spread such rumors, which makes me sad.
White Liberals and Political Correctness
If the rightists in China mistakenly think that only the rightists in the West are friends and the leftists in the West are enemies, then some leftists in the West have made the same mistake of the same nature: they mistakenly think that the leftists in China are their friends. The result is a ludicrous "handshake" between left and right on both sides of the Pacific: the "left" shakes hands with the left, and the "right" shakes hands with the right, but they are not the same thing at all! The two misunderstandings feed other: since "white liberals" are allied with totalitarianism, the right in China can hook up with Western conservatism!
This is, of course, a misunderstanding, and "white liberals" are not totalitarian. Although the Western left has its roots in Marxism, at least in the postwar period, it abandoned not only the idea of violent revolution, but also the radical socialist doctrine of replacing private ownership with public ownership, and has instead accepted such basic principles of constitutionalism as individual freedom, private property, an independent judiciary, and electoral democracy, and only pursues egalitarian ideas such as social justice and redistribution of wealth within the framework of constitutional democracy.
Therefore, the Western left has long been integrated into the system of constitutional democracy, and can even be said to be the main force in the camp of constitutional democracy; of course, democracy is about numbers, and the left represents chiefly a large number of the lower strata of society. We do not need to agree with some of their concrete proposals, but the essence of liberalism is the "double-hundred rule" of China’s Hundred Flowers period (“let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend”): as long as it respects the ground rules of constitutional democracy, any idea can be published and disseminated; it is up to the voters to decide what is a “fragrant flower” and what is a “poisonous weed.”
This is the basic logic of a constitutional democracy, its "bottom line," the insistence that the basic order of liberal democracy must not be violently overthrown. In the 1950s, the German Constitutional Court twice banned political parties—on one occasion the far-right Nazi Party and on the other the far-left Communist Party, on the grounds that the program, structure and activities of totalitarian parties both aimed at the violent overthrow of the basic order of German liberal democracy. In terms of this bottom line, "white Liberals" or "Western Marxists" are both included within the camp of constitutional democracy.
Of course, the Western Left has its own problems, on three major fronts. First, because of their limited understanding of China, some on the Western left may mistakenly think that the Chinese left are the same as they are, both pursuing social equity and distributive justice; of course, the Chinese left also talks about equal distribution of wealth, but the Western left overlooks the relationship between the Chinese "left" and the state.
When I visited the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin in 2017, an Indian-American social scientist asked me if Tsinghua University Professor Wang Hui had any "security problems" in China. Dumbfounded, I told her that Wang Hui was a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), and that there would never be any "security problems" for a person in that position. If anyone should be concerned about his "safety,” it is Qin Hui, not Wang Hui.
But no one there seemed to know Qin Hui, while many knew Wang Hui, who has indeed become a representative of the Chinese intellectual community and has won more than one prize with Habermas. This is the liberals’ fault for not getting their names out there. Have you seen the garbage promoted by the so-called state-sponsored "Chinese Translation Project?" It's true that liberal scholars generally don't have the resources for this, and for various reasons are not well enough known abroad. This is a fact. But this state of affairs also has something to do with the fact that the Western left does not understand, and perhaps does not care to understand, the state of the Chinese intellectual world or the nature of the political system.
Secondly, some leftist scholars in Europe are basically ignorant about contemporary China, while others perhaps are required to be silent about China or even say nice things to continue eating at the trough of China-study subsidies, but there are some who have real affection for or expectations of the totalitarian system. Maybe they confuse popular culture with the political system, and project their love for Chinese culture onto the Chinese system; maybe they nourish a certain dream that they have not achieved in Europe, and believe that it will be come to be if they follow the "China model."
In the summer of 2015, I attended a seminar at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, headquarters of “post-Marxism,” and gave a presentation on "The Construction and Deconstruction of Totalitarianism," and I could clearly sense the displeasure of some of the participants. What were they unhappy about? We all have our blind spots. Germany suffered greatly from the Nazis, but it seems that the disaster of Communism in Germany was less severe, in the sense that at least there was no Holocaust or famine, but can that justify a longing for far-left ideals? I once asked an American scholar at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Berlin, who was born and raised in East Germany, which was worse, Nazi Germany or Communist East Germany? He said the Nazis were clearly worse.
Even so, it is impossible to ignore the devastation wrought by communist totalitarianism in the vast majority of Marxist-Leninist countries such as the Soviet Union and China. Aren’t the mountains of historical data and the painful personal experiences enough? Is it really necessary to continue to pine for Marx? Extreme leftists like these surely do not represent the entire European left, but they may suffice to make Chinese liberals disgusted with "white liberals."
What is interesting is that Westerners universally hate Lenin, but many people still like Marx, as if the disasters that occurred in communist countries were the fault of Leninist national revolutions, Marx having been “kidnapped” for such purposes. There are even people who still regard Marx as an ideological icon of social justice and human freedom. In 2018, on Marx's 200th birthday, his hometown Trier received a bronze statue sent from China.
I wrote a book, From Marx to Lenin, to analyze the relationship between the two, and concluded that he and Lenin were mutually interdependent and inseparable; without Lenin's totalitarian regime, built on to his ideals (or at least in his name), Marx would be lying quietly in the library next to Owen, St. Simon, Fourier, and others. Although the "full and free development of every individual" is a nice phrase, no theory of a free state can be developed from his utopian ideal of anarchism (the elimination of the state and of social classes).
The European left, represented by the Social Democratic Party, evolved from Marxism without experiencing a fundamental transformation. Despite its post-war adaptation and adjustment, post-Marxism still takes Marx as its standard, and has only tinkered with the doctrine to remove elements such as class struggle and violent revolution. However, if these are removed, along with public ownership and the planned economy, how much of Marxism's unique intellectual contribution is left?
Marx's structural critique of the capitalist economy can be considered his unique contribution to political economy, but due to its own inherent limitations, the critique has no constructive theory of the state to offer. The idea of "the full and free development of each individual" is correct, but not only is it nothing special within the vast canon of Western humanism, it also runs counter to Marx's own tone of economic determinism. The dilemma for the European left after the war was that it seemed to find no alternative ideological resource to Marxism.
In fact, having been integrated into the civilized mainstream of constitutional democracy, the European left, especially the left-wing academy, needs to make a break with Marxism, or at least a complete and public break with its totalitarian propositions. The left cannot integrate well into constitutional democracy if it clings to this ambivalent relationship, because Marx's main message is opposition to liberal democracy, to private ownership, and to the market economy. Should this break occur, the European left will naturally pull away from the Chinese "left," but will still not be able to cooperate harmoniously with the liberals.
By way of contrast, the ideology of the American left (the Democratic Party) is generally more moderate, its basic ideas grounded in social justice and equality. These ideas are not only part of the philosophy of constitutional democracy itself (i.e., anti-discrimination), but can only be realized in a constitutional democracy. Given this, the American left and the Chinese "right" (liberals) should be natural allies, and it is mostly the American left that expresses support for the cause of constitutional democracy in China. The differences between the two are not so much about institutional identity, but more about economic and social policies.
The American left is more concerned with material equality, a Democratic Party position that has continued from Roosevelt's "New Deal" to the present day. On the positive front, the Democratic Party is basically "pragmatic," and realizes that without basic material equality, is it impossible to achieve true equality of opportunity. If a person cannot afford food, medical care, housing, or education, will not the meaning of political rights and freedom of speech be greatly diminished? Basic welfare is not only the guarantee of a person's material existence, it is also the basis for a meaningful lifestyle.
But on the negative side, welfarism looks down on its recipients, treating them as weak people who are unable to take care themselves and who can only rely on the state for support. Sure, the elderly, the very young, the sick, and the disabled may need state assistance, but why can't ordinary people earn their own living? Excessive welfare inevitably breeds lazy people, which is detrimental to human growth and prone to the expansion and abuse of government power, putting the whole country on the "road to slavery."
In international relations, while American leftists are "politically correct" in defending freedom, human rights, and the rule of law, they are more concerned about practical interests and dare not offend an economy as large as China's, so they tend to stick to "verbal fireworks" and seldom take serious measures. This is also one reason why Chinese liberals like Trump. The Republican Party talks less, but seems to be more trustworthy, more principled.
However, this is not absolute. Justice Ruth Ginsburg recently died, only a month from the presidential election, but Trump is eager to immediately nominate a new justice to replace her, and the Republican majority in the Senate is eager to take action and quickly approve a conservative candidate. However, in February 2016, following the death of the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, Obama nominated a liberal candidate as his successor, but was boycotted by the Republican-controlled Senate, the reason being precisely that it was "too close" to that year's election, which was actually eight or nine months away. This inconsistent behavior of the Republican Party is clearly unprincipled and can only undermine the judicial independence and political neutrality of the Supreme Court.
In any event, specific policy differences should not be defined as "contradictions between ourselves and the enemy." In fact, no matter which party comes to power in the United States, policy towards China has been basically stable and continuous, and has not reflected systematic differences between the two parties. Although the two parties, Republicans and Democrats, denounce each other during the election campaign, they generally manage to maintain the gentlemanly pose of “harmony within diversity.”
As Chinese, why should we have to pick one side and denounce the other? Whether we are enemies of the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, if we go too far we will wind up being enemies of constitutional democracy. There are extremists among the European and American left, but they are not representative of the left as a whole. If there are people on the left who misunderstand China or have forgotten the evils of Lenin-style totalitarianism, then it is enough to clarify the truth for them with Chinese facts; if they continue to be enamored of totalitarian regimes, then they do not belong to the camp of constitutional democracy, but after all, such people represent only a very small minority.
Finally, the struggle between left and right in the West is itself tending to become increasingly extreme and intolerant. After a long power struggle, the Western left has developed a stance of unquestionable "political correctness." "Political correctness" refers to political beliefs that the vast majority of a society argues cannot be violated, especially, in the United States, with regard to racial equality. This means not only that state actions must not engage in racial discrimination, but also that private individuals must not speak or act in ways that can lead to suspicions of being discriminatory. The slightest deviation from "political correctness" can result, in less serious cases, in tremendous social pressure, expressed verbally and in writing, and in more serious cases, in suspension from work and even in the loss of employment.
This is, of course, to a considerable extent a reflection on slavery, which has been so damaging to Blacks in the history of the United States, but it is also a reflection of the tremendous progress made in American society on racial issues. The George Floyd incident illustrates that racial discrimination in American society and even in the government has yet to disappear, and this kind of "political correctness" still needs to exist, because it embodies the natural law of anti-discrimination. However, the application of any principle or precept is likely to end in overcorrection and produce what the British constitutionalist A. V. Dicey (1835-1922) called the "tyranny of public opinion."
All of this is quite tricky, and while it's clear that blatant racial insults or hate speech, for example, should not be tolerated, what should we do with facts that touch on race, such as crime rates, educational attainment, the number of people on welfare, and the percentage of single-parent households? Are certain facts that put Blacks in an unfavorable light taboo? Should every statement on the subject of race to be made in "fear and trembling," with serious consequences for those who are not careful? This is endless and does nothing to substantively address racial issues in America.
Just as it is wrong for the government to suppress speech, it is wrong for society to suppress speech. It is better to let certain words be said than to muzzle them, even if the majority does not identify with them. If someone says something wrong, tell him to his face and be done with it; not letting him say it doesn't mean he doesn't think it, and instead actually denies the opportunity to correct certain prejudices through free speech. Freedom of speech is supposed to be the first principle of a constitutional democracy, but even in the United States there is a tendency to slip into intolerance on certain "sensitive issues."
Some Chinese liberals oppose "political correctness," but they do not care about its origins, and likewise overdo it, in the process overturning some of the basic principles of political correctness. There is no such thing as "correctness" in politics; different views are subject to opinion. “Political correctness” is not necessarily “correct,” but the belief in "political correctness" is generally rooted in natural law, for example the "political correctness" directed at racial issues is based on ideas of racial equality (anti-discrimination). You can disagree with "affirmative action" and oppose any privileged treatment of blacks, this is a matter of opinion, but you cannot be against "political correctness" because you are for racism.
Politics can be "incorrect,” but principles cannot incorrect, otherwise we are barbarians. Therefore, whether we advocate or oppose "political correctness," we should be clear about what our bottom line is, about what we can and cannot oppose. If we oppose something just for the sake of being against it, acting on impulse, then we risk losing our bottom line.
Both the Chinese right and the American left need to remember Justice Holmes's cautionary tale: freedom of speech protects not the speech we like, but instead the speech we hate and despise. The logical basis for this statement is not Voltaire, but Hume: man is a rational animal, but human reason is limited; I am not God, and others are not idiots. That's why I don't acknowledge insulting names like "white liberals," because it illustrates that we treat people we don't like as idiots.
Especially when so many people in America (about half of the electorate) endorse a set of policies (i.e., political correctness) produced over a long period of time in a liberal democracy, why should we, who are on the over side of the Pacific, behind of all kinds of barriers to information and discussion, be so arrogant? Isn't the logic of this posture the same as that of the contempt that a dictatorship has for its people?
If you think a politician who was voted into office by hundreds of thousands or more votes (such as a congressman from a particular district) is outrageously wrong, it is probably not him who is outrageously wrong, but your information and the judgments you made on the basis of that information. The opinion of the majority is subject to doubt, but that does not mean that the judgment of the minority is always correct.
Away from Extremes and Back to the Middle Way
In short, the split in the ranks of Chinese liberals in itself is not frightening, and "walking in step" is not the liberals’ goal, but it is a problem when the left and the right suffer a complete rupture and become incompatible. The left and right are not the problem per se, the problem is an "extremism" that can lead to totalitarianism.
This is true for both the left and the right; it is the extreme left or the extreme right in the totalitarian sense that we have to oppose. China has experienced left-wing totalitarianism, so the liberals abhor the extreme left, but the extreme right also wants to engage in dictatorship, and in today's liberal camp in China, extreme right-wing anti-democratic, racist, and theocratic rhetoric remains quite attractive, something to which the liberals should pay close attention.
If you go too far in opposing the left, you will turn yourself into the far right, and after a short detour, you will return to the very thing you were originally against--totalitarianism. Some "liberals" mistakenly believe that right is right and left is wrong, but this is actually a manifestation of their own totalitarian thinking that has not been purged. After being brainwashed by the extreme left, people in China are particularly receptive to the brainwashing of the extreme right, because the totalitarian way of thinking of both is very similar, both reflecting a unipolar worldview that everything is either right or left, right or wrong, black or white. They both believe that there is only one fully correct ideology, and always hope to grasp a “truth” or a "revelation," which they cling to, believing that any political view that differs from theirs is fallacious or even evil.
Chinese liberals, whether of the left or the right, should return to the middle way of constitutional politics. In essence, constitutional democracy is golden mean or middle-of-the-road politics because it is based on the social contract, which is a set of basic conventions that every rational person can agree to. Since every rational person must agree with it, the social contract cannot go to extremes, because different people's interests, views, and beliefs are bound to be different or even conflicting; people with different interests, views, and beliefs have to agree on the same social contract, which means that the contract will demand a high level of tolerance, from which a set of political natural laws is derived and implemented through the mechanisms of constitutional democracy.
The state must tolerate ideas and speech of all kinds, and there can be no "one size fits all," because there is no such thing as an absolutely "right" ideology on the left or the right. Values and ideologies are necessarily pluralistic, individual, and personal, and there is no "right answer," and therefore no duly established state can impose orthodox ideas or beliefs on its people without becoming a totalitarian state. Whether it is a far-left regime that bans right-wing speech or a far-right regime that bans left-wing speech, they are birds of a feather. Not only must we not allow the state to suppress freedom of thought, belief, and expression, and even less use the state to suppress the freedom of thought, belief, and expression of others, but we must also develop the habit of respecting different beliefs and positions ourselves.
In today's dispute between the United States and China, Chinese liberals support the United States neither because it is the United States, nor because we support either the left or the right, the Republicans or the Democrats, nor because we support a president of a particular political or religious persuasion, but because we support the constitutional democratic system that the United States represents. From the poor response to the epidemic to the George Floyd incident, it is clear that America's constitutional institutions are not perfect. In fact, the bipartisan political polarization of the United States suggests that part of its social contract may be unraveling, or may never have been firmly in place.
Criticism of the United States is not "anti-American," but is intended to make its constitutional system better, just as criticism of China is not "anti-China;" otherwise, we would be thinking like those within a totalitarian system. The vitality of the United States comes from the First Amendment to the constitution, which protects freedom of religion, speech and the press, and prohibits a state religion, from the virtually boundless exchange of information and views, limited only by the requirement that the exchange be peaceful. The constitution of the United States has been invincible for two centuries, thanks to its firm grasp of this natural law of politics.
We can, from our perch in China, watch the left and right fighting each other in Europe and the United States. We can get excited, we can pound our fists the table, we can even bet on the outcome, but we should not get too involved in the drama. In fact, the totalitarian state knows no left or right; the terms themselves are only meaningful within a constitutional democratic system, and the onlookers of a totalitarian state are in no position to judge. In a country with neither welfare nor freedom, quarreling over whether someone else in another country has more a little more freedom or a little more welfare offends those people and makes us look ridiculous.
Whether in China or in the West, whether left or right, liberals all over the world should be a gentlemen's club, a community of decent people. What is a "gentleman?" Confucius said, " The superior man embodies the course of the Mean; the mean man acts contrary to the course of the Mean.” What is a "mean man?" A gentleman has a bottom line, a mean man does not. "The superior man may indeed have to endure want, but the mean man, when he is in want, gives way to unbridled license.”
What is the bottom line? The bottom line is that that we can only exercise our freedom within our own boundaries, but not overstepping them or going too far, otherwise our freedom is based on the sacrifice of others' freedom; political dictatorships want to deprive others of their votes, racism wants to discriminate against disadvantaged groups, theocracies want to impose their beliefs on others through the state. All such things are acts of “meanness.” In China, liberals are a group of people who are oppressed by hooligans. We must be decent people and not take on the habits of hooligans and bully those weaker than us.
Living in the extreme reaches of a totalitarian state, liberals cannot afford to lose themselves and define their own position by others’ “left” and “right.” We cannot advocate a particular religious policy just because a certain country practices secular totalitarianism, nor can we simply project the Chinese anti-left stance onto the Western anti-left stance and make ourselves the enemies of racial equality and "one man, one vote." We need to have our own stance, anchor it firmly in political natural law, and adopt maximum tolerance for all viewpoints and positions within a system of constitutional democracy. Only in this way can the cause of constitutional democracy in China build the alliance of the majority.
 Translator’s note: Sun Zhigang was a migrant worker (despite being a university graduate) who was beaten to death while detained by the police for not having the proper papers on his person. The case became a huge Internet scandal.
 Translator’s note: “House Churches” refer to the unregistered, underground Protestant churches, which first began to spread in rural areas during the Cultural Revolution and subsequently, in the reform and opening era, made major inroads in urban areas as well.
 Translator’s note: The derisive term “white liberal” (or “white left”) originated as Internet slang in China but is now commonly used in intellectual circles as well. The original reference was to “woke” “white liberals” in the West who champion social justice causes that, in the eyes of those who do not share their beliefs, go beyond their immediate personal concerns, such as white people who march in Black Lives Matter demonstrations. “White liberals” are closely connected to Chinese ideas concerning “political correctness,” which, surprisingly, have considerable currency there. Obviously, “white liberals” are not as such a major concern in China, but as Zhang points out in his text, many Chinese engage in guilt by association.
 Translator’s note: “The other shore 彼岸” is drawn from Buddhist discourse, where it means “enlightenment,” an image Zhang is playing with here, suggesting that constitutional democracy will be China’s salvation.
 Translator’s note: This word generally has a sexual connotation and is often translated as “obscene” or “lascivious,” but here it appears to mean “the act of imagining a non-existent thing or event as existing or occurring, and enjoying oneself with it” (from the Chinese version of Wiktionary). The locus classicus of the term is the Dream of the Red Chamber and Jia Baoyu’s sexual fantasies. Here, the author appears to refer to the grandiose delusions engaged in by certain Internet groups, encouraged by their relative detachment from reality.
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