Wu Jiaxiang 吴稼祥

Wu Jiaxiang 吴稼祥 is a prominent mainland social commentator and author. After graduating from Peking University with a degree in economics, Wu began his career at the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China in 1982. He held a number of government roles in the 1980s. In 1989, he was detained for denouncing martial law. He was freed in 1992. Despite these troubles, he has continued to write about China’s reform process and the political challenges that confront China’s Communist party leaders. From 2000 to 2003, he was a visiting scholar at the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University.

Wu is well-known in and outside China as an early leading proponent of the economic restructuring of China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs). He was among the first to call for SOE shares to be floated on stock markets. He first came to public notice because of his 1985 article ‘Shareholding system – one way of advancing reform’ 股份化:进一步改革的一种思路. In the piece, Wu suggested a series of practical measures for reforming state-own enterprises through privatisation.

In the 1980s, Wu also attracted controversy as an advocate of ‘neo-authoritarianism’ 新权威主义, which he saw as a political path suited for China. His detractors accused him of endorsing authoritarianism while his supporters regarded him as a pragmatist seeking to make one-party rule more accountable. At the time, economic reform had begun to generate such problems as job insecurity, inflation and local protectionism. Intellectuals and officials alike were concerned about the sustainability of China’s reform policies as public anxiety grew and as new tensions emerged between the central government and local governments. In the 1980s, Wu was close to then Premier Zhao Ziyang 赵紫阳 in whom he saw a suitable candidate for achieving the goals of ‘neo-authoritarianism’.  In effect, Wu’s ‘neo-authoritarianism’ required the committed efforts of a powerful reform-minded elite working under an effective leadership. Wu saw it as a necessary stage of political reform in China: for him, ‘neo-authoritarianism’ meant a form of benevolent dictatorship under which citizens and officials would acquire the knowledge and values needed to ensure a viable transition from one-party rule to democracy. He argued that ‘neo-authoritarianism’ was different from traditional autocracy, since the former would push politics in the direction of modernisation and democracy. These goals, however, could not be attained without social stability and Wu believed that the only way to secure them in China was through a highly organized, iron-fisted central government. In the late 1980s Wu, like many other Chinese intellectuals, were deeply taken by Samuel Huntington’s views on ‘new authoritarianism’ and by the importance Huntington gave to political stability in his 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies.

On 16 January 1989, Wu published an essay titled ‘A review of neo-authoritarianism’ 新权威主义述评 in the then highly-regarded World Economic Herald 世界经济导报. This essay, which marked the entrance of ‘neo-authoritarianism’ into public debate in China, defined ‘neo-authoritarianism’ as follows:

It is not an authority that establishes autocracy at the expense of personal liberty. Rather it uses authority to remove obstacles and difficulties on the path to the development of individual freedom. It uses authority to protect personal liberty. The dividing line between old and new authoritarianism is that whereas the first deprives people of personal freedom, the second guarantees their personal freedom.

Wu is well-known for his polemical style of writing. For instance, when elaborating on the relationship between democracy, autocracy and freedom, he used courtship and marital metaphors to illustrate the positive role of a benevolent dictatorship:

Before democracy and freedom ‘get married’, there is a ‘flirtation period’ between autocracy and freedom. If one says democracy is the life-long partner of freedom, then autocracy can be seen as freedom’s ‘lover’ before marriage.

In the same essay, Wu argued that from a historical perspective, ‘neo-authoritarianism’ was a necessary step in any country’s transition to a modern political system, pointing out that economic development had always preceded political development and that this was true of all countries practicing modern parliamentary democracy. He noted that in the history of modern China, when political diversity preceded economic development, secession or warlord politics was the unfortunate result.

Among Wu’s critics was Rong Jian 荣剑, then a PhD candidate in Marxist philosophy at Renmin University in Beijing. In the 1980s, Wu’s critics noted that ‘neo-authoritarianism’ posed the danger of strengthening one-party rule since China’s Communist leaders could postpone the country’s transition to a fully-fledged democracy indefinitely, on the grounds that the nation was not yet ready for it. The fierce debates that  ‘neo-authoritarianism’ generated vanished after 4 June 1989 but the questions that were raised in the 1980s remain every bit as pertinent to China’s political situation today: how to balance the power of the state with individual freedom.

In recent years, Wu has continued to publish books and article about China’s politics and he remains a public intellectual of influence on the mainland. His later writings draw on ancient Chinese history and on Daoist and Confucian ideas about state and society. In 2013, Wu published the book Gong Tianxia 公天下, which proposes the idea of ‘polycentric governance’ 多中心治理 for China. The book reflects Wu’s continued belief in the benefits of ‘neo-authoritarianism’ and is reported to have been popular among leading Party officials.

Additional references and links:
Cuhk.edu.hk: 回顾一场几乎被遗忘的论争 ──「新权威主义」之争述评
共识网: 吴稼祥的共识网·思想者博客
Sina: Wu’s Sina blog: 吴稼祥的博客
Sina Weibo: 吴稼祥
China Media Project: Xi Jinping can deliver, says political theorist