by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Xinhua
A RECENT ESSAY by McKenzie Wark on Chinese New Left intellectual Wang Hui published on Verso Books’ blog proves an exercise in western academic leftists’ lack of knowledge of Asia and their inadvertent support of individuals with politics that they would likely find repulsive, if not for lack of sufficient knowledge about Asia and wishful desire to find analogues to themselves in non-western countries. Wang, a leading figure of the Chinese New Left, is among a series of individuals that Wark promotes in his recent book, General Intellects, which seems aimed to be a sort of “Who’s Who” of supposedly international thinkers relevant to the contemporary Left. The primary three figures included in the book to represent “Asian” political thought and the political situation of Asian countries are Wang Hui from China, and Kojin Karatani and Hiroki Azuma, both of Japan.
Notably all three of these are East Asian individuals. And no surprise that all three are individuals with a large amount of work translated into English, presumably given Wark’s inability to read Chinese, Japanese, or any other Asian language. Namely, western academic leftists are always on the lookout for individuals to see as equivalents of themselves in western contexts, despite insufficient knowledge of Asia. Thinkers as Wang, Karatani, and Azuma then, are among those promoted by western academic leftists because they use similar theoretical vocabulary to western leftists that allows them to be read as analogues to western leftists but are sufficiently “native” that they can be held up as genuinely and authentically of these non-western contexts. Although this sometimes smacks of tokenism, this also reflects the lack of knowledge as well as myopia of a western left which oftens sees itself as international in nature but is far from being international enough.
Western leftists as Wark, then, can therefore find a convenient sense of confirmation their beliefs being genuinely international ones through non-western leftists seeming to have similar beliefs. And the western leftist can also make up for their lack of sufficient knowledge of non-western contexts, by taking the views of the non-western leftist at their word what the Left position in a non-western context is. Wang is a particularly striking example of this, as someone who is taken as having the last word on China for major western theorists including David Harvey, Naomi Klein, and others. One observes that in the writing of Harvey and Klein, almost all citations about anything that has to do with China are taken from Wang’s work.
Apart from an exercise in intellectual laziness for supposedly internationally-oriented leftists in accepting one individual’s take on China as summing up all of the world’s most populous nation, this is also intellectual laziness by any means given how much information on China or other Asian countries is available in English. Unsurprisingly, this ultimately leads to poor, naive, even politically repulsive political conclusions about contemporary China. Through a careful analysis of Wark’s take on Wang, we can see how Wark simply accepts Wang as the representative final word of Chinese leftism and gives Wang a pass on reprehensible views which he should really be called out on, rather than critically evaluate Wang’s claims in any real way. Fundamentally, this likely comes from the view that Wang’s views originate from an alien land and so cannot be evaluated by the same standards as western leftism which takes place at the same time as an exoticization of Wang’s views as a form of non-western, Chinese leftism—again, a failure to be truly international in one’s leftism.
Wark Blindly Accepting Culturalist And Self-Exoticizing Claims About China By Wang
FOR SOMEONE WHO has himself professed discomfort with Leninism and has sought to see in Bogdanov a lost possibility of the Russian Revolution that might have led to less authoritarian outcomes for the USSR, it is bizarre to watch Wark justify Wang’s statist views, apologism for contemporary Chinese imperialism and capitalism, and self-orientalizing Chinese nationalism. If Wark finds the eventual course that the history of the USSR took to be so repulsive, why does he not feel the same about China? Namely, Wark allows himself to be caught up in the Orientalist exoticization about 20th century Chinese history that Wang advances, something altogether too seductive to many western leftists, and fails to apply the same intellectual criticality to China which he does to the Soviet Union, apparently with the view that the Soviet Union can be critically censured because it was a “western” nation (Although of course, views of Russia as “Eastern”, “Oriental”, or “Asian” nation were commonplace in the early 20th century, this is no longer the case, with Russia more usually framed as part of Europe in contemporary political discourse).
Workers constructing a temporary display of the hammer and sickle in Tiananmen Square in 2011. Photo credit: Feng Li/Getty Images
As Wark states in his gloss on Wang’s intellectual thought, “Both the achievements and the failures of the Chinese Communist Party are on an unprecedented scale. And yet, given that much of the fate of global capitalism now rests in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, China’s twentieth century cannot be left out of the formation of concepts for thinking and acting in and against these times.” For Wang, this means that the Chinese Communist Party should be affirmed rather than abandoned, particularly as a form of resistance against neoliberalism after Deng era economic reforms which introduced the free market into China, and led to the current economic inequalities which run rampant in China today. Consequently, the party-state must control capital, as a way of subjugating the excesses of capitalism.
But Wang defends against the claim that party rule is merely dictatorial, with the claim that the “mass line,” an innovation of Maoism, allows the party-state mechanism to serve as the means of realizing the people’s will. As Wark states, “The mass line means: all for the masses, all by the masses, from the masses to the masses. The mass line may have connections in Confucian tradition. Attention to rites and music (liyi) and not just statutory measures (zhidu) help create and maintain a kind of regulatory order, what Wang calls supra-representation.” Wang also draws analogy between the party and the Gramscian notion of the party as the modern prince.
Wang further defends the claim that the Chinese political system quintessentially does not operate states within the logic of western political systems by asserting that. As Wark states. directly quoting Wang here, “If a state’s political system has a strong capacity to respond to problems, it indicates that the society contains elements of and a potential for democracy. But because our theories on democracy focus so intently on its political form, they have neglected these substantive potentials.” Put more simply, when we read closely, this is actually a claim that western theory cannot explain China’s political system, which is why Wang continues to affirm the need for control by the party-state against what ignorant westerners would say. Phrased in absolute terms, this is the choice between affirming the Chinese party-state or, in Wark’s words, “the perverse argument that since socialist states failed to achieve their goals we should abandon socialism for a kind of state that seems to have the opposite aim: increasing inequality so as to accelerate the destruction of its natural conditions of existence.”
Yet is this not mere apologia for statist rule by the party? The Communist Party of the Soviet Union similar claimed that it was democratic and the party-state was a means of realizing the will of the people in a way that was not realized by western democracies. As Nietzsche said, altogether wisely, “A state, is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” So, too, with Wang’s claim that the CCP must be affirmed in order to grasp onto the leftist legacies of the CCP and that the CCP speaks for the Chinese people. If anything, the CCP has also been a historical oppressor of the Chinese working class, something which continues and not in spite of China’s prevalent social inequalities in the present with the political rule of the wealthy elites of the Chinese Communist Party working together with the Chinese national bourgeoisie.
Performance celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 2011. Photo credit: Feng Li/Getty Images
Why then does Wark not feel allergic to this statist argumentation, but instead gives Wang a pass and affirms his work? Transposed to a different context, this would be no different, really, than the notion that contemporary Russia under Vladimir Putin, all its social equalities, and its rule by capitalist oligarchs must be defended because it is still a “deformed workers’ state”, as the Spartacist League or others would claim. Or that because Putin sometimes sees fit to draw on the history of Soviet Union as part of the Russian nationalism he embraces, never mind that this is an amorphous form of nationalism which draws on both the Soviet Union and the Tsarist Russian empire overthrown by the Soviet Union, the contemporary Russian state must be defended. So, too, with contemporary China under Xi Jinping in which contemporary Chinese nationalist intellectuals—which is what Wang is fundamentally—in their vision of nationalism draw amorphously on the 5,000 history of China, an invented tradition at best, along with the history of Maoist China which, contradictorily enough, was actually the political force which overthrew dynastic, imperial China. In summoning up abstractions about a nation, nationalism always compresses historical contradictions, and this is no different of the nationalism of Wang or other members of the Chinese New Left.
But probably why Wark lets this pass blindly because Wang can phrase what are fundamentally statist and nationalist concepts in the language of western theory, so as to seem as someone on the same page as western leftists as Wark. However, where a western leftist making similar arguments that reek of underlying nationalism using such theoretical vocabulary would probably receive censure for the same claims from Wark, Wark is awed into non-criticism because Wang justifies his claims about China by resorting to self-orientalizing, culturalist depictions of China.
Indeed, is it not inherently a culturalist claim suggesting the “rites and music” of the ancient ideology of Chinese Confucianism (or the work of early 20th century Buddhist-Daoist thinker Zhang Taiyang’s cosmological and religious notion of the “equality of all things”) are how one may claim that the Chinese Communist Party differs from other attempts at “socialism in one country” in western contexts? And for Wark, who cites this approvingly, this convinces Wark that China is fundamentally different from the West, and this is what allows Wang to convince Wark into spurious claims about contemporary China, including uncritical support of the CCP? Should it not be evident that this a self-orientalizing and a claim which is fundamentally culturally exceptionalist?
This bespeaks a great deal of Chinese exceptionalism on the part of Wang and would be fuzzy thinking at best and Orientalist exoticization at worst for Wark, then. While Wark claims that Wang’s work is far from “nostalgic revision to Maoist pieties”, it vaguely seems to be western romanticization for Mao era China which leads Wark to such misguided conclusions. Should we not have learned that from the last century that the Soviet Union and other nations which sought to realize “socialism in country” tended to justify their nationalism and domestic repression by claiming that their form of nationalism was somehow uniquely anti-capitalist, in an exceptionalist manner, as compared to every other form of nationalism in all hitherto human history?
So, too, with the PRC, except Orientalist mystification and exoticization leads Wark to give China a blank pass, perhaps somehow thinking that China is “outside” of western logic. Elsewhere in the same essay, Wark cites approvingly claims by Wang that China is not, in fact a nation-state in the western sense, but a civilization, unwittingly justifying ethnic repression within Chinese borders by defending Wang’s claims that China needs to be kept together as a multi-ethnic nation, and excitedly even speculates that China may be “post-industrial,” sounding vaguely like it masks a claim that China has reached some new peak of civilizational development which no other nation in the world has.
Yet never mind how overtly nationalist this should be, probably the fact that Wang can also cite Gramsci and the notion of the modern prince, the concept of reification, cites Chantal Mouffe, Baudrillard, and Carl Schmitt, and coin fancy theoretical-sounding phrases as “supra-representation” adds further to Wark becoming convinced that Wang is a genuine example of Chinese leftism, a counterpart to Wark himself and other western academic leftists. One does well to remember that these days, even the contemporary white American nationalists of the “Alt-Right” cite Adorno, discuss accelerationalism, object oriented ontology, speculative realism, or what have you.
All this is simply apologia for the Chinese state, then, which acts against Chinese workers and in defense of the Chinese national bourgeoisie, and is defended by nationalist intellectuals such as Wang who dress up their nationalism in the garb of leftism given China’s history. There are nationalisms of both left and right varieties, as well as distinctions to be drawn between relatively harmless forms of civic nationalism and ethno-nationalism, although we do well to remember that seemingly mild forms of civic left nationalism can unpredictable shift in nature to become right-wing ethno-nationalism. But either way, we should do well fundamentally Wang does not speak truly in defense of Chinese workers, but argues for the primacy of the Chinese state. And while Wang claims that the state is a way to dominate unchecked capital and bourgeois domination, we should perhaps remember Marx’s words, that the state is nothing more than “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. But Wark allows himself to be seduced by Wang’s claims about the exceptionalism of the Chinese state as compared to western states even where he is elsewhere more critical of statist notions.
Ultimately The Result Of A Lack Of Knowledge About Contemporary China
AND SO GIVEN Wark’s characterization of Wang, one generally thinks from all this that Wark actually has quite little knowledge of contemporary China and the position of Chinese New Left intellectuals relative to the state. Far from some dissident Marxist critic of the Chinese state dominated by bureaucrats in the mold of Deng, under the resurgent nationalism of the Xi Jinping administration in which China has once again embraced claims to be “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Wang Hui has the nickname of “National Professor” (國師), has been feted numerous times by the CCP, and, though sometimes still having keen insights, is not so different from an ideologue of the state. Wang even recently co-taught a class with Daniel A. Bell, the leading apologist for Chinese state-centered capitalism.
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. The China model takes precedent and we see in this a sign that it vaguely does not matter anymore for the New Left whether or not it is claimed that the “China model” differs from western capitalism because it is anti-capitalist, post-capitalist, or just some better variety of capitalism, so long as it is claimed that it is fundamentally superior to western models in a manner which satisfies Chinese nationalism.
And so under the resurgent nationalism of Xi Jinping administration, in which the Chinese state has been strengthened greatly, despite the historical claims of the Chinese New Left that they are opposed to the Liberals that wish for further free market reforms in China, both in part seem have to come together in a strange synthesis. Thus, the much-vaunted distinction that Chinese New Leftists draw between themselves and the Liberals is dead—they have now come together in a form of synthesis. Elements of the Chinese New Left also increasingly drift towards advocacy of traditional Chinese culture, such as a revival of Confucianism.
Leftism was arguably always a form of Chinese nationalism for members of the Chinese New Left as Wang, with the view that leftism was a tradition of China, but now there is no need for this, and in a time period in which Chinese power is exerted most strongly through its capitalist economy, and some members of the New Left drift away from the critique of capitalism and towards more direct traditionalism. Unsurprisingly, Wang has acted to defend the spread of Chinese capital globally by making such arguments as that China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative to build trade ties with the Middle East as anti-capitalist in nature, something which seemed far too uncritical and directly nationalistic for even many members of the New Left.
Never mind that this takes place at the same time as an unprecedented crackdown on labor NGOs and the arrest of high-profile labor activists such as independent citizen journalist Lu Yuyu and his partner Li Tingyu, the premier reporter of protests in China not reported by Chinese media through their website “Not The News”, recently sentenced to four years in prison, and noted activists as “Super Vulgar Butcher” Wu Gan, known for highly theatrical and humorous forms of protest despite high personal risk. Or the arrest of feminist and LGBTQ activists who were simply campaigning against sexual harassment, and the shuttering of feminist and LGBTQ organizations, with the view that they are a possible threat to state power? That the current generation of the CCP, including Xi Jinping, is an aristocracy which inherited their wealth and political power from their high-ranking parents, and that Xi and other current party leaders have stored their wealth outside of China in offshore financial accounts? Or that the party is hardly the means of restraining unchecked capitalism in China, but precisely has allowed for the continued exploitation of Chinese workers in order to build up the national economy and strengthen the Chinese national bourgeoisie in order to compete with the western bourgeoisie—is that what the Chinese state restraining capitalism means or supposedly only allowing capitalism to selectively influence China means?
Indeed, as for Wark’s failure to note such developments, as stated, this in part stems from a genuine lack of knowledge about China, inadequate language skills, and that members of the Chinese New Left sometimes closet the direct nationalism of their views in the English-speaking world in order to maintain an audience for themselves in the international world. But generally we note that western leftists have long had strong tendency to give capitalist and dictatorial regimes a pass if they seem to oppose western imperialism, as in the phenomenon of “Third Worldism”. This is presumably out of a sense of guilt about own status as westerners.
Obviously, China was one of the formulators of “Three Worlds theory,” and so it is not surprising that Wark retains this nostalgic, throwback views about China—except that in the decades since, China has grown to become an imperialist power whose might is only rivalled by the United States. Most disgracefully, Wark’s lack of knowledge about China is quite striking with regard to his acceptance of Wang’s defense of China being a multi-ethnic empire, or at least state. What this means for Wang is apologia for the systemic racism which occurs in outer China, with the justification of state repression against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Tibet, and other areas.
China recently confiscated the passports of all residents of the Uighur majority Xinjiang region, ordered the installation of GPS trackers in all cars in the Uighur-majority Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture in northwest Xinjiang, and stages massive military rallies in order to cow the population into fear. And given the numerous photos taken by state-run media or the official press releases which Chinese state-run media is happy to circulate, it is not as though this can be dismissed as simply western propaganda.
Xinjiang is a fascinating and horrifying example of a Foucauldian surveillance and police state in the process of construction, with few parallels in the world, but this is little known among western leftists such as Wark, and scarcely discussed at all. Instead, pretty theoretical phrasings about China from Wang which ultimately resolve to the claim that non-Han forms of ethnic identity in Tibet or Xinjiang will fade into Han identity with time, as in past essays of Wang’s in which Wang more or less accuses Tibetan identity of being a western construct created as an attempt to undermine China in order to justify Chinese claims of sovereignty over Tibet, proves occluding of what the actual conditions on the ground are in China. These purely theoretical arguments, perhaps all the more effective for playing on a sense of guilt from western leftists about western foreign interventions, have been sufficiently persuasive for many western leftists to turn their eyes away from reality.
But quoting a common Chinese idiom which western leftists have somehow mythologized into some great unique theoretical contribution of Mao’s rather than Mao casually quoting a truism, did not Mao say that one must seek the truth from the facts? What this bespeaks more than anything else is lack of knowledge of China and a failure of western leftists who claim to be internationally oriented to genuinely seek knowledge of non-western political contexts, instead preferring to romanticize and exoticize these contexts in a way which occludes understanding and, satisfies their own sense of guilt for western foreign interventions, and, in fact, consequently comes to justify domestic repression—nothing for new for the western Left at all, as we see not only in China, but also the Middle East, Latin America, and many other places.
WARK’S TAKE ON Wang simply continues the long tendency of western leftists to exoticize China and give Chinese nationalists a pass, then, with the perception that “western” logic and theory ends at a certain point. This is what allows what be readily apparent as nationalism to pass off as leftism in their eyes. But this is a longstanding tendency of the western left and one does not truly expect it to pass in the present. Third worldism and the support for authoritarian regimes it oftentimes leads to is alive and well.
Indeed, sometimes one wonders whether a thought ever crosses western academic leftists about the actual worker’s movement in China, which is completely at a remove from New Left thinkers such as Wang. Wang, along with the Chinese New Left, are sometimes not seen as leftists by Chinese labor organizers, but as mere apologists for the state at this point, yet this seems to escape many western academic leftists—even those that study China and wish to make leftist interventions into China have a tendency to take Wang as a sort of end-all-be-all Chinese leftism to the international world. A failure to be critical of Wang’s claims, even ridiculous, self-orientalizing claims in which culturalist nationalism should be self-evident, also occurs because of too eagerly wishing to find an “authentic” Chinese Left which seems to be an equivalent to western academic leftism yet sufficiently different as to seem “exotic” and “native”, as authentically Chinese and non-western, with third worldist Maoist nostalgia taking precedent over keeping track of contemporary struggles in China such as labor struggles or underground feminist organizing—causes which always find themselves up against the Chinese party-state.
And so, part of this also returns to that academic leftism has a tendency of ignoring actually existent worker’s struggles in favor of highbrow theory, creating castles in the air which have no relation to reality at all rather than bringing theory and social reality to dialectically bear on each other. But knowledge has a tendency to lag behind understanding all too often. The owl of Minerva sets flight at dusk, after all. But, more broadly, as a poor attempt at internationalism, the struggles to develop a truly international Left are as real as ever if this is the level at which attempts at building a truly international Left intellectual discourse remains.