The Left is Alright
Social critic Wang Hui has been called an anti- reformist, a defender of authoritarianism, a crusader for centralization, and much worse. Outspoken, prolific, and with a strong international background, is he the cosmopolitan voice of China’s new Left?
Photo by Liu Guanguan ￼
"China’s political system has its own unique historical context and path,” Wang Hui, reclining in an armchair, told NewsChina. “The crisis of China’s contemporary political system is a global one. We need to think about how to overcome the fundamental disconnect between the political system and social structure.”
Wang Hui’s office is tucked away in the southwestern corner of Tsinghua Park, on the campus of Tsinghua University, a quiet spot surrounded by trees. He has been working here, as a professor in the School of Humanities, for eleven years. However, in contrast to the placid suroundings he enjoys at his day-job, Wang hardly gets a moment’s peace in his personal life.
Over the past two decades, Wang has gained notoriety for advocating the expansion of State power as a cure for corruption and social injustice, for his denial of globalization, and his distaste for market economy. Meanwhile, he also supports what he calls “mass democracy,” a concept that liberals tend to call “populism.” Labeled a leader of the “New Left,” he has endured his fair share of heated debates.
Wang, however, is reluctant to accept the mantle. “I am not the so-called ‘leader,’ since I have neither the capability nor the desire to be that,” he told NewsChina. “I am simply a fairly dedicated researcher.”
In the 1980s, Wang Hui was admitted to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as a Ph.D candidate, and he has been involved in academic research ever since. In 1996, he became executive editor of Dushu – a highly influential cultural criticism magazine – steering its content away from the theoretical, and towards more realistic societal problems. In 2002, he began teaching at Tsinghua University.
Since the early 1990s, Wang Hui has spent nearly half his time overseas, delivering lectures or conducting field research. However, despite his undeniably international outlook, he is adamant that China should not become “Westernized.” Unlike intellectuals of more liberal sympathies, Wang does not blame the current political system for China’s social tension and problems. Instead, he blames excessive privatization and neo-liberalism.
Wang Hui was born in Yangzhou, Jiangsu, in 1959. He studied Chinese Language as an undergraduate, before moving on to postgraduate studies in modern literature. In 1985, Wang entered the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, moving to Beijing to work on his Ph.D.
In the 1980s, with the launch of China’s market-oriented economic reforms, many academics gradually turned their attention to new social theories, and some took with enthusiasm to Western thinking. In Beijing, the political and cultural center of China, intellectuals participated in a series of cultural and ideological “enlightenment movements,” and many later became firm defenders of liberalism.
Wang Hui was an exception. While he had experienced the newly broadened horizons and enthusiastic theoretical exploration in the capital’s academic circle, he “felt uncomfortable with certain exaggerated self-centered habits in this atmosphere.” Although he participated in various discussions on culture in Beijing at that time, he often found himself “mentally distant from the surrounding environment.”
In 1988, Wang Hui took up a position at the Cultural Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. At the end of that year, for the seventieth anniversary of China’s New Culture Movement, he published an article titled “Prophesy and Crisis,” in which he warned of a potential internal crisis formenting in Beijing’s “enlightenment movements,” and the factors that could lead them to self-deconstruct as the New Culture Movement had.
In 1990, Wang was dispatched to work in Shanyang County, Shaanxi Province. This county, located deep in the Qinling Mountains, was one of the poorest areas in China. After leaving Beijing, Wang began to get acquainted with a China far from the ivory tower of Beijing academia.
Twelve years after Reform and Opening-up, land reform in the countryside transferred land ownership away from rural communes, allowing individual households to rent land from the government. This greatly increased farmers’ enthusiasm for production, and resulted in a continued rise in agricultural output.
However, in Shanyang, due to the dissolution of the People’s Communes, the local government was unable to organize and manage the towns and villages under its administration. According to Wang, this resulted in disorder and crime, and violent conflict would often flare up in cases where land ownership was in dispute.
“In Beijing, we believed that the reform had solved all the problems in the countryside. The elite in Beijing were not discussing these problems,” said Wang. “I found we had become too elitist.”
Life in the countryside provided Wang with a better understanding of the crisis left behind after the commune system was dissolved. The striking contrast between rural life and life in Beijing gave him a new perspective on China’s problems.
Ten months later, Wang returned to Beijing, where he went on to found a magazine, The Scholar, with a group of friends. The magazine mainly featured essays on modern progressive ideologues.
In Search of an Alternative
At the end of 1991, China was shocked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, its socialist neighbor to the north. While liberal intellectuals celebrated the change, others were nervous.
In October 1993, conflict between the Russian parliament and then President Boris Yeltsin came to a head when Yeltsin commanded the army to storm parliament, resulting in a deadly 10-day conflict later called the Russian constitutional crisis, from which Yeltsin emerged victorious. For Wang Hui, a visiting scholar in the US at the time, this was a decisive moment. Before this, many Chinese intellectuals had had high hopes for the process of democratization in Russia and the former Eastern Bloc. However, Yeltsin’s use of force made Wang begin to question the future of China’s own privatization drive.
At the time, market reform was being promoted on a large scale in China, and the wealth gap was beginning to grow rapidly. Meanwhile, in the process of development, power had become a commodity, resulting in rampant corruption.
Wang argued that just as the dissolution of rural communes had brought disorder in the countryside, market-oriented reform and privatization was to blame for corruption and the widening wealth gap. Meanwhile, the “democratized” former communist states of Russia and eastern Europe had failed to deliver economic prosperity and social justice to their people.
Wang, who spent much time overseas in the mid- to late-1990s, began to argue that it was impossible for China to borrow its development model from the West, and had to find its own unique method of transformation.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, Wang wrote a series of papers in response to what he saw as a crisis in Chinese society, criticizing the contemporary trend of neo-liberalism. In his view, by placing hope in marketization and the values of neo-liberalism, China’s intellectuals were losing the ability to understand and criticize contemporary issues.
In 1996, Wang Hui took the position of executive editor at Dushu, a magazine whose title literally translates as “reading books.” After taking over, Wang began to introduce coverage of contemporary issues that had rarely been discussed, ranging from rural problems, to feminism, to ecology.
Although a wide range of conflicting opinions were voiced in Dushu, the magazine’s new direction angered many liberal scholars, who accused it of becoming the general headquarters of the “New Left.” In the view of his critics, Wang Hui’s support for the expansion of State power was tantamount to defending dictatorship. Also, critic Qin Hui pointed out that “neo-liberals,” who, in the West, argue against the expansion of government, do not exist in China, as the Chinese government in fact provides very few public services. He accused Wang of inventing pseudo-propositions, and pointed out that China’s “neo-liberals” often insisted on increasing State welfare and responsibility.
In 1997, Wang Hui published an article titled “Ideological Situations and Modernity Problems in Contemporary China,” in which he made an overall analysis of the ideological theory circle in contemporary China, and proposed that it was necessary to “reconsider China’s development pattern under new global conditions.” Many of the opinions in Wang’s articles became major points of contention between liberals and the New Left.
Wang told NewsChina that as the division of the intellectual community intensified, his “peaceful academic life began to become caught up in an ideological tornado the likes of which had never been seen, and one that has continued to the present day.”
His opponents argue that his criticism of modernization and globalization is ignorant of historical trends, and that he aims to defend centralization, while Wang claims that his rejection of these trends is the conclusion of his extensive study. And although he is just as keen to criticize China’s political system as his opponents, he has never agreed that the problem lies in the system itself.
As the disputes have intensified, some of the opinions expressed have begun to exceed the scope of academia and ideology, and have spilled over into personal attacks.
However, faced with abuse, Wang Hui tends to stay silent, and seldom accepts interviews.
“Over the past 20 years, I have probably been attacked more than any other intellectual. Nobody has ever been attacked on such a large scale, and a new round of attacks flares up every once in a while,” Wang said. “But this may also prove that I have touched on the real issues.”
“The crisis of China’s contemporary political system is a global one. We need to think about how to overcome the fundamental disconnect between the political system and social structure.”
“It is necessary to reconsider China’s development pattern under new global conditions.”
“Over the past 20 years, I have probably been attacked more than any other intellectuals….But this may also prove that I have touched on the real issues.”
Born in 1959 in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, Wang Hui grew up in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s, he was admitted to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing to read a Ph.D candidate in modern literature. In 1991, he founded a magazine called The Scholar, and in 1996, he became executive editor at Dushu, a highly influential cultural review. He has been teaching as a professor at the School of Humanities of Tsinghua University since 2002.
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