China’s New Left

By Pankaj Mishra of New York Times

One day earlier this year I met Wang Hui at the Thinker’s Cafe near Tsinghua University in Beijing, where he teaches. A small, compact man with streaks of gray in his short hair and a pleasant face that always seems ready to break into a smile, he arrived, as he would to all our subsequent meetings, on an old-fashioned bicycle, dressed in dark corduroys, a suede jacket and a black turtleneck that would not be amiss on an American campus.

Co-editor of China’s leading intellectual journal, Dushu (Reading), and the author of a four-volume history of Chinese thought, Wang, still in his mid-40’s, has emerged as a central figure among a group of writers and academics known collectively as the New Left. New Left intellectuals advocate a “Chinese alternative” to the neoliberal market economy, one that will guarantee the welfare of the country’s 800 million peasants left behind by recent reforms. And unlike much of China’s dissident class, which grew out of the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and consists largely of human rights and pro-democracy activists, Wang and the New Left view the Communist leadership as a likely force for change. Recent events — the purge of party leaders on anticorruption charges late last month and continuing efforts to curb market excesses — suggest that this view is neither utopian nor paradoxical. Though New Leftists have never directed government policy, their concerns are increasingly amplified by the central leadership.

In the last few years, Wang has reflected eloquently and often on what outsiders see as the central paradox of contemporary China: an authoritarian state fostering a free-market economy while espousing socialism. On this first afternoon, he barely paused for small talk before embarking on an analysis of the country’s problems. He described how the Communist Party, though officially dedicated to egalitarianism, had opened its membership to rich businessmen. Many of its local officials, he said, used their arbitrary power to become successful entrepreneurs at the expense of the rural populations they were meant to serve and joined up with real estate speculators to seize collectively owned land from peasants. (According to Chinese officials, 60 percent of land acquisitions are illegal.) The result has been an alliance of elite political and commercial interests, Wang said, that recalls similar alliances in the United States and many East Asian countries.

As he spoke about how market reforms have widened the gap between rich and poor, between rural and urban areas, smartly dressed students browsed through a highbrow collection (Leo Strauss, Jürgen Habermas), checked their e-mail and sipped their mochas. At the privately owned Thinker’s Cafe and the adjoining All Sages bookshop, Wang seemed to be famous. Students greeted him reverentially; the staff was extra attentive. Yet Wang still belongs to a minority. Recoiling from the excesses of Maoism and the failures of the old planned economy, most Chinese intellectuals, even those with no connection to the state, see the market economy as indispensable to China’s modernization and revival. Zhu Xueqin, a history professor at Shanghai University who is one of China’s best-known liberal intellectuals, told me that he wants more, not fewer, market reforms. For him, China’s present instability is caused not by economic forces but by a politically repressive regime that has prevented the emergence of a representative democracy and a constitutional government.

Wang readily acknowledges that China’s efforts at economic reform have not been without great benefits. He applauds the first phase, which lasted from 1978 to 1985, for improving agricultural output and the rural standard of living. It is the central government’s more recent obsession with creating wealth in urban areas — and its decision to hand over political authority to local party bosses, who often explicitly disregard central government directives — that has led, he said, to deep inequalities within China. The embrace of a neoliberal market economy has meant the dismantling of welfare systems, a widening income gap between rich and poor and deepening environmental crises not only in China but in the United States and other developed countries. For Wang, it is the task of intellectuals to remind the state of its old, unfulfilled obligations to peasants and workers.

Despite his invocation of socialist principles, Wang was quick to tell me that he dislikes the New Left label, even though he has used it himself. “Intellectuals reacted against ‘leftism’ in the 80’s, blaming it for all of China’s problems,” he said, “and right-wing radicals use the words ‘New Left’ to discredit us, make us look like remnants from the Maoist days.” Wang also doesn’t care to be identified with the radical intellectuals of the 60’s in America and Europe, to whom the term New Left was originally applied. Many of them, he said, had passion and slogans but very little practical politics, and not surprisingly, more than a few ended up with the neoconservatives, supporting “fantasy projects” like democracy in Iraq.

Wang prefers the term “critical intellectual” for himself and like-minded colleagues, some of whom are also part of China’s nascent activist movement in the countryside, working to alleviate rural poverty and environmental damage. Though broadly left wing, Dushu publishes writing from across the ideological spectrum. Wang’s own work draws on a broad range of Western thinkers, from the French historian Fernand Braudel to the globalization theorist Immanuel Wallerstein. “Intellectual quality is important to me,” Wang said. “I don’t want to run just any left-wing garbage.” The magazine has carried abstract debates on postcolonial theory as well as, he claims, some of the most interesting analyses in China of how the government’s urban-oriented reforms have damaged rural society. There are restrictions on what Dushu can publish, of course, and Wang is frank about them. As with all intellectual journals in mainland China, authors and editors at Dushu have to exercise a degree of self-censorship. Articles cannot directly criticize the leadership or deviate much from the official line on subjects that the Chinese government considers most sensitive — Taiwan or restive Muslim and Buddhist minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet.

“I get asked in Western countries, ‘How do you define your position?”’ Wang said. “‘Are you a dissident?’ I say no. What is a dissident? It is a cold-war category. And it has no meaning now. Many of the Chinese dissidents in America can return to China. But they don’t want to. They are doing well in the U.S. To people who ask me if we are dissidents, I say, we are critical intellectuals. Some government policies we support. Others, we oppose. It really depends on the content of the policy.” Born in Yangzhou in the southeast province of Jiangsu, Wang was just 7 and entering primary school when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. The decade-long chaos, which traumatized older generations, seems to have left benign memories for Wang. He remembers being taken by his school to work in the villages for a week or two during the school year. “My generation of urban intellectuals,” he said, with a hint of pride, “is the last to have firsthand experience of conditions in the countryside.”

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