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Sinosphere: Q. and A.: Yang Fenggang on the ‘Oxford Consensus’ and Public Trust in China

Monday, October 21, 2013

China Aid Association


(Oct. 21, 2013) The New York Times' China blog, Sinosphere, posted an interview with a Christian sociology professor concerning a late August meeting between two dozen of China's public intellectuals from four different schools of thought. The meeting resulted in what is being called the "Oxford Consensus," which expresses the group's collective hopes for China. The full interview can be read below:

Q. and A.: Yang Fenggang on the ‘Oxford Consensus’ and Public Trust in China

By Ian Johnson
October 18, 2013, 1:16 am

In late August, two dozen Chinese public intellectuals from four of the country’s main ideological schools — Confucian, New Left, Liberal and Christian — met at Oxford University’s Wycliffe Hall to discuss their country’s problems. Remarkably, for a group of people who in Chinese public life are often at each other’s throats, they came up with what is now being dubbed the “Oxford Consensus” — four theses expressing their hopes for a pluralistic, liberal China.

The statement is mild compared with more controversial documents like Charter 08, the brainchild of the imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo. The consensus simply states the hope that China will remain committed to pluralism, as well as fairness and justice in the political realm. The full text is posted here.

The signatories include some of the country’s most prominent scholars and writers who publish and speak out on social issues, like Cheng Ming, a leading Neo-Confucian; the Christian sociologist He Guanghu; the New Left film critic Lü Xinyu; and the liberal philosopher Xu Youyu. The statement has not been widely reported in China, although a long feature appeared in the influential newspaper Southern People, or Nanfang Renwu, a sign perhaps that the initiative has not completely run afoul of the government’s continuing tightening of public discussion.

One of the participants was Yang Fenggang, a Christian and a pioneer in the study of the sociology of religion in China. Mr. Yang is a professor of sociology at Purdue University and director of its Center on Religion and Chinese Society, one of the most influential institutions studying religion in China, regularly hosting conferences and academic exchanges.

I recently spoke with Mr. Yang about the consensus and its meaning for public debate in China.

Q.
How did this get started?
A.
The founder is a Wenzhou Christian named Wang Wenfeng. He went to a seminary in Singapore, and that’s where he started the forum. The first three were there and were just about Christian theology. The fourth was in South Korea, and the previous one, the fifth, included Neo-Confucians. But this time they pulled in the New Left and Liberal groups, too.

Q.
In the West, this might be unremarkable — a group of intellectuals meet and issue a statement. What’s the significance?
A.
I think it is severalfold. The New Left and the Liberals, those public intellectuals have stopped talking to each other. When they get an invitation, one of the first questions is, Who else have you invited? If the invited people include those from the other camp, they won’t participate. It got to that level of tension. But this time, they willingly sat together for three full days.

Q.
Is this because it’s abroad?
A.
Well, on the surface, Oxford is attractive. No matter which camp you’re in, if it’s Oxford, it’s prestigious. Also the organizer, Wang Wenfeng, is really humble. He never got into disputes with any of them. That persuaded many.

Q.
In China, these political labels have different meanings than in the West. How would you define New Left and Liberal?
A.
It’s hard. The New Left, in my view, is different from the old Left or the Maoists. The New Left made clear that they don’t like to be called leftists. But they like to be called xinzuoyi, the left wing. Many ideas and terms are borrowed from the left in the West. They are critical of capitalism, imperialism, globalization. This is where they draw their theory, rather than the old Marxist, Leninist or Maoist theory. But every conversation they’ll turn to it being the fault of the U.S. Growing inequality, people losing houses — they’ll say it’s because of capitalism from the U.S.

Q.
And the Liberals, which some people call the “right”?
A.
They have classic liberal ideas: free markets, individual rights, constitutionalism. But, interestingly, there are some closer to the left. These people began to say things like: In the Chinese situation, we need a stronger government. Only a stronger government will make things happen.

I’d say there’s a new reshuffling of the camps. I personally came out of the meeting thinking there were only two camps: There are people who advocate a bigger role of the state and those who argue for individual rights. So I think statism and individual rights is a bigger division. So the four camps may not make as much sense. I can think of people from the Liberals who speak for the need of a stronger state. Neo-Confucians, most of them, argue for that, and even Christian scholars like Liu Xiaofeng have become strong advocates for a stronger state.

Q.
So all these people could sit together and talk.
A.
Yes, we managed to come up with this public statement. Even though there’s nothing big in it, that these four camps could form a consensus, that itself is important.

People in China talk about the country being torn apart, that’s how bitter the camps are. But here they can talk about it and start with what we have in common and then see what our differences are. I think this is needed in Chinese society at this point. The four points of consensus take into account the concerns of the Left, the Liberals, the Confucians and scholars of Christianity. Even though the language, everyone had to compromise. Nonetheless, you can see it expressed their views.

We had very interesting debates during the evenings. But there was this trust, and some people said, “It’s O.K., I trust you to formulate the language.” There was this feeling that they had to move forward and agree or else the country could be torn apart.

Q.
The choice is interesting. You have Christians or scholars of Christianity, but no representatives of traditional religions such as Daoism and Buddhism. Is there a lack of scholars in those areas?
A.
The main idea was, Who are the public intellectuals? Those who have a public voice in China. When you think of it, there are almost no Buddhist or Daoist public intellectuals. On Weibo I follow a lot of Buddhist monks, fashi. Almost none talk about public issues or concerns.

Q.
Why do you think that is? Are they co-opted by the government because they get more benefits from the government — for example in temple reconstruction, soft loans and so on?
A.
Certainly I think that’s an issue. They comply more to the government’s viewpoint. But also I think they may not be equipped to be part of this public debate. Active public intellectuals today are not only college-trained but have graduate degrees. But you’ll find few of them in Buddhism and Daoism.

Q.
This gets me thinking there isn’t much interfaith dialogue in China. You almost never see religious groups getting together to meet. It is like the party’s view is, if there’s a problem, tell us, and we’ll solve it, but don’t you guys start talking about it because it might develop into something independent, and we don’t want that.
A.
That’s something that came up in the discussions. There was a feeling that as long as we come up with something, it’s meaningful. We don’t know how the authorities will react, but at least we can show that we can work together. This group of people have the concern that the authorities may simply go their own way without taking any input. When we sat together we were conscious of this.

Q.
It’s interesting that Christians were included. Of course, it started as a Christian theological forum, but the participants from the other groups evidently felt it was appropriate to be talking to Christians and scholars of Christianity. The government sometimes views Christianity as a foreign religion and less favorably than other religions.
A.
A few years ago someone published a book which listed the main groups in China. It included the traditional Left, social democrats, socialism with Chinese characteristics, plus some newer groups — but no Christians. You could ignore Christianity because it had no social impact. But now Christians are part of the discussion. I see this as an introduction of Christian scholars to the public forum.

Q.
But wasn’t there the “cultural Christian” movement a decade ago?
A.
What they did was to introduce Christianity as a cultural phenomenon and a cultural resource, but not to express social or political concerns. It was cultural: theology, history and the arts. But this time it’s about expressing social and political concerns, like rule of law and that power should come from the people, equality, justice.

Q.
A key Christian contribution to this debate is the idea that rights are God-given and not state-given, meaning a state or government can’t take them away as it pleases. Was this brought up?
A.
Yes, definitely. An interesting case is He Guanghu. He signed Charter 08. He was the only scholar who studies religion who was among the initial signers. Since then he has been more public in making his position known. His Christian faith has become publicly known. For many years he tried not to say anything about it, but now he feels confident to be out.

Q.
When we talk about public intellectuals, how do you define that in China? Public space is limited in China, and Westerners often see it just in terms of Weibo. How do these intellectuals participate in public life?
A.
Weibo is one. Those who aren’t on Weibo participate in other ways. They get invitations to give talks, sometimes appear on television, or write articles to newspapers and magazines. And especially they participate in conferences. Interestingly, in China, the media pay attention to conferences. If a conference like this one here were in the West, journalists wouldn’t care about these sorts of things. But in China the media report on them. Conferences become platforms for people to express their concerns, and their voices can be heard.

Q.
What is the next phase? Will you meet again?
A.
They hope to hold another one, perhaps in Brazil, to put China in a global context. I think they hope to invite people from all four camps, but this consensus is thin, delicate. It depends how people react.

This is not like Charter 08 or anything like that. The language is very toned down. Even the old Left can’t really object. I think the government will not be able to say much about it.

Q.
Maybe in the future it’s not necessary to have a consensus, but just a platform to discuss topics. People should have different viewpoints, because no country has just one viewpoint, one consensus. The key is that people are expressing themselves in a polite, constructive way.
A.
That’s my thinking, too. In the future we could have real debate. We did have some debates and some interesting moments, but the general tone was most people felt this was hard to achieve and let’s maintain good relationships, rather than pushing one’s views too hard. So they want to start with this, but a healthy way is to have genuine debate, to show the differences — not emotional and sentimental, but to make good arguments. If that happens, it would be great. Hopefully this is the beginning for that.

http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/


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