The New Orientalism: An Interview with Dan Vukovich, Part I

Dan Vukovich [ 胡德 ] is an Associate Professor at Hong Kong University where he teaches a variety of courses in postcolonial, literary, and cultural or inter-disciplinary studies. He earned his PhD in English at the University of Illinois (Urbana), and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory.

He is a generalist with a particular interest in the PRC and area studies, as well as the development of critical and postcolonial theory in relation to “Asia.” While based in the methods of literary and cultural studies, his work engages the political in more direct, sharper-edged ways. But with a pronounced concern about ‘Chinese’ or ‘Asian’ specificity, difference, or particularity in relation to the universal or common problem of capitalist modernity.

C. Derick Varn: What works on China and the cultural revolution are particularly strong in helping getting beyond a orientalist view of China?

Dan Vukovich: Things change and happen so quickly that I will be leaving out a lot of good stuff… and offending a lot of people here!

My personal favorites are the review essays on Chinese memoirs by Gao Mobo, the ones he did before his last book called The Battle for China’s Past (which is good too). He was doing these in the 1990s before the new left discourse on the mainland took off, and in fact he can take things further since he resides outside of it. Articles like “The Manufacture of Truth and Culture of the Elite,” “Debating the Cultural Revolution: Do We Only Know What We Believe?”. Then other review essays on the duplicitous “Wild Swans”/Jung Chang memoir genre, and so on. A good place to begin because he raises interpretive issues but not too heavy-going. This is also my own subject in my book (historiography and discourse, in short). It was not easy getting this sent out for review by publishers– I named too many names (which seemed inevitable given the project), and you are not supposed to say nice things about the Mao era and the revolution or talk about how “complex” the PRC is. Maybe the latter part is changing now, slightly. At least in political terms it is not allowed to be complex at all– bad Party! It is difficult to talk about, too, because you have to negotiate or navigate a treacherous field– how do you “praise” the CR or revolution — seeing it as having done good, seeing it as a revolution and not some mild mannered reform — when there was not only violence but an apparent famine and some fairly unjust persecutions (even if of the elite)? Well, you can do this (and Chinese do it all the time) but it is not easy to write and even harder to publish given the cold war/colonial/liberal doxa about China (orientalism).

Han Dongping’s work is also key, though I think he is mostly publishing in Chinese now (but a re-released book and an article or two with Monthly Review). Joel Andreas’s recent Rise of the Red Engineers is also important, a strictly sociological but nonetheless gripping read if you know something about the period already. Andrew Walder has a recent book on the CR coming from the other side, so to speak; it’d be worth looking at to see the updated version of the CR as bogus/pure chaos/not actually political. And certainly the personal-vendetta or self-interested aspect of the period cannot be denied, sadly, nor can its chaos overall.

The collection Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era is truly eye-opening and offers more academic, deeper memoir-essays and reflections from feminist perspectives (eds. Wang Zheng, Zhong Xueping, and Di Bai).

I mentioned the textbooks/histories by Meisner (Mao’s China and also Deng’s China—I prefer the earlier editions). And especially Jack Gray’s Rebellions and Revolutions, which is terrific and which I named one of my courses after. I prefer it to Meisner actually. I should also mention an early study like Lee’s The Politics of the Cultural Revolution. And there was actually quite a bit of writing from travelers and foreign residents in the Mao period (even Joan Robinson and JK Galbraith) — and some of it is still interesting to read. I like the Milton’s…..The Wind Will Not Subside. Such texts are partial (so are today’s!) but they register something– and at least they were there!

This is more advanced than the two history textbooks of Meisner and Grey (though they are more than that too), but Lin Chun’s The Transformations of Chinese Socialism is a must read. It is also far more insightful than the above in regard to the post-Mao era, while also dealing with the initial decades and the revolution as a whole.. It makes a compelling case for a Chinese left and the long revolution, really a brilliant book that should be more widely known.

And William Hinton must still be read. Shenfan is quite good though not as famous as Fanshen. Why read him? Because he wrote so well and concretely and he was critical, quite strongly at times, of the revolution, Mao, land reform, and so on– a real critical and “independent” (I hate this word) intellectual. Though he was of course ‘down with’ and ‘got’ revolutionary politics and culture and movement. Partisan in the best sense.  He sets the stage for others– what I call the Hinton-Gao tradition but which also includes all kinds of folks like Lin Chun noted above and everyone else I mentioned. He influenced the former Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars too, before their disillusionment with China. (I think they were expecting utopia or the absence of power as well as poverty.) Wang Shaoguang’s book on the failure of charisma in the CR is also very good and important, as are his more recent essays generally. I suppose Wang Shaoguang is not easy if you dont know something already– it is very specific and also richly detailed and empirical (like Andreas). But you can read it between the lines too and see where he is coming from. He knows class, as do Andreas and Gao and Han and Lin. (This is why starting with those history overviews or Hinton can be most useful– then you can dig deeper). Wu Yiching has a forthcoming book on the CR, dealing in part, as Wang Shaoguang has, with the ultra-lefties or rebels during the period over on the margins– the more mature and more coherently politicized rebels like the Li Yizhe trio. His study also promises to be a bit more theoretical/generalizing than, say, Andreas’s. The work of Ban Wang, Zhong Xueping, and Wendy Larson is superb and basically the gold standard for Chinese humanities, in addition to being politically sharp and solidly  left. Jason McGrath too. I have no doubt just offended many by leaving them out unintentionally. But the humanities are weak overall — on the PRC. I’m thinking Chinese culture was always too realist and moral and earnest and so on for Western, modern academic humanists.  China itself has been so radically de-politicized in the Deng-and-beyond eras that in my experience many, even most academics and intellectuals (or especially them) actually hate or fear politics.

But actually in terms of margins (the subject of Wu and Wang S. on the CR) — all the interesting and heterodox stuff of the period — what gets lost is how this was, on the one hand, clearly something the state/center encouraged (or Mao did anyway). And what was the center anyway? Who was in charge? Different factions and people at different times. Lots of chaos, far too much really, but clearly the lefty and mass democratic aspects (rural education/schooling initiatives for example, increased health care, more worker input, bureaucracy reductions) didn’t come out of thin air or happen naturally like the rain. And an old Chairman did indeed kick it off– so shouldn’t praise and blame go both ways, while we also acknowledge how much of the decade was anarchic and uncontrolled by a center? But I digress.

So …… Why can’t we tell a decently thick story about the CR from an “official” or “intentional”  or non-dissident standpoint but that is not about the margin or periphery of what was going on, but the “center”? Not the Dengist right-wing view or even the “Gang of Four” view but something from the middle? (Was Mao the middle?  Maybe.) You cannot really speak positively about the Mao era let alone the CR and expect to get far. (But it has a design and rationality that gets lost these days.) That is the first rule of China Studies Club. If the center does something good you have to deny it or obfuscate it. Massive investments in rural education and health? Feminist or at least proto- or state feminist politics and rhetoric?  Tell me about femininity being repressed instead! Or let’s talk about intellectuals and higher ed instead, not these peasants and disaffected youth. .

Interestingly, it is in the cultural/humanities fields where you find the least amount of work on the PRC from a left/critical/heterodox perspective.(Though maybe it is changing now.) Basically left China discourse is kind of owned by the historians and sociologists, such as it is. I depend on it.  But I wish some of my friends and colleagues in these fields would get down to brass tacks politically. Especially the tenured ones. Social science always seems to do so little with so much data, whereas the humanities do the reverse– reading a film, say, and pretending you are doing cultural, let alone social or ‘real-world’ analysis.  I am not sure why there is such poverty in the humanities. I suppose Chinese leftism and its revolution are far too different from the liberal humanist tradition. Or humanist-orientalist tradition specifically. Worth remembering that Leninism and Maoism, like Cesaire or Fanon, were theoretical anti-humanisms.

Funnily, all these complex facts, counter-factuals, and mini counter-histories or narratives that you can find (as found in Gao or Han or Hinton and so on) have not re-oriented our views of the period! Instead we focus on elite victimization. Which takes us right back to the argument about Sinological-orientalism. The view of the CR and Chinese revolution has been so dominated or over-determined by cold war area studies and orientalism (which meet in perfect marriage in contemporary mainstream journalism) that it is hard to make a dent. BUt at the same time I’d like to think that the work that I try to do, and that done by various friends and colleagues out there, makes a difference in changing the discourse a bit. Plus at this point even many conventional economists and historians argue for the contribution of the Mao era or revolution to the post-Mao ‘take-off.’ And if you spend time in China and talk to people you know the difference– not just between official Dengist type views and Chinese realities and politics but also those of the great majority of scholarship and reportage.

But….. this is why libraries and e-piracy and the ‘net are important. It is partly the limits of even our empirical knowledge of the era as well as the confines of the sociological/empirical disciplines. (I really wish my friends and teachers here would generalize more!). But it is also about knowledge production/orientalism. The greatest such study is no match for the memoir industry, the Political Science 101 view of the world, and whatever kinky desires are involved with only talking about what now seem to be the awful/cruel/evil aspects of the period and not for example the gains in human welfare (primary and secondary education, health), commune organization, de-bureaucratization, and so on. By the way, check out Lee Feigon’s documentary on the Mao period, The Passion of the Mao, for an entertaining and smart take on all of this.

Within China the historiography and meaning of the CR (and post 1957 Mao stuff generally) is still more or less banned—in any serious scholarly way or heterodox-analytical way. Same with the Great Leap Forward, though I have heard rumors of some folks in China developing a detailed response to the Dikotter/Yang/Becker school of yellow-journalism-passing-for-scholarship on the famine. Thus we have no decent study of the period as a whole. You can talk about how awful it was, a national trauma and so on, but don’t push it (and don’t criticize the Party as a whole—just Mao, the Gang, etc). But as Gao’s book notes, plenty of fascinating online/e-debate about it and some of it quite radical. (There is a real backlash going on now however, post Bo Xilai and the new leadership shift). Some of this stuff is quite coded but essays by Wang Hui, Han Deqiang, and Gan Yang are definitely about intervening in the dominant understandings of the CR and Mao era. Wang Hui’s essay on ‘de-politicized politics’ is an apt analysis of the factionalism that derailed the epoch but moreover of the way it is used in the aftermath by Deng and beyond to quash democratic or mass participation/supervision. Basically, I’d recommend almost anything by these last three people, and have already mentioned Wang Shaoguang—and should add Cui Zhiyuan. These folks do not all agree, nor do the others I have mentioned; but they all take it seriously in its positivity/reality and not as something to just write off and ignore. Some of these mainland-based folks write very fluidly and well in English too—remarkably adept scholars and ‘cosmopolitan’ intellectuals. (Liberals are not cosmopolitans in reality; they seem to speak less English as a rule, whereas the leftists have read more Western stuff or even worked there on occasion.)

And look in library volumes. I can’t say how damn important libraries are. Cao Tian-yu of Boston University, for example, has quietly published several such library editions, as have others, full of critical scholarship on the reform era from the standpoint of the socialist project and past.

A lot of this stuff isn’t about the CR specifically but addresses it indirectly (and again, I don’t think we can really separate the CR from the Mao or Maoist period as a whole, dating from the 30s). I really encourage people to read these kinds of things, and then think through the CR or PRC to see what use it is to you politically or intellectually. Rather than the usual channels—I would largely ignore mainstream area studies or self-professed ‘China experts’ (in the West often endowed by the mere fact of being Chinese or speaking some of the language). Also ignore the more or less wholly uninformed analyses/sound bites by Zizek or some Trotskyist/anarchist/”libcomm” sect in the West. Actually Badiou is fine and dandy and especially in comparison to Zizek say. And I think he knows or has read the radical Italian China scholar Alessandro Russo (also worth reading) and I would imagine some French Sinology. Maybe. But on the basis of my readings of both of them – and I need to read both more seriously — these last two shade towards the a priori anti-state position and an anarchism or (in Russo’s case) an autonomism that just can’t stand up to analysis/criticism. Anarchism is interesting culturally or as a life-style (though not for me personally) as opposed to anything like a philosophy or politics — and mutual-aid, co-operation, the everyday dimension, the local versus the center , and so on are quite crucial for communism and Maoism. Autonomism is madly workerist/essentialist, even mystically so, but at least an error in the right direction!

And, finally, why not read some of the original materials? Lots of English translations now too. There is an anthology Not A Dinner Party by Michael Schoenhals that shows some of the stranger aspects in addition to others– and captures some of the intensity. Volumes like And Mao Makes Five, the Shanghai Textbook of Political Economy, the Li Yizhe debates, and some other titles I cannot remember.  Also a great collection of primary documents from Monthly Review edited by Mark Selden years ago The PRC: A Documentary History of Revolutionary Change. Reading the old propaganda is good too– the old Foreign Language Press books, some of them are quite fascinating. And you have to read Mao. The 1927 Mao and then the post-1949 Mao. Not the 1930s philosophical essays that everyone knows, or should know a bit of. But the 1957 writings on ‘handling contradictions’ and ‘the ten major relationships.’ There you see someone who could really think. You see a rationality and vision there for the new state and revolution, and really a very serious thinker about politics and culture-as-ideology. The Critique of Soviet Economics (Monthly Review book) should also be read if you are under the impression that Mao was Chinese Stalin. Mao (and the state itself) were dictatorial and authoritarian — I suspect they’d admit this themselves, willingly — but nonetheless there are also all these other democratic and socialist aspects to them and the revolution, and it was remarkably grass-rooted and popular for much of the time. You can call it grass roots authoritarianism, as some do. Of course if you find a state that is not this way….. let me know, too.

What do you make of the increasing labor unrest in China of late? Is there something most Western news reporting on it is missing?

There has actually been some solid info and work out there on this in English—and it is a place where this really makes a contribution because the official Chinese media, or the always-second-hand world of social media, doesn’t have much useful to say. I’m just reading and trying to pay attention when I can– a very big labor dispute here in Hong Kong recently amongst the dockworkers. It seems to have worked—a decent pay raise (10-12%?) and it dirtied the good name of the awful tycoon Li Ka Shing a bit more. An actual labor strike and media event in Hong Kong! It also seems to have developed/exacerbated a split within the unions, between the out-and-out anti-Beijing anti-CCP folks and those who care less about that and identify more as workers than as, say, “HK democrats.” [This is my quick gloss.] With most of the actual dock workers in neither camp. Stephen Philion just published an interview with one of the activists, in Counterpunch and elsewhere. A major HK event, and not the usual stuff from here.

In a way the splits locally relate to the biggest issue in China, as has been noted many times: the strikes and protests are not connected or national, and there is only some, too little, networking or link-ups amongst workers getting raw deals in various locales and industries. An old story everywhere. What you see less of in China, I’d imagine, is the anti-Beijing, Hong Kong liberal/identitarian kind of thing. There is also, again, the split between those in the struggle/workforces who say they should try to agitate within the system and official union system or try to go around it or act independently. The official unions, thanks to Deng and his progeny, have less and less power and are more and more irrelevant in getting things done for their workers—or so it seems; it’d depend on the specific workplace and union (i.e. some can be at least better than horrible, from what I have been told). Though there are good, concerned people involved in them too (you can say this about the Party too—I think 50 million + people in it now…). And it is also far too easy to just lament the use of the official union system at all (what is the alternative?). Short of a revolutionary strike wave (don’t hold your breath) I’d guess — if enough pressure is exerted — reform of the current union system is far more likely than some Polish style Solidarnosc movement.

It is also too easy to just ‘wait’ for a unified, national labor movement outside the system and that seeks to overthrow it. Lots of analyses of labor unrest end with this kind of ‘conclusion’. “Wait” in an analytical sense—to stop thinking about what this all might mean, for labor and for China and for the state and the world…. If that radicalized movement were to arise I’d be thrilled to see it. I am not optimistic but it could happen too– it is just that right now I don’t see it happening, just like I don’t see it in the US or elsewhere. But – and here is my point – this is not simply because of the police, the strong arm of the state, and censorship (all of which exist ). This is a global problem about labor and leadership. Many, many workers – the few I have talked with in China bear this out for me – do not have this antipathy towards their states or nations. They don’t have a globalized politicized analysis. It is kind of like that corporate contract after the war—during the cold war. In China it is about the opportunity to get rich or at least richer, and a power to buy more stuff—and yes the specter of the cops/state/jail or being purged/fired on political grounds. I know several people – workers and retired teachers and so on – who have been chucked into jail for being Maoists, i.e. Chinese Marxists and ‘believers’ in the revolution. It happens but it does not get told– only Ai Wei Wei gets told, Liu Xiaobo gets told (and rewarded handsomely) and Ma Laoshi, a retired school teacher and “Maoist” I knew gets disappeared into jail.

The amount of labor unrest and ‘mass incidents’ has been climbing steadily since the 1980s, essentially with the move towards neo-liberalism in 1992 and after (post-Tiananmen). It will keep happening unless they can bring back the iron rice bowl i.e. good old statist welfare and more planning/regulation. Less export-processing/whoring and more inward development and domestic spending and the like—many people are saying this now. Even then I hope we see more strikes , including on worker’s management/governance type grounds—which there is, or was a tradition of (in the Mao period) and which you can bet that many workers know full well and still want (to have a say, at least, in their working lives). This last point doesn’t get reported does it?

One other thing you don’t hear often is that protests in China sometimes actually work! The center responds and tries to cut a deal or steps in to mediate/decide things. Strikers and protestors know this. They know the police can be brutal and don’t trust them necessarily. But often they do seem to trust the center or hope/expect it to step in eventually. Look at Wukan in Guangdong province a couple years back. I won’t claim to know what the real stories were – was it clan/familial politics as some allege, or truly grass-roots democracy in action, or some combo — but it did work. Their biggest grievances and demands were met (shake-up of local officials, return of land, etc). And they even voted for new officials, with the protest leaders elected. Now it also seems not all of this has panned out either — to be honest you’d have to be there to really know what is going on. But my point is just that there was a response from the center to try and fix things, you see? Even in Foxxconn — and I trust this won’t be taken as apologia – wages went up eventually and they did things (beyond the infamous nets put around the dorms to ‘help’ suiciders). In fact you see reports from time to time about a lack of labor, a shortage in Guangdong/southern China. Can you imagine that? It means wages are going up, and/or the migrants/rural laborers have other options. At some point China will outsource its labor– not that this is a victory for the Chinese working class but an indication of development I suppose and raised living standards. Hard to fathom.

Compare this to the USA or elsewhere. It compares favorably. The entirety of London takes to the streets to stop the war on Iraq and Blair shrugs his shoulders and tells them to go get stuffed. My own shameless employer then invites him to Hong Kong years later to talk about “faith’! The USA Occupy movement– fascinating and admirable and interesting and…. completely ineffective, no? The state could give a hang about civil society. The Chinese state, even the inept Hong Kong system, actually cares more, i.e. responds. It even responds to the so-called “netizens” sometimes.  Not well enough, and not enough in general. But I like to see it and root for it. Right now I don’t care if this dialectic is to be described as “socialist” or “Confucian” statecraft. I’m for it. And it is 100% clear that what drives it is protest and collective action. And 100% clear that the “down with the Communist party!” approach is not theirs and does not work (and moreover is not that popular). HK “democrats” still need to learn that.

So my hope and my friends’ hope is that protest and persuasion can pressure the Chinese state to bend it back in the direction of the socialist transition or system it was developing and which it still needs to deal with its major problems. What are the chances of that? More than zero, let’s say. I’m not hoping for an end to the party-state per se — because very, very few Chinese people I know want this, even the folks with some real and, to me, moving grievances. Nor does it seem to be what strikers or protestors want, I think. [Excluding HK here.] Please, let’s stop this nonsense that the PRC and CCP have no legitimacy. No legitimacy for who? That’s about as smart as calling it “Stalinist.” It probably has less legitimacy now than ten years ago, true. But the existence of protest and anger and dissent in that sense does not translate into anti-regime politics necessarily, nor to liberalism.

I have a colleague (or three dozen) who has great Chinese but very little political sense when he says in conversation that I hope the Party falls tomorrow, it cannot last another 5 years, and so on. Very common —and some of my Marxist friends keep predicting, more or less, the eminent collapse of Chinese capitalism. To be sure, all of this will happen eventually. Rome fell. The Qing fell. The US system will too some day. But this is a wrong way to think, is it not? It’d be wiser to speak of transitions into newer forms of governance. And moreover, why do so many foreigners, so want this Fall to happen? Because I do not think many Chinese want this. And why would it be a good thing? Not only the Russian example in mind here. There are some very scary elites in China and HK who could give a hang about poverty and rural problems. One can easily imagine it getting worse – elite, class power and a small yet numerically large middle class with shall we say a democratic deficit in terms of their political culture. An even more  unregulated and anarchic market system. Good lord, what are these people wishing for? It disgusts me. Yes Chinese capitalism/global capitalism is not sustainable in the long run, on environmental terms alone. Maybe such anti-regime people could quit dumping on the revolution then and plug into that tradition.

As outsiders and observers you need to go to where the people are. You don’t tell them what to think and do. Even the old vanguards knew better, including Mao and the notion of the ‘mass line’ (which is still smart and useful even after the age of vanguard politics).

In what ways does Orientalism applied to “East Asia” stand apart from the Orientalism discussed by Edward Said?

Well let me rehearse my sense of the orientalism problem: it is a discursive or knowledge-power formation centered on the PRC in particular (for me) and even more specifically the post-Mao China insofar as that, in turn, stands in relation to the revolution/Mao era. This is a Foucauldian or discourse-intensive view; I like to frame it that way to emphasize the problem and “fact” of knowledge as such—but also how diffuse and diverse the sources of this can be. Foucault, a genuine and authentic Nietzchean, was really superb on “knowledge.” But to be honest if it helps then think of orientalism as “ideology” in a complex Gramscian/Raymond Williams sense – or Althusser’s “problematic” (which Foucault was indebted to). Not that there are not fascinating differences to be mined between good, imminent ideology critique versus rigorous Focualdian/Saidian notions of discourse — but at some point this becomes hair-splitting (or posturing) and I for one have never seen why one cannot draw selectively on the so-called postmodernists (or modernists for that matter) and still be within Marxism or the radical tradition that takes the economic and class seriously, mass politics and so on. Though few of us really try this. It is all too often bad pomo/cultural studies versus unreconstructed early modern ‘materialism’ or humanism or empiricism.

Orientalism is important as a theory and phenomenon precisely because it is ‘historical and materialist’ (a massive and institutional enterprise and not the lame “-ism” it became in cultural/film/pedestrian studies). It is not a “binary” that you just blow away but a ‘category’ and intellectual-political tradition that precedes you and speaks you unless you are careful; and even then…..good luck. It is also important because the politics of knowledge are of huge importance for the world and for left/radical/ politics and critique. So the Nietzchean/Foucauldian strain is important because you have to see knowledge as a problem, not something you just accumulate, howsoever rigorously, or find ready-to-hand. Our ideas and beliefs and knowledge about China are never innocent or neutral or objective (leaving aside mostly meaningless data points). They stem from long and complicated histories within China and globally. For foreigners and really for many if not most Chinese (intellectuals), this is inevitably caught up in orientalism and imperialism, both ancient and modern, from say the 18th century onwards. I always like to remind students of how Adam Smith cites Marco Polo in a scholarly and authoritative way as an expert on China, even though they are hundreds of years apart and Polo may have never step foot in Hangzhou or elsewhere in China. And Adam Smith was no dummy, as Marx knew. So orientalism is not just an esoteric or merely academic and “postcolonial studies” thing. It sets limits and exerts pressures on what people can think. This is why it bothers me that American or Western “theory stars” (or other intellectuals) cannot be bothered to read critically and widely about China– especially the leftists, who are supposed to be better than that.

In regard to China at least orientalism now turns (in my view) on a logic of sameness, or what I also describe as a capital-logic of general equivalence. So the PRC now, after the Mao and red years is becoming normal and becoming the same. It may not do so until it hits democracy–in the stereotypical, procedural (and Western) sense of multiple parties and voting for representatives who will participate for you and run things. Or otherwise rids itself of the CCP. This is a modernizing logic about stages of history and universal norms. ‘They’ are not saying China is the same but that it is becoming so (or at any rate should be and has to be, damn it!). This is a big shift from the days when the orientals and others were just differently-inferior and either had no hope or needed decades if not centuries of a civilizing uplift. Basically, China is not allowed to be different, at least not where it matters the most: economy and politics. (I don’t care so much about other areas but I suppose it’d nonetheless be easy to show that difference is positively desired or encouraged in other ways– spiritual (Tibet/Buddhism), sexual, and so on. But economy and politics are my concerns.) What I try to further emphasize is the capital-logic or economic dimension of this way of thinking. Making unlike things alike (sameness or equivalence, reduction/homogenizing) is the logic of exchange value or the ‘force’ of capital– I take this as axiomatic, from Fred Jameson, the Frankfurt School, and György Lukacs. This type of Western Marxism is crucial in my view, just as much as the type of Marxist work that say David Harvey does on thievery.

The shift here is that Edward Said, looking primarily at older forms of orientalist discourse in the Middle East and South Asia, quite correctly frames orientalism as a logic of essential difference—”East is East, West is West…and never the twain shall meet,” as Rudyard Kipling put it. My argument is that this shifts definitively around the time Said leaves off his classic book from 1978, which is also right around the turn towards capitalism in China. Though it had been in the works much earlier too, with the rise of modernization theories and policies, Cold War culture and politics, and so on. You still see even today old fashioned orientalist (or worse) views and assumptions about East and West being separate and truly different. But these are far less than they were in days gone by. You can also see the essentialist/difference logic within China too (either “you foreigners ’can never understand China” or ‘Euro-America uber-calles’). But Occidentalism or the essentializing of the West is merely the flip-side of the same coin..

Said does not really engage the ‘Far East’ much, because he is writing largely about Europe and not the US; the latter has greater contact with China and EA in the 20th century as the British and lesser French empires get kicked out and the USA crosses the Pacific.

China comes to occupy pride of place in the orientalist imaginary around the same time as Said is writing. And in fact it was always central in the popular-cultural imaginary due to Chinese immigration. “Post-Mao China” will then turn upon the demonization of the red decades and Maoism (and, yes, Western scholarship often dovetails with official Chinese views… to a strikingly large extent these days!). It would be interesting to think this periodization in relation to the Soviet empire as well, from the 70s onwards. Russia was often set up as ‘half-Asiatic’ for Cold Warrior “intellectuals” like George Keenan. I guess Gorbachev seemed a lot like “us.”

The Cold War is truly crucial. It basically achieves a substitution of older colonial/racist rhetoric for a modernizing, humanistic, liberal, anti-communist one. But “totalitarianism’ is really just dressed-up “oriental despotism.” It is no accident that the rise of Cold War rhetoric and intellectual culture happens quite precisely alongside the de-colonization movements sweeping the globe. It is not as if liberal intellectual political culture — deeply aware of and connected to modern colonialism — would just vaporize overnight. It takes new forms, slowly but surely, and combines the colonial/orientalist/racist/difference-speak with modernization discourse. They were primitive, now they are brainwashed. They were hordes/teeming masses, now they are Mao’s army of blue ants. And now millions upon millions of…. middle class consumers? Modernist Communism/Leninism is the old despotism in new garb. Capitalist expansion begets a logic of equivalence but you also get a ‘sameness drive’ from the modernization impulse and the universalist pretensions of liberalism. This all also resonates with the ‘civilizing mission’ dimension of colonialism. And indeed, of missionaries! We have all undervalued the extent to which even modern colonialism must be deeply informed by the Judeo-Christian drive and discourse. It is not the same exterminiationist impulse you can see in say Bernal Diaz or the conquest of ‘New Spain’ but we’d be stupid to not think about the connection/link at another level

What I tried to emphasize still more, as opposed to Said, was the connection to capitalism and the reifying logic of equivalence. This capital-logic of equivalence is a fundamental part of the field of forces that produce knowledge and subjects, and that constitute the social world. For Marx none of this is actually ideology by the way, in the sense of ‘camera obscura’ or false consciousness– which is why I end my book talking about Marx talking about the ‘categories of thought’ in bourgeois economics. We need to think of China, or more accurately of our key, ‘Sinological’ concepts and terms and themes in just such a way as Marx did in regard to, say, Smith or Ricardo’s work. Orientalism is a category of thought. When we talk about, say, civil society in China, or the modernizations, or about lack in China then in some cases we might be looking at “socially valid, therefore objective” aspects of China as seen from a distinct historical and social standpoint.    These are products of what we might call, again riffing on Marx, the “forms of intercourse that correspond to the capitalist mode of production.” So, Ai Wei Wei or Liu Xiaobo or liberal Chinese professors like Xu Jilin or Mao Yushi will seem like perfectly ‘true’ or valid examples or cases of Sinological discourse, i.e. true knowledge about China. Specifically about what it lacks now (freedom, private property, ‘rule of law’), how the feudal/Maoist past was so tragic/scary, how they are just like us now despite all that Chineseness, how we are all individuals pitted against a state or the mass, and so on.

To the people engaged in intercourse with China in this “liberal” and “capitalist” way, and who hail from and then visit clearly ‘capitalist’ spaces like the urban centers of, say, Shanghai, Hong Kong, or even Beijing– how can it seem different? Or any and all the places where money and money-culture and typical tourism and academic exchanges (let alones outright business) and so on take place– these Chinese places are just as, if not indeed more ‘modern’ and ‘capitalist’ than anything whatsoever in New York city, London, you name it. Beijing is maybe different because it is the center and yet has a left or heterodox tradition there intellectually and culturally. And if you knew Shanghai well — or even Hong Kong — you could find spaces that are older and richer and simply radically different and anti- or at least alternatively ‘global.’ And pockets of anti-liberal political leanings, for better or worse. But if your typical ‘traveler’ or outsider sees a ‘new leftist’ professor like, say, Han Yuhai or meets a civilian “Maoist’ or ‘nationalist’ person (perhaps even online at the now-closed/banned Utopia website) then these people will seem off/abject/irrational/bad and in need of liberal condescension/uplift/scorn/help. It’d be the same in Shanghai, where the radical and brilliant literary and cultural theorist Cai Xiang works. But it is okay to ignore or piss on such alternative views because you have, on the other hand and usually in the English media, the good and proper dissident Chinese or the merely occidentalist. I apologize for how dense this is (or “vulgar”) —just trying to illustrate, if I can, how orientalism works now, in my view.

Finally—the rest of East Asia since you ask. Orientalism now is clearly more differentiated– you don’t just say ‘orientals’ and think you are including the whole lot from Baghdad to Tokyo. So there will be overlapping but also differently detailed forms of orientalism in regard to, say Korea versus India versus Thailand…. But orientalism, again, is about discourse and knowledge and in a way the details don’t matter so much as the structure, the rules (who can speak, for example), the statements or tropes —it is still orientalism. So more differentiated now, clearly, but still comes out of the same long history of writing and colonizing and so on—so there will also be overlapping tropes and themes and ‘statements’ and exclusions…. There is also a long history of Japanese orientalism, or Japanese ‘othering’ writings on the rest of Asia, on the West, and so on. Even Chinese views of national minorities—though to me this does seem more like simple exoticism and othering in my very limited experience. Orientalism is NOT just some simple/universal/vaguely psychoanalytic self/othering phenomenon. That is too banal and unhelpful, even if that is admittedly the popularized/vulgar/cultural studies version of it. Anyway it’d be fascinating to see if this more modernizing/commodified type or logic of orientalism plays out in other contexts. There is if course strong regional links in all kinds of other ways. Western colonialism wasn’t quite the same, or as successful, in East as opposed to South Asia. Japanese imperialism and that whole modernizing/rescue “mission” of “co-prosperity” resonates across many places and was in turn itself shaped by the West. Even aside from outright colonialism/imperialism, the impact of the modern West and imperial intellectual political culture on China and Asia was immense.

This can lead to deformations analyzed classically by Franz Fanon and the Iranian intellectual Jalal Al-i Ahmad (Occidentosis) and also by Chinese nationalism and revolutionaries. But in China there was both internalization of colonial discourse and powerful resistance—these still co-exist, strikingly enough. The “100 years of national humiliation” is both nationalist propaganda and a real/foundational mytheme for many today. Chinese nationalism is authentic in a sense– earned or real and not false consciousness imposed from above, and diverse. For example, the national French liberal thinktank for China studies (the CEFC/”Chinese Perspectives” unit) is located in Hong Kong and not in China (which is funny!): their strident liberalism and anti-commie ‘democracy’-pushing would not go down well in China. It’d seem like a rather colonial bit of French business, even amongst non-Marxist Chinese intellectuals. You can’t play the “I’m independent/objective/cosmopolitan” card there so easily, especially when you come off as a “hater” of the system/government/”official” cultures .There are many foreign, liberal think tanks and the like in China itself (and countless NGOs) but these are either directly tied to capital/business ‘research’, or have to be more respectful and ‘Sinified’. In Hong Kong no one cares because it also hates China in many ways and is still a very Cantonese place (as it should be).

I think critical Chinese intellectuals know all about orientalism and western superiority (positional superiority in Said’s sense) even if they do not call it that. (Of course China is also a world unto itself– so big and so old, and so diverse, and so on. So it isn’t surprising either that all this liberal or universalist claptrap only gets you so far.) And that this is connected many times to politics or geo-politics — regime-bashing, cold war attitudes, missionary positions (conversion desires of all types), sanctioned ignorance of most things and matters Chinese. My book stems from this or at least tries to — from an intellectual political milieu in China and abroad that in my case takes the revolution seriously and tries to grant China a certain real, not exotic complexity and weight.

So a pity I’ll likely never get it published in Chinese in China with all that analysis of Tiananmen and the Mao era in there! But there is also definitely a common perspective that is aware of the knowledge and ‘Western’ problem. My ‘poli sci’ and journalistic type of colleagues will tell you it is just nationalism or chauvinism or xenophobia whatnot, but … good luck with that. And look me up again when you find yourself unable to have meaningful dialogue in/with China.


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