Boyuan's Beijing headquarters is an elegantly renovated courtyard home on the north side of the city. Behind He's desk is a wall of books on history, philosophy, and reform. Over a simple lunch of braised vegetables and endless cups of tea, he told me how his commitment to liberal values is rooted in a strand of Communist Party tradition that flourished in the 1980s and has since been subordinated but not entirely vanquished. "My grandfather and father were all fighting to establish not dictatorship, not feudalism, but so that people at the grassroots could enjoy a good life." He's grandfather was a vice-minister in the Kuomingtang government that ruled China until the Communists defeated it in 1949; he was beaten to death during the Cultural Revolution.
He's father was an influential agricultural minister in the reformist 1980s, a talented agricultural scientist respected for his integrity who helped guide China's peasants to shed the communal owning of land. This was China's moment of enlightenment, He says, where the revolutionary veterans respected the judgment of peasants and entrepreneurs alike to choose what to plant, what to make, and how to take it to market. The trick was simply to get out of the way. "At that time, the top leaders really understand the concept of so-called ‘universal values,' which means human rights and allowing the people freedom to choose what they want," says He. "They respected the abilities of the people, reflecting a universal value not necessarily coming from the West but based on human beings basic needs."
He had originally intended the Boyuan Foundation to be a retirement pursuit, a project of collective self-enlightenment with close childhood friends. His worries grew as he watched a fellow princeling, Bo Xilai, breathe new life into the spirit of Mao and whip up a popular frenzy in Chongqing, the inland mega-city Bo governed. As he watched Chinese citizens embrace modernity and the party-state slide back toward the revolutionary ideology of his childhood, his ambitions turned from supporting China's modern evolution to saving it.
When He returned to Beijing after his visit to Berlin in late 2010, he discovered that renowned scholars had been investigating those same parallels, even if they could not publicize their work. Shanghai historian Xu Jilin had traced China's leftward turn (leftists in China are the more conservative faction, who favor a more powerful state) to the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia which grew into a "nationalist cyclone," a moment when China's rising pride, power, and the political phenomenon of Bo Xilai started to gain momentum. "Statist thinking is gaining ground in the mainstream ideology of officialdom, and may even be practiced on a large-scale in some regions of "singing Red songs and striking hard at crime," Xu said in a recent talk delivered to the Boyuan Foundation. "The history of Germany and Japan in the 1930s shows that if statism fulfils its potential, it will lead the entire nation into catastrophe."
Xu's antidote is right out of the Boyuan mission statement: "What a strong state needs most is democratic institutions, a sound constitution and the rule of law to prevent power from doing evil," says Xu.
He Di believes the overwhelming majority of Chinese people are on his side. "If you test how many Chinese people really want to return to Mao's period, to become North Korea, I don't believe it's 1 percent of them" he said.