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Postsocialism and Cultural Politics China in the Last Decade of the Twentieth Century
By Xudong Zhang
Duke University Press Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Return of the Political: The Making of the Post-Tiananmen Intellectual Field
TODAY, IN MEDIA AND ACADEMIC discourses across the world, the image of China overwhelms our appetite for contradictory descriptions and frustrates our established analytical and conceptual framework. Amid dizzying change and radical uncertainty, however, an unruly and shapeless presence is confirmed and looming beyond doubt. The transformation of post-Mao China is widely seen as resulting from its irreversible integration with the world market and its tantalizing merge with the sociocultural conventions of global capitalism. Everyone agrees that this is a transitional period for China. No one is certain where it is leading China and the rest of the world. The lack of a cognitive road map for reading China has to do with the rapidity of change. It is also due to old assumptions and frameworks which are no longer adequate to address problems. More productive approaches to examining the Chinese situation are still hampered by ideologies and methodologies nourished by the Cold War and by a Eurocentric worldview entrenched in both China and the West.
Mechanical and superficial views still boast empirical and ideological clarity, yet they invariably depend on obsolete binary opposites-state versus society, "official" versus "nonofficial," dictatorship versus democracy, communism versus capitalism, hard-liners versus reformers, government intervention versus free market, etc.-which still obstruct our critical knowledge about the country in the multiplicity of contexts. We are experiencing an increasing and intensifying discrepancy between the perceived object called China and the lingering epistemological models rooted in the Cold War, backed by the even more time-honored machinery of "knowing the Other" of the long history of the global expansion of capitalism (colonialism, imperialism, etc.). As long as the old regime of knowledge and its reproduction holds sway, the emerging complexity and dynamism of the Chinese economy, society, politics, culture, and everyday life will remain concealed, distorted, and oppressed on the global symbolic terrain. This, however, indicates not so much an intrinsic crisis of knowledge production on China in the West as that production's correlation with and corruption by power, which, when fully internalized, reveals the extent to which China as a subject of study is still being effectively "contained" within a particular theater of permanent ideological warfare by global capitalism and its "subjectivities," which function through the state apparatus and the culture industry.
Such institutional restraints may explain why the most dynamic and productive development in Chinese studies in the United States in the past decade is its integration with "disciplines" such as social history (a seemingly "conservative" turn), especially in works opening to approaches and methodologies of cultural studies and critical theory (from film studies to women's studies, from the Frankfurt school to postcolonialism). The last phenomenon is especially noteworthy, as it is genuinely cross-Pacific and shared by the younger generation of scholars in the United States, the People's Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, and Hong Kong. In terms of the generational politics and paradigmatic break this tendency implies, the development seems to be quite radical. But in terms of the "normalization" of scholarly research, it suggests nothing more radical than an institutional rationalization, namely, the need to engage Chinese studies in the same manner, and hopefully with the same intellectual and theoretical sophistication, as one would engage in, say, French studies or subaltern studies. Similarly, the disengagement from the various state or state-sanctioned discourses in both the People's Republic and the United States should be regarded as pertaining to the same movement to carry the field beyond its overdetermination by the Cold War era and its ideological confines.
This is not to suggest that the particular historical conditions of contemporary China should be considered in the even and homogeneous space of capitalist or bourgeois universality either as one more proof of sameness or as the exception that proves the rule. Rather, moving beyond the intellectual-ideological straitjacket of Cold War and Orientalist scholarship is intended precisely to refute the ideological homogeneity reinforced by the institutionalized compartmentalization and instrumentalization of knowledge imposed on the margins of the capitalist world system. The purpose is to reassert the internal difference of reality which in its self-affirmation, even celebration, of its own contradictions, prefigures a new social, political, and cultural horizon that is an integral part of a more plural, more democratic world. The uneven development in this general tendency, ironically, is more pronounced in the reluctance of or difficulty for the U.S. China field as a whole to face its own formation in and overdetermination by the Cold War enterprise and to realize the intellectual or merely scholarly need to go beyond it. This, to be sure, has to do with the more intense mythology of freedom and autonomy in the so-called open society, a mythology of enlightenment which proves to be far more resistant to its own demystification; whereas in the so-called totalitarian societies, state repression is transparent while possibilities are opaque.
Below I seek to provide a historical and theoretical overview of Chinese intellectual development in the 1990s with reference to the socioeconomic change, politico-ideological conflict, and cultural transformations in China after Tiananmen. Needless to say, this intellectual development and social transformation is integral to the global dynamism since the end of the Cold War. I intend to keep a chronological and thematic narrative clear; but this narrative is mixed with, and sometimes suspended by, a closer examination of particular phenomena, issues, topics, attitudes, and discourses which mark the new space of intellectual production and ideological position-taking in China today. If sometimes I appear more concerned with the contentious discursive "framework" than with a pedestrian chronology, it is because I think the articulation of the Chinese problematic is possible only in a process of working its way through-and along the way disrupting and reconstructing-some of the intellectual premises and ideological assumptions that still govern our understanding of the contemporary world.
Reading the Chinese State
It remains an unchallenged habit-both inside and outside China-to view everything in the PRC through the imagined totality of the government and its official policies and rhetoric. It is also customary, even a knee-jerk reaction, to see anything extragovernmental as instantaneously and naturally subversive, progressive, and good. As a result, new configurations of social space are often unaccounted for and new cultural-intellectual manifestations misread and willfully interpreted. New forms of material life, social power, and ideological legitimacy often remain invisible to eyes searching behind the veil of systematic dogma and bigotry. Take, for example, the emerging self-assertiveness of Chinese public opinion, which is often considered by Western students of China to be nationalistic, anti-Western, and orchestrated by the government. A closer look, however, will show that a wide range of popular and intellectual debates spawn from both the marketplace and the state-controlled media, and it is virtually impossible and meaningless to determine intellectual and ideological content by place of publication. Compared to the free-spirited discussions in "independent" journals (all of them produced by the state publishing houses, as there are no private publishers in China today) such as Dushu (Reading), Tianya (Frontier), Zhanlue yu guanli (Strategy and Management), Gonggong luncong (Res Publica), and numerous BBSS (Bulletin Board Systems), or Internet forums, the mouthpieces of state propaganda per se are the most consistently and single-mindedly pro-American voices in China today, despite their occasional protest against U.S. "hegemony." Not that the Chinese state as a Realpolitik animal has any more faith in the "Sino-U.S. strategic partnership" than does its U.S. counterpart. Rather, it is the raison d'état of the Deng and post-Deng regime-namely, developmentalism-that sees the United States as the realization of that officially sanctioned "truth beyond dispute" (yingdaoli).
The only thing the Chinese government does not readily take from the U.S. model is its political structure. Nor does it show any embarrassment when it turns to authoritarian capitalist societies in East Asia-Singapore, South Korea, and, until very recently, Taiwan-for political inspiration. Indeed, the anticlimactically smooth takeover of Hong Kong in 1997 testifies not so much to the working of the "one country, two system" principle envisioned by Deng Xiaoping as to the virtual continuity of authoritarian and colonial capitalism in the former British colony. The Chinese government, despite being credited with presiding over rapid economic growth, seems an anomaly in the post-Cold War "new world order" and is put on the defensive ideologically both at home and internationally. Its undemocratic qualities, however, require closer and more discriminating analysis. One may wonder, for instance, to what extent they are derived from the residual system of Mao's "proletarian dictatorship" and to what extent they are redefined by the new technocratic-managerial regime. These two aspects are interrelated in the post-Mao Chinese social environment, to be sure, but they also have different socioeconomic origins and politico-ideological dispositions, which produce different effects in concrete sociopolitical terms. Where public opinion as refracted through intellectual debates is conflicting and schizophrenic, what may pass as a national ideology upheld by the state media is little more than a developmentalist and culturalist apology for political underdevelopment.
So politically deprived is its cultural-nationalist self-glorification that this national ideology invariably fails to inspire, as even the most unreflected cultural affirmation of the nation's "way of life" would have at its core a moral passion for its political ideals. By denying the people the possibility of a passionate political debate over what kind of a social system they want to build, the Chinese state, still nominally communist, becomes increasingly dependent on a cynical pragmatism and opportunism as the sole source of its legitimacy. By effectively muffling the public articulation of the political vision of an actually existing but internally differentiating socialism, the new technocratic regime puts itself permanently on the ideological defensive vis-à-vis both the capitalist "new world order" and its own people. This internal fracture between daily reality and its theoretical formulations is by no means accidental or something to be explained away by the incompetence of the Chinese intelligentsia. On the contrary, it is an indication of the general disorientation and demoralization of the Chinese national elite amid increasing economic disparity and class stratification. To this extent, the Chinese state (and the conceptual space it still occupies as an empty shell) ceases to be a meaningful or effective framework of critical analysis of contemporary Chinese society and culture, and must be considered as a remaining or reinvented ideological sham necessary for real power operations at both the sub- and supranational levels. In other words, the uniformity and effect of control of the Chinese state must now be regarded as a function or agency of economic, social, and ideological reconfigurations driven by global and local forces and interests.
The political and philosophical poverty of the Chinese state has not fully undermined its legitimacy. It merely allows the state to replace its moral authority with a legalistic, administrative, and technocratic function or indispensability, a tendency in accordance with the secularization and rationalization processes since the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The social acceptance of such new authority is ensured by the government's willingness to muzzle public debate and exercise raw power brutally. But this is only half the story. The oppressiveness of the Chinese state in some areas is paralleled by unprecedented freedom and anarchism in other parts of the social domain. Even the political repression in China today has a self-righteous air, as if its acceptance by the general populace gave the state a mandate to achieve wealth and order through whatever means so long as economic growth vindicated the policies and ideologies of the government. As long as the government's legitimacy comes exclusively from its function in maintaining economic growth and social stability, its official ideology will remain an empty shell awaiting appropriation by the newborn economic and class interests and positions in the differentiated social sphere. In fact, the state ideology is already intertwined with the forces of the capitalist global market and with the new social and class formations in the new economic condition.
Often painted as a political dinosaur and public enemy by dissident and international opinion, the current Chinese government proves far more sophisticated, flexible, and dynamic than many of its opponents want to admit. This can be attributed in part to its unabashed pragmatism and its instinctual identification with China's new urban middle class and with the global ideological mainstream. The Chinese state, however, needs a new ideological coherence which enables it to better identify, claim, or fuse with the emerging socio-ideological center. In this area its usual clumsiness reveals itself not so much in the rigidity of communist ideology as in the complexity, unevenness, and diversity of Chinese socioeconomic development. It also has to do, ironically, with its loyalty to a more classical or modernist model of capitalist development now being replaced in advanced capitalist societies by information technologies and a new bourgeois subjectivity. While paying lip service to the socialist legacies of the People's Republic, the government is busy disengaging from society and the everyday life it inherited from Mao's China. After two decades of efforts to relink the Chinese economy to the world system, it is already a consensus among the ruling technocratic elite that the socialist (let alone Maoist) moral-ideological framework will have to be dismantled one way or another to make room for the neoliberal theology of the free market, efficiency, competitiveness, and so on; and to rationalize the state form in the new global economy.
Marxism as the official philosophy of Chinese communism has played an ambivalent and somewhat dubious role in this massive ideological reorientation. While state Marxism still provides theoretical justification for socialism in its historical confrontation with capitalism, in modern Chinese history it has also been the predominant discourse of modernization and modernity. The historico-materialist emphasis on the development of "forces of production" as the basis for all revolutionary changes in the "superstructure" of human society is a philosophical pillar of the Reformist ideology. Marxism as a state philosophy also functions as a power medium tying Chinese social history to the world-historical framework rooted in the experience of European modernity. The universalism, historical determinism, and teleology implicit or explicit in Marxism are ingrained in the modern Chinese intellectual tradition, which, after its repudiation of Maoism following the Cultural Revolution, embraces a deeply developmentalist ideology. Under the cover of Marxist philosophy, the Chinese state, rooted in a Leninist party organization, becomes a ruthless promoter of capitalist-style development, and of the market revolution as it has prevailed in the Western world since the Reagan-Thatcher era. That Marxism's function in concrete Chinese politico-economic reality was scrutinized critically by intellectuals in the 1990s testifies to the degree to which it has become the standard bearer of a modernization ideology and loses its analytical and critical relevance vis-à-vis new social contradictions in China today.
Excerpted from Postsocialism and Cultural Politics by Xudong Zhang Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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