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About borderlands VOLUME 5 NUMBER 1, 2006



China's Modernization and the New Left

(Wang Hui, China's New Order: Society, Politics, and Economy in Transition. Edited by Theodore Huters. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003)

Paula Cerni


1. Wang Hui is a leading figure in China's 'New Left'. Since 1996, he has co-edited Dushu (Readings), perhaps the most influential Chinese journal of radical thought. Wang is also Professor of Humanities at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, with a specialist interest in the intellectual and literary history of China's late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This historical perspective allows Wang to locate the pro-market reforms of the post-1978 era within the much longer, complex and contradictory process of China's modernization - a process, he notes, which also shaped the Mao era. But the author also mentions as a major personal influence his exile in the poverty-stricken Qinling Mountains following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, in which he participated. It was this encounter with life far beyond Beijing's intellectual circles, he explains, that inspired his 'sort of self-critique, a critique based on a sense of the need to reconstruct the historical relationship between the world of the intellectuals and the other world outside it' (ix).

2. After a very useful introduction by the editor, the book brings together two long Wang essays on one broad theme—the relationship between recent Chinese thought on the one hand, and the economic and social transformations that are shaking up the country on the other. The first essay, "The 1989 Social Movement and the Historical Roots of China's 'Neoliberalism'", remains unpublished in mainland China, where it nevertheless circulates through the internet. Versions of this essay appeared elsewhere in 2001 and 2002. The second and older essay, 'Contemporary Chinese Thought and the Question of Modernity', provoked a major controversy when it was first published in a 1997 issue of Tianya (Frontiers), though it had been written four years earlier. Only the final section of the first essay was written by Wang exclusively for this book.

3. Wang's key point is that recent Chinese intellectual debates are closely connected to the re-introduction of capitalism to China or, what amounts to the same, the re-introduction of China into the world capitalist economy. It was his disclosing of this connection between cultural and economic life that made Wang's initial article so controversial amongst Chinese intellectuals. For example, Wang shows that the 1980s 'New Enlightenment' movement reflected a naïve belief that privatization would spontaneously bring about democracy. In that sense, far from challenging Communist Party pro-market policies, it actually went hand in hand with them.

4. Contrary to mainstream Western interpretations, Wang characterizes the 1989 protests as a revolt against such policies. As well as being a conduit for intellectuals' and students' demands for democracy, explains Wang, the protests were also 'a spontaneous resistance to the inequalities springing from the growth of markets' (58). Simultaneously, they revealed divisions within the state apparatus, and between that apparatus and newly created interest groups. Culminating in the June 4 th massacre, the 1989 events shattered intellectuals' naïve hopes and exposed how little they understood the complex features of China's new order. Because they had narrowly discussed that order in culturalist, moralistic and even spiritual terms, they were unable to provide a practical alternative at a moment of crisis; as a result, 1989 destroyed much of their heroic status.

5. One lesson Wang draws from these events is that the evolution of Chinese society cannot be discussed through abstract binaries such as China/West, tradition/modernity, or capitalism/socialism. Today, the lives of millions of Chinese people are being transformed in very concrete ways. The spectacular rise of Chinese capitalism has brought about wholesale industrial restructuring, mass poverty and unemployment, degradation of working conditions—Wang mentions 'the slave labor conditions that have arisen in China's coastal regions in the form of contracts' (73)—drastic reduction of welfare protections, rampant corruption and nepotism, heightened divisions between city and country, crime, pollution, and other social ills. The neoliberal discourse of freedom promoted by many officials, intellectuals, and the media, cannot be set aside from these changes, but is closely linked with them. Although Wang does not put it in these terms, particular kinds of freedom are being granted to particular groups of people—the majority's freedom to sell their labour-power, the elites' freedom to exploit it. And, as Wang reminds us, such freedoms have been imposed by force, through carefully planned top-down reforms enforced through harsh state repression.

6. Wang is most critical of urban reforms that initially increased the autonomy of large state-controlled enterprises, and then led to 'closure, temporary stoppage, consolidation, or transfer and finally to changes in management rights and the transformation of the relations of production themselves' (50). With these changes, explains Wang, 'a significant amount of national property "legally" and illegally was transferred to the personal economic advantage of a small minority' (53), often to individual members of the political elites and their relatives. Thus, neoliberalism has been a misnomer, since 'the creation of today's market society was not the result of a sequence of spontaneous events, but rather of state interference and violence' (65).

7. Nevertheless, the author remains hopeful that China's new capitalism can be recast into a system of 'social' or 'fair' markets. Yet his turn to the state as a solution - his political critique of neoliberalism - does not sit comfortably with his own empirical critique - the crucial role of that same state in the development of China's very unfair market relations. Wang aims to provide 'a theoretical basis for the practical possibility of a democratic system of markets and a self-regulating society, as well as the fostering of popular strength' (60). But his own description of China's recent economic reforms shows that, in practice, the reintroduction of capitalism has polarized society and restricted political freedoms.

8. Wang displays the same faith in the state in his analysis of contemporary international relations. His proposal that nation-states 'organize a global force to reduce the polarization of north and south, protect the global ecology and push for a fair world order' (130) overlooks the historical class character of the nation-state, its role in protecting sectional interests and privileges, and its recourse to violence to settle the conflicts created by capitalist development. Neoliberalism, then, is also a misnomer at the global level, where the logic of capitalist competition in the present period enhances state power and sharpens its most repressive and militaristic features.

9. Most importantly, however, Wang underestimates the position of Chinese capitalism within the new international balance of forces. At one point, he recognises that 'the scale of China's economy, whether in Asia or in the world at large, has already reached a substantial level, and the logic of development may push China toward repeating the developmental logic of the economically advanced nations, thereby creating new economic conflicts' (129-30). However, Wang does not explore this possibility, and instead emphasises Asia's subordination and the continuation of Cold War arrangements under US hegemony. Yet, the Chinese experience surely proves that the state-interventionist strategy of the Cold War era succeeded in developing large parts of the periphery to the standards of the centre. The process of 'reform and opening' initiated by Deng Xiaoping after Mao's death can be understood as an extension of that same strategy by other means. That this process does not eliminate global tensions, but in fact creates newer and sharper ones, Wang does not see.

10. In an earlier work, Wang has wisely warned of the dangers of mobilizing Chinese nationalism (see Hughes, 2006: 101). In this volume, Wang continues to address this important theme, arguing that 'how to distinguish different nationalisms, how to analyze the historical conditions for nationalism, and how to reconstruct the historical tradition of internationalism in a period of globalization become the most urgent of theoretical topics' (108). However, his underestimation of China's place in the new global economic order prevents him from doing just that. Contemporary Chinese nationalism cannot be the progressive sentiment that inspired the May Fourth movement in 1919, because both China and the world have changed enormously. China is no longer a backward semi-colony fighting away predatory imperial powers. Today, she is a great power in her own right, the workshop of the world, a vast rising nation hosting the planet's largest armed forces and nurturing her own independent ambitions throughout Asia and the globe.

11. Wang believes that China cannot become a hegemon in the twenty-first century (184), an assessment he does not support through an analysis of global economic trends. At this international level, Wang abandons the method he so successfully applies to China's domestic intellectual scene - the linking of social and economic history with politics. Consequently, he overplays the strength of US hegemony and turns one-sidedly anti-American. He simplistically denounces the rise of 'a globalized military with the United States and NATO as its center' (127-8); but he does not consider that globalization might be creating new economic, political and military powers. He denounces as hyper-imperialist the US-led NATO campaign in Kosovo, when the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade caused mass protests in several of China's cities; yet, he makes no critical mention of the modernization of the People's Liberation Army, nor offers even veiled support for Tibet's, Xinjiang's or Taiwan's right to self-determination. Instead, he calls for Asian regional unity to 'resist the political, economic, and military order of an American-led neoliberalism' (131), a project that can only embolden Chinese imperialism and exacerbate frictions with the US and other Asian powers.

12. The danger is that, like the New Enlightenment of the 1980s, the Chinese New Left could become transformed 'from a mode of ardent critical thinking into the pioneering voice of contemporary Chinese capitalism' (160-1). There has, indeed, been a rapprochement between this New Left and the current Chinese administration. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have pledged to be 'close to the people' and to establish a 'harmonious society', thus acknowledging the existence of social inequalities denounced by the New Left. Similarly, this year's National People's Congress responded to the social pressures and the disenchantment with privatization that provoked many of the 87,000 'public order disturbances' recorded in 2005. A key decision of the Congress was to shelve a property rights bill. However, these initiatives need to be placed in the context of China's national modernization strategy. China's elite realises that, in order to secure the nation's status as a capitalist superpower, it needs to cultivate a politically loyal and economically stable middle class. But to create and sustain this class, it will have to compete more forcefully for a greater share of global wealth - much of which is now produced by China's poorest workers. Thus, the pursuit of political legitimacy in China entails social conflicts at both the domestic and international levels. Not surprisingly, then, Hu's and Wen's administration has been characterised by political repression, diplomatic assertiveness, and a more aggressive attitude towards Taiwan, as evidenced by the anti-secession law passed in 2005.

13. Intellectuals, of course, are a key component of China's painfully emerging middle class. Wang describes how 'the intellectuals of the 1980s were gradually transformed into experts, scholars, and professionals' (143), under the authorities' organisational and political scrutiny. His own journal Dushu is published by the state and administered by the Bureau of Journalism and Publications, as he candidly admits. In these circumstances, his call for Chinese intellectual independence from the West is misplaced. True, Chinese authors have sometimes adopted Western ideas—such as postmodernism and Fukuyama's 'end of history' thesis—uncritically. But in our increasingly globalized and competitive international environment, Sinocentrism is just as limiting as Eurocentrism. East and West, radicals need to transcend the ideological limits of their own national cultures, engaging with others around the world in search of alternatives to the conflictive international order we all live under. Addressing all past and present human cultures as part of one common world history becomes more necessary as rivalries between old and new powers raise the risk of military confrontation.

14. 'China buff', a California-based list compiler featured in, has described Wang's book as 'over-hyped and quite boring to read'. Certainly, this is not a book written for popular consumption. Wang's essays are mainly addressed to other intellectuals, and display an elaborate, sometimes oblique, style. Readers might wonder whether a censorious climate renders this kind of style safer for China's critical intellectuals. But the themes Wang deals with are vitally important, and his first-hand account valuable and insightful. Many of us share his hope 'to transcend formalistic theory and to open up the examination of the actual relationships of history, a hope to transcend the gulf between theory and practice, and a hope that we may get beyond our various prejudices' (136). In this spirit, the publication in English of these influential essays makes an important contribution to debates about China's remarkable transformation.


Paula Cerni MPhil is an independent writer. She can be contacted at


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© borderlands ejournal 2006



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