Monday, June 22, 2009

The New Left--what a relief

Popular online forums give the impression that ideology in China is sharply divided between "liberals" who champion political liberties but uncritically praise the U.S. and free markets, on the one hand, and, on the other, "leftists" (more accurately described as populist nationalists or fascists) who lash out at foreign critics, while maintaining an ambiguous stance on social justice, waffling from social darwinism ("the weak must suffer for China to get ahead") to outrage at the arrogant rich.

It is therefore refreshing to read the essays of Chinese thinkers who espouse a more true leftism, with nuanced views of the country's socialist past, salvaging successes from the Mao era like rural health care but not whitewashing the brutality of the Cultural Revolution; concerned about the corrosive effects of commercialism and social stratification; and driven by a real passion for democracy--but adamant that democracy must be truly popularly based, not a game for the well-educated.

Wang Hui, the editor of Du Shu, in particular, makes powerful arguments. He describes as self-serving those liberals who champion freedom of speech and rule of law but seem unexcited about local elections and positively hostile to the idea of greater democracy on factory floors.

Wang is clear that markets are not "natural" but the result of decisions, ultimately enforced with guns: "All-out marketization in China did not originate from spontaneous exchange but from acts of violence--state repression of protest." The protest Wang refers to is, of course, the one that resulted in the June 4, 1989 crackdown, violence which, according to him, not only crushed the Tiananmen students' campaign for democracy but also ordinary people's resistance to price reforms (reforms pushed, incidentally, by Zhao Ziyang, who ultimately lost power because of his unwillingness to back martial law against the protesters).

Not content to keep things on a domestic scale, Wang continues:
... the Open Door policies of Deng Xiaoping demanded a much deeper insertion of China into the world market. How did that happen? A key step in the process was China's invasion of Vietnam in 1978--the first war of aggression by the PRC after 1949. The only reason for this otherwise senseless attack on a small neighbor was Deng's desire for a new relationship with the United States. The invasion was offered as a political gift to Washington, and became China's entrance ticket to the world system. Here too violence was the precondition of a new economic order.

I don't know that there's any consensus that a desire to please the U.S. was "the only reason" for Deng Xiaoping's decision. China waited until after it had resumed diplomatic ties with Washington before it launched the invasion, suggesting that Beijing was actually worried that America would not support the violence--but then, I'm no expert on these things.

However, I admire Wang's stubborn humanism, with his insistence that liberalism doesn't offer an easy ticket out of China's dilemmas and that authoritarianism and unfairness must be dealt with together and are equal challenges.

Again, I can't recommend Chaohua Wang's collection One China Many Paths (from which the quotes above come) enough! It places Wang Hui alongside thoughtful liberals like Zhu Xueqin, who acknowledge the dangers of China's rising inequality, as well as people like Gan Yang, who argues for national elections as a means of creating national cohesion and checking local despots. The book is a good survey of debates from the 1990s to early 2000s---and a good corrective to the blues one can get reading too many blogs.

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