On Gaige Kaifang

Image Courtesy of the Xinhua News Agency
Reform and opening up (gaige kaifang) are words commonly used to refer to processes of change that have been active in China’s legal, political, social and economic systems since 1978. These words occupy a very important place in the daily vocabulary of China scholars, yet they have become ‘worn out’ by their repeated use. We look at ‘gaige kaifang‘ passingly, and we consider it as a commonplace feature of Chinese law, politics, society and economics – a feature so ordinary as to not deserve any further comment or analysis. 

Gaige kaifang possesses at least five dimensions, each one of which is beyond dispute. Gaige kaifang is:

(i)  a historical period, which began in 1978 with the repudiation of the policies enacted by the Gang of Four;
(ii) a slogan created by Deng Xiaoping which, as the BBC observed, is among the 11 slogans that changed China.
(iii) a policy the “Chinese people of all nationalities will continue to adhere to” (Constitution of the PRC, Preamble, paragraph 7)
(iv) part of the basic line of the Chinese Communist Party (Constitution of the CCP, Preamble, paragraph 10)
(v) a word. 

While adding other dimensions to gaige kaifang is possible, in my next posts I will focus on the literal meaning of these words. This choice stems from some earlier observations about how an interpretive approach based on the assumption that words hide the real meaning of a legal document can sometimes be misleading. It attempts to build upon Jean Christopher Mittelstaed’s criticism of an earlier study of “Seeking Truth From Facts”. That criticism held that I performed a brutal separation of concepts from the contexts that gave them meaning, and projected a ‘Western’ meaning on Chinese concepts, while decrying this very same move. 

Also, this is a choice I am making in an attempt to understand the point of whether a better understanding of Chinese law (politics, society, the economy) is enabled by the creation of new epistemic categories, or by focussing on the epistemic categories China uses to talk about itself. After all, ‘listening’ to what a legal system has to say about itself, and accepting the epistemic categories the system uses to talk about itself does not imply an endorsement or a rejection of its values. 

This approach differs in a substantial way from other possible approaches, such as:

(i) relying on epistemic categories external to the Chinese legal system, using a ‘pure category’ or a pure category modified and qualified by the anteposition of an adjective. 
(ii) Analyzing the plurality of legal discourses existing in China, and then identifying each one of the cognitive schemes that generate them.
(iii) Focussing on the tensions that exist between interpretations of the same concept provided by different discourse communities. 
(iv) Crafting an entirely new epistemic category that used Chinese language. 

Some of the words used to designate the epistemic categories of Chinese law (whether these words are used by Chinese speakers or by foreign speakers) were introduced in the nineteenth century, by intellectuals who drew from ‘Western thought’ in eclectic ways. The introduction of these new words in Chinese language later raised the question of whether these words pointed to any objectively existing universal notion or idea. 

Arguments have been made in favor of the objective existence of these universal notions and ideas. Some analyses of the usage and meaning of legal concepts, however, have noticed how while ‘overlapping and criss-crossing similarities’ in concepts may exist across systems, these concepts do not refer to any universal notion. As any other object that exists in the world, words receive their meaning from those who craft them and those who use them. Unearthing the meaning of a word – if it is assumed a meaning exists – would require understanding how the word is used in all possible contexts, by each and every member of all the communities and sub-communities of speakers that exist. Even so, there is no guarantee that two different communities of speakers will attribute the same meaning to the same word. Also, exploring areas of ambiguity and vagueness, and areas where clashes between opposite meanings occur, can easily lead the analyst to attributing an additional layer of meaning to the concepts she examines. 

Certain words, words which carry a connotation at once moral, legal and political, were crafted by Chinese intellectuals using the cognitive, cultural and linguistic tools of China, ‘the West’ and Japan as these tools were available to them. This is a historical fact. Languages are evolving entities, however the path of their evolution and change is not charted, and the forces which eventually contribute to driving change in a specific direction are unknown. The historical facts that surrounded the crafting of new words, the personalities and backgrounds of the intellectuals that created, recreated or used those new words can be understood as meaning that these words are not a genuine part of Chinese culture, history or legal philosophy. While arguments to the contrary can be made, perhaps concepts that belong to Chinese tradition deserve a more in-depth exploration. 

There is no doubt that gaige is a genuinely Chinese concept, with deep roots in the language, the history and philosophy of China… [to be continued]

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