by Brian Hioe
This is part two of a two part article on the Chinese New Left by New Bloom editor Brian Hioe. See part one here.
Anti-Capitalist Within China, Imperialist Outside of China?
FROM A LEFT perspective, the Chinese New Left’s critique of capitalism remains quite sympathetic when confined to within China’s borders. With the recent arrest of labor activists in Guangzhou, Chinese New Left publication Ground Breaking, for example, was one of the first to rally for support—even at risk to itself. Ground Breaking has reacted similarly in past incidents in which the Chinese state acts on behalf of capital and against the interests of the working class. Perhaps in this respect, given the threat of state suppression, they are to be praised for their bravery on certain issues. It is the New Left’s international viewpoints, concerning outside of China, which may ultimately be most problematic.
For example, Ground Breaking has been less than honest about its own political stances on international issues, with attempts to proselytize abroad in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Given political identification in Taiwan and Hong Kong after the Sunflower Movement and Umbrella Movement is what it is, Ground Breaking has deliberately seen fit to keep articles critical of a Taiwanese or Hong Kongese sense of identity off of its Facebook account targeting Taiwan and Hong Kong. During the Ma-Xi summit this past November, Ground Breaking posted an article on its WeChat account suggesting that backlash against the Ma-Xi summit was merely the DPP attempting to stir up trouble using identity politics, and celebrating the meeting as not only a step forward for the eventual reunification of Taiwan and China, but a step forward in countering pro-Japanese sentiment in Taiwan. But Ground Breaking deliberately kept this article off their website and Facebook account targeted towards a Taiwanese or Hong Kongese audience!
Photo credit: 破土 Ground Breaking
Indeed, where Ground Breaking is concerned, many in Taiwan laboriously believe that Ground Breaking originates from Hong Kong as a result of their use of separate domains for Taiwan and Hong Kong and a Facebook account which posts using traditional characters, though in truth Ground Breaking is originally a Chinese publication—as we see from their use of a 126.com e-mail address and that their earliest domain originally had a .cn URL. Although it is true that Ground Breaking also has staff members from Hong Kong and Taiwan, some have made accusations in the past that Ground Breaking is masking in Hong Kong and Taiwan that they are originally from China.
What we see of Ground Breaking, is true of the New Left more broadly. Because while their critique of unfettered capitalism within China’s borders is quite sympathetic to those of us who are not Chinese but live on China’s peripheries, the Chinese New Left acts as apologists for Chinese imperialism. And when it comes to becoming apologists for Chinese imperialism, we find that the New Left are more nationalist than Leftist when it comes to international issues concerning outside of China—even justifying imperialism in that light.
New Left Versus Liberal is Dead
PROVOCATIVELY, we might suggest that the past “New Left” versus “Liberal” paradigm—in which the “New Left” opposed those “Liberals” who sought the turn of China towards free market principles—is in some way dead. Wang Hui, after all, leading figure of the New Left, now co-teaches a class with Daniel A. Bell, certainly one of the world’s premier apologists for the Chinese model of capitalism—and one who suggests that the China model’s lack of democracy may be the central factor for its effectiveness over western models. Wang Hui himself is far from any intellectual dissident against official state policy at this point as he was perceived to be in the past, with his nickname “Professor of the Country” (國師) and the official positions he has been feted with by the CCP.
What would be in common between such opposites as Wang Hui and Daniel A. Bell would be the suggestion that the “China model” offers a socioeconomic model for the world which can be exported abroad. Indeed, Wang Hui has as of late taken to becoming an apologist for China’s “One Belt, One Road” economic expansion policy as something potentially anti-capitalist in nature, never mind that this would be China’s attempt to create something analogous to the American-led IMF as a way to expand its political power globally through economic means.
Namely, in an age increasingly defined by China’s economic and political rise, the New Left has been willing to hitch its project to that of the state in the absence of any other means to realize its political visions. But to begin with, it may be that the New Left’s view of socialism was basically a form of statism in which the primacy of the state is what sets limits on the unchecked power of capital. Although the New Left may be critical of the unfettered forces of neoliberal capitalism and developmentalism within China, ultimately they back on the state to provide the muscle to restrain capitalism.
Daniel A. Bell. Photo credit: CCTV
Where the statism of the New Left is concerned, of course, there are authoritarian and undemocratic dimensions to the New Left’s suspicion of western-style democracy. Those concerned should have been suspicious of the New Left’s early embrace of Bo Xilai’s Chongqing model as already evincing a willingness to condone or endorse dangerously authoritarian tendencies.
If the New Left’s nationalism trumps Leftism, it is also because of the New Left’s view that the China model, however flawed, is still superior to the West. It is such that the New Left suggests that the China model can and should be exported outside of China, hence where they become apologists for Chinese imperialism. Despite their awareness of contemporary China’s many flaws, the New Left bends over backwards to insist that China’s contemporary socioeconomic model still offers something that the world should embrace. Though criticizing neoliberalism within China, apparently exporting this model to the world is still anti-capitalist. Such a model would be precisely this form of Chinese state capitalism, still superior to anything else the West can offer.
Although the New Left may criticize the government for acting on behalf of capital, their critique actually was to begin with a reformist demand conducted on behalf of a form of nationalism. That is to say, 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. And they may be nothing truly wrong with this sort of patriotic nationalism on the part of the New Left either, if it is a form of civic nationalism aimed at the internal reform of China. It is that the nationalism of the New Left quite easily slides into apologism for Chinese imperial projects which becomes problematic.
Wang Hui. Photo credit: Алый Король/Flickr
After all, as a product of the history of Maoism, Leftism blends into nationalism in China, and it is that the New Left claims in various forms that the tradition of Maoism must be critically reappropriated for China to resist neoliberal capitalism in the present. But if Mao spoke of the “Sinicization” of Marxism, it may have been that the New Left was more interested in Leftism as a form of Chinese nationalist ideology. As such, the New Left’s critique of capitalism, lacking as it was in any true internationalist dimensions beyond concerns ultimately reducible to nationalist ones, would thereby turn around and justify China’s imperial projects in the present. We might take a look at examples from both territories and countries on China’s peripheries and beyond. Here, we find the New Left in fact leveraging the critique of nationalism in order to justify their own Chinese nationalism—but this is done in the name of leftism.
Attempts to Deconstruct Non-Chinese Forms of Identity To Justify Expansion on China’s Peripheries
IN SPITE OF being a less uncritically nationalist and more self-conscious member of the New Left, Wang Hui’s views on the Sunflower Movement or Umbrella Movement are typical. As drawing from postcolonial theory, Wang Hui attempts to point towards the historical and constructed nature of Taiwanese or Hong Kongese identity. Rather than take any of these senses of identity as legitimate, in this way, Wang Hui seeks to deconstruct the Taiwanese or Hong Kongese sense of identity in order to suggest that, with history, these senses of identity may fade.
So, then, does Wang Hui remain committed to a project of absorbing Taiwan or Hong Kong into China. Wang would point towards the universalist promises of equality in Maoism, socioeconomic and political, as a reason for Taiwan or Hong Kong to become part of China. Here the fact that these promises precisely are not met in contemporary China is not an issue for Wang and recede entirely into the background, although he may be a critic of this elsewhere where China’s present shortcomings are concerned.
Wang Hui’s views on Taiwanese or Hong Kongese identity seem to be primarily drawn from his views on Tibet and Xinjiang, in line with the view of Taiwan as a renegade province or Hong Kong and Taiwan as suffering from a colonial mentality as a result of British or Japanese colonialism. Wang marshals postcolonial theory in order to deconstruct Tibetan and Xinjiangese senses of identity by pointing to these sense of identity as historical constructs, or to point to how assertions of identity flare up in times of economic trouble and occur less in times of economic prosperity. Though not necessarily unsympathetic where the question of “dignity” is concerned, ultimately for Wang, questions of identity are reducible to questions of history or economics. As such, such forms of identity can be discounted as something which would fade away with the resolution of continued economic disparities in China or historical issues of identity.
The Legislative Yuan during the Sunflower Movement. Photo credit: Brian Hioe
Likewise, Wang Hui draws upon orientalism critique to point towards the construction of “Tibet” by western orientalism and how an orientalist vision of Tibet is drawn upon to question China, that is, how the orientalist view of Tibet is deployed in the services of a western political agenda. The New Left also tends to view Taiwan similarly, along the lines of the old view that Taiwan is propped up by the US against China. But the New Left is generally quite willing to dismiss the emergence of any non-Chinese forms of identity from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet alike as just attempts by the West to prop up non-Chinese identity act against China.
Indeed, it is true that national identities are, in fact, historical in nature. But in suggesting that the flare-ups of national or ethnic identification originate from the failures of the universalist promises of equality by the CCP, Wang nonetheless remains committed to a notion that in his abstract vision of a perfect China such senses of non-Chinese identity would dissolve away. To begin with, Wang fails to account for how even past CCP universalistic rhetoric of ethnic equality belied racial notions of Han superiority. Despite Maoist fulminations against “Great Han chauvinism,” it remained that Han were seen as civilizing barbaric non-Han ethnic minorities as Tibetans or Uighurs, what we might phrase in the way of Kipling’s “white man’s burden” as the “Han man’s burden”. Even today, we see repressive measures placed on the ability of Uighurs and Tibetans to move freely in China or to travel abroad, as conducted in the name of security measures—but more broadly reflective of systematic racism against ethnic minorities in China.
But a fear pervasive on the New Left is the possibility of China breaking apart and disintegrating the same way the Soviet Union did—which is seen as negative event where this led to a crash of the Eastern Bloc economy and a decline in the lifespan of former residents of the Soviet Union. Being the only other precedent for China as a nation-state largely preserving the territory of a premodern empire, the collapse of the Soviet Union was looked upon with much anxiety by Chinese intellectuals. Ultimately, it is of overriding importance of the New Left to keep China—or at least what they perceive to be China—together at all costs.
Umbrella Movement. Photo credit: Getty Images
Why exactly? Because the New Left remains committed to the view that China is, somehow, inherently anti-capitalist by virtue of its inherent constitution? We might point once more to the conflation of Leftism and nationalism by the New Left, by which it remains assumed that China is somehow inherently anti-capitalist. But why exactly keep China together at all costs when they are perfectly happy to tell others to dissolve their national borders?
Despite the centrality of the principle of self-determination to much of the Leftism of the 20th century, including Maoism, the New Left tellingly drops the principle of self-determination in their vision of Marxism. Contradictorily, the New Left is in fact perfectly happy to draw upon past Maoist rhetoric of third world liberation movements when it comes to, for example, justifying Chinese infrastructure building projects in Africa which have sometimes been viewed as a form of contemporary neo-imperialism. This is justified in the name of resisting western hegemony, even when this may itself be a form of imperial project, as we see with base-building projects or attempts to export Chinese economic models to Africa.
But, notably, this is apparently not applicable to countries and territories on China’s peripheries which the New Left sees as China. Or, as the anti-Japanese undercurrent of the New Left makes very visible, in regards to other Asian countries which have been longstanding enemies of China. So much for Pan-Asianism.
Attempts to Justify Imperialist Expansion Overseas in the Name of Anti-Capitalism and Anti-Imperialism
INDEED IF IT is that China claims quite often in the present that it merely wants to be equal with America and other western powers, in truth it merely aims to fill the same position that America occupied for much of the 20th century as dominant world superpower. We see this very clearly when China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or One Belt, One Road initiatives are directly modeled after the American-led IMF or World Bank. The AIIB, for example, would be a means for China to extend its political influence through economic means, in setting conditions for the restructuring of national economies through conditional loans, as America did through the IMF in the past.
In such cases as China’s export of its economic model of special economic zones, or its expensive infrastructure building projects done in the name of aid that actually saddle countries with large debts owed to China, this is not viewed as a form of neo-imperialism but as anti-capitalist “south-south cooperation” by New Left apologists, that is, this is rationalized as non-western powers allying together to resist western dominance. Yet large Chinese worker populations are displacing residents or taking over businesses in parts of Africa now and African states become beholden to China through debts and financial obligations.
Chinese troops posing for a photo in Xinjiang. Photo credit: Weibo
With recent moves to build a military base in Djibouti, we might speculate as to whether we are seeing the beginnings of a world-spanning imperialist base-building project by China in the manner that America has over 800 bases in 80 countries across the world, but this will be China’s first overseas military base. In another sign of how China broadly would like to attain a position of power similar to America’s in acting as the “world’s policeman”, China recently attempted to jump on the “war on terror” narrative in announcing that it would join with Russian efforts at combating ISIS in Syria, while simultaneously attempting justify internal efforts to suppress Uighur separatism in scrambling to establish proof of ties between Islamic militants in Xinjiang and ISIS.
But rather than criticize China’s attempts to assert its own brand of neoliberal capitalism abroad, Chinese nationalism takes precedent over international leftism for the New Left. It is ironic to note that there is an element of self-reflexivity to condemnations of American imperialism by American Leftists in regards to American bases abroad, foreign interventions as the Iraq and Afghanistan War, or the IMF and World Bank, for whom criticizing America is hardly going to affect some sense of national pride. This is hardly would be the case for the self-proclaimed leftists of the Chinese New Left. On the contrary, because China is seen as somehow inherently anti-capitalist and the US is still the greater of evils, such measures are justified as in fact anti-capitalist or at least eroding away at western imperialism.
A Failure to Think on an Internationalist Basis for Leftism: Lessons from the Chinese New Left
WE MIGHT NOTE that the Chinese New Left’s view of the world is founded upon an implicitly national basis, in which nation-states are the fundamental building blocks of the world. And it is the Chinese New Left’s view of the world on an inherently national basis which is what leads to the distortion of leftism into a form of Chinese nationalism.
What, then, of internationalism? True leftist internationalism in which anti-capitalism transcends national boundaries, with the working classes of different countries united against capitalists, drops entirely out of the picture for the New Left. To be sure, part of the positive reception of Chinese New Left has been with Leftists elsewhere attempting to find in the New Left some form of resistance to capitalism in China vaguely resembling themselves. Many Leftists have been a bit too uncritical in their desire to find an equivalent of themselves in the Chinese context in the Chinese New Left. In this way, there has failed to be critique of the New Left.
Photo credit: AFP
How do we arrive at an international anti-capitalist Left which is not reducible to forms of nationalism, but aspires beyond it? This is a question which has confronted the international Left for much of the 20th century, as we see with the many instances in which nationalism triumphed over international Leftism from the first world war to the present—with Left formations deciding that nationalist concerns trumped Leftist ones and turning around to justify their own countries’ imperialist projects. In this way, that nationalism is ultimately more important than Leftism for the Chinese New Left is hardly a historically unique phenomenon among Left formations.
This may be the valuable reminder for international Leftists in evaluating the Chinese New Left, a reminder of how with the absence of any organized international Left beyond borders, much of what claims to be Leftism is still reducible to nationalism and nationalism only. We can say this about much of what passes as leftism in Taiwan or Hong Kong, too, in fact. But it is such that the Chinese New Left deserves critique in the name of international Leftism.