08 August 2017

Some notes from China’s New Order

Okay, I’m already enough of a fanboy of Dr Wang Hui as it is, but the man is awesome. Here are a few assorted notes from my reading of China’s New Order – a very dense historical-literary-political work which I’m trying my best to unpack here:

Double movement, double state

There isn’t much here that doesn’t also find expression in Wang Hui’s later collection of essays, The End of the Revolution, but it’s refreshing to see the case put forward the first time with such starkness and urgency. Wang Hui reflects on the 1989 Democracy Movement (Minyun 民运), the various forces and negotiations that fed into it, and its complex relationship to a state that was itself going through various upheavals. He puts forward the argument that the movement was not entirely about ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ in an ideological-political sense, but was instead a reaction to a state whose œconomic praxis had gone out of phase with its ideological posture. And that reaction included both those excluded from the benefits of capitalist œconomic reform, who had suffered loss of wages, insurance, social security as a result, and who wanted reform to stop or to be reversed (workers and other poorer urbanites); as well as those whose families had benefitted from the ‘urban phase’ of capitalist ‘reform and opening’ and wanted it to go further (students and intellectuals – though there were students and intellectuals on both sides of that divide).

There was, in short, a double movement that confronted an increasingly schizophrenic state. And Wang – a participant himself in the Minyun – is clear-eyed that the double-mindedness of the movement itself was a factor in its own downfall: ‘The direct cause of the movement’s failure was violent suppression by the state. However, the indirect cause lay in the movement’s own inability to bridge the gap between its demands for political democracy and the demands for social equality that had been its mobilising force.’ But he points out, to the discomfort of the neoliberal elements of the double movement, that those same neoliberal elements were in fact the closest to, and the beneficiaries of, state power: their relationship to power was far more complex than the simplistic and self-serving Western-media hermeneutic of opposing ‘notions of “popular society” and “markets”… to “a planned œconomy”, “communism”, or the “autocratic” state’ can allow for.

It’s therefore little surprise that Wang has a complex reaction to this. He doesn’t regret his involvement in the movement – but he does understand its ambiguities, and it is clear that he stands to one side of the ‘double movement’. He also (understandably) militates against the conflation of 1989 movement ‘left’ sensibilities with Cultural Revolutionary politics for the sole sake of discrediting them:
In fact, denunciation of the Cultural Revolution became the sole foundation of the moral rationale behind this rethinking. This is a clear demonstration how repudiating the Cultural Revolution has become the guardian of the dominant ideology as well as of state policy, and this mode of thinking has flourished ever since: any criticism directed against the present can be cast as regression to the Cultural Revolution, and thus as being wholly irrational.

On Qing matters and ‘radicalism’

The figures of Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, as well as those of their contemporary opponents Zhang Binglin and Sun Zhongshan, all loom large in Wang’s work – as indeed they did for much of the Minyun generation. (Indeed, now I need to get Xiao Gongquan’s works on Kang Youwei onto my bookshelf somehow – even though on my current unemployment budget that’s somewhat impossible!)

Indeed, poor Kang’s legacy is still being fought over in Chinese popular culture as well as intellectual life. In his lifetime he went from being considered the firebrand radical who spearheaded the Hundred Days’ Reform to being considered an irrelevant reactionary and Old Society holdout with the attempted Qing restoration to which he was party. But Wang notes that Kang’s fortunes again underwent a reversal – possibly as a consequence of Mao Zedong’s interest in his utopian work.

After 1989, the Confucian gentleman from Foshan was again being tarred with the label of being a ‘radical’, a ‘grassroots’ activist and a ‘direct democrat’ – this time not by Qing authorities, but instead by China’s nascent neoconservatives (themselves drawn mostly from the student-intellectual wing of the Minyun). What a fate for a Confucian Qing loyalist, to be condemned for being too radically left-wing by student democrats a century later! Instead, gradual reformism from the top was being praised. Wang notes that the turn against ‘radicalism’ in the wake of 1989, by the well-placed intellectuals who had been involved in the movement, was indeed a(n attempted) reassessment of Chinese history going back to the Hundred Days’ Reform, but one which failed to account for realities on-the-ground – and also one which failed to read Qing history with the sort of depth that it merited.

Indeed, one of Wang’s projects, which he hints at both in the preface and in these essays themselves, but only goes on to explore further in From Empire to Nation-State, is to recover certain categories of Qing Dynasty moral and political thought for use by modern-day radicals (and traditionalists). It remains to be seen whether they can successfully be put to good use against globalist neoliberalism as well as ethnic and regional chauvinisms, but it remains a worthwhile project.

Moscow 1993 and the arrival of communitarianism

Russia’s own costly and immiserating experiences with neoliberalism and shock therapy – including Eltsin ordering the tanks to fire on the Supreme Soviet in 1993 – were being watched with significant apprehension from the East. Wang notes that this was a watershed moment in the reassessment of ‘radicalism’ on the part of China’s intellectuals. For many of them, watching Russia’s president use tanks to open fire on a democratically-elected body in the name of promoting market reforms, exploded utterly the fiction that privatisation and the imposition of markets were a ‘spontaneous process’ inextricably linked to considerations of democracy and civil order. The hypocrisy of America’s contrasting postures in China in 1989 and in Russia in 1993 was also made plain.
There was thus a contrast between American support of Yeltsin’s violence and its condemnation of the 1989 violence in China that gave the events of October 1993 in Russia a powerful and long-lasting significance for those who believed that history had already concluded, and for those who considered the Cold War to be long past… Together, these international incidents added up to a profound series of intellectual shocks to those scholars who had been in the midst of explaining the course of Chinese globalisation from the perspective of the Confucian-based ideal of ‘great union’ (datong 大同), the [Kantian] Enlightenment-based notion of ‘permanent peace’, or the notion that the world had been ‘moving in the same direction over the past three hundred years’.
Francis Fukuyama’s infamous ‘end of history’ thesis, against which China’s New Order can be considered something of a broadside, thus stood repudiated in China for many intellectuals (including Wang) by the shelling of the Russian Parliament, almost as soon as the ink had dried on the damn thing. Eltsin’s actions decoupled, in Chinese intellectual discourse, the idea of political reform from that of œconomic ‘progress’. It also opened up a space for discussion of ‘civil society’, which had not been on the table in 1989 (!) or at any time before.

Wang notes that the Chinese civil-society discourse critiqued the earlier anti-radical ‘wave’ for its narrow (and, in China’s case, inappropriate) distinction between ‘society’ and ‘state’, which ignored the privileges of certain state-embedded social formations and interest groups, flattened discussions about political reform into a kind of empty proceduralism, and privileged those promoting one-way ‘market freedom’ as ‘political reform’. And:
Most important, this discussion critiqued the process of spontaneous privatisation carried out by force that had already taken place in Russia and was just then occurring in China, in this manner revealing the antidemocratic character of this form of market œconomy as well as demonstrating the contradictions between the various programmes of privatisation that had been implemented recently and a truly democratic system. The discourse also provided a number of new directions for the participation by ordinary people in politics, for ways by which advanced and backward technologies could be allied, and for the reform of enterprises and political institutions.
One of these ‘new directions’ was borrowed from the contemporary communitarian discourse in the Anglo-American world around ‘civil society’. It entered China not as an apologia for ‘capitalism-with-Asian-characteristics’, but instead as a critique of that same capitalism even as it was being constructed. It seems the communitarian discourse around Rawls was understood and internalised, not as a dissenting variant of philosophical liberalism (as it would eventually come to be seen in the Anglo-American philosophical world itself), but instead precisely as an antidote to Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis. This may explain, in part, how Dr Michael Sandel, criminally underrated in his own country, was vaulted to rock-star status in China. The situated, high-context, content-heavy understanding of justice which Sandel had a significant hand in promoting, was a great boon to the mainland Chinese Left, which understood its own interest in continuing to question ‘the end of history’.

Wang notes that the Anglo-American communitarianism of MacIntyre, Taylor and Sandel provided only one avenue for the Chinese Left critique of neoliberalism. The œconomic thought of Polányi and the historical thought of Braudel together provided another avenue. The debates around development ideology and China’s WTO accession provided yet another. And the discussion of nationalism that exploded after the horrendous, hyper-imperialist wars against Yugoslavia and the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Beograd provided still another.

Wang takes on the pomos

Here’s Wang Hui’s literary takedown of China’s postmodernists (which they did indeed have coming):
Echoing this discussion were the critiques of the market mentality by such authors as Han Shaogong and Zhang Chengzhi; a number of their insights built an important bridge between the discussion of the spirit of humanism [renwen jingshen 人文精神] and the area of popular culture.

This discussion was attacked by a group of postmodernist critics that arose at almost the same time… In the years between 1993 and 1995, however, the mainstream of the postmodernist movement took the discussion of the spirit of humanism as an
élitist narrative, and they launched a defence of commerce and consumerism by means of a deconstructivist strategy that evinced a wholehearted embrace of the move toward markets… Postmodern criticism and the discussion of the spirit of humanism were both marked by a number of intellectuals who touched on the profound crisis contained in China’s process of reform, but both of these quite different discourses embodied an optimism similar to that of the advocates of the market. It is worth noting in passing the attack on Zhang Chengzhi’s work History of a Soul (Xinling shi 心灵史) by both postmodern critics and commentators who were a few years older: no one paid any attention to the history of the relationships among different Chinese nationalities set out in this work, but took it instead as simply a legacy of the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’, lambasting it as symbolic of the Red Guard spirit in particular.

This case powerfully exemplifies the most dangerous tendency among Chinese intellectuals: in relation to a matter as profoundly important as this, [postmodernist] commentators not only failed to move the discussion forward, but even forgot what that question was in the first place. The discussion of the ‘spirit of humanism’ eventually turned into a debate on idealism, with a consequential abandonment of any analysis of the transformation of contemporary society and its internal contradictions, a direction both sides in the discussion moved toward.
Okay then. I have some more fiction works to add to the reading list: those by Han Shaogong and Zhang Chengzhi. But boy, am I ever sorry I for one moment believed Wang Hui to be moving toward nihilism. That was back when I’d only read one of the man’s books, the necessarily-fragmented The End of the Revolution, and unfortunately I allowed myself to be influenced by reviewers who clearly didn’t understand the thrust of his work.

That said, I find Wang’s take to be an accurate and refreshing one. Postmodernism, with its emphasis on individualising and atomising ‘narratives’, all equally valid and fungible in a marketplace of values, is an apologetic for capitalist consumerism. Indeed, in the social sciences postmodernist thinking shares a corpus of sources with the most extreme fringes of libertarian anarcho-capitalist thought.

And even in those cases where it doesn’t explicitly call for atomisation and the dissolution of solidarity of class, race and gender in common values, postmodernism still misses the plot. It distracts from the hard work of exposing and dismantling the structures of oppression, because it insists that those structures are only as real as the perspectives from which they’re examined in the first place. The difference is, I just figured this out myself these past couple of months. Dr Wang cottoned onto the fact that ‘[t]he postmodernists shared a number of assumptions with the neoliberals: their deconstructivist posture and some of their liberating effects’ based on literary discussions he was party to over twenty years ago. Wang’s take is refreshing in that he has little time or patience for the sillier sorts of denunciations of ‘Eurocentrism’, but he does appreciate that they opened up routes of ressourcement for China’s own native, counter-hegemonic intellectual traditions.

Chinese socialism revisited
As an object of knowledge and as an interrelated, comprehensive concept, Asia is the product of a mixture of colonisation, war, invasion and revolution, and any discussion of matters pertaining to it cannot be separated from [these] specific historical factors...

In the discursive context of contemporary China, raising the questions of Asia, globalisation and the Chinese Revolution seems like part of an historical cycle, but it has already become a critical process… How to achieve a new understanding of the Chinese Revolution, of the legacy of socialism, and of the achievements as well as the tragœdies of this legacy are major questions urgently in need of address from Chinese intellectuals, but to which they have so far been unable to respond. This is because the ideology of neoliberalism and its legitimisation were built on the total repudiation and moral condemnation of this legacy.
There are several points of ambiguity that Dr Wang subjects himself to – to my mind rather needlessly or counterproductively. Wang Hui is emphatic and insistent on the primacy of discursive politics over œconomics as a body of practices – in contradistinction to Chinese (right-)liberals, he is willing to subject market œconomics to sustained political critique à la Polányi (or Ha-Joon Chang), and is more than willing to convict non-state actors of coercion and violence. That is, of course, well and good! I am more than happy that he does this. What’s slightly more ambiguous – since he seems to vacillate a couple of times on the subject even within these two essays – is whether or not Wang is willing to subject politics itself to historical or moral critique.

He points out multiple times that he is not calling for a revolution or for the overthrow of the current system of Chinese governance. This may stem from a deeply-held temperamental conservatism (as opposed to the political neoconservatism he attacks) and his much more vocal scepticism of modernisation theory and of cultural and œconomic forms of modernity generally. Or else it may be a somewhat defensive strategy on his part, within Chinese intellectual circles, to inoculate himself from critics who may level at him the very Cultural-Revolutionary epithets whose use against all forms of social critique he objects to. But he does want to see a more comprehensive (and, if possible, more positive) revaluation of the legacy of China’s socialist era, in place of a neoliberal anti-discourse which merely links genuinely-held concerns over [pensions / healthcare / labour exploitation / wage garnishment / rural-urban wealth gaps / educational disparities / environmental destruction / land expropriation] directly to Mao, and shouts them down as so much Cultural Revolutionary and ‘populist’ baggage, held over from a bygone age. It’s clear that he believes the two should be more closely linked, but whether he believes the heavy lifting must happen within or outside the Chinese academy, in the realm of practical politics or academic history and cultural studies, is somewhat less so.

There’s a great deal of good in these essays, and a lot to digest. It’s not for nothing that Wang Hui has gained a reputation as this generation’s Lu Xun. In my own humble opinion, he’s still one of this century’s most important commentators (if not the most important) on China’s political and cultural affairs.

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