Thinking with Hannah Arendt in Mainland China Today


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February 9, 2022

Thinking with Hannah Arendt in Mainland China Today

  • China
  • Hannah Arendt
  • Totalitarianism

In mainland China today, Hannah Arendt has an important presence in both the academic and the public sphere. CNKI—China’s main academic database—records more than a thousand pieces of scholarly writings that have “Arendt” in their titles, dating back to the 1990s. Arendt is also among a small group of contemporary Western thinkers whose influence is beyond the boundaries of academic research. Concepts coined by Arendt, such as the banality of evil and totalitarianism, are constantly invoked in public discussions about current events. Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Human Condition, and The Origins of Totalitarianism appear regularly on lists of book recommendations. Both intellectuals and the general public often think with Arendt when they think about politics and society—more specifically, Chinese politics and society. In such engagement with Arendt, the multifaceted nature of Arendt’s political theory interfuses with the grain of China’s rapidly changing society and the socio-political issues produced by these rapid changes. 

In this essay I trace the multiple ways Chinese liberal public intellectuals interpret Arendt as they attempt to formulate answers to pressing social and political questions in post-Mao China. Chinese intellectuals’ encounter with Arendt started in the 1980s and proliferated in the late 1990s and 2000s. Their journey with Arendt is deeply situated in China’s Reform and Opening Up, a series of massive economic changes that, from many Chinese liberals’ perspectives back then, were setting the ground for political transitions toward liberal democracy. In this journey, mainland Chinese liberals were not only making sense of contemporary China’s past, present, and future. They were also engaged in heated political debates with their interlocutors who were advancing alternative visions of China’s economic, political, and social development, including the New Leftists who saw reclaiming the socialist legacy as an important task, the postmodernists who defied what they saw as the Eurocentric approach of defining China’s path, the neo-Confucianists who believed that China needed to go back to its traditional culture for spiritual regeneration, etc. As Chinese liberals think with Arendt, they also differentiated their liberal stances. Different types of liberals, as I demonstrate below, engage with Arendt’s political theory in very different ways. Whereas Arendt’s political thought offers them theoretical tools to grapple with the burden of history, the uncertainty of a changing society, and with possible futures, their readings of Arendt are also framed by their attachment to this society and their concerns about this society. 

The 1980s is sometimes fondly remembered by Chinese intellectuals. Indeed, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, ideological constraints seemed to be moderately uplifted. A public sphere was in the making. Intellectual and political debates that did not embrace a Marxist framework were more or less tolerated even though still interrupted by the CPC’s political campaigns such as the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign (1983) and the Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign (1987). The Cultural Revolution was officially denounced in the CPC’s historical resolution. The party leadership was experimenting with different ways to loosen a certain level of control on the planned economy. Such changes seemed to be promising.

But the 1980s was also a decade of volatility and violence. Massive changes in society created vast opportunities for rent-seeking and corruption. The unevenness of economic development across different regions and between the rural and the urban bred not only social tension but also criminal activities such as robbery and human trafficking. Meanwhile, not everyone was satisfied with the CPC’s resolution of the Cultural Revolution. Some felt that key questions about power and the political system remained unanswered.

The mainland Chinese society in the 1980s was filled with uncertainty. Mainland Chinese intellectuals, confronted with uncertainty, took up the task of thinking about China’s future. They advanced cautiously. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, non-Marxist, especially liberally oriented arguments in the mainland Chinese intellectual sphere, were often developed in pseudo-Marxist languages and referencing quotes from Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao. An example was Hu Ping’s “On Freedom of Speech.” A widely circulated text during the liberal democratic movements in the 1980s, Hu’s long essay was originally drafted in 1975 and drew extensively on Marxist and Maoist language in his defense of freedom of speech. Such discursive strategy was not uncommon for intellectuals in post-socialist societies or those haltingly moving beyond state socialism. But as liberalism grew in both the intellectual sphere and social movements, Chinese liberals gradually got rid of the pseudo-Marxist wrapping and began to develop a liberal language.

Arendt and her concept of totalitarianism entered the mainland Chinese intellectual sphere in this context. Even though the translations of her writings would have to wait until the late 1990s and early 2000s (Translations of Arendt’s work in traditional Chinese had appeared in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but were not always accessible in mainland China), intellectuals in elite institutions were already engaging with her ideas. For instance, in a piece comparing Plato and Aristotle, Hu Ping, then affiliated with the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, cited Arendt’s discussion of Aristotle’s idea of politics. Soon it became clear that Hu’s interest in Arendt was never narrowly academic. In 1987, when Hu was reflecting on his motivation for drafting “On Freedom of Speech” twelve years ago, he invoked the concept of totalitarianism. To him, the concept of totalitarianism connected the experience of the Cultural Revolution to the broader political theme of world history in the twentieth century. The history of the twentieth century, in Hu’s eyes, was a battle against totalitarianism, and freedom of speech was the Achilles’ heel of totalitarianism.

Hu was not alone in finding Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism an anchor for navigating through the memories of the Cultural Revolution. Tao Dongfeng’s interests in Arendt also stemmed from similar reasons. Having been discriminated against during the Cultural Revolution due to his “bad familial background,” Tao found Arendt’s work on totalitarianism insightful for him to make sense of the modernity and anti-modernity of the Cultural Revolution. In particular, Tao saw Arendt’s argument that dehumanization was a feature of totalitarianism as a powerful idea to describe discrimination against the so-called “Five Black Categories” during the Cultural Revolution. 

Uncertainty stimulates curiosity. For mainland Chinese liberal intellectuals living in the uncertain 1980s, thinking about what could become China’s future demanded a rethinking of what happened in the past. They found help in Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism. Meanwhile, in this global encounter of political thinking, Arendt was also not the only Western thinker incorporated into contemporary Chinese liberal thought for the purpose of making sense of the past. Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek, for instance, were also heavily read because of their discussions of totalitarianism and the open society. (Anti-)totalitarianism framed Chinese intellectuals’ appreciation of Arendt. In the following years, this framing would also lead to some of their disagreement with her.

Starting from the mid-and late-1990s, the Chinese intellectual sphere saw a proliferation of both translations of and discussions about Western political thought. Shocked by the Tiananmen Massacre, Chinese liberals had to rethink their strategy of liberal democratization. Translating and introducing Western liberalism gradually became an important part of Chinese liberals’ efforts, signaling the beginning of what has been dubbed the “academicization of Chinese liberalism.” In a 1994 article titled “The Rise and Fall of the Public Sphere,” Zhu Shiqun systematically introduced Arendt’s ideas about the public sphere, political action, and totalitarianism. At the end of the article, Zhu concluded that Arendt’s analysis of the “irrational aspects of the public sphere,” such as the behaviors of Nazi supporters that were seemingly not rooted in self-interest, was “valuable for us to correctly assess the public sentiment and guide them correctly.”

This rather strange conclusion revealed another historical condition for the deepening engagement with Arendt and, in general, the proliferation of Western liberalism in China. In the wake of the Tiananmen Massacre, many in China feared a total abandonment of the economic reforms and a complete return to Cultural Revolution-style politics. Instead, marketization remained, and so did some intellectual liberties. Constraints in the intellectual sphere did not return to the level of the Cultural Revolution. But the party leadership did see the necessity of expecting and guarding against mass dissident movements. The result was Deng Xiaoping’s call for incorporating Western social science into the CPC’s toolkit of propaganda and governing during his 1992 Southern Tour. This provided Chinese liberals an opportunity of packaging their introductions of Western political theory under the name of promoting understandings of public sentiments and political psychology. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many of Arendt’s pieces, including The Human Condition, “Lying in Politics,” “Civil Disobedience,” Eichmann in Jerusalem, and “Collective Responsibility” were translated into Chinese. The first translation of The Origins of Totalitarianism—the book of Arendt’s that attracted the most attention in mainland China—would have to wait until 2008. 

As Arendt’s political thought was popularized, it also became increasingly intertwined with mainland Chinese liberals’ politics. In 1996, philosopher Zhang Rulun, an expert on Martin Heidegger, wrote about Arendt’s uncategorizable political theory, her self-position as a pariah, and her concept of justice in Eichmann. Zhang praised Arendt’s questioning of the Israeli government in Eichmann and her willingness to risk being criticized as blaming the victim, and saw Arendt’s endeavors as serious efforts to make sense of the “ideal standard” of justice. Zhang’s defense of Arendt was situated in Chinese liberals’ debate with postmodernists. Since the 1990s, postmodernists in mainland China challenged liberalism’s insistence on what they saw as a Eurocentric model of progress. Zhang worried that such a postmodernist challenge would diminish all standards of justice. In the final paragraph of the piece, he wrote,

Of course, for the anti-essentialist postmodernists, there is no such thing as an “ideal,” universal standard of justice. If this is the case, Arendt’s analysis and questioning of the Eichmann trial is essentially null and void. However, the question for humanity would then be: Is justice still possible?   

Zhang’s use of Arendt demonstrated how intellectual debates, rooted in the further development of China’s marketization, prompted Chinese liberals to enlist Arendt’s help. The postmodernist challenge emerged in the post-Tiananmen context when mainland Chinese intellectuals were again reflecting upon whether a political transition to liberal democracy based on and powered by economic marketization was the only path to China’s future. Facing pressure, Zhang read Arendt’s Eichmann as a project for countering postmodernism.

If Chinese political debates and Chinese politics, in general, prompted some Chinese liberals to embrace Arendt’s thoughts, they also led others to disagree with her. In 2010, two years after the publication of the Chinese translation of Origins in mainland China, renowned liberal thinker Xu Youyu reviewed the book. Xu was one of the staunchest defenders of China’s economic reforms, and, drawing extensively on libertarian thinkers like Hayek and Popper, he saw economic marketization as the necessary foundation for China’s transition to constitutional democracy. Although Xu praised Arendt’s many insights on totalitarianism, he also had significant reservations. For one, he criticized Arendt’s alleged neglect of the economic basis of totalitarianism, which, to him, was “the first primary cause of totalitarianism.” Xu favored Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, because Hayek argued that a centralized planned economy would result in the state’s total control of individual life and that private property was the most important bulwark against totalitarianism. Arendt, Xu wrote, also failed to analyze the cornerstones of totalitarian thought—historicism and utopian social engineering—as Popper did. Finally, Xu contended that Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism implied that totalitarianism was rooted in the “internal weakness” of Western nation-states, including the weakness of constitutional democracy and the rule of law. Xu worried that this view would take Arendt and her followers to target liberal democratic institutions that were safeguards against totalitarianism. Arendt “was deeply influenced by Heidegger and had an aristocratic, idealistic streak in her thinking, with contempt and prejudice against British and American representative democracy,” Xu concluded. 

Xu’s critique of Arendt reflected an important theme in the liberal discourse since the 1990s. In the post-Tiananmen era, a significant group of mainland Chinese liberals—among whom was Xu—gradually gave up the idea of a confrontational transition to liberal democracy. Instead, they took economic reforms as the first step of a moderate transition to constitutional liberal democracy, an idea rooted in the modernization thesis. As the economic reforms were facing criticisms from the postmodernists and the Chinese New Left, Hayekian liberals like Xu took up defending marketization as their main task. Hence Xu’s dissatisfaction with Arendt’s “neglect” of the centralized planned economy as the fundamental cause of totalitarianism. Xu’s favored approach of political change drew heavily on what he saw as the Anglo-American empiricist tradition. From this perspective, continuing marketization would gradually produce knowledge, experience, and common sense that were conducive to liberal progress, making the civil and economic society incompatible with the CPC’s authoritarianism. Eventually, the CPC would be forced into a liberal democratic transition by the force of the market. For this reason, he was particularly alert to Arendt’s “prejudice against British and American representative democracy.”

In this sense, it was Arendt’s characteristic refusal to foreground the economic as the main cause of human action that made her a lesser Hayek in Xu’s eyes. Burdened with the memories of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Protests, Hayekian liberals like Xu probably found it difficult to imagine Arendtian political action in contemporary China as the driving force of democratization. They turned to the economic, hoping to find a force of peaceful transition to liberal democracy. For Xu, Arendt’s prioritization of political action became her weakness, as she did not immerse herself in producing a defense of the market economy.

If mainland Chinese liberals’ appreciation of Arendt started from her analysis of totalitarianism, Xu’s criticism of Origins demonstrated how, in the trajectory of Chinese liberalism since the 1980s, socio-political changes repeatedly reshaped their understandings and uses of Arendt’s political theory. More recently, Arendt’s political theory also became a resource for liberal self-reflection. This time, the theme was republicanism. Since the 1990s, Chinese scholars of Arendt had largely recognized that Arendt’s political theory was difficult to categorize and that she had important republican dimensions. For instance, in the early 2000s, liberal thinker Xu Ben wrote extensively about Arendt’s concept of citizenship. Drawing on recent literature on Arendt written by political theorists such as Margaret Canovan, Jeffrey Isaac, and Dana Villa, Xu criticized the lack of republican political participation in contemporary Chinese (liberal) politics. Even though Xu, like most Chinese liberals, worried about the tyranny of the majority—a sense of fear rooted in their experience during the Cultural Revolution—he noted that Arendt’s emphasis on active citizenship was missing in Chinese politics, which could hinder China’s transition to liberal democracy. But throughout the 2000s, the mainstream liberal discourse largely focused on defending the market economy. Until Xi became the leader of the CPC in 2012, the shift from economic reforms to political reforms was the hope for most liberals. Therefore, Arendt’s republicanism did not translate into liberal social criticism as much as themes like totalitarianism, the banality of evil, or courage. 

In 2015, liberal social critic Chen Chun wrote “The Sinicization of Leftwing Liberalism.” In this piece, Chen passionately criticized mainland Chinese liberals who completely embraced the so-called Anglo-American empiricist tradition of conservative progress. For Chen, these liberals vastly underestimated the importance of political actors and actions, assuming that political changes would naturally happen as a result of socio-economic changes. Chinese liberals did not reach “political maturity,” Chen argued. Citing Arendt, Chen suggested that liberals look for help from republicanism. To him, Arendt’s On Revolution exemplified why liberal politics could not naively sidestep the question of power and merely focus on the question of authority. Arendt’s republican insight was that liberty and equality were the results of politics, not its presuppositions. In other words, Chen chastised mainland Chinese liberals like Xu precisely for their dismissal of political action. Such dismissal, Chen contended, was rooted in mainland Chinese liberals’ fear of the absolutism of popular sovereignty.

Chen invoked the republican Arendt in yet another era of liberal reconfiguration. In 2015, the liberal hope of a smooth, peaceful transition from economic marketization to political reforms seemed incredibly distant. The new Xi Jinping regime’s assault on nongovernmental organizations quickly proved that Xi was not the leader of liberal democratic reforms that many hoped that he would be. Mainland Chinese liberals who saw marketization as the primary force of liberal democratization feared that the Xi regime would completely abandon the economic reforms and revert to a planned economy. Defending the Reform and Opening Up became the main project for many of them. Chen’s republican Arendt amounted to the call for an alternative, one that was centered more on action than unintended consequences, community-making than philosophical justifications, and, ultimately, the political than the economic. 

Arendt has remained an important source for theoretical reflections about contemporary issues in China since then. Many important Chinese public platforms for theoretical reflections, such as, Initium Media, etc., have featured op-ed essays about Arendt’s thought in recent years. Very recently, the 2019 Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement in Hong Kong became yet another occasion where Arendt’s political theory was incorporated into analyses of current affairs. In such engagements, Arendt’s image as a prototypical anti-authoritarian thinker remained, but her emphasis on politics as novelty-creating action also attracted much attention. For instance, in a long piece posted on Matters, a decentralized Chinese forum for socio-political discussions, an author described Arendt as “the political thinker who created dreams,” referencing the centrality of political action and initiation in Arendt’s thought. As political action became increasingly difficult inChinese society, many began to delve into Chen Chun’s republican Arendt, seeking inspiration for action. 

Since the 1980s, Hannah Arendt has been featured in many important intellectual debates in contemporary China. It is Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism that first attracted mainland Chinese liberals who were trying to make sense of the Cultural Revolution. As her writings become widely read, many mainland Chinese liberals continue to engage with her in their diagnoses of the perils of contemporary Chinese society and visions of its future. Arendt’s multiple images in the Chinese intellectual sphere in the past several decades reflect the long, winding path of Chinese liberalism. It also reflects how reckoning with a national community’s past and present is often a global encounter. In critical historical junctures, intellectuals confronted with uncertainty turn to the repertoire of history of political thought for help. Those whose thoughts inform them, then, take on a new life in their political community. Arendt’s Chinese life started in Chinese liberals’ attempts to understand personal and collective trauma. She was introduced into Chinese liberals’ political thinking along with libertarians like Hayek and Popper and Cold War liberals like Aron and Berlin. But as political conditions altered, the republican aspects of Arendt’s thought centering on community-making and political action also increasingly attracted public attention. This change mirrors the turn to Arendt elsewhere, such as in Turkey, Venezuela, and Iran. Arendt remains an inspiration for those seeking political action in difficult times, as China moves into another period of political uncertainty.

Simon Sihang Luo is a PhD Candidate in political theory at Indiana University, Bloomington.


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