Thursday, May 26, 2016, 8:26 PM CST – China


Left and Right

“The voice of reason is easily drowned”

The political exile of public thinkers, excluded from policymaking, has turned ideological debate into a futile exercise in extremist mud-slinging. Ideology needs to return to government

Since China embarked on Reform and Opening-up in the 1980s, Chinese intellectuals have split into different ideological factions who disagree not only on the solutions to China’s manifold problems, but even what these problems are.

As academic debate has spread via the Internet from the lecture hall to the grassroots, arguments have become increasingly skewed, emotional and unconstructive. This in turn has radicalized opinions, sidelined moderates, and turned reasoned engagement between ideologies into slanging matches rich in verbal abuse and even physical violence. 

In an era when some espouse a return to fanatical Maoism while others preach from the neoliberal prayerbook, debate has become polarized to the point of no return. As a result, ideological sparring sometimes turn into a genuine fist fight. This lack of dignity has tainted the public perception of academia and political discourse to the extent that even the appellation “public intellectual” has become a pejorative.

Whither, then, China’s intellectual?

Lofty Roots

The ideological split between China’s intellectuals can be traced back to the public debate on Reform and Opening-up in the 1980s. “Conservatives” or “leftists,” who insisted that China should stick to Maoism clashed with “reformers” or “rightists” who aspired for greater economic and political liberalization.

A similar battle was being fought in the corridors of power. In 1992, when Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s reform, made a keynote speech in Shenzhen as his final salvo against the aggressive leftists in the Party who sought to derail reform, this argument was resolved with a certain amount of compromise. However, on the street and in the country’s seats of learning, the struggle never really ended.

Having undergone decades of privation, persecution and humiliation, China’s intellectuals initially embraced the benefits of Reform and Opening-up. However, as reform brought new challenges, the cultural elite began to split once more over ideology and, denied the opportunity for political participation, views began to harden over which direction China should take.

The liberals, advocates of free market principles and western-style democracy, argued that China’s economic reform would be doomed to failure without fully-fledged political reforms. Neo-leftists, meanwhile, warned of the political chaos that would follow in the wake of widening income disparity. Hardcore nationalists, meanwhile, opposed China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, claiming that the move would derail domestic industry and ruin the lives of millions of small farmers. Party loyalists, as ever, lived in terror of the eventual collapse of the Communist Party’s supremacy.

None of these doomsday scenarios has come to pass to the extent feared by these groups, though the problems of political stagnation, income disparity, the decline of Chinese industry and agriculture and wavering support for the Party’s rule are certainly a fact of life in modern China. More than a decade of double-digit growth did little to mitigate the disagreements between competing ideological factions. On the contrary, the unpredictable nature of China’s development has only fueled the debate.

With a wide range of problems being exacerbated by rapid, unsteady and unequal economic growth, China’s intellectual elite are becoming ever more anxious about their country’s future. With such high stakes, few are in the mood for reconciliation with their ideological opponents.

New Landscape

One major ideological reshuffle in recent years is the revival and regrouping of the “leftist” faction, which lost its grip on society following the disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) Following their final political “defeat” in 1992, anti-capitalist and pro-class struggle Maoists struggled to connect with a newly-affluent and resurgent society enjoying the fruits of market economics and greater sociopolitical liberalization.

However, as the income gap has widened and corruption has become evermore egregious, the leftists have made a comeback. Feeding on widespread resentment against corrupt officials and China’s growing legion of super-rich, the “neo-leftists” gathered momentum and began to mount attacks on the ideas of a free market, arguing for a stronger State and the redistribution of wealth.

These neo-leftists differ from the old guard of Mao’s era in their adoption of both democratic principles and their support for freedom of speech, replacing the Stalinist bent of traditional Maoism with a different brand of socialist egalitarianism at odds with the current political establishment. Nationalism is also a feature of the leftist camp, with anti-Western and, in particular, anti-Japanese sentiment growing in ferocity as China has risen on the world stage.

Reformists, meanwhile, are now on the defensive. As political reform has stagnated, corruption has worsened and the “softly-softly” approach to reform has come under increasing attack. Though the doctrine of compromise and restraint remains influential in the Party and in society as a whole, voices calling for calm are conspicuously absent from the public debate, with both left and right dismissing the prevailing political elite as having failed to deliver what Deng Xiaoping promised in 1992.

In contrast, a new group of self-claimed “democrats” is gaining ground, especially among the young. Shunning broader theory, they adopt a much simpler line of argument and often advocate swift and fundamental changes. Discarding the long-established debate paradigm and defying the Chinese tradition of preferring realism over idealism, they tend to be more subjective, frequently arguing from their own emotional standpoint.

Identifying themselves as “liberals” or “democrats,” these neo-rightists are often passionate advocates of Western-style democracy. While a commitment to universal values, the right to self-determination and the free market puts them in direct opposition to the neo-leftists, however, their sympathy with the downtrodden and disenfranchised owes more to Karl Marx than to Ayn Rand.

Indeed, what both extremes of China’s political spectrum seem to share in terms of ideology is a championing of populism over pragmatism.

Supreme Silence

Meanwhile, China’s political elite, shielded by a State-controlled media and an absence of universal franchise, have remained in the dangerous state of apathy.

On the one hand, officialdom has refused to engage and officially acknowledge the existence of the ideological schism at the heart of Chinese public opinion. On the other, they have been quick to selectively intervene when a public protest does not further their own agenda.

 Excluded from the political process, China’s real opinion-formers are thus strictly confined to a virtual online world. Dubbed a “tempest in a teacup,” any attempt to influence society or politicians by genuine thinkers is laughed off by those actually making waves.

Without the participation of the intellectual elite, China’s politics remains the monopoly of its officials. Refusing to engage in any ideological debate, the country’s leaders claim to be pragmatic. However, without discussion and elaboration on the government’s ideological and political vision, politics has simply become another profession. As Max Weber described almost a century ago, instead of living “for” politics, Chinese politicians are now living “off” politics, with the entire officialdom riddled by materialism and utilitarianism, exemplified by the government’s utter inability to rein in corruption.

Moreover, it is precisely the exile of intellectuals that has led to the radicalization of public opinion. Frustrated with their exclusion from political franchise and angered by the decay of the ruling class, many intellectuals start resorting to simplistic, evangelical moralizing simply in order to have their voices heard. In an ocean of populist radicalism, the voice of reason is easily drowned.

 This sets in motion a vicious cycle. The more radical and abusive the political debate becomes, the less the rational thinkers voice their opinions, and the less likely the political elite would engage with the intellectuals. In addition, the debate becomes more fascinating, if more distasteful, to the general public.

It will require Herculean efforts from the political leadership to break such an entrenched cycle. And yet, they remain aloof. 

(The author is a professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Chief Editor of  Beijing Cultural Review magazine.)


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