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What is gradual reform?
Hu Ping

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One major and strange phenomenon in today’s China is that though few people openly deny China’s need for political reform or that the objective of reform should be freedom and democratization, China is not forging ahead, and often moves backward, in regards to political reform, freedom, and democratization. Certainly, there are many reasons to explain this phenomenon. I believe that confusion over the concept of “gradual” might be one of them.

Regarding democratization, let’s note that some related issues could be differentiated as either gradual or radical. For example, take elections. An election can be first introduced at the local level and then later at the central government level. Similarly, it could be first introduced as election for some parliament seats and then later be opened to the entire parliament. These acts belong to gradual reform. Some other matters, however, do not have the issue of being gradual or radical. One such example is freedom of speech, which includes the elimination of “the crime of expression” and the release of prisoners of conscience. It should not be called gradual reform simply because now fewer prisoners of conscience are being jailed than before. Sartre put it quite well: “Fascism is fascism not because of the number of people it killed, but the way it killed them.”

In general, the number of political persecutions by dictatorial regimes has been decreasing with time. However, this does not mean that the dictators have become more open-minded. Rather, the dictators’ subordinates and people have become more obedient. “To establish powerful authority via killing” has become the dictators’ motto. Once authority is established, it is quite possible to kill fewer people. Accordingly, Wang Fuzhi (an ancient Chinese philosopher) said, “Shen and Han (two philosophers of the Legalist School) believe that tough work at the beginning brings about comfort in the long run.” This reminds us that we should not take any reduced suppression as a “gradual” democratic victory. Of course, this reminder might be unnecessary. Lately, the official media in China has been beefing up its praise of China over the last 13 years (from June 4, 1989 to the present). Ironically, it took 13 years from the collapse of the “Gang of Four” in 1976 to June 4, 1989. One striking fact is that this latter 13 years have witnessed a much greater number of people fall victim due to their political opinions or spiritual beliefs than the former 13 years. Hence, we cannot label democratization in this recent period of 13 years as being in “gradual” progress.

One additional point regarding the concept of gradual versus radical reform must be made. Mr. Fool (an ancient Chinese figure) wished to move the two mountains in front of his house. He shoveled and leveled them bit by bit; this was a gradual move. Apparently, he would rather move the mountains right away with one shovel, but he could not do it, even with all the manpower from his family. The Heavenly God was moved by his spirit and sent two gods to carry the two mountains away on their backs. We did not hear Mr. Fool voice any resistance or complaint to the Heavenly God, such as “No, don’t move the two mountains all at once. This is too radical, and they should be moved little by little for “gradual” change.” The issue of stopping political persecution is precisely the same as moving those mountains.

* Hu Ping is Editor-in-Chief for Beijing Spring magazine.

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