Mo Yan
Mo Yan

Andreas Fulda says a group of prominent Chinese who work within the system to advance democratic change have, remarkably, carved out a role denied their more liberal compatriots.

Chinese author Mo Yan, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, came under fire late last year for choosing not to condemn the principles of censorship, comparing it, perhaps flippantly, to inconvenient yet necessary airport security checks. Salman Rushdie took to Facebook to label Mo “a patsy of the regime” and criticise his refusal to sign a petition calling for the release of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo .

The episode highlighted the expectations among people outside China of how prominent Chinese should behave in their pursuit of changes to their political system. This narrow desire for black-and-white opposition politics risks overshadowing the efforts of a new generation of Chinese reformists who manoeuvre within official channels to push forward reform.

A man who typifies this generation is Yu Jianrong, a 50-year-old scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He was named in Foreign Policy magazine’s list of Top 100 Global Thinkers “for daring to be specific about how to change China”. It followed his publication of a 10-year plan for China’s social and political reform on the Chinese weibo.

He has been in the news again of late, launching a campaign for blanket and winter clothing donations for Beijing’s homeless population, following reports that local security officials had begun confiscating the belongings of groups of people living on the streets despite sub-zero temperatures.

Yu, an establishment intellectual, is an unlikely poster boy for the Chinese democracy movement. He is a patriot first, a democrat second. His position on the East China Sea islands territorial dispute between China and Japan is emphatically nationalistic, much to the frustration of his liberal supporters within China, and in his 10-year plan he does not advocate civilian control of the Chinese military, as most other liberals in China do.

In contrast, outspoken libertarian activists like Liu Xiaobo and artist Ai Weiwei are clear-cut reformers, railing at government control from outside the system. Their cause offers a compelling narrative to the West. But the strong focus on activists outside the system comes at the expense of people like Yu, who are prepared to straddle both sides. Establishment intellectuals need to walk a fine line between their reformist aspirations and the existing political realities in China.

Both Liu and Ai were among the initial 303 signatories of Charter 08, a manifesto signed by Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists. Published in December 2008, it called for the establishment of a legislative democracy and the protection of human rights in China. Signatories have suffered harassment and political persecution but Yu, after sharing his 10-year reform plan that repackaged many of the principles laid out in Charter 08 with his 1.5 million weibo followers, has continued his political and academic work unimpeded.

The contrasting official reaction to both reform agendas can be explained, in part, by differing reform goals and means. Yu is working within the system to advocate incremental political reform and is frequently invited to lecture officials at training seminars funded by the Communist Party.

Signatories of Charter 08, on the other hand, consider immediate democratic reform a necessary condition for China’s development, placing themselves firmly outside the current political system.

Unlike other establishment intellectuals, Yu has specified clear timescales for reform. He outlines the steps that will lead to an open society with a free media and multi-party competition between 2016 and 2022. With this goal in mind, Yu suggests that in its first term, from 2012 until 2015, the new Chinese leadership should focus on social reforms and promote welfare policies, in particular pensions, employment rights and health-care insurance.

Yu calls for comprehensive reform to the household registration system, which limits rural-to-urban migration and has led to a system of first- and second-class citizens. To protect citizen rights, he has called for abolishment of the traditional petitioning system and re-education through labour.

Yu picked up on points laid down in Charter 08, but reshaped its reformist goals into a more procedural and watered-down agenda. The fact that his plan can be discussed both online and offline signifies a willingness among party officials to engage in open-ended discussions about democracy and human rights.

Embedded in the Chinese political system, Yu has real influence. At seminars held to “enlighten” extremely conservative officials, he reportedly scolds the cadres for their corrupt behaviour.

Yu Jianrong
Yu Jianrong

But he is careful not to cross key battle lines. While he advocates multi-party democracy, he is careful to place this reform step at the end of his 10-year plan. So far, his reformist gamble seems to have paid off, since it grants him greater access to senior officials.

Crucially, he is social-media savvy in building up a strong domestic following. He uses weibo to publicly reflect on reactions to his ideas and proposals. He has described how senior officials agree with his reform plan. And he has revealed opposition to his proposals from within Tsinghua University, one of China’s leading academic institutions, using the incident to secure widespread public support against his detractors.

Such is the size of his supporter constituency, he would be able to mobilise significant domestic support if ever the party were to decide he had crossed the line.

Due to the repression of reformers outside the system, policymakers dealing with China should recognise that more people like Yu will grow in influence in the years to come. This may be challenging. These patriots will first and foremost stand up for China’s interests, yet the reality is that this is fairly representative of popular thinking in modern China.

In intellectual and political circles within China, there is no shortage of complaints about the directionless and trapped nature of the political transition process. Last November’s 18th party congress, with its retrograde language and lack of a coherent vision of China’s political future, is a case in point.

But for reformists both outside and inside China, there is cause for optimism. Establishment intellectuals like Yu are the people the West must learn to work with if it wishes to encourage political reform in China.

This article was originally published in the South China Morning Post on Friday, 25 January 2013.

Dr Andreas Fulda is lecturer in contemporary Chinese studies at the China Policy Institute, based at the University of Nottingham’s School of Contemporary Chinese Studies.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.


  1. Andreas makes a very valid argument. It is probably more likely that lasting change will be brought about by those who argue for change, but within the limits of the system, than by those who take such a bold stand that they will always be harrassed and imprisoned by the authorities, thus having their ability to operate constantly curtailed. The former also show great courage in arguing for change, knowing that they tread a very fine line.

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