In the ancient world, Greek and Roman intellectuals acted out the principles of their ethical systems. To defend the precepts of hedonism, Epicurus established a “garden” where people in search of tranquility would gather to dance, share meals, and enjoy the delights of the quotidian. A fervent believer in the virtue of deep education, Plato founded the Academy to allow young men to live what he thought was the true life of the mind. As for Socrates, the champion of epistemic humility famously wandered in the streets of Athens, asking strangers and supposed experts to justify their most deep-rooted certitudes with sound reasoning. The list goes on: Epictetus derived his Stoic account of human psychology from his life as a freed slave, Marcus Aurelius used his Meditations to inform his political decisions, and Seneca spent his life tempering the totalitarian excesses of Nero by applying the prescriptions of his treaty On Anger. In short, the ancients considered that thought and action go hand in hand, and that the role of philosophy extends way beyond the dusty walls of empty libraries.
Among this panoply of dedicated intellectuals was Tacitus, a Roman historian who wrote about the perils of tyranny while serving the murderous regime of Emperor Domitian. For Tacitus, active intellectuals could reshape the world by entering public life and plunging vigorously into political debates. In the opening paragraph of his Agricola, Tacitus writes: “An outstanding personality can still triumph over that blind antipathy to virtue which is a defect of all states, small and great alike.”
The value of exceptional minds was especially important to counter the disinformation of tyrannical regimes. As a well-connected statesman, Tacitus had witnessed the power of ruthless propaganda. Recounting the words of a general from the British Isles, he writes: “To robbery, butchery, and rapine, [the Romans] give the lying name of government; they create a desolation and call it peace.” Tyranny vanquished republicanism because of its ability to reframe reality, to hide its vices under a mountain of handy slogans, to deconstruct the achievements of those who opposed its unquestionable grip. In the face of infamy, courageous intellectuals could choose between two paths. Like Tacitus and Seneca, they could become insiders and try to temper the violent inclinations of tyrants — the path of “responsibility.” Alternatively, they could use their platform to expose hidden truths and denounce authoritarian excesses — the path of “resistance.”
Last week, one of the last champions of Chinese “resistance” was silenced by the Chinese Community Party. Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun, one of the few remaining critics of President Xi Jinping and the Communist government, was arrested by police on Monday. According to a friend of Xu’s, the police told his wife that he was detained for visiting prostitutes in Chengdu. Naturally, this kind of allegation is not uncommon when it comes to Chinese political dissidents — in a sense, Xu is but a collateral victim of Xi’s generalized crackdown on all kinds of opposition.
Beyond his extensive work on legal philosophy and constitutional theories, Xu has published a series of major essays on modern Chinese politics. In these astringent critiques of the Communist Party’s failures, Xu provides an elegant and erudite analysis of Xi’s abandonment of Confucian principles. In “Viral Alarm,” a recent piece in which Xu attacks China’s response to the coronavirus, he writes:
The bureaucratic and governance system of China that is now fully on display is one that values the mediocre, the dilatory, and the timid. The mess they have made in Hubei Province, and the grotesque posturing of the incompetents involved [in dealing with the coronavirus] have highlighted a universal problem. A similar political malaise infects every province and the rot goes right up to Beijing.
Overall, Xu’s message to the CCP is simple: In importing Marx and Lenin, the Communist Party has forgotten Confucius. In his writings, the dissident academic tries to reclaim the Chinese tradition and show that Xi has betrayed every major tenet of proper Confucian rule.
Let us begin with the elephant in the room: free speech. While the Chinese constitution technically protects freedom of expression and of the press, the experience of Xu and others illustrates the Orwellian reality in which the Chinese population is forced to live. From the New York Times to The Economist, the Communist Party has banned virtually every major Western print outlet from operating in the country. Worse still, according to a recent paper in The American Political Science Review, the CCP “fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year” to drown opposing voices in an ocean of polished propaganda.
This kind of dystopian censorship is diametrically opposed to the teachings of Confucius. In the Analects, the philosopher repeats time and again that a proper gentleman must “listen to others” and “harmonize” conflicting viewpoints to find a form of balance. Confucius invites his students to speak up against misgovernment, insisting on the duty of public servants to “accept the opinions, suggestions, and supervision of the people [they] serve.” How can the CCP do all of the above when it ruthlessly challenges the likes of Xu? Confucius might have defended hierarchies, but he certainly did not endorse the ostracization of respectful disagreement.
The same inconsistency applies to China’s treatment of religious and cultural minorities. As Ben Blanchard aptly observes in Reuters, the CCP requires its members to embrace an atheistic and materialist vision of the world, thereby reducing hundreds of millions of Chinese believers to second-class citizenship, since party membership is a prerequisite to accessing certain services and holding public office. The CCP has, among other forms of religious persecution, ordered the destruction of churches and crosses, endorsed the replacement of Christic images with pictures of Xi Jinping, banned online sales of the Bible, and jailed innocent pastors for defending the teachings of Christianity. As for Muslims, in Xinjiang, more than a million Uighurs have been locked up in concentration camps where their religious and cultural identity finds itself dreadfully attacked.
Once more, the CCP’s coercive actions run against Confucian prescriptions. In the Analects, Confucius rejects the use of “ordinances and statutes to keep [the people] in line,” and invites the proper gentleman to “guide [the citizens] with exemplary virtue” so that they will “know how to reform themselves.” As Confucius scholar Mark C. Modak-Truran explains in a 2008 paper, while the Chinese philosopher did allow the use of force in extreme cases such a war, he generally favored li, an abstract term referring to shared rites, decorum, and rules of propriety. In this sense, while Confucius insisted on the importance of community bonds, he also advocated the kind of moral autonomy and self-cultivation that is incompatible with President Xi’s repressive policies. Further, when it comes to cultural tolerance, Confucius argued that everyone, regardless of origin or religion, deserves to be treated with jing — that is, with respect and reverence. In Analects Nos. 12 and 13, he even demands that this universal sense of deference be applied “in times of crisis” — in other words, even if the Chinese government’s claims about Uighur-separatist threats were true, a Confucian government would still not be allowed to impose inhumane sanctions on Muslims at large.
In fact, ironically enough, the very existence of the CCP represents an affront to Confucian ideals. The Analects are filled with arguments against partisanship. Confucius instructs the gentleman not to act out of “blind loyalty,” not to become a “tool” of others, and not to follow anyone but “great men and . . . sages.” Refusing servile obedience, the gentleman is to pursue rightness, Heaven, and The Way, independent of corrupt external influences. Naturally, Confucius is by no means an individualist. Not only does he refuse Western conceptions of the sovereign individual, but he emphatically requires people to improve the moral fabric of society as a collective unit. Nevertheless, as Chinese-philosophy professor Irene Bloom has repeatedly argued, Confucianism includes a robust conception of freedom that has been perverted first by the Chinese Empire and then by the Communist Party.
Given this slew of incompatibilities between the CCP and its supposed source of philosophical inspiration, scholars such as Xu Zhangrun represent a huge threat to the Chinese establishment. By providing an erudite and rigorous defense of principles that the party has long abandoned, Xu exposes the hypocrisy of a regime hiding its turpitude behind the veil of tradition. A public intellectual in the noblest sense of the term, Xu lays bare the fatal flaws of what he calls China’s “new personality cult.” In an online essay translated into English by sinologist Geremie Barmé, Xu writes: “It is feared that in one fell swoop China will be cast back to the terrifying days of Mao.” Ultimately, far from being a devout Confucian state, China has replaced its illustrious philosophical tradition with a dreadful combination of cold-hearted utilitarianism, obdurate Marxism, and radical corporatism.
The life and fight of Professor Xu should inspire Westerners to defend heterodox intellectuals, to protect dissenting voices, and to cherish freedom of expression. Perhaps more than anything, his story acts as a timely reminder that the university need not be a well-insulated ivory tower; in times of disinformation and post-truth, audacious thinkers become the pillars of civil society.