Americans are usually a bit surprised to hear that mainland China has a vigorous culture of political and social critique. The dictatorship imposes some constraints, of course, and the political weather blows cold now and then, but tianxia da shi — the large matters of the world — are keenly discussed among Chinese intellectuals, and, so far as circumstances permit, they are written about, too.
Prior to 1990 this culture was almost entirely self-referential, recycling ideas about China’s modernization that had been floating around among Chinese thinkers since the early years of the century. In the 1990s, though, as the reality of globalization settled in, the debates moved on to larger issues. Translations of works by American political scientists played an important part there, and I never cease to be surprised at how intimately familiar Chinese intellectuals are with names like Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, Edward Said, and so on. A few months ago, hosting some visiting Chinese academics, I mentioned Barrington Moore’s book Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. They all nodded in familiarity, though one less punctiliously courteous than his colleagues felt bound to point out to me that I had transposed the last two nouns in the title!
Wang Hui is currently a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. I should guess him to be in his early 40s. His postgraduate studies dealt with those Chinese writers of the late 19th and early 20th century who struggled to make sense of the traumatic encounter between late-Imperial China and the West. He participated in the student movement of 1989, and was present in Tiananmen Square on June 4 when the tanks rolled in. He has thought long and hard about the direction his country has taken this past few years and about her place in the modern world. Here, in two long essays — the first of a hundred pages, the second of 50 — he presents his reflections.
The book illustrates how well-developed Chinese political thinking now is, in spite of the difficulties of getting published under an obscurantist despotism. At the heart of both essays is a critique of the Chinese intellectual movements of the 1990s. These movements were all imbedded in an environment of what Mr. Wang calls “neoliberalism” — that is, the dismantling of the old Maoist command economy and the rise of a rough kind of free enterprise culture. Though Mr. Wang does not dispute that these developments were a net improvement for China, he notes their adverse consequences, and attempts — not very successfully, in my opinion — to draw comparisons with the deregulation programs that began in the United States under Ronald Reagan. As China’s economic loosening led to massive corruption, so America’s led eventually to the scandals of Enron, Global Crossing, and so on. There are a number of these rather specious parallels: he compares the Beijing student demonstrators of 1989 with the Seattle anti-WTO protestors of 10 years later, at least in the broad nature of their concerns. The interesting thing here is the attempt to put China’s current problems in a global context.
As you might already have guessed, Mr. Wang is a bit of a lefty. His thinking overlaps to some degree with that of Amitai Etzioni’s “communitarian” movement. If Mr. Wang were an American, he would find a home on the Democratic Leadership Council. He is referred to in his own country, in fact, as a representative of the “New Left.” This is a little more problematic in China than it would be over here, for until very recently the word “left” as applied to politics in China made people think of the horrors of late Maoism, the Cultural Revolution, and so on. Likewise with “democratization,” which sounds to a lot of Chinese people like a reversion to the horrible mass movements of the 1950s and 1960s, a misapprehension the Communist Party naturally does nothing to dispel. Thus, in spite of the need, obvious to any observer, for some softening of the “neoliberal” regime — for some better welfare-state provisions, for instance, and some more rational system of governance — these things are not such an easy sell to Chinese intellectuals as you might think. For this reason, Mr. Wang’s essays are much more significant in a Chinese context than their content would suggest to an American reader.
The main problem with this book is its style, which is as dry as dust, laden with sociological jargon, and leavened with no trace whatsoever of humor, anecdote, literary allusion, or historical analogy. I have picked out the following sentences not because they are egregious, but because they are pretty typical.
While the notion of subjectivity holds real potential for the present, if we cannot liberate it from the dichotomy described above and situate it in our new historical circumstances, then the idea might calcify into one without critical potential.
[M]y question is simply this: if China’s historical practice of socialism is the major characteristic of Chinese modernity, why have the New Enlightenment intellectuals who have borrowed from Weber and other theorists to critique socialism not been logically led to a critical reflection on the question of modernity itself?
So far as it is possible to make out Mr. Wang’s thoughts through his awful prose, I believe he is asking some very important questions, questions whose scope is by no means restricted to his own country. Where are we headed with this business of “globalization”? How can economic activity be liberated from the shackles of state control and regulation without opening up opportunities for corruption and corporate looting? Can proper democratic audit be established without pandering to the fickle passions of the mob, or awarding vetoes to well-organized special interests? What is the proper scope of state provision in health care, education, support of the aged? What is the future of the nation-state in a global economy?
These are live issues here as much as in China. It may be, in fact, that the Chinese have a better shot at coming up with answers than we have, unencumbered as they will be (once Tibet and Turkestan have fallen away, as they surely will) with testy minorities, Political Correctness, a culture of complaint, out-of-control “rights,” and a loathing of their own civilization inculcated via schools and the media. In the matter of welfare, they also still have the Confucian ethic of mutual support within the family, giving them an advantage over more individualistic cultures like ours. If the Chinese can solve their political problems, they may very well end up quite soon with a more confident, healthy, and stable society than any in the West. That, of course, is a very big “if,” but China’s New Order shows that at least this great old civilization has first-class minds willing to ask difficult questions.