As Xi Jinping finishes up his tour of Shenzhen to the unvarnished adulation of a great many of China’s right-liberal ‘public intellectuals’, it bears remembering that these ‘dissidents’ are really anything but. Xi Jinping declared, seemingly in all honesty, that China must ‘keep on the correct path’ laid out for it by Deng Xiaoping – the course which, naturally, has resulted in massive corruption at local levels of government; which has caused the wealth gap to balloon past that of even the United States; which has caused public ownership and basic welfare services to atrophy practically to uselessness; which has caused millions of farmers to be evicted from their lands under the ‘household responsibility system’, in reality a new enclosures movement guaranteeing a steady flow of landless migrant workers to keep wages depressed. The right-liberals applaud all of this – indeed, they keep asking for more of it. The only thing that makes them unhappy, it seems, is that China is not even more the ersatz-democratic crony-capitalist war-mechanical monstrosity that the United States has become.
The right-liberals are emphatically not to be believed that what they want is greater transparency and greater personal freedom of conscience. Theirs is a completely Nietzschean exercise: they are willing to countenance the ‘artwork’ and ruffianism of Ai Weiwei, the Islamophobia and neoconservative warmongering of Liu Xiaobo, and the Randian crypto-Satanism of wannabe-teabaggers Liu Junning and Mao Yushi; but they cheer when the government arrests Bo Xilai and his wife on murder charges which (for all we know) are and always have been trumped-up, or detains and silences the owner of a small bookstore who also happens to be a Maoist (misguided, true, but if the liberals were being consistent, they would have to stand up for his free-speech rights as well). They unequivocally (and rightly) condemn Han Deqiang for roughing up an old man and calling him a ‘hanjian’, but they are all too quick to make excuses for the mob beating of Wu Danhong (who doesn’t share their ideology), led by right-liberal journalist Zhou Yan. As demonstrated by their public statements and actions, they have no problem with the violent censorship of ideas and religious expressions they do not agree with. Furthermore, they even have no problem with mob rule and the tactics of the Cultural Revolution, or (to hear some liberal intellectuals or Reform-era grad students on the topic of filial piety) even with the actual aims of the Cultural Revolution.
The only topic on which the right-liberals deserve to be taken seriously – and viewed as even more dangerous on that account – is when they insist on fazhi 法治 (often mistranslated into English as the ‘rule of law’, which conjures images of an Anglo-American jurisprudence which has never been and likely never will be applicable in China). In actuality, what they mean is a bureaucracy in which only the technical competencies demanded by the post are considered, rather than the quality of the person occupying it, and whose compliance is guaranteed through a universally applicable system of rewards and punishments. The ‘fa’ 法 in their ‘fazhi’ is not the ‘fa’ of the Anglo-American legal tradition, but rather the Legalist (法家) ‘fa’ of Han Fei and Qin Shihuang. The resemblance is coincidental, but not insignificant: the post-Enlightenment strain of liberal political philosophy beginning with Machiavelli and Hobbes has always shared a certain degree of ideological overlap with Han Fei’s conception of government. Because people are intrinsically depraved, greedy and incapable of altruistic behaviour (a key tenet shared by Legalism with liberalism going back to Machiavelli and Hobbes, though these vices were transformed into virtues by the work of Adam Smith among others), they have to be controlled through the power of Leviathan, or by a Prince who appears virtuous but who is willing to use ruthless tactics to maintain his control. Chinese right-liberalism shares a great deal in common with these early proto-liberal theorists of totalitarianism; sadly, far too many Western China-watchers are either lazy or wilfully ignorant of these distressing tendencies (though some thankful exceptions exist, such as Daniel Larison, David Lindsay and Hansen Ding).
The left-liberal ‘neoleftism’ of theorists such as Wang Hui, Cui Zhiyuan and Wang Shaoguang would seem a tempting solution in comparison. Wang Hui’s The End of the Revolution, a compilation of the English translations of several of his essays, following the theme of the political development of China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and the Reform and Opening periods, is a stupendous and insightful work of political philosophy. He deserves a great deal of credit for being one of the most unique Chinese political thinkers of the modern day. He draws upon a number of critical historical insights which need to be further explored: the mutual dependence of the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest’ upon each other going much further back than the dawn of ‘modernity’ being just one example. His insights into how the Chinese political system works (a critical one being the continuity between Mao and Deng, which is often ignored), and how ideologically-distorted misperceptions of history continue to foment misunderstandings of critical events within it (like the protests in the Square), are utterly invaluable. The spectre of the Cultural Revolution continues to haunt enough memories that it can be used as a political weapon, by the party which perpetrated it and then renounced it, against those (like Bo Xilai and like his supporters) agitating for economic reforms which might have a chance at reducing the wealth gap and giving China’s economically-distressed classes (not least of whom are the owners of small- and medium-sized enterprises) a shot at a dignified existence.
It would be a critical error to call the neoleftists in the vein of Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan Marxists, let alone Maoists. Cui Zhiyuan describes himself as, and is to all appearances, a ‘liberal socialist’ in the vein of John Stuart Mill (in spite of having been accused of being a reactionary earlier in his career). Wang Hui’s ideological disposition, on the other hand, draws equally from Daoist and from Hegelian insights. And therein lies the great problem: neoleftism’s basic message should have a great deal of appeal to a great number of Chinese people, but that message gets lost in the medium. Daoism and Hegelianism both have aspirations of exploring universal truths, though naturally they speak in different philosophical dialects, one of which nears on incomprehensible even to German ears (let alone English or Chinese ones!). To be sure, where Wang Hui’s neoleftism borrows from Hegel, it does so in intriguing ways: his excavation of lost traditional counter-histories as narratives antithetical to modern developmentalism carries with it overtones of an almost Milbank-esque left-conservatism which I believe the New Confucians would do well to emulate. He blessedly does not fall prey to Hegel’s end-of-history hubris, as his analysis is very – I might even say frustratingly – open-ended.
On the other hand, it is easy to see where, if the neoleftists are not careful, they might begin falling prey to nihilism, as certain students of Hegel did, and as Daoism sometimes trends. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the final chapter of The End of the Revolution, which is essentially a tribute to Lu Xun – whose revolutionary fervour arguably did wind up staring out over the bleak and barren landscape of nihilism. A nihilistic foundational philosophy should not be an attractive prospect for any honest leftist, as in the levelling of all value the good values are rendered helpless: namely, that of life and the quality thereof, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable, who have the least ability to defend themselves. I am unsure of the reason for this turn, however. Perhaps it is because Wang Hui approaches his topic as a political philosopher rather than as a theologian, or perhaps it is because he finds himself wary to embrace the radical-communitarian and -traditionalist elements of Confucian virtue-ethics and risk being branded as a reactionary himself (by China’s Old Left, amongst others); ultimately, though, only Dr Wang himself can answer that question.
I honestly think that there is a vast and fruitful territory for dialogue, mutual learning, and shared social action between China’s Christians (especially her Catholics), her Confucians and her more thoughtful neoleftists. Perhaps China’s liberals could get in on that conversation as well, but first they need to do some careful self-examination and police their more objectionable elements: namely the agents of avarice, debauchery and hatred who reside safely in their midst.