21 March 2013

The choice of the third China

I realise that it is very difficult for Anglo-American expats like me to write about China – one can write a book about a day spent here (so the saying goes), a short paper about a month spent here, and maybe a sentence if we choose to linger for a year or more. As members of a hegemonic society which still manages to retain a vast degree of power internationally, facing what may or may not be an up-and-coming hegemonic society, our writing is due to be examined from many angles; it is therefore imperative that we write with care and perspicacity. And it is imperative that we speak as much of the truth about China that we can comprehend. It is enough to deter many from contributing. But write we must.

Much as I may disagree – occasionally vehemently – with Charlie Custer at ChinaGeeks, the contributors to Tea Leaf Nation, Dr Sam Crane over at The Useless Tree, Gil Grundy over at Fear of a Red Planet and Richard Burger at The Peking Duck, not to mention Kaiser Kuo, Jeremy Goldkorn, Dr David Moser and Didi Tatlow over at the excellent Sinica Podcast, I nevertheless have a profound respect for what they do, and often stand amazed by the sheer quality and depth of what they put out. It is really, really difficult for someone who has been here long enough to write about China without becoming jaded or superficial. I certainly don’t always succeed. I often feel like a lot of my work takes on a needlessly confrontational tone, to the government, to the dissident community and to the expat community – the art of smoothing over conflict in conversation is a Chinese talent I have yet to master. And often I feel like I’m only catching a part of the truth in my hermeneutic.

Which is actually one of the reasons I’m writing this article.

It strikes me that when one arrives in China for the first time, one is immediately struck with the impression of a deep divide between the outward face, the ‘official culture’ of Party pronouncements and People’s Daily articles, and the inner convictions of a lot of China’s people, particularly the young people one is most likely to meet in Beijing-Shanghai or the Guangzhou megalopoleis. My friends at Capital Normal University certainly fit the mold. I remember two of my classmates in particular – Jessy and Alex are their English names – who did not identify at all with the ‘official culture’, and who were eager to study abroad themselves and hopefully find a culture, perhaps in the United States, that they could better identify with. They got along better with those of us in the CET exchange programme, it often seemed like, than they did with their own countrymen.

I certainly do not blame them in that. That’s the story of my life, after March 2003, when (as a tenderfoot of seventeen years) I began to lose faith in the inherent rightness of democracy qua democracy, began to look with a jaundiced eye at the supposedly ‘free’ press which was very decidedly closed to the opinions and questions of those of us in the anti-war movement, and generally began to despair of American culture. There is absolutely no shortage of foul play in the Chinese ‘official culture’ to prompt such cynical reactions amongst young people, particularly the technologically-savvy denizens of Weibo who are the most likely to have access to information from beyond the Great Firewall.

At the same time, though, I think there is a tendency in the expat community to oversimplify. Sure, there is a broad swathe of China’s East Coast urbanites who have beefs with the government (and naturally the ethnic minorities in the China’s west), who tend to look toward the political and economic doctrines of pseudo-Western modernity as their nation’s salvation. And sure, this broad swathe of the Chinese grassroots gets pretty roundly ignored by the mouthpieces of official culture. But, having made more Chinese friends both here and in the US, having married a brilliant and wonderful Chinese woman, having worked with Chinese colleagues and having gotten past a lot of the inhibitions people have to discussing politics in China, I feel that this is also only a small piece of the larger picture.

Graduate students who come to the United States to study are often taken aback by the ease of access to information. Once they use it, however, they will often come to see that what is said in the ‘free press’ is to be doubted every bit as much as what is said in China’s state-run media. Often they will come away with an appreciation for the way their government does things that they did not have before. Which is naturally not to say that they become fifty-centers, by any stretch of the imagination. But, as my wife put it, ‘the more I read about the United States, the more respect I have for China’s government; if the United States had as large a population as China, its problems would certainly be far worse’.

One of my colleagues, Vivian, said that living in the interior of China is very different from living in Beijing or Shanghai. People here tend to be much more traditional, much more reserved. Parents and grandparents are respected – the word ‘孝順’ is not mere empty piety. In part, that is due to necessity: Inner Mongolia is traditionally quite poor, particularly when compared to the rest of China, and people depend on their family members for support.

Another interesting aspect to note is the resurgence of religion in China. I have remarked on some of the ways in which the Christian message gets really distorted here, with really ignorant and destructive exponents of Christianity like Yu Jie. But one has to bear in mind that we are witnessing resurgences of Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism in post reform-and-opening China, in part because of the growing dissatisfaction with both the dialectical materialism of Mao and its logical successor in the consumerism which flourished under Deng. Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism all, of course, provide very different responses to these excesses, but they are apparently finding wide enough audiences for scholars to perk up and take note.

The China which I see around me, and with which I interact daily, is neither the ‘harmonious society’ of Hu Jintao nor the liberal Western-leaning anti-society desired and embodied by ‘public intellectuals’, the Weibo commentariat and (most of) the expat community. Both of those elements are there, of course, alongside another pull which is not fully satisfied with either one. This pull may or may not be appropriately labelled ‘Confucian’ – I think Sam Crane makes very valid points when he critiques the reductive nature of many amateur commenters on Asia attribute all cultural distinctions, real and perceived, between China and ‘the West’ to the work of Confucius – though certainly it has Confucian elements in what it marks off as ‘shameful’. Among these elements are: a respect for the elderly and for familial duties, a non-negotiable value placed on community and relationships, a desire for an egalitarian-leaning (if not necessarily egalitarian) just social setup, and a growing scepticism toward profit merely for profit’s sake (if not necessarily toward profit itself).

Those who subscribe to this pull face a false choice – and the same choice is offered them by both the CCP and the liberals. The CCP would put it to them that to choose the liberal path would be to reject a just order in favour of an undisciplined, decadent licence; and the liberals would put it to them that to choose the CCP’s path would be to reject freedom in favour of totalitarian tyranny. Each presents itself as the ‘only way out’ – just as, between the Soviet Union and Reaganite / Thatcherite neoliberalism, each presented itself as the only alternative. TINA still appears to be dogma amongst the young coastal elites: China must adopt liberal-democratic capitalist modernity in the Western mold, or die. This was Liu Xiaobo’s entire intellectual conceit – along with a visceral bigotry against Muslims and a cringe-inducing enthusiasm for the Bush doctrine.

As Wang Hui noted in The End of the Revolution, there is a de facto, if not necessarily intentional, collusion between China’s neoliberal and neoconservative ‘dissidents’ (whose voices are magnified by attention from the press and funding from Western governments) and China’s own government to ensure that the range of acceptable political discourse operates solely in the field between these two poles. Criticism of China’s prevailing social and economic setup from the (non-Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) new left is always hogtied rhetorically, both by the government and by the liberals, to the Cultural Revolution; criticism from the (non-capitalist, non-liberal, non-interventionist) old right are hogtied rhetorically to a benighted and inegalitarian Chinese past and made to carry the legacy of the 國恥 – the ‘national humiliation’ of the Qing Dynasty by the West.

And yet, even as the local experimentation of Bo Xilai has been ruthlessly and extralegally stamped out (at the hands of China’s government, with the broad blessings and support of China’s liberals and the Western press), it must be emphasised that China needs these alternatives. As Cambridge institutional economist Chang Ha-Joon has pointed out on numerous occasions, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea became successful economies because, and only to the degree that, they did not conform, in full, to the dictates of the neoliberal Washington consensus; that they did not follow Mao’s path in its entirety either is a point not worthy of mention. China’s current economic and political model is not sustainable, as an increasing number of Chinese people, and – to be fair – the government, both realise.

If and when procedural democracy does come to China, we may indeed find that the third-direction pull is stronger than either the government or the Western expat community anticipates. I have a strong suspicion that it would do so in Baotou. It is a pull which may find itself in sympathy with either the Chinese neoleftists, or the political Confucian movement, or both – but as these movements are both largely academic and as yet hold no mass appeal, they are unlikely to gain immediate traction.

Still, it is this third-direction pull which has to find an outlet of some kind in public policy. History shows that when this pull is ignored, those subscribing to it will create their own (the White Lotus, the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxers, and more recently the Tian’anmen Square protests); and that the consequences can be quite disastrous.


  1. Matt:


    When it comes to the issue of China, I see myself as adhering to the Three People’s Principles of Dr. Sun and the KMT, though not necessarily today’s KMT.

    Having said that, I would like to suggest the following. You’ve written substantially on mainland China, why not try writing on the other parts of China (Taiwan, the SARs), or other parts of the Chinese world in Asia (Singapore and Malaysia, though you may not know much about what’s happening in these places)? Just to give a more comprehensive look at what’s happening in the Chinese world, the political, philosophical and ideological conflicts that are happening there, though the political differences among these places is a factor.


  2. Hi Idrian! Sorry it took me so long to get around to answering your comment - and thanks for the suggestion. I'm not sure I could be very reliable on matters not mainland China - my geographical and cultural sympathies lie very firmly on the mainland, and inland at that. For example, Luoyang and Baotou. I feel a bit disenchanted with the China's coastal regions and certainly with the SEZs, not to mention commercial outposts like Singapore and Hong Kong. I could give it a go, though.

    Regarding Dr Sun, I'm of two minds or more about the man. On the one hand, given my monarcho-syndicalism and Confucian sympathies, I'm more inclined to support the intellectual legacy of Kang Youwei and his Baohuanghui than Sun Zhongshan and his Tongmenghui. On the other hand, Dr Sun (unlike, say, Liang Qichao) never sold out to capitalism, and he adopted a number of interesting new-economic ideas (particularly Georgist ones) into his platform.

    Thanks again for stopping by, and I'll see what I can do!


  3. Great post. What are your thoughts on the works of Lin Yutang? If I remember correctly, he was a Christian who also appreciated traditional Chinese culture and supported some aspects of socialism especially if it promoted greater leisure time for workers and peasants, which is a good thing from both a traditional Chinese and traditional Christian perspective.

    I am far from an expert on Lin Yutang but I thought he would be an interesting source of inspiration for people in China who reject both Western neoliberalism and Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. I apologize if I am completely misrepresenting Lin Yutang’s thought. I have not read him in a long time.

  4. Thanks, John! Welcome back, and many thanks for the comment!

    I am not exactly an expert on Lin Yutang either - I've only read bits and pieces of his work in translation - but his caricature of Wang Anshi in his semi-fictional biography of Su Shi was really offputting to me. (Su Shi, it has to be remembered, was essentially the equivalent at that time of the austerity-thumpers we have now; his ideas ended up congealing in the neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming.) In addition, in the excerpts I've read of him, he seems far too eager to praise the Anglo-American tradition of reductive individualism and voluntarism, even if he wants to use them in the service of a kind of left-liberalism.

    So I'd kind of place the qualifier on him that I'd place on any of the Taiwan / Hong Kong / OCC 'New Confucians' who want to fit square Confucian pegs into round liberal-democratic conceptual and categorical holes. I'll certainly try and pick up more of his work, but at this point I've got good reason to take it with a grain or two of salt.


  5. Hi Matthew,

    I can understand where you are coming from. I came upon Lin Yutang through Tom Hodgkinson, a British writer who founded the magazine "The Idler" in 1993. Tom Hodgkinson’s ideas are often good but he is definitely guilty of lifestylism and I think the same applies to Lin Yutang.

    The Lifestyle Left tends to be individualistic and anti-politics, instead opting for personal lifestyle anarchism or something similar. The problem is that most working people cannot opt out of the regular economy so easily without a reduction in living standards.

  6. Matt:

    Hello. Thanks for the reply.

    I have to say that our views on Dr Sun are influenced or shaped by our preconceived ideas and beliefs. Whereas your monarcho-syndicalism shaped your views on him, mine is shaped by my Filipino background and awareness of Filipino revolutionary history. Many, if not most, Filipino nationalist activists were friends of him and supported his cause, like Propagandista and Rizal colleague Mariano Ponce.

    As for the attempt to discuss about China beyond the inland, I leave that up to you.

    I apologize if this reply came late too. Have a well Good Friday.