“If Chinese ‘liberalism’ is opposed to equality, to ‘one man, one vote,’ to the separation of church and state and secularism, and to at least some freedoms (such as gay marriage) for religious reasons, and if they advocate a particular religious belief as a kind of national orthodoxy, then what’s left of liberalism?” he added, referring to Chinese liberals.
One answer is provided by the political scientist Yao Lin in an article for The Journal of Contemporary China earlier this year. Mr. Lin wrote that many Chinese liberal intellectuals are victims of what he calls “beaconism”: an idolization of the United States that treats ideas from there as a guiding light to follow. One effect, Mr. Lin warned, is that even as these thinkers fight for human rights, they also reflect colonialist, racist attitudes.
Some Chinese liberals sympathized with Mr. Trump’s 2017 policy to stop Muslims from certain countries from entering the United States. In a 2018 discussion about Edmund Burke that appeared in the magazine Open Times, the Chinese constitutional scholar Gao Quanxi justified the immigration ban by arguing that it was meant to defend “the uniqueness of the American people” and oppose “the weakening of American society due to unrestrained pluralism.”
Mr. Biden’s presidency is unlikely to dampen many Chinese liberals’ support for American conservatism.
Many criticize left-leaning U.S. politicians such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Retweeting a video mash of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez speaking with rhetorical flourishes, Ms. Guo commented, “it seems we’ve seen something like this before in China.” She was alluding to the Cultural Revolution.
These fierce debates among scholars point to China’s febrile intellectual landscape. They also suggest that it may be easier for Washington to calibrate a new foreign policy toward Beijing than to engage with the people the Biden administration wants to help the most: China’s dissidents and liberal intellectuals.
Ian Johnson, a 2020-21 grantee of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Public Scholars program, is the author, most recently, of “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao.” @iandenisjohnson
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