by Brian Hioe

English /// 中文
Photo Credit: AFP

This is part one of a two part article on the Chinese New Left by New Bloom editor Brian Hioe. Part two can be found here.

A Red Star Over China?

PERHAPS ONE of the most significant intellectual formations operating in today’s world, China’s New Left arose in the 1990s in opposition to the turn of China away from a centrally planned economy and a return to free market principles after the Deng Xiaoping period. More broadly, the New Left project emphasizes the growing disparities between rural and urban areas in post-Deng China, the sacrifice of principles of equality in order to drive toward development, and calls for a critical revaluation of China’s Maoist legacy in light of China’s present—inclusive of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

What is “New Left” is hard to pin down. The name “New Left” was a term appropriated from conservative critics who were quick to claim the New Left to be some form of resurgent Red Guard fanaticism. In that sense, “New Left” may be a misleading term, insofar as the Chinese New Left is a contemporary phenomenon, and one with little to do with the western New Left of the late 1960s. The New Left largely consists of academics, many of which have studied abroad and are influenced by forms of western critical theory. The New Left finds itself in opposition to the “Liberals” who welcome China’s capitalization and call for the institution of western style political reforms along the lines of America or of western European powers.

As a whole, what has come to be known as the New Left attempts to articulate alternatives for China besides capitalization, which involves examining and drawing upon China’s Maoist past. In the sense that the “New Left” is largely a blanket label, applied to any number of individuals haphazardly, there is no specific set of individuals who one can point to as comprising the New Left. Thinkers deemed New Left include Wang Hui, Cui Zhiyuan, Gao Mobo, Wang Shaoguang, Hu Angang, Li Minqi, and many others.

PhotoCreditGettyImagesPhoto credit: Getty Images

Accordingly, while there have been a number of different attempts at parsing out the different strains of the New Left in the Anglophone world, sometimes these attempts arrive at directly opposite categorizations about the same thinkers. The leading thinker of the New Left who is often held to be representative of it is Wang Hui. But although Wang Hui is himself critical of the use of the label New Left and its use as a term of abuse to any Chinese thinker deemed sufficiently radical through opposition to the principles of unfettered free market capitalism, which is a fair point, his intellectual trajectory remains broadly representative of the New Left as a whole.

We may point towards the New Left’s importance for the global Left. Although the Xi Jinping presidency began with a series of political purges which were first viewed as a blow towards the New Left, a little over two years in, Xi is now seen by some observers as enacting the policies of the New Left through his wide sweeping anti-corruption campaign and initiatives aimed at mitigating growing Chinese economic disparities. And, in this, Xi has summoned up the specter of China’s Maoist past with policies on the surface homologous to past endeavors of Mao and through his role as a strongman-style leader in the mold of Mao or Deng. The questions to be asked are: Is the New Left ascendant in the present? And, without venturing a normative definition of “Left,” what does that mean for the global Left? Certainly, the New Left would seem to be unique phenomenon.

Why Has Western Academia Been Sympathetic to the New Left?

CERTAINLY NO small number of academics in the western academic world whose political positions orienting towards the political Left have found themselves sympathetic to the New Left. Part of the sympathy of western scholars to the New Left must also be attributed to that members of the New Left have often studied abroad in the western academia and are personally acquainted with western scholars. Prominent members of the New Left, too, are in fact based outside of China and teach in western academia and this has no doubt been a factor in why they have been well-received by the western academic Left.

That David Harvey’s understanding of China in A Brief History of Neoliberalism and Naomi Klein’s understanding of China in The Shock Doctrine seem to be sourced almost exclusively from Wang Hui is indicative as to the positive reception of the New Left in left-wing academia. But the temptation of western academics to see in the New Left some version of a Chinese “Left” as it would be in western political spectrum is no doubt in part because of the New Left’s adoption and employment of western critical theory. The New Left, as such, seems something like an projected analogue for the western academic Left in the Chinese context.

In response to critics who would accuse the New Left of radicalism, members of the New Left have generally insisted upon the non-radical nature of its project. The New Left’s answer to such critics has been more often to insist upon it being more akin to a “Liberal Left” opposed to “Liberals”, and that those who would be termed “neoconservatives” elsewhere. Part of the claim of New Left thinkers in this vein would be to tone down the perception of radicalism, which can be a dangerous claim in China. But perhaps in searching for a radical Left in China, many outside observers have been too hasty in seeing the New Left as a radical political force in China. Is the resistance to rampant developmentalism particularly radical, in itself?

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 1.59.22 AMDesiring Neoliberalism by Lisa Rofel

Yet given the nationalistic tendencies which exist in the New Left and have since the beginning, one also finds it somewhat dismaying when an western academics uncritically cite even more questionable elements of the New Left. Along such lines, Lisa Rofel cites none other than Han Deqiang approvingly in Desiring China. An economics professor and one of the founders of key New Left organ Utopia, Han Deqiang was later arrested in September 2012 after an incident in which he called an old man who took issue with the valorization of Mao at a protest a “race traitor” and then struck him. Han Deqiang has since retired to a commune in the Chinese countryside in order to try and create some new synthesis of Maoism…and Confucianism.

Obviously, Desiring China was published well before this incident, but this may be illustrative of some of the tensions between how western academia has been somewhat blind to the problematic aspects of the New Left because it has been overly hasty to try and find something which seems equivalent to itself. But even in Desiring China, one finds that it is largely truisms of Han’s which are cited which one could have sourced from just about anybody, rather than genuinely ideas which are specific to Han Deqiang. There was a need to find thinkers in China which one could point to as “Left”, a symptom of the broader phenomenon by which western academics are always looking for non-western analogues to themselves.

Are the New Left Just Chinese Nationalists?

ARE THE New Left just Chinese nationalists? In the sense that the New Left is not an organized body with any formal constitution, there were various more nationalistic and less nationalistic tendencies which exist in the New Left. And obviously there are “Chinese nationalists” who are not New Leftists.

But actually, if some have spoken of the recent turn of the New Left towards nationalism in the past two years, probably it is true that they were nationalists since the beginning. There is in some sense that all members of the New Left are nationalists insofar as they are patriots who love their country and act in what they see as the best interests of their country. In this sense, if people have spoken of a contradiction between the New Left and the Liberals, the Liberals, too, are nationalists. And there is nothing particularly wrong with forms of civic nationalism, so long as they do not stray into ethno-nationalism or exclusionary forms of nationalism.

PhotoCreditChinesePosters.netPhoto credit:

However here the question of the New Left’s relation to the state power also becomes an issue. To what extent is the New Left willing to yoke itself to state power in order that its social visions may find some measure of realization? Is this what ultimately led to the New Left to nationalism?

Where the New Left is largely academic in nature, where it differs from any other academic “Left” in most western countries is precisely its connection to state power. Where the influence of the academic Left in other countries usually remains confined to academia or the cultural sphere, direct influence upon state power is more usually the provenance of think tanks. Even now, it is not exactly possible to directly claim that the New Left is in power, except that Xi Jinping seems to be enacting the world vision they were pushing for in the past.

What Would New Left Theory Put Into Practice Look Like? Bo Xilai, Chongqing, and the New Left

IN THE PAST, the usual example of what New Left theory put into practice would look like that is put forth would be the city of Chongqing under the leadership of Bo Xilai, former Minister of Commerce, who was party secretary of Chongqing from 2007 to 2012. A megalopolis, Chongqing is one of the largest cities in China and with a population of 33 million, placing it among the world’s largest metropolitan areas. As a testament to China’s sheer size, despite being little known internationally, the population of Chongqing is larger than all but 150 or so countries in the world.

Under Bo’s leadership, Chongqing advanced a developmental model at odds with other parts of China which emphasized development at all costs, even if that meant increasing economic inequality. By contrast, Chongqing put forth a development model which advanced policies aimed at bridging the rural-urban divide, providing a safety net for low-income individuals, public works, environmental protection, and an unprecedented crackdown on organized crime which left Chinese wondering who had authorized such dramatic actions and why. In spite of this, Chongqing was economically successful, suggesting that China’s economic development need not necessarily go hand in hand with rising economic inequality. As such, unsurprisingly, Chongqing won the accolades of members of the New Left, who advanced the thesis that Chongqing represented a blueprint for a future China which might still be economically successful as a world power, yet need not become polluted and defined by gross economic inequality.

More broadly, just as Chongqing was a model for China, members of the New Left have pointed towards the implications of the rise of China for the world. Chongqing was one of several alternative developmental models that suggested alternatives for China at the time, but one of the most famous. Though not all members of the New Left view China as a model which can be replicated elsewhere, owing to historical circumstance, individuals as Hu Angang and Gao Mobo argue that if China can pioneer an egalitarian model of development, it can exported elsewhere as more broadly as an alternative to rampant capitalist developmentalism. Yet it is here that we might gesture towards the fraught relationship of the New Left with nationalism.

PhotoCreditVOABo Xilai. Photo credit: VOA

Under the rule of Bo Xilai, Chongqing also saw attempts to revive a Chinese nationalism of the Maoist tinge, with attempts made to reintroduce “red culture” through promoting the singing of “red songs” from the Maoist era in schools, erecting statues of Mao, and encouraging television programming that enforced Maoist and patriotic themes. While for many residents of Chongqing, this was an attempted exercise in “nostalgia exercises with zero political meaning”, other elements of the population seemed responsive. [1]

The expelling of Bo from the CCP in 2012 on charges of corruption and his resulting fall from grace was popularly seen as the elimination of someone who had been seen as a candidate for the highest echelons of state power. Bo’s fall was later understood as the first of those to fall victim to Xi Jinping’s drive against corruption in the party which has continued to the present. This was also a blow to the New Left, so far as they had championed Bo and the alternative he seemed to pose for China seemed to have been snuffed out with his elimination. Yet what was also evidenced was the willingness of the New Left to bend backwards slavishly in support of their champion.

No less than Wang Hui would question the official narrative of Bo’s fall as possibly retribution for his policies aimed at minimizing social inequality in the London Review of Books, Cui Zhiyuan would also attempt to pry the Chongqing model apart from Bo in order to preserve it’s validity for China and call attention to the tendency western media to zoom in exclusively on Bo’s promotion of “red songs” where Chongqing is concerned, to the exclusion of anything about Chongqing’s unique economic policies. It is hard to say, of course, what really happened with Bo Xilai. The truth of the matter will only emerge at a later date, or through the judgment of history. But what New Left intellectuals were unwilling to entertain, particularly towards western observers of China, was the possibility that Bo could not but be to entrenched in some of the corrupt interests he also had a hand in stamping out.

Subsequent to Bo’s fall, the New Left saw hard times. The New Left had also been the champion of the Internet as a force for progressive social change, with the phenomenon of “netizens” calling out social injustice and self-organizing to address social issues as a form of activist politics, as well as the Internet serving as a valuable medium for intellectual discourse outside of official bodies. The site Utopia had been a particularly important locus of intellectual debate, as the “flagship site” of New Leftists, with contributions by Wang Hui, Wang Shaoguang, and others. After the Bo Xilai incident, in April 2012, Utopia was shut down by authorities temporarily, came back online briefly, later shut down again, but now continues to operate quite smoothly in the present.

The New Left Ascendant?

NEVERTHELESS IF two years on, the fortunes of the New Left have reversed in some way, this actually only illustrates the fraught nature of the New Left. Where Xi Jinping seemed to begin his reign systematically eliminating politicians who had been supported by the New Left, such as Bo Xilai, his ally Zhou Yongkang, and others, he has since turned towards cracking down on Liberals and those perceived to be pro-western, calling for a return to fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism and policies that directly echo those of Mao’s. Crackdowns on dissent in China occur increasingly in the name of collusion with foreign powers.

While attacking an enemy and later co-opting the policies that they advanced is hardly a new political tactic in the political rulebook—one thinks of what Stalin did to Trotsky—this set of developments comes as a surprise, seeing as Xi Jinping was not expected to turn towards the political Left in as sharp a manner as he did. A long period of time by China watchers was spent guessing as to what Xi’s political affiliations were. Indeed, before his presidency, Xi had been one of the politicians to officially visit Chongqing out of interest in the Chongqing model, during which time he praised Bo’s anti-corruption campaign, but his violent purge of Bo would seem to have suggested that he was not interested in policies. Now Xi’s actions suggest just the opposite.

Yet if the New Left seems triumphant now, they in truth remain as just one among many intellectual groupings which seek to influence the Chinese state. Indeed, if the current period of success for the New Left is entirely predicated on Xi Jinping turning out to be supportive of the New Left and siding with them, it previously looked like he would act against them through purging Bo Xilai. But like their former idol, Bo, the New Left, too can be targeted and eliminated if need be.

Obama and Xi Jinping. Photo credit: Xinhua

In the past, the New Left as a whole was actually quite ambivalent on the notion of a singular strongman figure to emerge, in the fashion of how Mao or Deng dominated over China—and in the fashion of Xi Jinping today. Though arguably Bo Xilai was a similar strongman figure where Chongqing was concerned, the New Left was emphatic upon the “mass line,” that is, the vision of the CCP as synthesizing, refining, and embodying the will of the people and that being the strength of the CCP—very much a view which emerged after the decline of CCP strongman figures as Mao or Deng in the genesis of the New Left in the 1990s. While articulations of the “mass line” differ among individual New Left thinkers, as a concept somewhat resembling the Rousseauian “general will,” the general agreement is that the mass line would be a means for Chinese to realize democracy through mass political participation.

Hu Angang, for example, sees the strength of the CCP as precisely lying its distribution of power among leaders without the dominance of any singular strongman figure—a “collective presidency with Chinese characteristics.” As a realization of what Hu saw to be a form of “democratic centralism,” this avoided pitfalls of inability to take decisive action when needed because of lack of centralized authority, as in the American governmental system in which a leader as Barack Obama could try to push through policies as healthcare reform but find them blocked by Republicans in Senate. This was a means by which Chinese collective presidency was “far superior to the presidency and separation of powers that exists in the United States”, because the American system centralizes power in the hand of the American president while also burdening him with the task of negotiating with legislature by himself, in that way failing to distribute authority. [2]

As such, the “American system lacks a single success; with the Chinese system, anything is possible” because the American system concentrates too much power in the hands of the president on the one hand while simultaneously undercutting his authority because of the recurrent complications of legislative, electoral politics. [3] Yet Chinese collective presidency was a realization of the mass line, so far as the party apparatus as a whole allows for the distilling of the will and opinions of the people via the “mass line” in the representation of the people by the Standing Committee of the Politburo, so far as members of the Standing Committee represent different agencies that are tasked with different tasks vis-a-vis the Chinese people and can thus provide a representation of the people as a whole. This would be a way of negating the obvious criticism of this system that it is undemocratic, with the claim that the party itself expresses the democratic will of the people, rather than through a legislative electoral system.

But something would seem to have gone very wrong. Xi Jinping, as arguably the strongest Chinese leader since Deng and a strongman figure in the mold of what was warned against, would actually seem to be an aberration of what was expected, or even hoped for by the New Left. New Leftists have been emphatic upon the “mass line” as a realization of democracy in particularly Chinese fashion, but that this is to be achieved through a mechanism for realizing the will of the people as a “collective presidency”. If New Leftists do throw their intellectual weight behind the strongman Xi Jinping, a single person, in contradiction to what they previously argued, what does that mean? And if, versus what they argued previously, they jumped onboard the Xi nonetheless, what would that mean as to the validity of their arguments?

The Relation of Intellectuals to State Power

IN THIS RESPECT, the fundamental dilemma of the New Left is actually a very old one—the question of how intellectuals relate to power, and how intellectuals need power in order to accomplish their utopian aims. There has been several abstruse theoretical references to how that with the rise of China what the New Left faces is the question of “overcoming modernity” which was faced by Japanese intellectuals at the turn of the 20th century with the Japanese Empire, as we see in an excellent but perhaps theoretically abstract article published in Chinese New Left publication 破土 Ground Breaking (which, through strange irony, shares the same name as this publication but is a different publication) which self-reflexively outlines the turn of the New Left to nationalism, but speaks little of the concrete, real-world effects of this turn in only discussing theoretical implications. Yet what is at stake here is hardly a theoretical concern, but a very concrete one in terms of real-world, geopolitical and sociopolitical realities.

Actually, in consideration of the theoretical discourse of the New Left in relation to western academic Leftism, one is in fact struck by its eclectic nature, by the degree to which the New Left has picked and chosen selective aspects of western critical theory for the use of China, a characteristic of non-western intellectuals seeking to appropriate western knowledge for nation-strengthening ends. We see this with Japanese intellectuals during the turn of 20th century as well as with pre-May 4th and May 4th intellectuals in China. We can see this too with the New Left. It is such that the question of “overcoming modernity” in Japan or even the New Left’s keen historical interest in the late Qing and early Republican periods are quite essential for the New Left and its self-understanding. Wang Hui, after all, was originally a Lu Xun specialist. One is reminded of how Lu Xun himself advocated a form of selective appropriation from the West (拿來主義). Yet certain other aspects of the theoretical corpus they have assimilated have been dropped altogether as we see in, for example, Wang Hui’s opposition to the principle of self-determination despite the centrality of the principle of self-determination to not only past Maoist rhetoric, but much of 20th century Marxism.

Wang_HuiWang Hui. Photo credit: Алый Король/Flickr

But where the question of “overcoming modernity” is usually raised as something of an theoretical question for the New Left, it is actually a a concrete one in regards to intellectuals and their relation to power. What Japan’s intellectuals, in acting as apologists for Japanese imperialism did was yoke themselves to state power in order that their visions of utopia could see some possibility of realization–this being the “overcoming of modernity” with the ability of Japan to assert itself as equal with western powers, asserting Japan’s ability to give rise to a non-western modernity. With the rise of China, the New Left runs the risk of becoming apologists for China’s imperial expansion, much as Japan’s intellectuals did during the period of Japanese empire.

Of course, all this discussion on the apologists of Japanese Imperialism and whether they have parallel to the contemporary Chinese New Left, one might remember that during this time, Japan’s Leftist intellectuals went into hiding and fought an underground war of resistance against the Japanese Empire from within at great personal risk. Although it is certainly not the place of armchair intellectuals who are removed from Chinese authoritarianism to comment on what Leftists in China, New Left or otherwise, should do, they might do well to remember this aspect of history as well.

Yet the question of Chinese expansionism is one which is too often not posed to the New Left but instead phrased in terms of nationalism—and through theoretical terms rather than in terms of concrete geopolitical, socioeconomic, and military terms—we might explore next whether the New Left would, in fact, act as apologists for Chinese imperial expansion. We see the dimension where the New Left’s advocacy of the export of the “China model” as a more equitable system of governance than western models can be seen as having imperialist implications. And in an age in which Chinese imperial expansion occurs under capitalist auspices that are sometimes dressed in the garb of leftism, the distinctions between “New Left” and “Liberal” have arguably broken down.

[1] Kerry Brown, Carnival China: China in the Era of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, London: Imperial College Press, 2014, p. 108,.

[2] Hu Angang, China’s Collective Presidency, Berlin: Springer, 2014, p. 37.

[3] Ibid., p. 52.