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Changing the Regime by Changing Society

April 9, 2010

Liu Xiaobo

2006

Translation by HRIC, based on a translation by J. Latourelle.

We have had over twenty years of reform, but due to the Communist Party of China’s selfish arrogation of political power and the scattering of civic forces, in the short term I do not see any kind of political force capable of changing the regime, nor any liberal-minded force within the circle of official authorities, like a Gorbachev1 or a Chiang Ching-kuo,2 and no way for civil society to build up political power sufficient enough to rival official authorities. And so, China’s course of transformation into a modern, free society is bound to be gradual and full of twists and turns. The length of time it will take may surpass even the most conservative estimates.

At the same time, in terms of opposition to the might of the CPC regime, civil society remains weak, civic courage inadequate and civic wisdom immature; civil society is still in the earliest stages of development, and consequently there is no way to cultivate in a short time a political force adequate to the task of replacing the Communist regime. In such a situation, change in China’s political system and its current regime—any plan, program or even action seeking instant success—can be no more than castles in the air.

Yet, this does not mean that there is absolutely no hope for a future free China. Because the sky of Chinese politics in the post-Mao era can no longer be single-handedly obscured by a totalitarian ruler; rather, it has assumed two hues: darkness and light. Likewise, the relationship between the officials and the people is no longer such that no one dares to speak out, except to shout “Long Live the Emperor.” Rather, the political rigidity of the authorities and the people’s awakening to their rights, and official suppression and civil resistance exist side by side at the same time. The system is autocratic like before, but the society is no longer ignorant; the officials are tyrannical like before, but the civil rights defense movements continue to arise; the terror of literary inquisition is still there, but it can no longer produce the deterrent of “killing one to scare the rest”; the regime’s “enemy awareness” is unchanged, but the “politically sensitive individuals” are no longer the terrifying “pestilence” shunned by everyone.

China’s course of transformation into a modern, free society is bound to be gradual and full of twists and turns. The length of time it will take may surpass even the most conservative estimates.

In the Maoist era, for personal totalitarian control to be established, four major conditions had to be met at the same time:

  1. Comprehensive nationalization, leading to no personal economic autonomy whatsoever, turning the regime into an all-powerful nanny of our countrymen, and making them economically dependent on the regime from cradle to grave;
  2. All-pervasive organization, leading to the complete loss of personal freedom, turning the organization into the sole authenticator of legal status for our countrymen who can hardly take a single step if they leave the organization, and making them personally dependent on the regime to the extent that without the shelter of the organization they have no social license;
  3. Rigid tyranny of the machinery of violent dictatorship imposed on the entire social body; dictatorial atmosphere created by an extreme rule of man and by an enemy mentality, where every citizen is made a soldier; all-pervasive vigilance and ubiquitous monitoring, to the extent that every pair of eyes is turned into surveillance equipment and every person is under surveillance by his/her work unit, neighborhood [committee], neighbors, and even relatives and friends.
  4. Mental tyranny imposed on the entire nation by an ideology of formidable cohesive power and power to inspire, and by large-scale mass movements, where the extreme personality cult and leadership authority create the kind of mind-control with one brain deciding what everybody thinks, and where artificially created “dissidents” are not just persecuted economically, politically, and in terms of social status, but are also made to suffer humiliation of character, dignity, and spirit—the so-called “criticism until they drop and stink,” which is in fact a dual tyranny that is both physical and mental to the extent that the great majority of the victims succumbing to this mental tyranny engage in endless public self-humiliation.

Yet, in the post-Mao era, the society entirely based on official authority no longer exists. An enormous transformation toward pluralism in society has already taken place, and official authority is no longer able to fully control the whole society. The continuous growth of private capital is nibbling away at the regime’s economic foundation, the increasingly disintegrated value system is challenging its ideology, the persistently expanding civil rights protections are increasing the challenges to the strength of the arbitrary authority of government officials, and the steadily increasing civic courage is making the effectiveness of political terror wither by the day.

An enormous transformation toward pluralism in society has already taken place, and official authority is no longer able to fully control the whole society.

Since June Fourth especially, three of the four major pillars necessary for the establishment of personal totalitarian rule have been in various stages of decay and even collapse. Personal economic dependence [on the regime] has gradually been replaced by personal independence, and the living made through one’s own efforts has given individuals the material base for autonomous choices, while bringing plurality of interests to the society. Personal dependence on organizations has gradually been replaced by a smattering of personal freedom: the Chinese people need no longer live in organizations for lack of alternatives; the time when they could hardly take a step if they left the organization is gone, never to return. Chinese society is gradually moving towards freedom of movement, mobility, and career choice.

In the ideological sphere, the awakening of individual consciousness and awareness of one’s rights has led to the collapse of the one great unified official ideology, and the diversification in the system of values is forcing the government to passively adjust their ideological excuses and look for excuses for the passive adjustments of its ideology; a civic value system independent of the bureaucratic value system is gradually taking shape, and although indoctrination with lies and speech control continue, [the government’s] persuasive power has significantly declined. The information revolution ushered in by the Internet in particular has multiplied and diversified the channels of information access and civic discourse, causing the fundamental failure of the means of control used by government authorities to block information and prohibit political discussion.

The greatness of non-violent resistance is that even as man is faced with forceful tyranny and the resulting suffering, the victim responds to hate with love, to prejudice with tolerance, to arrogance with humility, to humiliation with dignity, and to violence with reason.

Of the four pillars of totalitarian rule, only political centralization and its blunt repression remain. However, because a social pattern where righteousness and justice reside with civil society while power resides with the authorities has gradually taken shape, the twofold tyranny of the Maoist era—persecution of the flesh and trampling of the spirit—is no more, and there has been a significant decline in the effectiveness of political terrorism. As for government persecution of its victims, it no longer has the twofold effect of using prison to deprive them of personal freedom and also using mass criticism to debase their integrity and dignity. Political persecution may cause its victims to suffer economic losses, may strip them of personal freedom, but it is unable to damage their social reputation, and even less able to place them under the siege of social isolation; and therefore it cannot destroy their integrity, dignity or spirit. On the contrary, it has gradually turned into a vehicle for advancing the moral stature of its victims, garnering them the honors for being the “civic conscience” or the “heroes of truth,” while the government’s hired thugs have become instruments that “do the dirty work.” Not only do the majority of those persecuted no longer beg forgiveness from the organization through endless self-criticism or undertake public self-humiliation, on the contrary, most are able to inspire reverence with their devotion to justice as they defend themselves in the dock under great organizational pressure, putting the Communist Party organization and courts into the moral position of defendants.

Meanwhile, following the collapse of the communist totalitarian Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, the global trend towards liberalization and democratization has been gaining strength by the day. Pressure from the human rights diplomacy of mainstream nations and from international human rights organizations is making the cost of maintaining a system of dictatorship and terror politics increasingly high, while the effectiveness and the deterrent capacity of official persecution continue to decline, forcing the current Chinese Communist regime to put on a big “Human Rights Show” and “Democracy Show,” both in its domestic governance and in its foreign response.

In other words, whether it’s the everlasting practice of non-violent resistance, or the prediction that the liberal system will be the End of History,3 all these [theories] ultimately appeal to the spiritual aspect of human nature. Humans exist not only physically, but also spiritually, possessing a moral sense, the core of which is the dignity of being human. Our high regard for dignity is the natural source of our sense of justice. When a system or a country allows everyone to live with dignity, it can gain spontaneous approval from the people, which is how St. Thomas Aquinas4 understood political virtue: Virtuous good governance lies not only in maintaining order, but [even] more in establishing human dignity. [If it acts] otherwise, [a government] will provoke various forms of resistance, with conscientious objection among the principal forms. The reason why the liberal system can gradually replace dictatorship, and the end of the Cold War can be seen as the End of History, lies in the fact that the former [liberal system] acknowledges and respects human dignity, while the latter [dictatorship] does not recognize human dignity and discredits it by dragging it in the dust.

The greatness of non-violent resistance is that even as man is faced with forceful tyranny and the resulting suffering, the victim responds to hate with love, to prejudice with tolerance, to arrogance with humility, to humiliation with dignity, and to violence with reason. That is, the victim, with love that is humble and dignified, takes the initiative to invite the victimizer to return to the rules of reason, peace, and compassion, thereby transcending the vicious cycle of “replacing one tyranny with another.”

Bottom-up reform requires self-consciousness among the people, and self-initiated, persistent, and continuously expanding civil disobedience movements or rights defense movements among the people.

In an un-free society ruled by a dictatorship, under the premise of the temporary absence of power that can change the dictatorial nature of the regime, the civic ways that promote the transformation of Chinese society from the bottom up that I know of are as follows:

  1. The non-violent rights defense movement does not aim to seize political power, but is committed to building a humane society where one can live with dignity. That is, it strives to expand an independent civil society by changing the way people live—the lifestyle of ignorance, cowardice and willing enslavement—by first endeavoring to expand the space and resources for civil society in areas where the control by government authorities is weak, followed by sustained non-violent resistance to compress the social space controlled by government authorities, and then by increasing the price the dictatorial government has to pay in order to control the civic sphere, shaping a pattern of gradual inch-for-inch progress of civil liberties at the expense of the contracting power of government authorities.
  2. The non-violent rights defense movement need not pursue a grand goal of complete transformation. Instead, it is committed to putting freedom into practice in everyday life through initiation of ideas, expression of opinions and rights defense actions, and particularly through the continuous accumulation of each and every rights defense case, to accrue moral and justice resources, organizational resources, and maneuvering experience in the civic sector. When the civic forces are not yet strong enough to change the macro-political environment at large, they can at least rely on personal conscience and small-group cooperation to change the small micro-political environment within their reach. For instance, that the rebellion of senior newsmen, such as Lu Yuegang and Li Datong, against the official news system achieved definite results was ultimately a function of the soundness of the small milieu within the China Youth Daily.
  3. Regardless of how great the freedom-denying power of a regime and its institutions is, every individual should still fight to the best of his/her ability to live as a free person, that is, make every effort to live an honest life with dignity. In any society ruled by dictatorship, when those who pursue freedom publically disclose it and practice what they preach, as long as they manage to be fearless in the small details of everyday life, what they say and do in everyday life will become the fundamental force that will topple the system of enslavement. If you believe that you possess a basic human conscience and if you heed its call, then display it and let it shine in the sunlight of public opinion, let the people see it and, especially, let the dictators see it.
  4. One should unfailingly commit to liberal values, pursue the principle of tolerance, and promote multilateral dialogue, particularly when different voices and different choices arise among the people; and one should treat low-profile dealings as a supplement to high-profile resistance, rather than regarding oneself an absolute hero and unreasonably assigning blame. Because even though enforced morality is different from enforced politics, it is still quite far from the tolerance that liberalism calls for. That a person is willing to pay a great price for the ideals he or she chooses does not constitute justification for forcing others to make comparable sacrifices for ideals.
  5. Whether an insider or an outsider of the system, whether working from the top down or the bottom up, each should respect the other’s right to speak. Even the statements and actions of people attached to the government, as long as they do not force constraints on the independent discourse among the people and the rights defense movement, should be regarded as a useful exploration of transformational strategies and their right of speech should be fully respected. Those who advocate transformation from the top down should maintain adequate respect for the explorations of those working from the bottom-up among the people. With the premise of mutual respect and equal treatment, the contention and dialogue between proponents of the top-down and the bottom-up positions will make a more useful contribution to shaping a popular consensus on the trajectory for transformation. This is the meaning of the saying, “All roads lead to Rome.”

    However, tolerance does not mean tacit consent to tyranny, nor does it mean sinking into the quagmire of absolute relativism. The bottom line for the liberal non-governmental position is, specifically, firm opposition to any government repression by force of the words and deeds of the people, whatever form this repression may take—intimidation, bribery, rectification, expulsion, prohibition, arrest or legislation.

  6. Institutional common sense on how to confront rather than evade an ever-present dictatorial power: place into one’s own hands the initiative for improving the status of the population without rights, rather than pinning hope on the arrival of some enlightened master or benevolent ruler. In the strategic maneuvering between civil society and the government, regardless of how official policies may change, the most important thing is to encourage and assist the civil rights defense movement and hold fast the independent position of civil society. Especially in a situation where one is alone in confronting bad governance amid a chorus of praise singers, one must be committed to the criticism of and opposition to the dictatorial regime from the position of an outsider. When the government’s policy decisions are stiff, one must force them to become flexible, when the government’s attitude loosens, one must take advantage of it to expand civic resources and space. While supporting enlightened policy making within the system, one must still hold fast one’s position as an outsider and persevere in one’s criticism.
Regardless of how great the freedom-denying power of a regime and its institutions is, every individual should still fight to the best of his/her ability to live as a free person, that is, make every effort to live an honest life with dignity.

In sum, China’s course toward a free society will mainly rely on bottom-up gradual improvement and not the top-down “Chiang Ching-kuo style” revolution.5 Bottom-up reform requires self-consciousness among the people, and self-initiated, persistent, and continuously expanding civil disobedience movements or rights defense movements among the people. In other words, pursue the free and democratic forces among the people; do not pursue the rebuilding of society through radical regime change, but instead use gradual social change to compel regime change. That is, rely on the continuously growing civil society to reform a regime that lacks legitimacy.

Translator’s Notes

1. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (b. 1931) was the second-to-last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, serving from 1985 until 1991, and the last head of state of the USSR, serving from 1988 until its collapse in 1991. ^

2. Chiang Ching-kuo (蒋经国; 1910–1988) was the Kuomintang (KMT) politician and leader and son of Chiang Kai-shek. He was first Premier (1972–1978), and then President of the Republic of China (ROC) from 1978 until his death in 1988. Under his tenure, the ROC government, while authoritarian, became more open and tolerant of political dissent. Towards the end of his life, Chiang relaxed government controls on the media and speech. ^

3. In an article entitled “The End of History?” published in the journal The National Interest in the summer of 1989, Francis Fukuyama (b. 1952) argued that “a remarkable consensus concerning the legitimacy of liberal democracy as a system of government had emerged throughout the world over the past few years, as it conquered rival ideologies like hereditary monarchy, fascism, and most recently communism.” Moreover, Fukuyama suggested “that liberal democracy may constitute the ‘end point of mankind’s ideological evolution’ and the ‘final form of human government,’ and as such constituted the ‘end of history.’” Francis Fukuyama, “By Way of an Introduction,” The End of History and the Last Man (Penguin, 1992), reproduced at http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/fukuyama.htm. ^

4. Saint Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225–1274) was a Roman Catholic priest in the Dominican Order, considered by many to be the Church’s greatest theologian and philosopher. His ideas greatly influenced Western thought, with much of modern philosophy conceived as a reaction against, or in agreement with them, particularly in the areas of ethics, natural law and political theory. ^

5. In 1987, President Chiang Ching-kuo ended martial law in Taiwan, and began a gradual process of political liberalization, allowing opposition groups to form. ^

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