Book Review: End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity

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Book Review: End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity, Wang Hui (Verso 2011)

Apologists for Beijing sometimes like to say that nobody died on Tiananmen Square in 1989. This is the kind of statement whose technical accuracy is meant to be deceptive. It’s long been documented, if not fully embedded in public understanding, that nearly all the killing on and around June 4 took place outside Tiananmen, as the PLA fought its way through to the square against the determined efforts of thousands of Beijingers, and in the days following as it asserted control of the streets by shooting people who ventured outside their doors.

On the Square itself, many if not most of the protestors had either already left or exited after student leaders negotiated local truces with PLA officers. One of these, Liu Xiaobo, has since become the beaux ideal of a Chinese dissident, at least in the eyes of many Western observers; a lonely, intermittently persecuted figure whose relentless agitation for Western style democracy eventually resulted in his promotion of the Charter 09 petition, imprisonment for attempting to ‘subvert state power’ and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Also on the Square and negotiating with the PLA that night was Wang Hui, whose post 1989 trajectory was very different. After being sent for ‘re-education’ for a year in rural Shaanxi, he chose, as did many 1989ers, to engage with the regime and build a career around the outer limits of tolerated thought, eventually becoming Professor of Chinese Language and literature at Beijing’s Tsinghua University and until 2008 editor of Dushu, (Readings) an influential literary journal.

Liu was and has remained an ardent Westernizer. Wang took a radically different path; one which led to him being regarded as the intellectual founder and leader of the New Left tendency in China (he prefers the term ‘critical intellectuals’). It’s a journey chronicled in the End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity, Verso’s compilation of Wang’s writings in translation, which roughly spans the period from Tiananmen’s aftermath to the accession of Hu Jintao as China’s President.

The book ranges over a number of topics; from reminiscences of old comrades and literary heroes – Lu Xun, in this case – to the history of indigenous Chinese political thought and the clash between the CPC’s revolutionary heritage and its adoption of capitalist modernity.

It’s not an easy book, whether down to Wang’s own cramped, list ridden style or through an awkward translation which fails to explain references that might be unfamiliar outside the context of China’s internal debates. It also suffers, I think, from a kind of bias against institutional clarity that comes as a consequence of having to work more or less within the Chinese system. While the substantive policy debate is open in China – there are probably more disagreements over policy within the CPC than between the major parties in most Western democracies – the fact of continued Communist rule is not up for discussion. So while we leave the book aware that Wang favours greater civil liberty, more democracy, broadly socialist economic policies, stronger environmental protection and an antihegemonic geopolitical order, we’re much less clear as to what political structures he believes are necessary to bring these things about, though we do get a strong impression that he believes they can be derived mainly from China’s own traditions of political thought.

But what makes End of the Revolution a necessary read for Westerners is that it puts China itself at the centre of recent Chinese history in a way that most contemporary readings fail to do. Even though the end of the end of history has been recently acknowledged, not least by Fukuyama himself, developments within the PRC over the reform period still tend to be framed in the context of a political and economic ‘journey to the West’, an interpretation favoured not only by most foreign observers but by the broadly ‘liberal’ tendency in dissident thought in China itself.

In Wang’s view, the early years of the reform period represented a kind of refoundation of Communist Party authority. The household responsibility system introduced from 1978 onwards, for instance, resembled closely the original land reforms of the post 1949 period, just as the intellectual ferment that immediately bubbled up after Maoist ideological controls were relaxed harked back to the revolutionary enthusiasm of that period.

Things began to change when the focus of government policy shifted to the cities and towards developing pro-market economic policies in a context where urban residents had been accustomed to depend on everything from jobs to cheap food to housing assigned to them ultimately by the state. At the same time, Beijing tried to rein in what it believed to be promiscuous intellectual behaviour, both on campuses and within the Communist Party and its organs.

The result was the series of urban uprisings in 1989, which found their most prominent expression at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Where conventional accounts have the uprising as a student movement intent on bringing about political democracy, in Wang’s account, the students were part of a broad urban social movement whose grievances had at least as much to do with the marketization of the economy as continued Communist Party control. And for Wang, the violent suppression of the movement was simply another means of carrying this marketization further.

That was also the view of Deng Xiaoping, who is quoted saying as much shortly afterwards in The Tiananmen Papers, a promise he duly delivered on when serious opening to foreign investment began after his Southern tour in 1992. This is a fact that tends to be overlooked in a conventional narrative which sees Tiananmen as a brief triumph of reaction before a gradual reassertion of openness, ‘openness’ in this context being a matter the establishment of what are officially termed in China Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprises and the slow but sure penetration of famous global brands.

One of the minor values of Wang’s reading of events is that it does allow us to see what apologists are up to when they claim that no-one died ‘on the Square’. More importantly, it’s a view that sees popular discontent in China as a process whereby people try to take back power for themselves rather than push China towards western political and economic norms.

For Beijing, the effect of 1989 was to stabilize China and enable the Party to lead it into the international economic order as the workshop of the world, friendly to foreign capital and broadly co-operative to the US led global political agenda. In doing so, it presided over a country beset increasingly by staggering levels of inequality, massive environmental degradation, gross corruption and the establishment of a truly vicious nexus between official power and private money. In this, he is prescient if not prophetic, outlining the kind of circumstance in which China’s many so called mass group uprisings – like the one late last year at Wukan village – were bound to occur.

Yet one problem with this analysis is that, rather like the ‘journey to the West’ narrative, it fails to give the Communist Party sufficient credit for both adaptability and resilience. Both Wang and the ‘Westernizers’ believed that once China was open for business, it would be therefore open to influence. Wang believed that this would bolster rather than weaken authoritarian government, and has been proved right.

Yet at the same time, China can hardly be described as a cadet nation in either domestic or foreign policy. Abroad, it has become a militantly status quo power in an interventionist age. At home, it combines a big state with a huge market, including millions of enterprises that don’t fit into either public or private sector paradigms. It is a Leninist state whose social protections make the US look like a paragon of generosity. And so on. Rather than simply becoming a conventional agent of capitalist modernity, it has developed the capacity to shape global events simply by pursuing its own course.

This is something that Western analysts have now largely come round to accepting, more or less grudgingly: the penny seems to have dropped sometime around the Beijing Olympics. Wang’s essays chart China’s development until the early years of the last decade, so we don’t get the chance to see here how his overall analysis has developed since then. It would have been interesting, for instance, to see what he would make of last year’s increasingly plaintive attempts by various EU actors to get China to bail out the Euro. More generally, I wonder if he would have found something recognisable in the marked tendency of Western states to become more authoritarian even as they continue to pursue models of market reform. Perhaps we’ll find out sometime.

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3 Responses

  1. B. Rand

    January 11, 2012 4:26 am

    To what extent do the current power elites believe in marxist socio-economic ideals? Does this reviewed book help answer the question?

  2. jamie

    January 11, 2012 5:24 pm

    I would say not at all. The language of Marxism is still significant in the Party’s verbal and written lexicon, and there are what you might call ancestral Maoists playing decorative roles here and there, but when the CPC uses words like socialism, for instance, it really just means ‘whatever it is that the party is doing right now’. This is implicit in the book since it argues for a less pro-market, less western friendly stance.

    One of Deng Xiaoping’s less famous dictums to the party was ‘oppose the left and guard against the right’ and that’s pretty much what it does, people like Bo Xilai’s excursion into kitsch Maoism notwithstanding.

  3. B. Rand

    January 13, 2012 4:07 am

    Your comment/explanation “it really just means ‘whatever it is that the party is doing right now’” could just as easily be applied to Labour and Parti Socialiste usage in the countries of Western Europe nowadays, couldn’t it?