On March 25, 2011 Sichuan dissident Liu Xianbin was convicted of subversion or writing articles like the one below and “A Memorial Long Overdue — In Commemoration of the Fifth Anniversary of the Death of Zhao Ziyang” The Sichuan court sentenced Liu Xianbin later sentenced to years imprisonment plus two years deprivation of political rights for two years following his release. Now Liu he is serving his sentence in Sichuan.
The police in Suining, Sichuan in their recommendations to the state prosecutor remarked on Liu dangerous thoughts and writings:
“The Suining Public Security Bureau discovered the case of the suspected involvement of the suspect Liu Xianbin in incitement to subvert state power in the course of its work. On December 26, 2008, a formal investigation began. On June 28, 2010 the suspect Liu Xianbin was detained in connection with this case. The investigation into the involvement of the suspect Liu Xianbin in incitement to overthrow state power has concluded.
“Investigation according to the law has determined that the after the suspect Liu Xianbin was released on November 6, 2008 with the completion of his sentence, owing to his dissatisfaction with our country’s people’s democratic dictatorship system of state power and with the socialist system, pledged to overthrow our country’s political system and to fight it to the end. Between April 2009 and February 2010, Liu Xianbin, at his home at Baisheng Jiayuan, Building 2, No. 2, sixth floor #2 at 40 Kaixuan Road in the Chuanshan District, took advantage of the Internet’s characteristic speed, wide reach, strong social influence and the great attention paid to it by the masses. He wrote and transmitted through the Internet articles for publication. These articles appeared in publications outside the borders of mainland China such as “People and Human Rights”, “Beijing Spring”, “China Weekly”, “Democratic China”, “China Human Rights Semi-weekly”. He slandered the people’s democratic dictatorship political power led by the Chinese Communist Party as “autocratic rule” and on several occasions incited the overthrow of our country’s political regime and socialist system.”
Constitutional Democracy for China: Escaping Eastern Autocracy
by Liu Xianbin
Over the past several thousand years, China has been an autocratic country.This can be attributed to its deeply rooted autocratic culture and the and servile culture that grew out of it.
Like other world cultures, Chinese culture honored the pursuit of goodness and aspired to an ideal society that set down universal values that applied to all mankind. For example, in the ancient times, the concept of the “whole world is one community” could be found in Chinese culture. The system that a king abdicates and hands over the crown to another person was from the times of Emperors Yao, Shun, and Yu was a concrete practice of the concept of the “whole world being one community.” To use a common expression, the “whole world is one community” means that the world belongs to all people under heaven. To put this in modern terms, the people are the masters of the country. This is the most important core democratic concept in modern politics.
Later, two major schools of Chinese culture, Confucianism and Taoism, inherited the concept of the “whole world is one community.” In their minds, ideal rulers were those who could implement the concept of the “whole world is one community.” Mencius once said: “There is a way to win a kingdom: win the people, and the kingdom is yours. There is a way to win the people: win their hearts, and the people are won.” What Mencius meant is that those who win the hearts of the people can win the kingdom and those who lose the support of the people can lose the kingdom. The idea can also be applied to modern democracy.
Moreover, Pre-Qin Confucian scholars also entertained many ideas which are in line with modern democracy. For example, in the Analects of Confucius, there is a story talking about “Fan Chi asking what constitutes wisdom.” In the story, Confucius said: “We should employ the upright and put aside all the crooked. In this way the crooked can be made to be upright.” The expression of “employing the upright and putting aside all the crooked” means that it is necessary to select wise and able persons to lead and manage this society. Mencius also said: “We should give honor to men of talents and virtue and employ the able.” What he meant is that we should let those people with high moral standard and great capability administer the country. This idea is completely in line with the goal of modern democracy.
Moreover, Mencius also severely criticized those autocrats and traitors of the people. He said: “When the prince regards his ministers as his hands and feet, his ministers regard their prince as their belly and heart; when he regards them as his dogs and horses, they regard him as another compatriot; when the prince regards his ministers as the ground or grass to trample upon, then they regard him as an enemy.” When the king Xuan of Qi asked him how he considered the matters related to the King Tang of Shang destroying the King Jie of Xia and the King Wu of Zhou destroying the King Zhou of Shang, Mencius said: “He robs a good man is called a robber; he who harms a righteous man is called a barbarian. These robbers and barbarians are outcasts. I have heard of the execution of these two kinds of outcasts, but never the putting a sovereign to death.”
When these ideas of Mencius were introduced to the West, some say they influenced the French Revolution. Mencius’ ideas do not favor autocrats who want to maintain their rule. Therefore When Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty read these remarks by Mencius, he was very upset. He went so far as to order the removal of Mencius’ statues from Confucius Temples and personally deleted these remarks. Therefore, democratic idea in a simple form did exist in pre-Qin Confucian thought. These democratic ideas are not totally opposite to modern democratic theories.
Why did Western culture develop a political system of freedom and democracy while China got bogged down deeper and deeper in the mire of despotic dictatorship? I believe that one of the important reasons is that China’s traditional culture only puts forward moral restrictions on the rulers but fails to design corresponding institutional restrictions. China’s traditional culture only hopes that the rulers will carry out on their own initiative the concept of the “whole world being one community” but does not have a corresponding system to ensure that the rulers must carry out the concept of the “whole world being one community.”
In the minds of Confucian scholars and Taoist scholars, the most ideal rulers are “sages” who know everything and can do anything. The Scripture of Ethics describes how a sage can rule the world. The Analects of Confucius describes how gentlemen can refine their moral character so as to assist the sage to rule the world. Therefore, over the past several thousands years, the concept of “intelligent rulers and virtuous ministers” has always represented the highest ideal of the Chinese people. Undoubtedly, it is reasonable to put forward moral restrictions on the rulers. But this is not enough because moral restrictions are very weak in the face of power. Once the rulers get an absolutely unrestrained power, they might become degenerated and harm the interests of the people for the sake of their selfish desires.
Over the past two thousand years and more, China has been ruled by autocratic sovereigns, true “intelligent rulers and virtuous ministers” were few and far between. Most of them were mediocre and incapable. Some even were tyrants who ruled the country cruelly. They were what Mencius described as autocrats and traitors of the people who were harmful to the country. With regard to these rulers, the Chinese culture has failed to create an institutional check-and-balance mechanism. As a result, these fatuous and self-indulgent rulers and these tyrants were able to do whatever they wanted to do while the people of the country suffered from agonies and hardships.
This is the sad story of the Chinese traditional culture. In fact, during the Spring and Autumn Period [ 770-476 BC] and the Period of Warring States [ 475-221 BC] when the Chinese culture enjoyed great development, Confucius, Mencius, Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi, and others had a clear understanding of the rulers of all states of their times. In their minds, these rulers were not “sages and intelligent rulers” that they expected them to be. They simply could not meet the moral requirements as put forward by Confucius, Mencius, Lao Zi, and Zhuang Zi. Under this situation, Confucius, Mencius, Lao Zi, and Zhuang Zi still did not think about the necessity of institutional restrictions. This is really unfortunate for the Chinese culture.
The Chinese culture’s excessive emphasis on morality originates from the Confucian theory that claims human nature is good. Pre-Qin Confucian scholars believed the nature of a person is good and each person is born with a sense of kindness, a sense of shame, and a sense of shame right and wrong. They believed that people become bad because they are affected by the environment after their birth. Therefore, they believed that people can become a moral person with studies and personal refinement, as Mencius put it: “All men may be Yaos and Shuns.”
For this reason, they pinned their hopes of the realization of the ideal society on the moral refinement of each and every person. They urged people to unswervingly cultivate their moral characters. In particular, they urged the rulers of the country to become sages or gentlemen with high moral standard through moral cultivation. This is completely different from the idea that human nature is bad as proposed by the Western culture. In Christian culture of the West, a person is considered as imperfect. Even a person with perfect personal character also has an original sin. Therefore, in Christian civilization, a person, however great he is, is considered as a person who is prone to make mistake or commit crimes. Therefore, when he is in power, people naturally will take precautions against him and restrict him. As a result, the theories of freedom, democracy, human rights, and constitutional government naturally emerge.
However, in the Period of Warring States of the Pre-Qin era, Xun Zi was already questioning the theory that claims human nature is good. Moreover, he advanced a theory that claims human nature is bad. Later, the Legalists [a school of thought in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods, 770-221 BC] advanced various views on the assumption that human nature is bad. They told rulers that they must always take precautions against their ministers and subjects and to put in place a system for controlling the thoughts and actions of their ministers and subjects.
The Legalists, however, made a grave mistake. Instead of applying the theory human nature is evil to rulers, they merely proposed measures for dealing with ministers and subjects. Not a single one of the Legalists’ proposals restricted rulers. Therefore, the theories put forward by Legalists made them accomplices in establishing and strengthening Chinese autocracy.
Ever since the Qin Dynasty in fact, every dynastic ruler has madly clung to the advantages of the theories put forward by Legalists while pretending to esteem Confucianism. This is what is called “exterior Confucianism and interior Legalism.” They used beautifully worded Confucian terms to justify the legitimacy of their rule. Meanwhile, they used harsh law and severe punishment proposed by Legalists to suppress the ministers and the people. This is the major characteristic of eastern autocracy.
No matter whether they called themselves Confucianists, Taoists, or Legalists, they always failed to put forward institutional restrictions on rulers. This is a major shortcoming of Chinese culture. In the pre-Qin era, there was still some freedom in Chinese society. Particularly, the class of literati and officialdom still had some freedoms. For example, Confucius once said: “A prince should employ his minister according to the rules of propriety; ministers should serve their prince with faithfulness.” (Section 19, Ba Yi [eight rows of dancers at sacrifices], the Analects of Confucius) In other words, the loyalty of a subject to his king is conditional, which means that a king must respect his subject. If a king does not respect his subject, his subject has a right not to be loyal to his king. Therefore, when Confucius was elbowed out by others, he left the Kingdom of Lu. When Duke Zhuang of Qi was killed for vying for a woman, Yan Zi did not mourn for him. Mencius also once said: “When scholars are put to death without having committed any crime, great officers may leave the country. When the people are slaughtered without having committed any crime, the scholars may remove themselves.” (Li Lou II) Therefore, in the pre-Qin era, there was not a necessary relationship of dependence between the literati class and officialdom on the one hand and the rulers on the other hand.
However, beginning in the Qin Dynasty which established China’s autocratic imperial system, the literati class and officialdom began to lose this freedom. They no longer had a the freedom to decide to which ruler they would be loyal. Their rights, status, and even lives had lost fundamental protections. According to the Ceremonies of Zhou, “the penal statutes do not reach the great officers.” But in the autocratic society since the Qin Dynasty, autocratic monarchies held an absolute power to control the life and death of their subjects because if the king “wants his subject to die, the subject must die.” Even the literati and officialdom despite their high social status lost their basic human rights. One can only imagine the fate of commoners. Since then, each and every Chinese people had to subject themselves to the supreme imperial power, they lost the dignity, freedom, and rights as a human being. Every one became a slave who was used and trampled on by the despotic imperial power.
Under the role of the powerful despotic imperial power, the national character of the Chinese people also underwent a tremendous change. All people became timid, selfish, and sly. Sometimes, they even were distorted to the perversion. In order to protect oneself or to pursue one’s own interests, everybody tried to attain his own end by hook or by crook. Gentlemen with noble character became rarer and rarer. Villain culture and servile culture had become popular in this society. The moral teaching of Confucianism became just empty talk used to deceive oneself and others. Confucianism become merely a decoration for despotic imperial power.
Meanwhile, servile culture’s spread promoted the consolidation and development of despotism. Despots urgently needed people who always did as they were told. Despots were skilled provoking and controlling the endless internal struggle between gentlemen and villains. Taking advantage of these internal divisions, they gradually consolidated their autocratic power. Therefore, that servile culture devoid of dignity and freedom was an essential condition for the indefinite maintenance of despotism. We can’t blame all the calamities of Chinese history on our despotic rulers. Our national character and our culture also provided fertile soil for the growth and development of despotism.
Since despotic imperial power was not subject to restraint, the rulers could enjoy unlimited power. They unavoidably became corrupt and suppressed and plundered the people without any limit. When the people simply could not tolerate any longer, they would become reckless and in desperation and rese up to resist. This resulted in severe social turmoil and recession that several damaged the economy, society, and culture.
Therefore, unrestricted autocratic power is largely responsible for the calamities Chinese society has suffered for over two thousand years. To escape this endless cycle of of calamity-destruction-reconstruction, China needs to develop a culture skeptical of state power, constrains state power, and clearly defines the distinction between the powers of the rulers and the rights of the people. China should learn the concepts of constitutional democracy from the West. China needs to absorb the essence of these principles so that it can protect the freedom and dignity of each person from the encroachments of state power. Only when the concept of constitutional democracy is internalized as an integral part of Chinese culture and becomes the basic concept of the nation, will we be able to remove conditions favorable to the growth of despotism. Only in this way can the happiness of our future generations be fundamentally guaranteed, and can Chinese society finally escape from Eastern-style autocracy.
Written in “Baisheng Homeland” in Sichuan’s Suining on 9 December 2009
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