Where is China going?


One China, Many Paths
Edited by Wang Chaohua
Verso, 2003
368 pages, $46 (hb)


Two fundamental questions about China over the last decade confront the left: Is the country heading definitively towards capitalism, and are there strong enough pro-socialist forces to reverse the course?

There is little interaction between those living inside China who are seeking to make such assessments, and those outside the country. One China, Many Paths provides a starting point to facilitate those interactions with the English-speaking world.

Wang Chaohua's 40-page introduction and the first chapter, an extensive interview with Wang Hui, editor of the highly influential Dushu magazine, are especially important. They draw out a basic contour of the multiplicity of debates within China on where the country has gone since 1978 (the beginning of the so-called reform period).

The book's goal is to present an overall view of the nature and character of the various debates, featuring the 1990s. The collection can't possibly provide even a "taster" piece for all of them, so the remaining chapters present only a selection of the issues from different contending camps, from the so-called Chinese New Left and the independents to the Chinese liberals.

The issues covered include the ongoing class polarisation in China, the commodification and horrific deterioration of education, "historical amnesia" and the constitutional relations between citizens and the state. It asks whether inequity is a twin sister of efficiency, and whether the market is key to "modernity".

Other contentious issues include the rule of law, the nationality question and the nature of China's economic boom in the 1990s. A chart on page 38 provides a useful graphic guide to the debate topics and their sequence. I'm disappointed, however, by the lack of elaboration of the debate on China's "surname" (the nature of its social system) today — i.e., is it still socialist or is it in fact already capitalist?

Li Changping's account of the crisis in rural China in chapter 7 is particularly impressive and informative. Li has been a Communist Party cadre for two decades, coinciding with the "reform period", in Hubei province. He became party secretary in a township there in 1999. Li was so let down by the injustices inflicted upon the rural population by the pro-capitalist reforms that he risked his own career to write a detailed protest to then-premier Zhu Rongji in early 2000.

The letter, published in 2001, caused a big sensation in China. "[It is the letter's] shocking picture of the extent of rural oppression and misery under layer upon layer of fiscal extortion and usury, in one of China's most fertile rice-growing regions, that shocked the readers across the nation", reads Wang Chaohua's introduction. Chapter 7 is an excerpt of that letter.

There have been reports of much protest in rural China in recent years against the extortions and other problems vividly exposed by Li. One China, Many Paths hasn't situated these protests in the overall context of the "national debates" that it features, or indicated whether there is a link between the two.

A similar problem exists in relation to the urban workers' protests. Were these protests purely spontaneous? To what extent is there an organised leadership in China's urban and rural protest movements, and what is its political orientation? Do the contributors to these debates have any links with, or influence on, these movements? Do the movements concern themselves only with bread-and-butter issues, ignoring the big picture issues such as where China may be heading? I found no answers to such questions in One China, Many Paths.

In the introduction, Wang made it clear that the debates are among China's "intellectuals". This doesn't automatically indicate whether their views are socially relevant. They are China's educated elites who historically are small in number and who, if not serving the ruling class already, have been articulating anti-establishment views on behalf of the toiling class. They don't have an independent class character of their own.

Despite the broadening of educational opportunities, the role of intellectuals in China hasn't changed fundamentally. Their social relevance still depends on whether they are articulating the key social contradictions of the day or reflecting the views of social forces in motion.

It's hardly surprising that pro-market, pro-capitalist advocates — the liberals and neoliberals — were dominant among China's "intellectuals" in the 1990s, adoring virtually anything from the capitalist West as a model.

Nor is it beyond imagination that some of them were disgusted by the gross injustices against workers and peasants, and therefore advocated a more pro-people agenda, critical of the rulers of the day. They were called the New Left, a label acquiring currency since 1997-98, in opposition to the liberals.

But these labels also have limitations. Some of the most influential writers, as Wang Chaohua admits, "can't be easily assigned to one camp or the other".

One China, Many Paths tentatively confirms the lack of identification with Marxism among China's most active social commentators. Plenty of traumatic experiences from the horror of the Cultural Revolution led by Mao Zedong come through in the book. Does this indicate that in China, like elsewhere, the worst aspects of Maoism/Stalinism are once again being equated with Marxism and it is therefore being rejected?

On the other hand, these commentators are a lot more receptive to "progressive" ideas free of the Marxist label. Li Minqi, a 1989 student leader, says in the final chapter: "A Chinese Left is still in its infancy. For the moment, it is mainly occupied with introducing the latest progressive ideas from the West ..." There were many indications in the book that neo-classical economics has become a dominant strand of thought among aspiring Chinese "intellectuals"!

Li also clarifies how the term "leftists" — as it appeared in official polemics in China in the 1980s — had, in fact, a totally different meaning from that in the West. "Leftists" in that decade actually referred to the anti-"reform" wing within the Communist Party of China, who are also called "conservatives". They are opponents of the "reformers" headed then by Deng Xiaoping.

It's unfair to expect everything from a book that seeks to cover such a broad spectrum of debates over many years. However, I do think the links — or absence of links — with the social movements could have been drawn out.

I still found One China, Many Paths very useful, providing a handy, albeit incomplete, reference to a rather complex web of polemics that people in China are grappling with in the new capitalist reality, after a long period of intellectual strangulation under Mao and his successors.

From Green Left Weekly, June 2, 2004.
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