Depoliticized Politics and the End of the Short Twentieth Century in China
A talk by Wang Hui
by Honghong Ma & Hiroki Takeuchi
Eminent Chinese scholar and “critical intellectual” (as he calls himself) Wang Hui spoke to a full house of enthusiastic scholars, students, and friends of the Center for Chinese Studies, on January 20, on the fundamental flaw, as he sees it, in China’s massive reform movement of the past thirty years.
To the conventional wisdom that the so-called post-Mao reform has led China out of its murky past into a bright new world of modernity, progress, wealth, and hope, Wang Hui responded with a resounding “No!”
Instead, China’s headlong rush to “reform” has undermined the once-cherished value of equality and led to gaping social and economic disparities and political corruption. This, Wang argued, has only been possible because China’s leaders and intellectuals studiously disregard the lessons of the 1960s, the heyday of revolutionary China.
Disappearance of the 1960s and Depoliticization
Wang Hui, professor in the Department of Chinese at Qinghua University and an editor of the influential journal Dushu (Readings), began by sketching the different meanings of the 1960s for the Western world and the Asian world.
In the West, especially in European countries, the 1960s was a time when the nation-state system and the concept of the party state began to be fundamentally questioned. In Asia, on the other hand, the 1960s was a time when nationalist revolutions gathered momentum.
In China’s case, Wang Hui continued, the nationalist revolution of the 1960s -- spurred by China’s bitter dispute with the Soviet Union -- gave birth to a policy of strict self-reliance. In fact, this was more than a policy; it was a fundamental standpoint. Standing on it’s own, revolutionary China rejected the capitalist hegemony of the United States while simultaneously opposing the socialist hegemony of the Soviet Union. This standpoint, which reflected China’s fundamental approach to international society, influenced revolutionary movements in India, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
Wang pointed out that discussions about the 1960s in China, however, have a unique characteristic: complete silence. This is because China today shuns the very idea of “revolution” itself. In China since the 1970s and the Cultural Revolution, there has been a backlash against the concept of “revolution,” based on disillusionment with the gap between the ideals and realities of the Cultural Revolution. It is this backlash, Wang contended, that has led to a denial of the 1960s. In a word, the entire decade has been consigned to oblivion. This is not only a denial of Chinese revolutions, such as the Cultural Revolution and the 1949 revolution, but -- Wang Hui continued -- also a denial of foreign revolutions, such as the Russian Revolution and the French Revolution, which the Chinese people had praised during the Maoist period.
In fact, Wang argued, the denial of the 1960s has led to a denial of the twentieth century itself, or more precisely, to a reduction of the twentieth century to its last two decades. Consequently, the true identity of the twentieth century, as Wang put it, has disappeared from people’s minds. In such a situation, it is difficult for the current generation of young Chinese to understand the twentieth century.
Thus Wang proposes to recall the 1960s, so to speak. Only by doing so, Wang argued, can the people of China begin to understand what they have lost during the two decades of the “short twentieth century.” For instance, Wang pointed out that when Chinese workers attempt to assert their rights, they find there are no laws to protect them. One reason, Wang stated, is the complete denial of the Cultural Revolution, including the right to strike, which was protected during the Cultural Revolution but taken away by the post-Mao Constitution.
Wang emphasized two points to understanding politics: (1) politics depends on what political subjectivity establishes; and (2) politics consists of a constant struggle over who has the right to rule whom. Just as the depoliticization of politics makes politics more independent of what political subjectivity establishes, so the disappearance of “revolution” robs society of the very concept of “class.”
Wang remarked that throughout the twentieth century, “politics” and “party” were closely related. Both China and the Soviet Union established the same sort of party-state system, the single-party political system, which was basically unlike the Western plural-party political system. However, the debate between Mao Zedong and Khrushchev threw China’s party-state system into crisis.
Wang explained that through Mao’s debate with Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders, Mao established an interesting standpoint, attacking the Chinese Communisty Party (CCP) and challenging the party-state system while maintaining his position as the supreme leader of the party. The denouement of this unusual act of both challenging the party and leading it was the Cultural Revolution, invoked by Mao to mobilize the ordinary people to destroy the ruling party organization.
In this sense, Mao’s invocation of the Cultural Revolution was fraught with contradictions from the outset. The ironic outcome was that Mao actually strengthened the party-state system while transforming it. In short, Wang pointed out, what emerged from the Cultural Revolution was a “state-party” system. Through this process, the Chinese Communist Party became a part of the state system.
Wang pointed out that since the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping rose to power, pragmatism gradually took hold of Chinese thought. Under Deng’s pragmatism, debates about political ideology disappeared and an experimentalism emphasizing trial-and-error reforms emerged as the mainstream. Intellectuals came to accept that practice should come first. This was very different from the 1960s, when it was a conventional norm that unless you have revolutionary theory, you should not exercise revolutionary practice.
Deng’s “white cat, black cat” theory (“No matter if it’s a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it’s a good cat") epitomizes the sort of experimentalism and pragmatism that has gripped post-Mao China. Wang contended that China’s intellectual debates provided the theoretical basis of Deng’s pragmatic policies. For instance, according to Wang, such important CCP leaders as Xue Muqiao, Sun Yefang, and Chen Yun, established the theoretical parameters of the economic debates in the late 1970s that led to the “opening” of the Chinese economy, while Hu Qiaomu, Deng Xiaoping himself, and other leaders drew the boundaries of the political debates of the early 1980s. These political debates, Wang declared, completely denied the Cultural Revolution and strengthened the idea of the “state-party” system. Overall, Wang concluded, Deng detested the very notion of classes and revolutions. Insisting on the suppression of debates about political ideologies, Deng replaced them with debates about public administration.
Wang Hui stressed that, while most of the debates occurred within the party during the 1980s, many debates have occurred outside of the party since the 1990s.
Depoliticization and Class
The vocabulary of public discourse in twentieth-century China was dominated by the words “class,” “revolution,” and “state,” but today Chinese intellectuals no longer use these terms. It is ironic, Wang argued, that intellectuals no longer talk about classes when conflict between classes has mushroomed in China.
Tracing the historical role of “class,” Wang argued that class was a structural concept for Mao. Mao believed it was crucial to distinguish between “enemies” and “friends” among the classes, but he also believed that if an enemy class participated in the United Front, it moved from being an “enemy” to being a “friend.” For Mao, peasants were the subject of revolution. They were a faithful and reliable ally. At the same time, peasants were the object of revolution. With this dual definition of the peasant class, Mao tried to create a new class subjectivity in the Chinese Communist Revolution.
Conversely, the disappearance of class caused the disappearance of class subjectivity. Since the late twentieth century, the Chinese have rejected the entire concept of “class politics.” However, as Wang observed, in reality, everywhere one turns one sees splits between the classes. Thus, new contradictions, to use Mao’s term, have emerged.
On that note, Wang ended his two-hour-long talk. Following a reception, more than half of the audience stayed for another two hours, discussing with Wang his ideas, and debating the provocative points he raised.
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Honghong Ma is a doctoral candidate in Asian Languages & Cultures. Her focus is on modern and contemporary Chinese fiction; transnational/dDiaspora/overseas Chinese literature; Chinese/Vietnamese/Asian American literature; and postmodernism & cultural theories.
Hiroki Takeuchi is a Faculty Fellow in the Department of Political Science. His research interests include rural politics in China; politics in authoritarian countries; the political economy of state-society Relations; the political economy of trade in China; and the political economy of market integration in China. His doctoral dissertation, completed last year, is on "Rural Tax Reform and Authoritarian Rule in China."
Published: Monday, January 29, 2007