China capable of building an ideal society

By NISHIHARA HARUO / 10-21-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Prof. Nishihara delivers a video speech at the Opening Ceremony of The International Academic Forum in China 2021 in Beijing on Oct. 14. Photo: Zhu Gaolei/CSST

My first visit to China was in June 1982. On behalf of my then-employer Waseda University, I attended the signing ceremony of the academic exchange agreement with Peking University. For about 40 years after that, I have visited China 89 times and been to 34 cities.

In the first half of the 1980s, China decided to implement the reform and opening up policy that drove China’s later rapid development. But then China was almost the same as before. There were no highways or skyscrapers in Beijing like now. The splendid and prosperous Pudong District of Shanghai, today a global commercial center, was once farmland scatteredly owned by farmers and overgrown with weeds.
Not just on such external aspects, the past state of mind was also quite different from today. To say the least, at that time, people tended to mind their own business, and get their share of work done, but could hardly feel the care from people around them, let alone service spirit. On the whole, China was still very poor back then, with almost no private cars except for official cars. I still remember Chang’an Street in the morning, filled with crowds of people riding bicycles slowly.
From the perspective of national policies and ideology, though reform and opening up policy was proposed then, a grand ideological system including reform and opening up policy had yet to be established except for basic Marxism. I don’t think there was any concept of “rule of law.”
I specifically brought out China’s past, a pain you probably do not want to revisit, because by comparing the past with the present, we can correctly analyze this great change of both success and twists and turns from the perspective of social sciences. It helps to clarify future directions to complete modernization by 2035, and the next good vision after completion of modernization. From this point of view, I continuously observe changes during this period as a social scientist, and think about China’s future from a foreigner’s perspective. 
Academic exchanges
My contact with China for the past 40 years began with general academic exchanges. The main form is to conclude academic exchange agreements between Chinese and Japanese universities, and to give lectures in universities and other academic institutions.
The host of this forum, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in 2011, accepted all the requirements of me, a Japanese, arranging six consecutive speeches. This reflects a very strong thirst for knowledge. I’ve given countless lectures at universities. Even the Chinese courts and procuratorates, generally considered as closed systems, also invited me to give lectures, showing great generosity.
Nevertheless, my most important activity in China is the Japan-China academic exchange on criminal law from 1988 to the present. Specifically, it’s mainly the Japan-China Criminal Law Seminar initiated and promoted by me. The seminar is hosted alternatively in Japan and China every other year. At first, the seminar was filled with impassioned slogans of that time. However, this atmosphere has mostly vanished since the mid-1990s, and rigorous discussions on legal interpretation are dominant.
As the pioneers of Chinese criminal law after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, major academics conducted research based on the Soviet Union’s criminal law, which is regarded as the pioneer of socialist criminal law. Therefore, the Soviet Union’s theory of crime was the mainstream of the time. However, since then, there has been a trend among young scholars, based on German theory of crime, to build criminal law with Chinese characteristics. My impression, as a foreigner, is that it is precisely because of this confrontation that Chinese criminal law can be improved through mutual promotion and research.
Speaking of German criminal law, Japan saw a German influence when formulating a new criminal code in the early 20th century. Since then, German criminal law has played an important role in the development of Japanese criminal law. For China, studying Japanese criminal law can indirectly help understand German criminal law. Moreover, its advantage is that Japanese works also use kanji (taken from Chinese characters), although mixed with hiragana and katakana. Even if you don’t know German or Japanese, you can still understand the text roughly.
Maybe this advantage is working. Along with the development of the Japan-China Criminal Law Seminar, many Japanese works have also been translated into Chinese and introduced to China. Besides, there are growing numbers of young scholars who are willing to study in Japan. At that time, a Japanese company just set up a fund to support Asian youths studying in Japan. I served as the chairman of the fund’s operations committee, and successfully helped 25 young Chinese criminal law researchers study in Japan.
I don’t know if these have made a substantial contribution, but the current Chinese criminal law, immature in the 1980s, can now be a fair match with 100-year-old Japanese criminal law, even stand on par with centuries-old German criminal law, and has the momentum to surpass Germany. This is amazing progress.
The year 2018 marked the 30th anniversary of this academic exchange. Chinese scholars invited ten Japanese scholars to hold a commemorative seminar in Shanghai. That year I turned 90 years old. 25 Chinese scholars published a 660-page collection of congratulatory essays and presented it to me. I think it’s a gesture of gratitude and respect, and the affirmation of my contribution to the development of Chinese criminal law and the establishment of the principle of rule of law. My effort and contributions are trivial, but I am impressed with Chinese scholars’ kindness and generosity that transcend national boundaries, and they are the foundation of China’s development.
China’s potential
Looking back to the 1980s, it is so obvious how happy the Chinese people are today. The road is not always smooth, but whenever problems arise, China will summarize and explore to overcome them strenuously. It’s the fact that I have long observed. Foreigners are surprised by the magnitude of China’s development and changes. It’s exactly China’s potential. China has tough and complicated problems to solve, but its resilience is also very strong. In my opinion, this kind of dynamism and flexibility is the foundation of China’s development.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that socialist countries essentially take “development and improvement towards specific goals,” or “reform” as the prerequisite of their policies. Some so-called liberal countries, such as European and American countries and Japan, believe that their values are permanent, so it’s difficult for them to adopt “theory of development, change and improvement” that aims at transcending the status quo and establishing an ideal society. That’s exactly the flaw with these countries.
However, Marx and Engels clearly advocated “stages of development” to achieve the ultimate goal of an ideal communist society. As they said, socialism must also be premised on “stages of development.” China is now also on the “journey” of socialist development. Isn’t this the strength of socialism? 
Among the Chinese leaders of all generations, the one who has most clearly demonstrated the view of history, development goals, stages, and approaches of socialist countries is President Xi Jinping. On July 1st this year, President Xi’s speech at the Ceremony Marking the Centenary of the Communist Party of China fully demonstrated this point. What struck me most is President Xi has a deep understanding of the danger of “change.” With countermeasures to prevent risks, President Xi mentioned six times in his speech (in fact nine times) the expression of “learning from history to create a bright future.” 
“Drawing experience and lessons from the past,” as long as this guiding ideology is fully implemented, China’s peaceful development is beyond doubt.
Ideal society
Finally, with the theme of this forum, I would like to offer a critical proposal. That is, on contemplating China’s path towards socialist modernization, a very useful perspective is “if AI develops beyond human capabilities, what will happen to human economic and political institutions?” Due to limited time, I can only talk briefly.
For example, Japan, and European and American countries, have adopted a “parliamentary democracy based on electoral system,” because they believe the only way for politics to correctly reflect public opinion is through elections. In the past, when human wisdom was quite limited, this was inevitable. Well, with the development of AI, if it can grasp public opinion more accurately than elections, parliamentary democracy with obvious flaws will lose its basis of existence. The direction of this trend is to form a system where a small number of outstanding leaders use AI to correctly solicit public opinion and apply it in politics to rule. AI can explore more accurately the delicate balance between personal and public interests, between freedom and restraint than humans. If governments deviate from this balance, AI will reveal it. 
Recently, the international community has begun to use the term “the opposition between democracy and despotism.” At first glance, the regime above seems to be the same as the ancient authoritarian system, but its essence is quite different. Compared with the so-called democracy, the model of state governance mentioned above relies more on the people. The same is true for the economic institutions. So far, independent activities of each enterprise have brought higher economic efficiency, but also led to an excessive gap in wealth and worsening destruction of nature like air pollution. If countries use AI to integrate economic operations comprehensively and systematically, the above-mentioned drawbacks can be perfectly solved. 
If you ask which country in the world has the closest economic and political structure to that of the upcoming AI era, it’s none other than China. China is advancing socialist modernization, and its goal is to build a society on the extended line of socialist modernization that Marx and Engels dreamed of but failed to realize. However, in the era of Marx and Engels, human wisdom had yet to be further developed, so they failed to realize the dream. China has obtained favorable conditions to achieve this goal as never before.
I think AI development has the potential for human extinction, but if humans can do their best to overcome its disadvantages, humans will be given the conditions to realize an ideal society for the first time in human history. I have observed that President Xi Jinping has brought into his vision the establishment of an ideal society after the realization of modernization. If the connection with AI development is considered, this path would become even clearer.
Nishihara Haruo is the former president of Waseda University in Japan. This is an excerpt from his video speech at the forum’s opening ceremony.
Edited by WENG RONG