Wang Gungwu on China’s reforms (Full video and text)

(Full video and text) Professor Wang Gungwu speaking at ThinkChina’s launch on 24 September 2019.
Professor Wang Gungwu: China’s reforms - whose way is the best?
Professor Wang Gungwu: China’s reforms - whose way is the best?


China’s first effort at radical reforms by Kang Youwei in 1898 failed. The post-Boxer reforms after the Siege of Peking failed to save the Qing dynasty. The people turned to revolution. When the nationalist revolution also failed, most Chinese welcomed Mao Zedong’s communist revolution. But when that led to “continuous revolution”, the people thought they had had enough and Deng Xiaoping proposed a new set of outreach reforms that succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. What next? If more reforms are necessary, what kind of reforms should have priority?

Senior Minister, friends and colleagues. I am greatly honoured to be the first speaker at this new enterprise, ThinkChina. I like “the little red dot” (on the logo), which reminds us that we are looking at a large world from a very particular point.

Much has been said about news and Senior Minister also referred to the future. If you’re expecting any news from me, you’re listening to the wrong person. I have no news. As a historian, my news is dead and long ago. Nevertheless, I believe that some of the things that happened a long time ago can affect us; they are relevant and worth thinking about. So I offer some thoughts about some relevant pasts on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China.

Of these 70 years, two words probably stand out. First, the revolution that succeeded in 1949. And then, the reforms that started about 40 years ago.

These two words are often put together, sometimes in opposition, suggesting that reforms are better than revolution; at other times, that a revolution is necessary, reforms are a waste of time and unable to achieve what people want. So these two words have a very interesting and intimate relationship.

Yet, the two words are very difficult to unpack. And very often, misleading.

Let me begin with the word revolution. We have translated it as geming (革命). But geming, of course, has a long history, quite different in origin from the word revolution. That is a Western word, basically from the French, and we have many examples of it from Western Europe. But that idea of revolution was not the same as the idea of geming, which was originally about the change in the mandate for the new dynasty, or a new system of government - a mandate change – and this idea of geming goes back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

Revolution, on the other hand, has a wide range of meanings. Some are even confusing. It can apply to violent revolution, political revolution, social revolution. The same word is used for industrial revolution, scientific revolution, commercial revolution. All sorts of adjectives have been used to describe revolution. So the word actually doesn't have a very clear meaning. It means different things with different adjectives. 

But geming is very simple, a change in mandate. So how did these two words get together? It's quite clear that the revolution idea was actually brought to this part of the world from Europe.

The word geming was chosen, as far as I can understand, by the Japanese to translate revolution. They couldn’t find a better word in kanji, the Chinese text that they use, to translate revolution, and eventually came to use geming.

If you remember, when Sun Yat-sen started on his career as a political activist, he didn’t use the word geming. He used, if I recall it from the Xingzhonghui (兴中会, Hsing Chung Hui or Revive China Society) that he had founded in 1895, he used the phrase zhenxing zhonghua (振兴中华, revive China). Zhenxing zhonghua was his idea of renovation, or renewal, or restoration.

That understanding of zhenxing zhonghua is traditional. It is related to the Chinese tradition of zhongxing (中兴), a kind of revival in the middle of a dynasty. Zhenxing zhonghua here was new because it was also addressed the issue of getting rid of the Manchus as a bunch of foreign rulers. But it also meant the revival of Chinese culture and values and the Chinese civilisation that was being threatened in the 19th century by decades of war, when China lost most of the battles against foreign attacks on its coasts. 

In that context, the phrase zhenxing zhonghua also came out of traditional secret societies like the 天地会 (Tiandihui, Heaven and Earth Society) organised against the Manchus. So Sun Yat-sen used it in that context, but also in the context of China having lost the war against Japan in 1894-1895, which affected the Chinese people, the whole population, very greatly indeed. 

When he returned from a very desperate escape in London, and became famous internationally as a man who was kidnapped in London and was somehow saved by the British. He was not allowed back in China, of course, he was in exile and also not allowed even in Hong Kong. He arrived in Japan, and a Japanese journalist addressed him as a kakumeisha, a geming zhe (革命者, revolutionary). That was the first time Sun Yat-sen saw the word geming apply to him and his cause.

After he thought about it, he found that he liked it very much. Yes, that was exactly what he was going to do, to change the mandate. Get rid of the Manchus and start again. A new zhong hua (中华, Chinese) mandate. So he adopted it, and it was only after that, that geming was commonly used in the Chinese language to mean revolution. Yet at the same time, it was always ambiguous whether it was about revolution or changing the mandate. They’re not exactly the same thing, but that's how it began.

Soldiers of the Chinese imperial army in Hankou, China, during the 1911 Xinhai Revolution. (Getty Images)

Yet, of course, in the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命, Xinhai geming), everybody adopted it. Geming became now the normal word to apply to the Chinese revolution. And it was a word that was accepted by everybody. And before long, they looked out and learned about other people's revolutions, beginning with the American and the French Revolutions in the 18th century, the attempts at revolution in Germany, and the attempts at revolution in Russia several times until the final success in 1917. And then, this idea of a Soviet revolution arrived on the shores of China.

During the May Fourth Movement, as you know, it was in that context that the young people, the young generation of China found themselves with a choice. Not only the French and American Revolution model, which Sun Yat-sen had used, but now the Soviet Revolution added another dimension; thus they had a choice between two different kinds of revolutions. One emphasising, you might say, liberal capitalism, free economy, and the kind of democratic institutions that followed from capitalist development. And the other, a socialist response to that capitalism, opposing the kind of dangerous divisions, social and economic divisions that capitalism could produce, and offering an alternative.

The young people of the May Fourth generation had a choice. They didn’t immediately make it, it took them some years to sort it out. But eventually, the choice became very clear - between the nationalists that had stressed one aspect of Sun Yat-sen’s revolution, and the communists that took the Soviet and the communist international message and added it to Chinese nationalism. They were also nationalists, but with a different emphasis on what they wanted for China.

may fourth
The May Fourth Movement of 1919 was an anti-imperialist, cultural, and political movement. (Getty Images)

And given that choice, and to simplify it I would say the first liberal capitalist Republican revolution might be called West One. And the other one, also from the West, was the Soviet, anti-capitalist Communist revolution, which I shall call West Two. There were other “little Wests”, but these were the two that finally caught the attention of all the Chinese people and became the two major choices.

But of course China had to undergo many other problems, including Japan’s attempt to invade and conquer China, which diverted a lot of attention from both kinds of revolution and other changes that the Chinese people wanted.

The net result was that we had a second revolution that succeeded, after the first revolution had been seen to have failed. The Xinhai Revolution was thought to have been inadequate, it didn't have the driven passion to make it succeed. It was further confused by a lot of corruption, by invasion and civil war, and by other damaging capitalist enterprises on the China coast, leading to the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949.

And so came a second revolution, providing the unification and the coming together of the people of China as one undivided country, with the chance of rising again. As Mao Zedong said, China has stood up.

Now that was the major change. It needed two revolutions for the Chinese to complete the story. Even as a young boy, I remember the phrase, that 革命尚未成功 (geming shang wei chenggong, the revolution is not yet successful), as Sun Yat-sen himself admitted. So in 1949, it was proclaimed that 革命成功 (geming chenggong, the revolution is successful).

The other word was reform, as I mentioned earlier on. Reform also has many meanings. And it is very interesting that, from the very beginning, reform in Chinese had a very specific context.

We always think of reform in terms of the attempts by Kang Youwei, for example, the Hundred Days Reform. Some of us think of Wang Anshi’s reform in the Song Dynasty. And some people can go back to a few others, Zhang Juzheng, and a few others. Wang Mang, for example, also tried to reform the Han Dynasty to make it stronger again.

And yet all those images of reform have been those of failures. Each one of them had failed. And those who defeated these reforms would say that lessons have been learned not to have such attempts at radical reforms which were doomed to fail.

Of course, the most tragic one in recent times was the Hundred Days Reform, where six of those reformers were executed. And Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao were very lucky to escape and try to bring the message to the rest of the world. That was the context of reform. The Chinese term was not 改革 (gaige) but 变法 (bianfa). That was the word they used.

kang youwei, liang qichao
Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and Liang Qichao (1873–1929) were both prominent political thinkers and reformers of the late Qing dynasty, and influential figures in the intellectual development of modern China around the turn of the century. (SPH)

Now bianfa was regarded as a success in only one case. And that was the case of Shang Yang, who was the adviser to the state of Qin, whose advice taken by the Qin ruler led to the state being finally victorious in unifying the whole of China. So Shang Yang has been given the credit for having given the advice and provided the plans and projects and the management of projects that enabled Qin Dynasty to defeat all the warring states and bring about a unified China.

Even Mao Zedong recognised that the Qin unification was a revolution in modern terms. Not just a mandate change, but a total change of the political system itself, from the kind of Shang/Zhou feudal system that led to the 春秋战国 (Spring and Autumn Warring States) period to the unified, centralised, bureaucratic, authoritarian system that has survived for 2000 years. That's how it’s been portrayed in history. Mao Zedong saw it as a revolution, so that it can be said that Shang Yang’s bianfa reforms, led to a successful revolution.

That's one very special example of bianfa. All the other bianfa, whether it’s Wang Mang or Wang Anshi or the Hundred Days Reform were failures. Wang Anshi’s might have been a little more successful to start with but eventually failed. Certainly, it was a drastic failure for the Hundred Days Reform. 

How do we reconcile these examples of reform?

Why was one successful, leading to a revolution, and none of the others? There has, as a result, grown a Chinese tradition of what bianfa reform meant. It was not a word that was favoured; instead, one which the literati, the mandarins, the scholars, and historians all condemned as essentially a bad idea.

I remember one of my uncles told me that when he was young, he wrote an essay praising Wang Anshi. And he got scolded by his teacher for being very stupid. How can you praise a man who brought such terrible things to the Song Dynasty? That was the image of bianfa until very recently.

How then do we see the last 70 years, when a revolution that had succeeded under Mao Zedong in 1949 was followed by reform?

In this case, Deng Xiaoping didn’t make the mistake of calling it bianfa. He said it was gaige.

In English, we translate both of them as reform. So the word reform can be confusing. If you associate it with bianfa, it’s very negative. If you associate it with gaige, it’s very positive. So be careful how you use the word.

Thirty years of successful geming, followed by 40 years of a successful gaige. Revolution followed by reform. Just the opposite of the Shang Yang one, which was reform leading to revolution. In our times, it was revolution followed by reform.

These are contradictory images, certainly difficult to explain. But the fact remains that in this case, in the last 70 years, it’s very clear, 30 years of a revolution’s victory that included Mao Zedong’s idea of continuous revolution, 继续革命 (jixu geming). That was quite an extraordinary idea. Frankly, I don’t think it had any chance of success, but that was what Mao Zedong thought, and he seemed to have seriously believed it.

It led to the very confusing period of the Cultural Revolution, in which Mao nearly destroyed his own party, the very party that he had led to victory. When Deng Xiaoping came back, he took over the country and offered gaige reform. Now the context of that reform was significant. It is proposed to reform something that had already won, not like the 百日戊戌变法 (Hundred Days Reform) or the 王安石变法 (Wang Anshi Reform), that had tried to rescue a system. This was reform to build upon and consolidate the revolution’s success.

Deng Xiaoping did not think the revolution had failed. On the contrary, he was quite confident the revolution had succeeded. After all, he had served it and worked hard and was willing to die for it. It had succeeded, but some mistakes were made. Mao Zedong made a lot of mistakes in his old age. He stayed too long. Deng Xiaoping was honest enough to say, mistakes were made, but the revolution was successful. Therefore, what needed to be done was to consolidate it through reforms. Reforming it and making the necessary changes to enable the revolution to be even stronger and more successful.

Thus that reform was different altogether from bianfa reform that came from some kind of desperation, particularly true of the Hundred Days Reform. That was desperate because the Qing empire was collapsing and Chinese civilisation was being threatened. In fact, China had just been defeated by a small country like Japan, and Western ships were free to wander back and forth, in and out and up the great rivers deep into China. What kind of China was that? So it was a desperate attempt to rescue a collapsing China. That was the context of this bianfa.

But gaige was to make changes to improve and enable a revolution to be even more successful after it being victorious. To see Deng Xiaoping’s reforms as replacing what Mao Zedong stood for would be a complete misunderstanding of what he sought to do. Deng Xiaoping built on what Mao Zedong had succeeded in doing, in clearing the field, as it were, of the jungle of vested interests that might have stopped his reforms.

In comparison, when looking back to the cases of Wang Mang or Wang Anshi, or for that matter, Kang Youwei’s Hundred Days Reform, they all failed because the vested interests of powerful elite families were opposed to bianfa; the conservative forces were against changes that they found too radical and threatened their interests. And they were strong enough to ensure that each of those reforms would fail.

In the case of Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong had cleared the land of those vested interests. Although the Cultural Revolution created a lot of problems, and certainly made a mess of some earlier achievements, Mao had nevertheless ensured that there were no vested interests left to oppose Deng Xiaoping when he introduced reforms. On the contrary, everybody was so relieved and happy that Deng Xiaoping had offered a fresh attempt to consolidate the revolution that had lost its way for a couple of decades. Deng Xiaoping was bringing the country back to its original purpose and drive, its ambitious programmes, and thus enabled the revolution to regain its credibility.

Reform therefore was to consolidate revolution. Was there anything like it in Chinese history? Compared with the well-known reforms, this was not what Deng Xiaoping did. Those negative examples I mentioned earlier, and there were others, were not what Deng Xiaoping was following.

What he was trying to do did have other comparable actions in Chinese history, although those were not described as gaige or bianfa reforms. I offer some examples here, not suggesting that they were the same, but as actions worth considering here.

For example, the Qin dynasty lasted a very short time. When Qin Shihuang died, the dynasty was replaced by the Han dynasty. The Han emperors, particularly the second and third emperors, Han Wendi and Han Jingdi, provided what may be described as fresh attempts to build on what the Qin had established. There had already been a mandate change, but the Han rulers retained the Qin legalist state. The Han emperors tried to soften the state’s functions to enable it to work properly, so that people were not fearful of it, but actually believed in its success.

Eventually, Han Wudi brought in the Confucians, to try and give it a new set of ideals and principles, and induce people to accept what was essentially a legalistic state. I suggest that was a relevant analogy of Wendi and Jingdi consolidating the Qin revolution.

That consolidation enabled the Han Dynasty to last through the Eastern Han dynasty (东汉), nearly 400 years. It was the reform of a successful geming mandate and more like gaige. They didn’t use the word, but they didn’t use the word bianfa either. The reform changes that Wendi, Jingdi and Wudi introduced for the Han dynasty was to consolidate the Qin revolution.

Another example was the Sui dynasty that had unified China after 400 years of absolute confusion, with the 五胡乱华 (wuhu luanhua, Uprising of the Five Barbarians) and the division of northern and southern China. Sui Wendi and his son Yangdi reunified the empire, but Sui Yangdi made bad mistakes, and after the Tang founder had ended Sui Yangdi’s reign, his son Taizong took over and introduced a series of improvements to the imperial system.

Tang Taizong, with the help of a brilliant administrator and thinker Wei Zheng (魏征), provided new plans, a new blueprint, as it were, and consolidated the changes that the Sui dynasty had failed to protect.

One can compare the kind of geming mandate that had ended with the Sui reunification of China, but the Sui rulers failed. It was the Tang that brought the gaige reforms to confirm the Sui achievements. No one used the word gaige or bianfa. But in effect, what happened was something like gaige.

These are other somewhat different examples.

The Tang dynasty was followed by another 400 years of division after the An Lushan rebellion, at its most divided, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms of the 10th century. The Song dynasty never managed to reunify the country, with the Southern Song not much more than one small kingdom that barely survived, attacked incessantly by various enemies, and eventually being conquered by the Mongols.

As for the Mongols, theirs wasn’t a Chinese achievement. The Mongols never became Chinese. They reunified China after 400 years of division. And when Ming Taizu Hongwu led the Chinese to drive them out, China was reborn. But not quite the same as the earlier Chinas. The Ming was very much modified and influenced by the Mongol conquest. The interesting thing is that the founder Hongwu also made mistakes, and one of them was to bypass his sons and give his throne to his grandson.

When that happened, his ablest son, the Prince of Yan, was in Beijing and saw the world differently from his father's perspective in Nanjing. In many ways, his view of the world was closer to the Mongol outlook. That included the whole continental world of Central Asia that the Mongols had brought back into the Chinese ken, and gave the Prince of Yan a different understanding of what those overland threats were about.

So what did he do? When his father passed him over and gave the throne to his nephew, he couldn't accept that. He got rid of the Emperor Jianwen his nephew to become the Emperor Yongle.

And he made a foundational change. He moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. Today, we take for granted that the capital was always in Beijing. Nanjing was the failed capital. But Yongle’s father had been successful in launching what might be called a Chinese revolution against the Mongols to establish his new dynasty and built its capital in Nanjing - for the first time, as the capital for the whole empire.

But Yongle consciously changed that and made the decision to have the capital moved to Beijing in order to improve his perspective of the new Chinese empire. Whether he was right or wrong to do so is another question, but it was a very successful move. It enabled the Ming Dynasty to look at the world somewhat like the Mongol view of a larger world. 

When the Ming was succeeded by the Manchu Qing dynasty, the conquerors took over all that the Ming had established. It kept the capital in Beijing, and again, extended that world into Central Asia in a way that was reminiscent of what the Mongols had earlier done.

So there may be an analogy here, of Hongwu having made bad judgments in his old age, and his son had to provide gaige methods to change the imperial perspective and move his ablest officials and troops up to the north, and look at the empire in a different light.

I have chosen the above examples because it has been difficult to find better ones to illustrate the role of Deng Xiaoping’s gaige as a consolidation of geming.

They have been selected to show that some kind of gaige reform was not unknown. It is possible to see how a successful geming as mandate change could be consolidated by reforms.

Perhaps even better examples are those of the three emperors of the 18th century: Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong.

kangxi, yongzheng, qianlong
(From left to right) The emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong were all reformers in their time. (SPH)

Kangxi was the third emperor, but he was known for reforming the mixed system that his grandfather had left him. The dynasty was founded by 努尔哈赤 (Nurhaci) in Manchuria. He was essentially an outsider who didn’t really understand China that well. Kangxi, however, was brought up by Confucian scholars and could understand the system from a Chinese perspective. What he set out to ensure was to consolidate Manchu power by bringing together Manchu and Han political cultures into one integrated whole that would be acceptable to the Chinese.

By the end of Kangxi’s reign, there were fewer Chinese who opposed the Manchus than there were at the beginning. Those who had fought desperately as loyalists to save the Ming from the Qing, had died out, and the new generations had to admit that Kangxi’s rule was a good one.

If you look more closely at the early years of Kangxi’s reign, you would find someone who was always on the lookout for ways to improve and strengthen the system that he inherited. He thus enabled Manchu rule to integrate the Ming structure of government and have the two neatly locked together and ended with the successful system that stabilised the empire. And yet, towards the end of his life, Kangxi relaxed and made mistakes, and things began to go wrong.

His son Yongzheng took over. He was only on the throne for 13 years and didn’t rule too long. His record, however, was full of reforms that I imagine Deng Xiaoping would recognise as gaige. All that time, he was trying to improve the system and was never satisfied. Like his father Kangxi, he was educated by some of the best Confucian scholars selected to train him to run this Chinese imperial system. Whenever he found the Manchu ways inadequate or the Ming methods inefficient, he would introduce necessary reforms to make the Qing dynasty even stronger. He was thus able to pass to his son Qianlong a really powerful empire.

And Qianlong in his early life was also a very successful improver. He was continually reforming the system that he inherited, not always for the good of the Han Chinese. He was suspicious of them and was ready to make changes to stop Chinese from being patronising towards the Manchu. He resented those who thought they were superior. At the same time, he was a fine scholar of things Chinese and very proud of his Chinese heritage, always showing off his calligraphy and literary skills. During the early years of his reign, he was seeking to improve the system to make Manchu power more dominant, more secure and better respected by all Chinese. It could be said that for the first 30 years, he was extraordinarily successful in building on his father’s heritage. But again, like his grandfather Kangxi, he lived too long. And during the second half of his life, things began to go wrong.

I won’t make too much of all that here, but simply note that there’s a lesson there somewhere.

Anyway, at the end of it all, most historians agree that the 18th century was one of the greatest centuries in Chinese history. It was peaceful and prosperous, people were confident and always hopeful that things would get better. The population increased, the economy - at least by the standards of the time - was one-third of the world's economy. That was how successful these three emperors were.

I suggest that what they did was somewhat like gaige reforms after a revolution, after Nurhaci had successfully changed the mandate. But it was the Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong century that consolidated that mandate to produce an empire that the world could respect. By that time, the Jesuits and the Europeans who came to China to trade could see why China saw itself as the greatest country in the world.

If you look at European writings of the 18th century, after what the Jesuits reported and their merchants had confirmed, China was seen as a model for reforms elsewhere. Many ideas about agriculture, about taxation and administration, about meritocracy and examinations, were taken by the Europeans to build their states. One of the best examples and most successful was the kingdom of France.

The French took the Qing state very seriously. What they saw reflected the result of what was close to gaige reforms and did not need anything like bianfa. Even without the word gaige, the improvements that were made had strengthened the mandate. This was what Deng Xiaoping’s reforms set out to do to make the revolution even more successful.

Let me now bring these thoughts together to look at recent developments. Deng Xiaoping concentrated on using reforms to consolidate the revolution, making sure that the country recovers from its mistakes and start afresh and become more prosperous.

When it came to Jiang Zemin, he talked about the 三个代表 (san ge daibiao, Three Represents) to seek a greater inclusiveness, that is, in addition to the proletariat and the peasants, to recognise that the merchant classes, the intellectual workers and so on had made their contributions and could continue to contribute to the greatness of China.

By doing that, he was in fact pushing back the revolution to recognise the historic role of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. That first revolution just did not have enough time or opportunity to succeed and the job had to be completed by Mao Zedong with the 1949 revolution. But the first had contributed to what happened including the May Fourth Movement and stirred the young educated generation of the time to enable the revolution eventually to succeed. So he was pushing back to be more inclusive of that past, for its contribution to successful revolution.

As for Hu Jintao, one can interpret his reform emphases in many ways. But when he highlighted the harmonious society, 和谐社会 (hexie shehui), this was an example of looking even further back. He had turned to the traditional virtues of the 道统 (daotong, moral governance) drawn from the orthodoxy of 理学 (lixue or Neo-Confucianism) of the Song and Ming dynasties. He drew from its fundamental ideas that had been enriched by Buddhism and Taoism to become the backbone of ethical governance for hundreds of years. In his own way, Hu Jintao was selecting from the best of that daotong tradition that could still be relevant today. Whether he's right in what he has chosen, we don't yet know. But when he looked to the past, he went even further back in time. I would say that what he chose to do was to restore a sense of continuity with China’s long past.

There is awareness that learning only from West One was a failure, and learning only from West Two was also a failure. Both West One and Two taught the Chinese a great deal, but each could not provide what China needed. China could master all the things that they could teach, but also had to draw upon its own resources. It should still remain true to its own traditions while being modern and progressive. Together with new ideas of organisation and management, science and technology, finance and economics from the capitalist and socialist systems that could be consolidated, it was helpful to go back to the country’s foundations and look for the values that would enable the country to be distinctively Chinese.

I believe that Xi Jinping understood that Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were to consolidate a revolution. I think it was clear what Jiang Zemin was trying to do to give the country a longer sense of the past. With Hu Jintao, that sense was even deeper in going back to its cultural roots. But Xi Jinping also saw something that could pose a problem for continuity in China’s development. He thought that, during the last 40 years, many people have written off the 30 years of Mao Zedong’s revolution as a complete failure. That was not Deng Xiaoping’s judgment. From the beginning, he had concluded the Mao’s revolution was 70% successes and only 30% mistakes.

Mao’s successes during that period should not be neglected; the tendency to set it aside as a period of bad mistakes to be forgotten was wrong. What Xi Jinping has done is to point to a gap of 30 years that should be brought back to complete what the country should now see. Chinese traditions are part of that continuity and should also respect the 30 years following the successful revolution of 1949.

I think this is how he understands continuity in history. When the country is built on solid foundations, it can look with confidence to the socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new age. The characteristics that the socialists would find in the Chinese past would help that socialism to succeed on Chinese soil. At the same time, for the country to remain progressive, it would also need to have a new frame. The idea of progress was a revolutionary ideal that appealed to the Chinese. In their tradition, Chinese culture had looked to a glorious past, a golden age when all the sages were in charge. And they longed to become as good as the people in the past. Thus the tendency to favour the past.

For modern revolution, including the revolution of 1911 but even more that of 1949, it is the future that is more important. With the 古今 (gu jin, ancient and modern) dichotomy, the balance is now very clear. Not so much 古 (gu, ancient), but more 今 (jin, modern).

That was already clear in the debates throughout the 20th century. Now is the time to recognise that this must be established firmly as a clear message for everyone. I think that the Chinese people all recognise that jin is the more important and that progress is the future. Socialism with Chinese characteristics draws upon the idea of progress invented by the West during the 18th century.

Chinese leaders have taken this progress to heart and see socialism with Chinese characteristics as the road towards a better future. In that context of reforms consolidating the revolution, the relationship between the two makes good sense.

Thank you.

chongqing skyline
The juxtaposition of the ancient (古) and modern (今) is seen in Chongqing, China. (iStock)