01 August 2017

Why there is hope for China

So, Blogger killed my essay last week in response to Kerry Brown and Tanner Greer. The raw text of that essay was indeed recovered by a helpful reader (thank you, Tom L—!). However, to make a long lost essay more concise, here are the bullet points.

I found a depressingly great deal to agree with in Greer’s essay about how ‘everything is worse in China’ from a culture-war point-of-view. The educational competition and helicopter-parenting bits were the ones most troubling to me, the ones I experienced most closely when I was over there. But even my turn toward left-Toryism in the first place was driven at some subconscious level by seeing old but beautiful Beijing hutongs ripped up to make way for big new corporate office parks in preparation for the Olympic games.

Mr. Greer, like yours truly, found himself confronted with all of these stark contradictions – and, like yours truly, he sought answers and guidance among classical philosophers like Xun Kuang, poets like Qu Yuan and Du Fu, novelists like Luo Guanzhong, Wu Cheng’en and Lu Xun, on how life is to be lived with integrity in the midst of (moral and physical) chaos and disorientation.

But I also remarked in that essay, that China’s public fora for ideas were in some ways far healthier than ours – in part because unlike here, few people in China, even in official circles, actually take the soporific jargon-laden ‘official’ discourse seriously. On the other hand, highly-interesting forms of thinking and doing are sprouting up in China. Even if the reactions (against the rat race, against the decline in values, against the scrabble for status and against the ugliness of developmentalism) may seem strange and counter-intuitive to a Western mindset used to thinking of ‘conservatism’ as a property of the ‘free market’, these reactions nonetheless make sense for the context, and – this is a personal conceit – China’s left-conservatives grasp the realities of what they face far, far better than many an American scribe of traditionalist jeremiads does.

China is a place where the ‘long defeat’ of history Tolkien spoke of is much more starkly evident, and less likely to be papered over with platitudes and euphemisms. China’s built landscape itself is a kind of postmodernism without irony, with the venerable and colourful style of the lao shehui nestled in between grey concrete blocks or – more often nowadays – glittering glass monuments to high modernity. But it’s precisely because of this contrast and contradiction, this bare-naked and unreasoning assertion of Western capitalist forms over native substance that finds no answer, that Wang Hui, Kang Xiaoguang, Cui Zhiyuan, Wen Tiejun, Tian Qing, Yu Hua, Jia Zhangke et al. are able to sound the alarms they do, and make the thoughtful syntheses that they do (like Wang’s idea of ‘anti-modern modernity’, a recovered Confucian ethos which can explain and encompass contemporary Chinese social and political realities). The ground beneath the rubble is still visible. This is why, in the end, I think there may yet be hope for the Chinese people, in spite all of the social, spiritual and demographic malformations their élite class has inflicted on them since 1978 (or 1949 or 1911 or 1644, as one likes).

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