Gu Zhun

Gu Zhun (Chinese: 顾准; 1915–1974) was a Chinese intellectual, economist and pioneer of post-Marxist Chinese liberalism. A victim of "anti-Rightist" purges, he spent his later life in prisons and reeducation centres.

The recovery and publication of Gu's prison diaries and theoretical writings caused a sensation in intellectual circles when published in the mid 1990s. Having spent his life as a highly trained economist with Marxist convictions and heroic career as a revolutionary, his fall from grace and savage punishment led him to develop an authentic and deeply personal conversion to the values of liberal democracy. Cut off from the mainstream of 20th century Western thought, he in a sense "reinvented the wheel" of liberal theory. While certain critics have disparaged his ideas as "laughable if translated into English,"[who?] from a Chinese liberal perspective he represents a rare case of authentic invention of liberalism, relatively free of suspect foreign influences.

Gu was an accountancy expert in his youth, joining the underground Communist Party in Shanghai in the late 1930s, and later appointed to leading roles in the post-Liberation Shanghai tax administration. However, having given outspoken and unwelcome advice to senior cadres, he was in 1952 charged with counter-revolutionary tendencies, demoted and sentenced to "remoulding."

In each of the succeeding cycles of Leftist-inspired purges Gu's "Rightist" label was reimposed and his punishments renewed. Rehabilitated in a brief period of political relaxation in the early 1960s, he was rescued from his pariah status by the economist Sun Yefang, with whom he had been associated in the Shanghai underground movement. Sun arranged a research position for Gu in the Institute of Economics of the Philosophy and Social Science Section (Xuebu, 学部)of the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS). The Xuebu was to form the core of the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS) when it was split off from CAS in 1977. Many senior figures in CASS, such as the economist Wu Jinglian, were formatively influenced by Gu Zhun during this period.

The Cultural Revolution once again submerged people with Rightist backgrounds. Gu was again subjected to harsh punitive treatment, losing contact with his wife and children. His main contact with the outside world was with his brother Chen Minzhi (陈敏之) (1920-).

Contemporary intellectual historians like Zhu Xueqin have hailed Gu Zhun's oeuvre as a major resource for contemporary Chinese liberalism. Li Shenzhi, a Vice-President of CASS and noted liberal activist, wrote of Gu Zhun as a man who "set himself ablaze to illuminate others.” Critics decry this as exaggeration, pointing to the limits of Gu's intellectual range.

Main economic thought

(Most of his works were written in 1973 and 1974.)

  • He raised questions that his contemporaries did not dare to, and tried to give some tentative answers. In this process,he gradually moved away from the idealism still active in communist doctrine, and rediscovered Anglo-American empiricism and the value of liberty intrinsic to it.
  • At a time when dogmas of central planning predominated, he was among the world pioneers of the idea that socialism should incorporate market economics. In arguing that socialism aimed at a "good market economy" as distinct from the "bad ones” found in capitalist systems, he emphasised the values of the rule of law and constitutionalism.
  • In 1965, Gu Zhun was forced to work in Xinyang, Henan province. During Mao’s period, some 200,000 people died of hunger in that region. There were even cases of cannibalism. Shocked by what he saw, Gu began to ask how communist idealism could be the doctrinal source of such horrors, and how such tragedy could be avoided in future. He wrote,

“… today people turn idealism into dogmas in the name of revolution, hence I am turning absolutely to empiricism and pluralism, and democracy.”

  • In his article "On Commercial Production and the Theory of Value under Socialism" (1957),he insisted that the market, rather than a central Plan, should be the basis of productive decisions. Planning could not be expected to encompass everything, to interfere in detail with processes of production and transfer, let alone to perform with complete precision. At a time in which Karl Marx and Mao Zedong were accredited with quasi-divine wisdom, and their dicta treated as infallible, unquestionable and unalterable, Gu Zhun's new model of planning was nothing short of heresy. At that time, had an ordinary person been reported to have raised such ideas, they would have been put into prison, even executed. These, however, were the views that enlightened later key economists such as Sun Yewang and Wu Jinglian and form the core of the post-Mao reforms