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

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: How much do you think Sinological-Orientalism has hampered understanding the aims and goals of the cultural revolution?

Dan Vukovich: Not just the aims and goals of the period but also the actual history from top down to bottom up have been obscured by the coding of the era both within China and without. Some of this is orientalist/occidentalist: let’s make the entire decade about oriental cruelty and despotism or brainwashing, or let’s tell a tell of universal humanity sneaking out, or the secret liberals hiding within or away from those frenzied masses. And in China the repression of the period is nakedly political and self-interested. . In many ways – though we should not over-state it, it is not quite this simple – the victors of the the CR, or rather of its end/denouement are those who are writing the histories of it. In Beijing as much as Washington or London or Hong Kong for that matter. The “princelings’ of today are the sons and daughters of the former elite and/or ‘new class’ after 1949 who were purged or disempowered or harassed. In some ways it is a miracle that people still remember the era differently in China (and abroad too amongst some intellectuals) as something ‘interesting’ or politically important and something used today for no good end.

This is why the work of Gao Mobo and Han Dongping is important, because it breaks this open and gets back into the thicket of what happened and its variations. Same thing with certain, other voices from within China, on the edges like Hong Kong, or abroad that take the long revolution seriously. Hong Kong lost the influential intellectual Gan Yang (now in China/Guangzhou) but we still have Wang Shaoguang and a host of other people doing interesting and alternative work on China (it is easier here because there is far less censorship and far greater indifference to ideas/thinking). And China proper has many more. Yan Hairong and Barry Sautman are part of this HK scene too. Interesting people scattered all over in the less colonial/occidental/nativist (these three things go together) universities and spaces. HK is still Hong Kong– a paragon of laissez faire and colonial liberalism parading as “democratic” and “free” (and it does have greater free speech than China now, just in a dumbed down way) but it has its edges.

So really, first of all, we have to say that “the” cultural revolution of the 60s/70s is just one part of the revolution, perhaps the final part. There is a continuity from Yan’ an at least through the Leap and the 70s. And really can be stretched back in terms of cultural revolution (the ‘New Culture’ and May 4th iconoclasts, but even the Boxers and Taiping rebels) and in terms of political economy. Land reform is the heart and soul of the revolution—even up to today it is one of the last sites of struggle– thievery from above, polluting the land, stealing it (through force or deceit), forcing migrant workers off the land or giving them no alternative; regional disparities, and so on.

So in terms of countering the obfuscation and demonization of the revo (of the PRC as such, really), then, a ton of work needs to be done. In fact I wouldn’t be optimistic about it changing even if plenty of us are working towards that end (on the revolution as a whole). And actually ‘radical’ or heterodox work can only rarely be rewarded in the academy. Put it this way: how many students or new profs these days even know who Maurice Meisner and Jack Gray were (2 excellent historians who write should-be standard textbooks on China). William Hinton? But stay tuned—a lot is changing both abroad and perhaps in China—slowly, but surely. There is a burgeoning scholarship that takes China’s socialist modernity seriously. This reflects closer contact I suppose but also a certain maturity in scholarship and theoretical acumen, if I may put it that way. Here poco studies and “theory” has sometimes been helpful. But also moreso the internationalist and ‘confident’ perspective of intellectuals (and citizens) trained or growing up in China. Also a product of that socialist modernity! Will this trickle-up to where real power holders are, or even to the journalistic set? I doubt it very much. But right now I don’t care—long march, single step, day at a time.

Even in Chinese writing/scholarship —in some ways much more can be said and done, despite the evident and official censorship, but the stakes in writing against the grain and defending the revo intellectually and in a scholarly way (even in dense prose in other words) are much higher. BUT – and this is how I manage to still get energized to write against various gatekeepers telling me you can’t say this stuff about Chinese politics and ‘the academy’ or knowledge production — things are changing a bit in the scholarly/intellectual world and in both places I think. I mean the New Left people (a very diverse and diffuse and loose ‘movement’ actually) but also others, including feminist scholars and some literary people for example who work on the 50s and 60s. All of which is aimed at taking the history/struggles/problems and, yes, achievements seriously in their positivity and complexity—not as something you just debunk or pronounce as fake because, say, the newspapers or teachers or textbooks or some bad film-maker or memoirist told you so.

In fact even amongst the more conventional historians you are seeing some of this—they won’t push anything too far or generalize, but I sense a feeling and shift beyond the lameness and banality of cold war knowledges and attitudes. I mean at what point do ‘we’ have to admit that not all Chinese are passive dupes or brainwashed (now this is about “statism” and nationalism and patriotism and the like– not communist fanatics but still bad)? Maybe they had complex self-understandings? Also, it is funny how you can read so much economic scholarship on the Mao era (Chris Bramall for example) in relation to the post-Mao take off (and Mao era record) that is actually quite positive about the necessity of the former for the latter! ‘Human capital,’ infrastructure, industrialization, literacy, skilled labor, and so on—all used to build Chinese capitalism/state capitalism/developmentalism (pick your own term).

In fact as many have noted, the post-Mao regime and Western/foreign china studies are more or less in complete agreement about the Cultural Revolution and most of the entire post-1949 trajectory under Mao (except for the need to mimic the USA politically). A moral abomination, even a period of weird oriental cruelty and trauma and the bizarre. This perfect harmony b/w the power-elite and truth-purveyors in East and West should give us pause. The only slight difference is that some liberals and dissident types want to use the example of the CR as proof of the non-legitimacy of the PRC and CCP in general– that it should be overthrown or somehow dissolve itself before God/the sacrosanct individual. So the period interrupts the proper stage of history for china/modernity: how dare they close the schools, change admissions standards to a class based system, make film-maker Xie Jin clean toilets, ‘force’ elite youth to go work in the countryside [many volunteered, and God Forbid a Chinese should have to live in rural villages!] And once you buy into the universal/modernization narrative, then you can see how unfair it was—these people were deprived of normal development and bourgeois opportunities, so all that mass participation and class-based welfare and revolutionism is just as crazy and/or fake as the cult of Mao, the radical rhetoric and extreme language, and so on.

It is an incredibly complex period and we both need to have an accounting/reckoning of it and to learn from it– not as some ‘national trauma” of the national psyche or whatnot but to figure out what worked and what its lessons were and are today, for China and globally. What is class? What is culture? Why has the left been so bad at institutionalizing its gains, in terms of both welfare/development and economy but also in terms of social justice, mass supervision, new social contracts, and so on? Because all of those things were real parts of the period, right there alongside the unjust persecutions (not simply of the elite—I don’t care about them, frankly), the cult of personality, the too-available space for personal vendettas and what we should call ‘identity politics.’ If you tell me the answer is simply “direct democracy” or some anarcho- or Trot thing…. I’ll weep and want to send you to the countryside.

So if you see the CR as oriental aberration, or the proof of the evils of communism/Mao, as an interruption of the geist of modern history and ‘normal development’—chances are you are taking the Sinological-orientalist road. Having thrown that off, China is now becoming normal and the same (or still needs to follow that path and dump the Party-state). Overcome that trauma/irrationality and get back to business, or back in touch with the human spirit. How many titles have been published along these lines? Not just in politics but in the ‘scar’ memoir industry (so clearly a perennial English language favorite) and in lame literary and film studies.

I think one of the key goals of the CR was clearly a search for a new form of the state, one that would fit China and the post-revo world in which there was still so much reconstruction and transformation to go on (and not just development in an economic sense or ‘growth’, though this too was part of it). A good bit of recent writing wants to address this too, but as in the case of Alain Badiou and the even-more anarcho/libertarian people so dear to the simple hearted US or Western “left,” it just reads the CR as “good” or “cool” in so far as it was proto-anarchist or so-called “left-libertarian” (an oxymoron in my view) but bad in all other – the actually existing – ways. Badiou as I read/recall him on China and the CR basically stakes out a council communist (but why doesn’t he call it this?) or left-anarchist position. That is far better than Zizek, say. The CR ends with the doing away of the so-called Shanghai Commune and the replacement of that with the revo committees, the use of the Army to put down a de facto civil war, the restoration of order. But this is pretty bad history, truth be told, and assumes that the CR was really about, or should have been about, the smashing of the state and getting rid of it, in short. (To me, this is mostly just Western 1960s hippie-speak or “May ‘68” Euro-speak. No thanks.)

Which it was not—it was more of a pedagogical project for the whole society, if you will. How close was it really to the end of the party-state system? An open question, but regardless this was not the intent of anyone despite the massive – and commendable – de-brueacuratization and the spread of the ‘right to rebel’ and the clear anger of hierarchy and privilege and status-quo in the post-revolutionary order. Inculcate new generations of revo successors, change the culture, follow the mass line and try to re-invent Yan’an or it spirit,, maybe, for the post 50s world. The cultural/ideological aspect was quite serious, and this included the proto-feminism of the era (or state feminism).

As for the smashing or ‘removal’ of the state in an anarcho-libertarian sense: this is a joke, right? Aside from true-blue reactionaries in Hong Kong and neo-liberals, I don’t know of a single person in China who thinks this even today, let alone for the generations of the Mao era (including Mao himself or even the Li Yizhe radicals of the early/mid 70s: those folks are all socialist ‘statists’ in current liberal parlance). I am sure there are some in China, and I have even come to know a bit of some of the anarchist youth here in Hong Kong– some of them truly impressive and smart and commendable and spot-on about how awful the “real” politicians and systems are. But I do think this is and will always be a minor stream even in the West let alone in China (and yes HK is part of China now, whether anyone likes this or not).

One of my own attractions to studying Chinese politics, or ‘China-West’ questions as we call them here, is this great Chinese sense about the state and the importance of state capacity, as with ‘community’ or ‘the whole’ more generally– in the face of capitalism/marketization now but also in the past. You need a state, period, even in a country as big and diverse as China—all the more so, even. But for the same reason you need the right form and right balance (hell let us say any balance right now) of local regional and central– it cannot all be the latter because then you have a too big AND too ineffective and failing state. Then you end up in the so-called Third World trap. And you also can’t have it all centralized either—you’d have this Orwellian/Stalinist Beijing-uber-alles state that would be too bureaucratic and intolerable. And believe it or not – if people could be bothered to read more widely and think more slowly – this was precisely what Maoism was against and tried to navigate via the Helmsman; and China is still NOT a police state or “Stalinist.” But you, the newly-born PRC are also Marxist and collective and egalitarian (Red), so how do you carry that out too? Well the communes and collective agriculture (and the danwei system I suppose) were a crucial part of that. Attempts at new social organization and even ‘new’ or radically egalitarian culture. There was indeed rule of law in China, but this – legal/juridical/legislative work – was not the main thrust or main game, even though this has become once again the very definition of politics today (de-politicized politics). Now in hindsight it is also easy to see that more attention should have been paid to the latter, even if it sits uneasily with ‘continuous revolution.’

Maybe this has failed now – I am not sure and know many who point to ‘China models’ and so on – but I like the attempt and find it fascinating. My inner political theorist I guess. I also like the quite deliberate and conscious refusal of the US/Western way of procedural democracy, multi-party systems, and so on. We know how this works out, don’t we? And why would it fit China if that isn’t its own history/traditions to date?

But you cannot even have this conversation within the confines of China studies and Sinological-orientalism. You can in China, though, in at least some academic circles.

So, in sum, the goals and aims of the CR – continuing the revolution; fostering socialist ‘successors’; de-bureaucratization; search for new form of the state; rural industrialization/development; mass line or supervision; and so on — these are precisely what orientalism denies in its narrative/discourse about China being inexorably involved in ‘ becoming the same’ and leaving all that fake, totalitarian mess behind. The revolution failed in finding that form, for various reasons we need to explore and write about. The answer will be more complicated than China missing Anarchism or Trotskyism or The Market, by the way.

But this demonization of the revolution (its Maoist parts anyway) does not really succeed in China or out. It is still there, haunting the CCP for one. The Bo Xilai situation is a great case in point. In the aftermath, on the heels of the new leadership coming in, many wanted to paint this as a struggle between the good reformers (economic and political) and the baddies/hard-liners/leftists. Wen Jiabao (the alleged secret ‘liberal’ reformer) versus Bo Xilai (the alleged secret Maoist). But it didn’t really make sense. Bo was using charismatic authority (perhaps his greatest sin for many!) and mass mobilizations (sort of),  as well as heavy handed arrests of known and “unknown” thieves/white collar criminals and populist welfare programs, and so on. But all of this, even the Red songs being brought back, was only symbolically or loosely connected to Maoism (of the 30s through the 70s). Not that there is anything wrong with that. It was smart actually. Wen and his ilk seem to me to be the technocrat’s technocrat, albeit with liberal/laissez faire economics.

But note that Wen (and so many foreign journalists)  others saw a ‘red-brown communist-fascist’ threat in Bo’s Chongqing. And Wen goes out warning us of another return to the cultural revolution! Which is stupid but what they believe or said. Kind of fun, actually, to see them get that worked up about red songs, tree planting, hukou reform, populist real estate speculation, and a crackdown (admittedly harsh and perhaps over-done) on white collar crime and corruption! Oh no! Bo was a princeling but a seemingly populist one, and moreover successful and charismatic. That that was just too much. He may indeed be guilty of corruption (bribery or cover-ups), as they say; it’d be likely even, given who he was and what era he has lived in. But his rise and fall and his significance isn’t just about this. The CCP hates innovation and charismatic authority and populism.  And it hates welfare it seems– we’ll see if they do something about inequality.

In China there is not just the well-known ‘nostalgia’ for the CR (the music and film, the slogans and iconography, even the food, bad as it was for the rusticated youth) but also the inheritance of the ‘right to rebel.’ As the new (and old) left says: The one thing the CCP and the China studies mainstream agree on is that the CR was a disaster that must be avoided at all costs. It is used to de-politicize debate and history.

But there are enough people still alive who had different, and more positive or complex memories of the period. Off the top of my head I can think of five people, professors in China, who were from poor peasant or worker stock and now not very political at all, who nonetheless always point out that they got education BECAUSE of the cultural revolution. Another friend has a great story about how his father, illiterate until after the revolution, was elected to village leader because he was both loyal or ‘down’ but also because he was amongst the poorest. Is this not affirmative action for the poor? Anyway—excuse the anecdotes – but there are enough positive memories of the period out there, just like many rural people still see Mao as something like one of their own. Because he too was from peasant stock (albeit well off) and saw that class as equal if not in fact superior. These aspects don’t nullify the awful ones or the deaths during fighting and the de facto civil war. But the CR seems to be something like the old best of times/worst of times cliche. So why not learn from it, and honor that complexity at least? And the problems of bureaucracy and corruption and inequality and the ‘new class’ are much worse now than then. And Mao was consistently opposed to all of this, without question.

We can describe the Sinological-orientalist discourse and the official Chinese discourse as a joint-exercise of the police: telling us we can’t say “that” about the CR; to cease and desist our ‘nostalgia”; to stop talking about riotous revolution and absolute equality.

Are there any ways in which the current liberalizing elements within China use a Sinological-Orientalism to their own advantage in a cynical manner?

Oh, absolutely but I don’t think I’d call it cynical (though we should allow for some of that too). I think it is sincere, if also sincerely occidentalist and seriously misinformed about both the Maoist past and the virtues of Western/capitalist modernity. There is an official Occidentalism as well: the post-Mao power elite aping the American/Western path in some ways (automobiles versus bicycles, say), or totally buying into the idea of growth and capitalism and a stereotypical ‘captalist modernity’ as progress. In fact they just dont like the multi-party democracy part, but otherwise love them some America, even as opposed to a social democratic Europe/Canada. I will note that the important Party types by and large don’t give a hang for neo-Confucianism or traditional China– in fact I dont know if they even understand it. They are businessmen and technocratic after all. Though they — again I mean the big power elite here — are more receptive to it recently (some vague notion of Chinese tradition/ancient statecraft). More so the last several years but really: growth is good, money is good, ‘more is better.’ There can also be an anti-Western Occidentalism I suppose – the kind of thing that retrograde liberals like Ian Buruma talk about — but one has to be more circumspect in diagnosing it. Because anti-West or anti-America can also be meaningful nationalism, anti-imperialism and so on. This is what the retorgrade liberals don’t get– imperialism or ‘humanitarian intervention’ is a moral abomination to many people outside the USA. And really the far bigger problem and phenomenon is “pro-West” Occidentalism. This Occidentalism is, in my view, internalized orientalism, the flip-side of the latter and probably a by-product of it. Two halves of a whole that don’t add up.

Now, as you know, the liberalizing elements within the Party and official/elite circles are for the most part just neo-liberalism and grossly economistic. Some might want political reform and gradual ‘democratization’ but only in terms of more social/regime stability, not democracy as mass-democracy or social/distributive justice. They might even want more rights and legal protections (private property included, unfortunately). But hard to say what rights they have in mind— I read these folks as speaking to their class interests and ideology—the middle class and rich who are not part of the state-owned enterprises. Basically a ‘line struggle’ between the private/free market types and the state capitalist ones. These liberals (and even the so-called hard-liners or ‘conservatives’) fit the zeitgeist of neo-liberalism and the cold war/colonial discourse about development—economic and political. My hope is that enough pragmatic minds will prevail—China has had far too much of the Dengist ‘reform’-absolutists in charge for far too long, and the Chinese state is on the brink of being totally subsumed/incorporated/captured by capital. We’ll see what Xi Jinping et al get up to—don’t hold your breath. At the same time I have to say that these functionaries and technocrats are probably great leaps ahead of the good folks who run the US-Western countries (and there are opposed sides here– ‘enemies’ if you will).  I can see them muddling through for another generation or three or twelve before the CCP implodes/dissolves itself. If they can alleviate inequality and environmental damage.

Is this economism also orientalist?

Yes I think so—as a form of occidentalism (Western economics) and as a well-nigh colonial catch-up attitude. Even in a period of great wealth in China, and despite the great sophistication of its culture and history in many ways.

In terms of the desire to be the same, or to even outdo the US-West in terms of being modern and wealthy and therefore “great” – all through economism – well I think there are a whole lot of people in the CCP and power-elite who feel this way, and also in the society at large. The desire to become the same/normal/catch-up, or the desire to go beyond it (#1!) either through the same capital/commodifying means or with more ‘Chinese’ (Confucian?) characteristics…. at one level these speak to the same, colonial/imperially inflected incitement to discourse. I tend to see it more and more as a colonial mentality, frankly, but hardly at the point of a bayonet now is it? My own desire/dream for China now would be for it to get more, not less confident and stop this catch-up or “surpass’ mode of the elite. It may have to anyway given the ecological costs and the global slump.

But I wouldn’t overstate these ‘orientalist’ tendencies either.

There is a subtler form at work perhaps—the desire to become the same, to become like everyone else (consumerist as opposed to ‘Confucian’ or traditional), wealthy, powerful, with access to the pleasures and opportunities of the western/bourgeois way of life (travel, for example)…. this is very real. But ultimately unless you see this as universal and human nature then it is the result of the production of knowledge within China and abroad—over the last several centuries, but also specifically with the post-Mao or anti-political era. Hand in hand with capitalist/colonial modernity . The PRC – like other places in East Asia or Asia – is taking the same global capitalist/colonial modernity of the West and outdoing it, or at least ‘imitating’ it and throwing it back to the chattering classes, who don’t quite know what to do with it all.

So in sum – and thanks for this question – the “SO” view can be used in just this way and is. “The enemies of progress” – of more and more privatization, of ‘reform’, and so on – can be castigated as ‘feudal’ and backward and conservative (as opposed to ‘liberal’). Again think of what old Wen Jiabao seemed to be trying on his way out the door: beware the cultural revolution! As if Chinese youth were going to chuck him out a window or something. Of course he meant a reference to Bo Xilai but also presumably to the “anti-reform: and ‘conservative” forces who might want to intervene in the economy even in social democratic welfarist ways or who simply do not have the same religious-faith in free markets and profit motive. Or who have not embraced the ‘become-the-same’ (or ‘more so’) mandate.

Why do you think the democratization of the rhetoric of the cultural revolution is ignored not just in say Tiananmen square, which you talk about in China and Orientalism, but in the works of someone like Ai Weiwei?

I have been studiously avoiding AWW for various reasons—in so far as one can, given the media inundation — but mostly because he seems a very pedestrian artist/performance guy (a personality more than anything else, but one fluent in English it seems and therefore attractive to the New York Times et al.). I don’t specialize in Chinese art but even I know there are far more interesting people out there. Cai Guo-Qiang for example, or the late “King of Kowloon,’ Tsang Tsou Choi. Even his rants and raves about the regime are not that interesting. He has a right to them and I hope he keeps doing it—and mostly he is free to say whatever the hell he wants, aside from the occasional web deletion. I think; it is hard to actually know. But is he going to convince anyone that the CCP is evil, who doesn’t already feel this way? And that is, nonetheless, a minority in China. There can be, and is, lots of anger and lots of strikes and protests– real protests, and not just the polite and tiny ones you see every day in Hong Kong. Often – nearly always? — this is single-issue or about a local space or place. As in New York or Paris, most people don’t hate their government or nation– for better and for worse, certainly. China – and I feel like we can generalize here – is quite patriotic and proud and even nationalistic. More than the US perhaps. BUT in diverse ways and many of them can be quite anti-official, more cultural than political, sometimes quite properly anti-imperialist or anti-chauvinist in regard to Western orientalism/denigration, or simply different than the usually ham-handed propaganda efforts of the state. And why shouldn’t they be affirmative or positive about their imagined community and history and so on? ? The PRC – and note that China is the PRC now – is a fantastic, rich, special place. Massive problems and looming crises and some truly awful aspects, yes. But it is big enough and diverse enough and complex enough for even myself to say that these negative, critical aspects are only one part of the reality or experience of living there (or ‘being Chinese’ presumably). And whether we like it or not the CCP Party-state has considerable legitimacy. Anthony Saich of Harvard has done a lot of empirical, survey work on this.

Ai is mostly gadfly and I would not be surprised to find out that he really did owe tons of money in back taxes and hidden income. Many people do in China, to their shame,  so why is he singled out? Because of his celebrity abroad, and I’d guess because of his personality, shall we say. But just to be clear: nothing he says or ‘performs’ deserves arrest. Criticism, yes. Hell, he is very welcome to his huge properties as far as I am concerned, as long as they are legal. But as far as him being either a notable and radical dissident or brilliant cutting-edge artist: I’m not buying it. He is not coherent intellectually (his political ‘views’). Which is fine—neither was Andy Warhol. But he gets caught up in – in fact actively courts — an international media machine and a cold war if not colonial narrative about the dreaded commies making life tough for ‘artists’ and individuals. Which is why he gets harassed and, in turn, still more famous. He also recently participated in an embarrassing, juvenile fist-fight in a Beijing park, between a professor/blogger/‘nationalist’ and a liberal journalist person. So at some point his 15 minutes will be gone, or the price of his “art” will tank first. Meanwhile a far more serious and accomplished artist like Mo Yan gets the Nobel finally (for literature) but also heaps of grief and resentment from China watchers for not being the right dissident figure.

Is Ai akin to some of the old cult rev era attitudes? A good question — certainly the critique of bureaucracy and so on resonates with that. And as you may have in mind, the philistine smashing of Han vases sort of fits the old CR destruction of the “olds.” But it is less patriotic and more anti-Party than anything from that era. He has the right to rebel ethos but not much else, and anyway it is decidedly different times. I suspect he is also motivated by the treatment of his father during the CR, which is quite understandable. Though – and this amazes me — I know lots of people who either suffered or knew someone who unfairly suffered through something during the period (losing power or money or just being criticized/harassed unfairly/arbitrarily) who nonetheless aren’t at all like Ai or even anti-communist.

Alain Badiou is quite correct when talks about the passion of the real in the 20th century, and the cult rev and long Chinese revolution (from 19th century on) fits that very well it seems to me. A belief you could enter history, live in it, swim in it, change it if you act collectively. (c.f. Castro’s ‘History will absolve me’ too) Does Ai fit that? I’m sure he thinks he can make some difference. He might think he can change things — that fits the red spirit, ironically. Is he democratic? I don’t think so, as he seems mostly about himself despite his pretensions to speak for others, but what do we mean by this term? Liberal? Rights-based political reason? I think he is very moral and yet perhaps liberal in the pejorative sense of being powerfully self-centered.

Moving on here: One has to be wary of the cult of dissidence. Those folks, on the ground, are often not what they seem. And the really radical (as in ‘to the root’) and brave and interesting people that I have met in China or read don’t call themselves that or launch pretend battles against the big bad state as if they could bring it down. As if the state cared about them personally (as if photo shopping your middle finger is….subversive?). Though we all know the Chinese state/police can indeed act quickly and capriciously; my one or two activist friends, for lack of a better word, are too smart to draw attention to themselves. Two quick local examples of dissidence/liberal fetishism from the ‘post’-colonial enclave of HK. Once upon a time, in a ‘progressive’ film journal (Jumpcut) a US film scholar now in Hong Kong disparages a Chinese scholar and avowed “Marxist feminist” (the Beijing-based professor Dai Jinhua) for not being a dissident and for not citing enough foreign/Western film-studies people like her own good self and her buddies. As if being a feminist and Marxist critic of reform in a place that hates both of those perspectives …isn’t risky or ‘independent’ enough? And as if this middle-class, liberal, white, Ms.-magazine style “feminist” film scholar knows better, right? Another colleague hosts some dissident liberal type documentary film-makers, you know just to spread the good word of whatever these folks are ‘exposing’ about China this particular season. (There is no shortage of things to expose in a country of 1.3 billion; and being positive/affirmative doesn’t sell). But one of them flips out over some technical issue or the other in regard to the program, and accuses this same well intentioned and sympatico host of being afraid of Beijing, a dupe of the CCP, repressing his heroic struggle, and so on. So the film-maker is a jackass, basically, and so full of himself that no single room can contain him (is this not liberalism to a T in many cases?). But my point is that these academics automatically go to the dissident as the normative value. Why is this? It is the Cold War (and Hong Kong’s political occidentalism). Imagine Chinese scholars going to the Mormons or evangelicals or hippies as your representative Americans.

Meanwhile the dissident Liu Xiaobo is a hero in Hong Kong amongst the ‘democratic’ and Hong-Kong studies types despite – or because of — his neo-liberal economic views, his pro-colonialism, his vulgar universalism rooted in the West, his hatred of the CCP, and so on. Democracy via the dissident-fetishists here is…what exactly? Apparently nothing to do with equality or majority rule or socialism or livelihood or economic justice. Just individuals versus states, negative liberty (freedom from others), and the great symbolic war against “communism” that more or less defines modern China studies and the Hong Kong intelligentsia. Hong Kong’s culture, especially its political culture, is really poisoned by a laissez-faire mentality and by a very evident yet unremarked colonial liberalism and occidentalism that means it sees the PRC as a great void or blank space, a fake. They simply cannot take it seriously at all, except as a bogey of “statism” or totalitarianism. It is a fading demographic but an inordinately influential one.

So the figure of the dissident is always seductive until you get to know the actual person. Who will turn out to be human. Or until you examine what he or she is for, in whose interests he or she works, and the usual Marxist questions. Be careful what you wish for! Put another way, the critique of the politics of purity and the ‘beautiful soul’ (who hates for power to be actualized) applies not only to leftists but to liberals and dissidents as well. Just as it does with human rights groups like, say, Amnesty International. Alas, things are far too complicated – and far too political or interested – to just resort to shibboleths about official versus non-official intellectuals and “dissent” in general. China really resists easy classifications like this.

Anything that you would like to say in closing?

The Western left – in so far as it exists – has a really bad and difficult relationship to China, does it not? Especially since the post-Mao turn, where there seems to be little to identify with politically. Well increasingly, who can blame them with these technocrats running the Party and de-politicizing the society? But India, Mexico, almost every place outside of maybe Venezuela (and certainly including Europe) are similar. In fact, does anyone think there are fewer  human rights abuses, whatever this means, in India or Brazil? If you are part of the majority– the poor or working class — where do you prefer to be born?

Aside from pockets of resistance or rebellion the current conjuncture is not a good one. What is the nature of the political now? Is there a left in the US or elsewhere? The US may own knowledge production, and still has the best university system to be honest, but it does NOT have a left in my view (the country I mean, not all the liberals and soft Marxists in the academy). What can we point to, what area of the world for resources of hope? It is brutally inegalitarian and reactionary given how absolutely radical and dedicated the Mao and long revolution were. But the “rise of China” is, far and away, the biggest story of the last 30 years. Just a massive change and — one has to admit, no matter how anarcho/liberal/Trotskyist/Maoist you are — something of world-historical import. And also involving the raising of living standards for hundreds of millions of people. You’d have to be an idiot not to see this. Which makes one wonder then about a Western left that has nothing to say other than uninspired condemnation or Cold War views.

But then why single out China? And when you do see something left-ish in China, like the new left intellectuals or the now-disgraced Bo Xilai or the various co-operatives sprouting up or hanging on, or the apparent CCP mandate to do something about inequality (they know they have made a mess), you are greeted with either condescensions or silence. Why such sanctioned ignorance? Because it takes some work to get informed, maybe, but also because of…. orientalism. They/we already know China, you see. It sucks there and hasn’t become the same …yet. .Or, you know, it is great because they too have cool and modern or pomo art and consumer culture or big malls or brave individual dissidents who are just like us inside! We are all Tank Men inside (the Tiananmen 1989 citizen).

Anyway the Western left mostly draws on the same discourse as to the truth of China—movies, liberal media reporting, the Chinese ‘diaspora’ at home trashing it, Jung Chang type of writing, yellow journalism or crossover books, Dalai Lama seduction, and so on. Maybe they have a representative “China man” or “China woman” from the ivory tower. Maybe Ai Wei Wei now or something from the human rights groups. It doesn’t come from investigation, let’s say. It also doesn’t come from taking the Chinese revolution seriously at all, from its beginnings. The CCP deserves what it gets in this regard–  they led the way in post-70s anti-Maoism. All of these conduits convey a certain aspect of China, when they are not making things up or exaggerating. No one can deny that. But it is a very limited view, if also the dominant one. The Western left doesn’t give a hang about the Chinese revolution anymore (or Vietnam or…..). Who speaks for the theft of the Chinese commons in the West?

Whereas you can still find people who know a lot about the Russian case, from its precursors through its rise and fall through Stalinism and even beyond. I was of the same ilk— I think it is great to study that stuff (Trotskyism, modern political theory, Western Marxism) and think through it. But (some) people know, say, Zinoviev and Bukharin but have no clue who Chen Boda or Zhao Shuli were. They know Deutscher but not Hu Sheng. That is the way the world is, but it is not good. So I find it pathetic to stop there, the Western left and Western world of politics, in this day and age, to try and re-invent Trotskyism or anarchism or some very very vaguely “radical” libertarianism. I do not mean resurrect Maoism (even if I think one should study and know the greatest of all revolutions and revolutionaries of the 20th century). I get called a Maoist sometimes, as do others, but I do not know anyone who uses that label him or herself. Obviously I am not ashamed of it but it really has no meaning.

And what is Maoism anyway now? It is diffuse in China and not institutionalized really (aside from the single-party system I suppose, which is Leninist after all) —it lives on in a real yet diffuse and ambiguous way. It stands for social justice, even retribution, but also Founding Father patriotism, and so on. Or worse. But in this case we are talking about China and the PRC and its history and traditions and reservoirs of meanings and culture and so forth—not the sect groups of the internet, and not even the real power holders in the CCP who mostly hate Mao though know they cannot jettison the name completely. Or we’d need to talk about India and Nepal if you want to talk about Maoist groups.

I think the Western left identifies with or mirrors the Chinese liberal scene/set. Of this I am quite certain. It loves a good native informant figure (and the dissident). They can rarely find one of their ‘own’ in China or Asia to hold forth the right line—so you have the clown prince of Transylvania introduce a repackaged volume of Mao’s selected writings from the 30s for Verso.

This is the Western math: For China, Left = liberal (+/-anti-commie).

Not too debatable if you pay attention to it at all. Those Chinese liberals the West identifies with, if you were to situate them in some other country or context, would instantly become right wingers or conservatives or at least clearly not-leftists by the same ‘Western’ standards (anti-capitalist; egalitarian; majority/populist based). So a double standard basically— China is not allowed to have lefties. A Cold War phenomenon. (Plus, they do not vote in China, except locally. The fact that no one is especially clamoring for this matters not.)  Foreigners often do this anti-communist ”analysis” or shouting (not unlike the Right!). And yet if China is not communist (or even claiming to be), what are they talking about? It is a reification, to begin with.   And moreover does not help  the left or heterodox politics  because it is foreclosing anything to the left of liberalism.

They don’t like the Chinese left because they associate it with The State and you know…. states and that state in particular, suck. Look at The Nation magazine when it talks about China (which is rarely) and the persistent anti-communism there, or in Dissent and so on. I dont think most readers or editors or writers for those magazines know much about China or Vietnam or Laos and so on in Asia — except for their communist pasts. They know all about that! Look at the far superior New Left Review—consistently publishes liberals on China, e.g. some extremely conventional, political science types like Hong Kong’s Ho-fung Hung as a representative voice on….China and not just Hong Kong (these are radically different places). People who in their Chinese writings or in the mainland Chinese context are flat-out rightists– anti-immigrant, pro-privatization, simple minded but devout occidentalists, and so on. What is this weak tea doing amongst the lefty crowd in the US-West?

NLR and other places also publish Wang Hui (who is very important, and who I wish they would actually read!) and I don’t mean to sound “ultra.” But you would not catch them publishing someone more explicitly political or left than that, or more explicitly critical of both capitalism and Chinese liberalism/neo-liberalism. Or someone who works on the revolutionary era in a thick and serious way. I don’t mean political screeds but real work. No Han Yuhai, no Gao Mobo, no Cai Xiang for example, no Lin Chun, no Wang Shaoguang and no Cui Zhiyuan. (An arbitrary list!) You might find the type of work I am talking about scattered around the world here and there (even in translation), and you have to piece it together. It takes time. It does appear mostly in academic or ‘rareified’ places and in library volumes. Often in journals and publications outside of the US machine (except for an Asianist journal like positions in the USA, thanks to Tani Barlow). There is a lot of stuff out there, and online too, and it just takes time but it is also easier than ever to find.

The days of the “flagship” or “leading” journals or presses are dead– there are too many journals for this bogus status (which is a good thing). And the same thing for the token/native informant or otherwise ‘world renowned’ expert on China (or anything else). Foucault was damn good on this: there are certain protocols and rules for speaking and being admitted to speak and having ‘permission’ or authority, and certain strategies or heuristics that must be employed in writing; these are not necessarily academic standards let alone universal ones (though they will say that) but about ‘discursive regimes.’ All of this still applies (as in orientalism), especially in academe and publishing, but at the same time it is all also breaking down. Or at least there are new spaces and opportunities to speak and write popping up, and to travel or encounter or exchange with other people. Social media, weibo, you name it but also online publishing in various forms, small presses, and good old library editions.

And there is the Chinese internet and presses and forums and books and so on. My Chinese is bad, to be honest, but I can read enough to see the gap between the worlds. And I spend a lot of time there physically and mentally and in conversation with folks there– as best I can anyway. You can machine translate and use other online tools, as well as a good Chinese dictionary (there is something called the ABC Chinese Dictionary that I like). But there is enough in English already and there will be more next week, and then the next week after that.

My point is you don’t have to be a Sinologist or even have fluent Chinese to have an informed and considered view. You just have to read and think and observe. Everything is observation and representation. Period. There is just no good excuse for the poverty of the Western left (and academia generally) when it comes to China these days. God forbid people should read Chinese media– even their English venues. But it is no worse than many Western papers (or the tabloids of Hong Kong and Taiwan). Hong Kong’s best paper is still the SCMP.

My point is that their ‘knowledge production’ (the Western left’s) could be much better. But I dont think they care actually. They are largely unaware of the problem, the great gap between their views and those in China for the most part. Which matters in the world now — China, greater China, East and SE Asia– this is the world. I mean it takes a marriage for the NLR to start paying attention to China. I’m not supposed to say that but it is true. Glad it is happening but…. ‘ten thousand li’ to go. And then they have Tariq Ali, of all people, review a biography of Mao by Rebecca Karl (a terrific historian, though I didn’t like her bio much). The former Simon Leys promoter (Ali), the arch-conservative orientalist. I’m not supposed to say that either but good grief. Trotskyist hangovers. But without the politics part, just faded dogma. Having said that, I am sure I own or have read more Verso stuff than anything else, especially in the past. So I am an alienated family member I guess. Ha!

So how do you explain this problem between what you call the Western left and the question of China or Asia? And what is the alternative if any?

Why is this bad relationship between the left and China the case? Well I think this has to do with several hundred years of orientalism. And, again, the confluence of that with the Cold War and political liberalism. It is also historical and related to the geo-political relation between China and the West. Different histories and different intellectual political cultures.

The left has always had problems dealing with difference. And with universalism for that matter, which it obviously prefers. The recent book by Vivek Chibber seems another example of this, a bald espousal of universal enlightenment values and empiricism in the name of anti-capitalism. I have only watched the debate with Partha Chatterjee (on youtube) but it is a bit embarrassing. This is a very difficult and challenging question (the universal, or not) but pretending it is the 19th century (18th?) isn’t going to cut it anymore. And those early Subalternists were pretty Marxist and “Maoist” and left-of-center. Now maybe they were wrong about this and that in your view (e.g. class differentiation in the Indian countryside).  But why is it bad to have a debate about that? And good lord, their work and Said and even Spivak have been among the very few places you could get any historical and materialist and ‘Marxian’ discourse at all in the academy (aside from Jameson and related). Not least in Asian studies. China studies is anti-theory by definition, and would not know Guha from gemeinschaft. Why object to folks like me teaching Fanon or Cesaire for example, alongside some Achebe or Edward Said? They want Robert Brenner? No disrespect meant, but why would I do that?

So the idea (Chibber’s, or Arif Dirlik’s or whomever) that post-colonial studies or that ‘theoretical turn’ somehow “stole” Marxism or radicalism and has blocked their academic flourishing in the heart of the capitalist USA and capitalist India… That’s just stupid. It isn’t zero-sum. I wish it were the case– but if you have been to graduate school in the US or Hong Kong, say, or China, you know that it isn’t exactly filled with minds ready to be hailed towards this.  I’m not simply defending the postcolonial  field  – I’m not sure I fit it, and it interests me mostly as a teaching area. In so far as it is dominated by generic French ‘post-isms’ (the lame Derridean ethic of “open-ness” or “free play”, the anti-state backlash)  it is not even very political, or just very status quo. And it is hostile to the mainland or PRC views and perspectives. You dont see Chinese leftist or heterodox people appear in those mainstream poco journals or volumes either. But the poco field or “turn”  is more than that too — it has still done more good than any other such ‘movement’ in helping people think globally and historically and towards provincializing the West.

Now “difference” is not some metaphysical thing either. Although maybe it is if you like the Jamesonian/Marxist/Adornian reading of use versus exchange value (see Late Marxism on this). But if you are not bothered by the questions of difference and specificity and thus also historical context, as well as orientalism or  the intellectual culture of the world system, then you cannot be a good Marxist intellectual.  And it isn’t just empirical detail that needs sorting out; it is also that question of universality, and what that might be. Are their “universals”? The standard answers don’t seem to have worked or persuaded most people. Since… the Enlightenment. You can talk about the “universality” of certain things or structures or ‘categories”– but this is different, is it not? Anyway: German idealism is still dead. It is sublimely great writing and thinking and (like some of the French post-War stuff)  great literature in its own right. But it does not and cannot contain the world. Nor does the French pomo template of course.

As for China matters, we need more engagement with the Chinese new left and other heterodox and serious voices up the road. The question is this: What can we learn from them? Obviously hard to do, China is far away and speaks a very difficult language for most of us, and so on. But how many Western lefties even try to get informed? It’d be more work than in other cases—you have to read more in whatever your language is, and read it against the grain. Learn as much Chinese as you can of course, but it is sheer idiocy and suicide to wait for the moment when we all know Chinese (or English or…) perfectly well. And let’s not over-state that language barrier either, as it leads to another order of orientalism: China = the Chinese language. Of course I would say this, but language is just a tool.  If you don’t have this one, try that one to get the job done.

The left intellectuals in China had to be fairly underground, and even now it is primarily a academic/discursive phenomenon. The last year or so has actually seen a real backlash against the left and unofficial nationalisms or “anti-globalization”/reform views. The “Utopia” communist website (not academic) is still shut down, for example. I was told I could not publish some simple little literary-criticism essay of mine because it mentioned Mao and other leaders too much (but I also mentioned the cultural revolution positively).This was for a nominally Western-based, Brill Press journal called Frontiers of Literary Studies in China, edited by Zhang Xudong of NYU. But in fact it is actually vetted and censored by the Chinese government — ie a publisher  in China (in English known as ‘Higher Education Press”) and not in Europe or by Brill. There are a number of these “Frontiers of Chinese….”  journals out of China now but seemingly “free” or Western/global  – I have to assume they are all vetted/censored like the literary one.  Not that I should be saying this either. I’m not a free speech absolutist but my point is about this resurgent right-wing turn in China. It needs fought.

In fact this reaction spreads southward to Hong Kong too —in the past year two well published, well established people were almost denied tenure in Hong Kong because of their political views. Long fights and delays and attempted hijackings of files and so on. This is just two cases I know– but that is not insignificant. Because of their left-of-center and allegedly “pro-China” political views. This is as big a threat — I’d bet bigger — than pressures and censorship from the other direction (from Beijing).  At the same time—three cheers for Hong Kong allowing minority views to exist in the end. But you’d never know about this type of backlash from the mainstream Hong Kong media or “democratic” camps. It is a real mess down here– a fascinating one,but a mess.

How else to deal with China then, from a left/progressive yet intelligent and informed perspective? While I have not been to India for some time, alas, I will note that my impression from past visits/exchanges is that many there on the intellectual left do take it – the PRC — more seriously. Not for revolution or as an exact model to follow but for, say, the mandate to manufacture your own products, to plan the economy effectively…. For capital controls, industrialization, debt-free development, and the like. Focus on the Global South, out of Bangkok, had the genius to set up China as one of its areas of study and action— the only country it singled out in the mission statement for the institute/ngo/thinktank. It constructed China as both a problem and an opportunity: a rising economic power/reality but an opportunity for organizing and class or political solidarity. That seems exactly right. Anti-globalization but not anti-China.

Approach it on its own terms. The PRC is a reality— find a way to live and work with it. Western lefties are largely unaware that China is bigger than their world — and China basically doesn’t give a hang about them really, even though it is also in fact a cosmopolitan and open society in many ways. As a Chinese mainland Dean put it to me– we like Caucasians! Funny! I had a post-doc here in HK (Zhao Xun) whom I was sort of sponsoring/supervising– very heterodox thinker actually and when he left after 3 years he said, ‘I wonder if I will ever work in or use English again.’ What does this tell you? I wish he would, and I think he should ideally, but it tells you something. Focus was the first global group to come out against excluding China from the WTO. Because it might help bring down the WTO and make it less relevant (and because it was racist to exclude it). This also resonates by the way with Li MInqi’s excellent and accessible world systems take on the PRC, The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy.  Which also rehearses the “Maoist” or Chinese Marxist take on the PRC’s history (which I also obviously find compelling).

And finally — to get back to Said — don’t approach China or “the Orient” in terms of converting it to your view and perspective. Even Jonathan Spence (not exactly a deep thinker) wrote a book detailing the futility of the desire “to change China.” As Said said, the orientalist is always making it his or her mission to convert the orient into something else– for either its own sake or, in reality, to shore up his or her own self and identity. No good reason to do that– and I think many, many people know this already, even if they are not area studies experts.


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