Despite the Chinese government’s attempts to ban its citizens from writing about controversial topics that criticize the authorities, in recent years a number of intellectuals have adopted a liberal perspective in their work and have been actively reporting and theorizing about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Even in the online world, where social media users have to use hashtags and emojis to avoid censorship bans, more Chinese people are being influenced by global trends and are becoming vocal about their experiences of social inequality and environmental pollution. Much to the dislike of the government, even the #MeToo campaign that started in America spread to China after a Weibo user documented about her experiences of sexual harassment at Beihang University in Beijing. However, even after the authorities responded to the scandal by blocking the hashtag #MeTooInChina, online users created nicknames like #RiceBunnyInChina to continue the campaign and highlight the harassment. Critics have noted that attempts to block such conversations from occurring disables intellectual debate, isolates Chinese people from the global community, and generally silences groups from having their voices heard.
China’s censorship laws also have implications for its relations overseas. As a recent article in the Times Higher Education has stated, the new era of increased Chinese economic power poses a threat to academic freedom across the world and could have many universities blocking content to ensure their ongoing partnerships with China. Last year, Cambridge University Press removed hundreds of pages and book reviews on politically sensitive topics, such as the Tiananmen Square protests, Tibet, and Taiwan, from their online journal after a Chinese government agency warned that it would block access to Cambridge’s website. Although Cambridge reinstated these articles after claiming that it had received a “justifiably intense reaction from the global academic community”, it has also been reported that Springer Nature had censored some of its content in response to demands made by Chinese export agencies. William Callahan, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, states that as civil society has been shrinking in China since President Xi took office in 2012, the country’s increasing influence has meant that Westerners should be “concerned about how China is censoring what we’re doing all around the world” as the country tries to increase its power by exporting censorship.
As some states respond to the issue of Chinese foreign interference- for example, in 2017 Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke Mandarin and declared that Australia will “stand up” against any power meddling in its national affairs- writers within China have also been trying to revive liberal ideas by publishing their papers through foreign publishers. In their research on liberalism in China, Tang and McConaghy (2018) note that based on what they have come across in foreign and less-known Chinese journals, the major areas that are being discussed in this field include the meaning of China’s 20th-century history, especially the Cultural Revolution; the social inequality created by market reforms; statism and the rejection of Euro-American political models; and cultural pluralism in twenty-first century China.
It should be noted that Chinese liberals are not the same as the ‘New Left’ school in China or the ‘New Confucians’. While the New Left are critical of the class antagonisms that have been created by marketization and decentralizing the economy, the New Confucians seek to reinvigorate Confucian practices as a way of strengthening national solidarity and cultural identity as a way of maintaining political stability. In contrast, the liberalists are most opposed to the party-state. In the journal Southern Weekly (南方周末), Zhu Xueqin stated that following the principle that people are born noble and free from restraint in action or speech, economically, the liberalists believe in the market economy and not state planning. Politically, the school advocates for representative democracy, constitutionalism, and legality against dictatorship of the majority. Finally, in terms of ethics, liberalism advocates protection of the individual who, it is argued, should never be used as a means for any abstract purpose as was the case between 1966 and 1976 when more than one million people died under the policies implemented by Mao and other Party leaders.
Historically, the One-Hundred Day reforms in 1898 was the first time when liberal ideas emerged to challenge the Qing autocracy in China. From the 1920s to the 1940s, liberal intellectuals tried to theorise about the relevance of liberalism compared to all other ideological alternatives that were often more attractive to people who sought an immediate political solution for the country’s nation-building project. However, under the Chinese communists, who interpreted liberalism as meaning that an individual could do what they wanted regardless of the circumstances and interests of others, liberalism almost entirely disappeared from public discussion as it became associated with bourgeois ideology and the West.
In that case, it was significant that editor of the pro-democracy journal Beijing Spring, Hu Ping, wrote the book On Freedom of Speech (1979), which advocated for liberal principles in post-Maoist China. After Deng Xiaoping helped direct the country towards economic reforms and the country began to integrate into the world economy, the political atmosphere in China created opportunities for the return of the liberal discourse. Especially from the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of books by English and American authors were published as the demand for democracy and representation created traction in extending the liberal perspective throughout society.
At the same time, many intellectuals also reacted to globalisation and China’s increasing global standing by turning to ‘Chinese-made’ solutions to address the country’s social problems. Rejecting the idea that Western political models are adequate paradigms for development and modernisation, the majority of Chinese writers have resisted discussions on democracy and liberalism and have instead focused more on ideas of social democracy underpinned by Marxist–Leninist principles. The authorities have allowed groups such as the New Confucians more political space as they attempt to create a new universalism that is superior to Western liberalism and not historically associated with slavery, colonialism, and racial exclusion. This school of thought aligns with the government’s aims of establishing China as a civilizational force that can become a dominant cultural model in the twenty-first century.
Although proponents of liberalism such as Xu Youyu argue that the country’s Confucian-nationalist project uses a deeply distorted version of the past that ignores the country’s history of linguistic, economic, and demographic heterogeneity, antagonism to Western political thought has meant that Chinese liberalism remains on the margins. The Party has continued to tighten its control over the media, religious groups, and civil society associations as the government introduces cybersecurity and foreign NGO laws and increased internet surveillance. A renewed push for ideological conformity has undermined earlier rule of law reforms and uses nationalism as a pillar for government legitimacy. This raises questions about the future of China’s ideological plurality, the implications and meaning of using Confucianism as a political project, and whether liberalist thought can once again gain traction during Xi Jinping’s rule.