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Journal of Democracy 11.3 (2000) 48-57

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Classical Liberalism Catches on in China

Liu Junning

The international press dubbed early 1998 as the "Beijing spring," noting that Chinese intellectuals, "emboldened by signs of tolerance," argued for political reform "more loudly than at any time since 1989." 1 Two different but closely associated voices were raised during those months: One called for political reform in China, while the other advocated classical liberalism as an alternative to established Marxist ideology. Although the latter voice received less attention from the outside world, it survived the former, which has been effectively silenced. This new school of thinkers, which calls itself ziyou pai ("the liberals"), made a formal appearance during the "Beijing spring" and declared that liberalism was making a comeback in China after an absence of almost 40 years.

The formal reappearance of liberalism indicates that a new stage has been reached in the intellectual odyssey of Chinese intellectuals. A leading figure in the liberal revival asserted in the preface to Peking University and Liberalism in Modern China, "After the largest-scale totalitarian experiment ever undertaken in human history . . . liberalism has convincingly been proved to be the most desirable and universal system of values." 2

The resurgence of liberalism in China has not escaped the attention of the Western press. According to the New York Times, liberal political ideas and discussions are quietly making a comeback among Chinese [End Page 48] intellectuals. More and more newspapers and journals are inviting frank talks about politics. Chinese leaders are learning that liberalism is a by-product of the market economy. 3 Newsweek reports that the "Chicago School economists," and especially the late Friedrich von Hayek, "are 'hot.'" Hayek's popularity is attributed to the fact that "he's the most anti-socialist economist around. Even Prime Minister Zhu Rongji has Hayek on his bookshelf." 4 Demand for his books is voracious. Hayek Currents--Recent & Noteworthy, an online bulletin, reports that "all 20,000 copies of the first printing of the new Beijing translation of Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty have sold out. Originally published in February, the book is currently in its second printing." 5 Commenting on the fact that Beijing's leading reformers and liberals got together on 27 February 1998 to discuss Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, the Far East Economic Review noted: "This might sound arcane, but it is not. The Constitution of Liberty was banned in China when it was published in 1960." 6 According to one of its participants, the conference concluded that "the things Hayek talked about are exactly what China is going through now." 7

The popularity of liberal ideas in China can also be gauged from the response of their adversaries. One neoleftist intellectual recently lamented, "It is natural for liberalism to be in the ascendant. And I deeply understand that its prosperity will endure for the long run. In this respect, I feel even more optimistic about the 'prospects' of liberalism than all the liberals. Therefore, I am more pessimistic about the future of [neo-leftist] critical theory than . . . the liberals." While the "Beijing Spring" came to an end, the revival of liberalism that it inspired has survived and is thriving.

Background and Dynamics

This was not the first time that liberal ideas had come to China. Before the communists triumphed in 1949, there existed a group of liberal intellectuals who were squeezed from both sides by the authoritarian Kuomintang and the totalitarian Communist Party. These intellectuals and their ideas, along with what remained of private property rights and free enterprise, were completely eradicated by the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement.

The recent resurgence of liberalism stems from the Chinese intelli-gentsia's longing for freedom in the post-Tiananmen era and from the profound transformation that China has undergone since the deaths of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. This period has witnessed the withering of communist ideology and totalitarianism, a process of social and cultural disintegration, and the emergence of a well-educated, active liberal intelligentsia. The latter includes both academic and public intellectuals who are dedicated...


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