In answering difficult questions, scholars in classical China reserved a modest option for themselves: que yi, “leaving the question answerless.” Indicative of the cacophony of the contemporary world, One China, Many Paths edited by Chaohua Wang chooses the opposite tact. In it, a multitude of voices illuminate China’s options for creating a place in the world characterized by dignity and social justice. Cleared from the ideological detritus of quasi-colonialism, coerced communist orthodoxy, and capitalist boosterism, the spring of the oldest continuous intellectual culture in the world bubbles forth.
Ghosts of Tiananmen
Wang Chaohua, the collection’s editor, was a graduate student at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences when the student democracy movement picked up in 1989. She participated as a leading activist in the Autonomous Association of Beijing College Students. Older than most of the students and younger than the intellectuals who influenced them, Wang is described in Ian Buruma’s Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing (Random House: 2001) as more clear-eyed than her peers. She urged students to return to their campuses, organize and consolidate their gains. Instead they succumbed to the orgiastic confrontation orchestrated by the likes of Chai Ling. A week before the Tiananmen Square massacre, Chai notoriously told an American reporter “My students keep asking me, ‘What should we do next? What can we accomplish?’ I feel so sad, because how can I tell them that what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to butcher the people brazenly. Only when the square is awash with blood will the people open their eyes. Only then will they really be united.” Both Chai and Wang fled China after the crackdown and emigrated to the U.S. Embodying one of the conceptions of “democracy” died for on the square, Chai enrolled in the Harvard Business School and, upon graduation, co-founded an internet company backed by Microsoft and Reebok executives. Instead of cashing in, Wang entered the Chinese literature and civilization program as a graduate student at UCLA. One China is a result of the subsequent decade’s contemplation of Chinese culture and political organization.
More ghosts are present than those of the relative handful of students. Even the youngest contributors to this collection lived through the Cultural Revolution. While chastened by the idol worship and ensnaring cruelty of the Mao years, they are also committed to improving the lives of all China’s residents (unlike the hypocritical party bosses of the “People’s Republic”). A consideration of the political taxonomy in contemporary China demonstrates the complexity of being “left” under an ossified communist dictatorship. The term “New Left,” one of the labels in currency for progressive intellectuals, is distracting because it identifies a distinct cohort of European and American activists and implies a direct connection to an “Old Left” which few Chinese are eager to inherit. Do “liberals,” another camp, simply advocate for the opening of the economy into the capitalist world system, or are they willing to fight for civil liberties and democratic political institutions? Partially in response to these complexities “many of the most courageous and creative intellectuals of the [’90s] can not be easily assigned to one camp or the other, and even when they did so themselves, their work hardly fitted conventional classifications.”
In her introduction Wang proclaims her intent to “correct the imbalance” between Chinese awareness of Euro-American philosophy and political dialogue, and Euro-American ignorance of the same in China. She succeeds admirably. She does so by interviewing key players and translating crucial pieces in ’90s political debates. Most of this material is available in English for the first time.
Questions were sparked by the chilling example of Yugoslavian disintegration, primarily “Does regional economy at the cost of centralized power inevitably lead to secession?” The protests against the CIA-orchestrated bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade were also provocative. China’s communist government, desperately grasping nationalism since it abandoned a class-based identity, let the anti-American protests run for several days. When it stepped in to control them, intellectuals were disquieted by the rapidity with which indignant anti-imperialism was transformed into celebratory patriotism. One China contributor Wang Hui responds by recalling an earlier Chinese nationalism which was anti-imperialist and internationalist; consequently the ideology contained a counter-logic of cosmopolitanism.
By drawing on millennia of political organization, the contributors to this collection are able to “criticize the claims capitalism makes for itself” such as inventing the market, social mobility, and intellectual curiosity. In so doing, they undermine its foundational myths. This points to the most profound contribution of this collection: it epitomizes a way of operating in the contemporary world-system rooted in a particular place while open to the boons of inter-connectedness. (One contributor’s rule of thumb for this process is “‘-ism’ can be imported: ‘questions’ must be generated locally, and theories should always be constructed independently.”) This clears a path, not only for positive political development, but for shared insights into “the ontological predicaments of human existence,” as another contributor puts it.
One China, Many Problems
Obviously, China is a country beset by a multitude of problems. Contributor Hu Angang breaks them down this way. In addition to the “operational difficulties” of a large number of China’s enterprises, “Corruption and abuse of power are seriously harming the masses. Consequently, the incidence of all sort of social instability is on the rise, indeed increasing at a pace that is outstripping the growth of the economy itself. Between 1996 and 2000the number of labor disputes accepted by the courts, criminal cases investigated by police, transport and other accidents, multiplied yet more rapidly [than the GDP]. Labor relations are often very tense, and conflicts with management are increasing fast. Crime and insecurity are becoming a more and more conspicuous problem. Innumerable transport and industrial accidents are reported. Levels of corruption are rising, involving ever greater sums of money and higher ranking officials. All kinds of gang-controlled organizations are emerging and growing in number, engaging in criminal and black-economy activities. In China, these different ingredients of social instability are ever-widening in number, affecting ever-wider spheres of the population.”
One must also add environmental devastation, a topic which One China inexplicably mentions only in passing, as a potential limit to the GDP The eco-void in the collection isn’t because original Chinese-language material doesn’t exist. Why not include, for example, Ma Yinchu’s “Why Did the Chinese Environment Get So Messed Up?”).
This is an area where shared problems and shared solution in the U.S. and China can be distinguished. When contributor Qin Hui states “The state enjoys enormous powers and accepts few responsibilities” and asserts “We need to restrict the powers of the state, and enlarge its responsibilities,” the prescription holds for the U.S as well as China. Many of the above problems are created by free market policies. Others include the privatization of industry and concomitant unemployment, and the privatization of education and its subsequent inaccessibility. There is also intense displacement of farmers, and the concentration of land in fewer hands. The displaced become immigrants in their own land, traveling to the coastal cities where they plunge into new depths of pre-revolution squalor.
Only One China?
The title of this collection connotes a nationalist consensus hostile to pluralism. “One China” is a propaganda phrase which bulldozes cultural diversity eternally and keeps China on and acquisitive and belligerent footing toward its closest neighbors. Genuine democracy would inevitably entail not only independence for Hong Kong and Taiwan, but for Tibet and other culturally distinct regional majorities, such as the Uighur inhabitants of Xingiang, who have decided that they have little to gain by being colonized by China. These are all unmentionables for the Beijing regime, and it’s in this area of “the nationality question” that One China is most clearly circumscribed, not just by the limits of political speech, but by the cultivated ethnocentrism of the Han Chinese power-holders. This is acknowledged by Wang: “Serious discussion, based on careful investigation and independent thinking, of these matters israre.” Permitting ethnic minorities and indigenous groups to speak for themselves is apparently outside the scope of this collection. Only one of the sixteen contributors, by my ill-informed count, is of an ethnic minority, and he doesn’t discuss the matter.
The spiritual paucity of contemporary China, which plays prominently in imagination of many diasporan dissidents, merits little attention. It’s also not the comprehensive tally of daily rumblings from below occurring throughout the country, a book which has yet to be written. (Ian Johnson’s Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China [Pantheon 2004] comes the closest, with a chapter each on peasant struggles, property rights, and religious persecution.)
Dreaming with Two Feet on the Ground
It’s something of a cliché to say that exiles from dictatorships gain freedom at the price of insolence. That’s not the way power works in the contemporary world system. Pressure from outside is often instrumental in optimizing the potential of domestic organization for change. The outside world often doesn’t even know what’s taking place unless dissidents-domestically and throughout diasporan networks-tell them. One China is, in this sense, like the English translations of political dialogues within Israel; it pierces an imposing monolith, permitting previously contained ideas to rush out, deflating the colossus.
Many “Chinese believe that they have been recklessly fooled by a fake idealism in the twentieth century,” observes Xiao Xuehui. “When they start to reflect on their own experience, the very idea of ‘utopia’ became an object of condemnation, equated with a hypocritical ideology, naivety, and mendacious promises.” Xiao argues that this cynicism has gone too far.
At its core, One China promotes practical idealism.
“Debates Among Intellectuals Are Real Social Struggles Too”
The central contention of One China is that ideas illuminate the path a country should take.
For thousands of years, the role of the critical intellectual in China has been to inform the ruler and deal with the consequences of their decision. What has changed since then? The communist party came to power and claimed to put the people in place as their own rulers. Now, with capitalist immersion, many hope for the creation of a middle class which, as in the U.S., can make dumbed-down, circumscribed choices and call it democracy. To whom can intellectuals address themselves? How can they provoke change? The power of ideas lies in diffusion and implementation. Let’s hope the material in One China finds a dedicated audience.
DANIEL BURTON-ROSE is a co-editor of Confronting Capitalism: Dispatches from a Global Movement (2004, Softskull Press).