The Intellectual Scenario in China – 1990-2003


B. Sivaraman reviews the recent book on China by Verso


This latest book by Verso, published on the eve of Deng Xiaoping's birth anniversary, is a welcome addition to the scarce literature on this theme in English. That the volume is a collection of interviews and articles on Chinese reforms by Chinese scholars themselves makes it all the more important. This volume edited by Chouhua Wang contains an introduction by the editor, four interviews with leading Chinese intellectuals, nine articles by different noted authors, and finally, a group discussion on the future of China .

The Plight of the Migrant Workers in China

Migrant workers are a social group that is young, poorly educated, and which frequently changes job and changes location. Clustered in big cities, migrant workers earn the lowest wages, do the heaviest labour, and live in the worst conditions, and are given no respect or protection. When there is any police sweep in the cities, as often happens before significant political events, they are the first to be targeted. In Sshenzen alone, there were more than ten thousand injuries and eighty deaths among migrant workers in 1998. Those responsible are rarely brought to court. But when migrants themselves break the law, punishments are savage.

[From Industrializing Education? by Xiao Xuehui, p.239]

In his Introduction to the book, the editor Wang Chouhua marks the year 1989, the year of Tiananmen crackdown, as the turning point in the recent Chinese intellectual history. According to his characterisation, the ‘first reform decade' or the New Era stretches from 1978 to 1988 and the ‘second reform decade' covers 1992 to 2002. Wang also divides the Chinese intellectuals in the 1990s broadly into two camps – the Liberals and the New Left.

Radical Chinese intellectuals are critical of the social effects of the reforms. Most of the radical intellectuals had initially welcomed the energetic new burst of reform policies after 1992 following Deng Xiaoping's tour of southern China . But when they saw the rampant commercialization of all structures of daily life and culture that followed them, they started to feel a certain disillusion. A number of leading intellectuals attacked the increasing commercialization of life in China as destructive of its ‘humanistic spirit'.

The Environmental Problems of China

China has entered a period of widespread environmental danger. The largest national population in the world is still growing; industrialization is advancing rapidly; while vast areas are dominated by a backward traditional agriculture. In these conditions, the nation is suffering from extensive ecological damage. World Bank experts reckon that current pollution of air and water costs China an annual equivalent of between 3.5 and 7.7 per cent of GNP. If pollution of the atmosphere could be brought down to officially sanctioned levels, some 300,000 lives would be saved each year. Natural disasters provoked by destruction of the environment regularly inflict heavy losses on the economy, varying between perhaps 3 and 5 per cent of GDP each year. In 1998 the flooding of Yangtse, and of the Songhua and Nen River region in the far north-east, cost the country some 250 to 300 billion yuan. The bill for other kinds of ecological damage – destruction, soil erosion, desertification of grasslands, shrinking of rivers and lakes – is harder to estimate. But it is clear that much cultivated land is dwindling, mineral reserves are being depleted, and many resources wasted. If all these costs were put together they would amount to as much as a tenth of China 's GDP – that is, more than its recent annual increase in value. Economic growth is being undermined by environmental damage.

[From Equity and Efficiency by Hu Angang; pp.222-223]

In his interview, Wang Hui ( The New Criticism) characterizes most Chinese intellectuals in the 1990s as liberals. Wang Hui, who is the editor of a leading intellectual magazine Dushu ( Readings ), is a leftist critic of the reforms opposed to the liberals. Leftwing opponents of liberals have earned an identity, “New Left”. But Wang Hui differs with this characterization. Says he, “People like myself have always been reluctant to accept this label, pinned on us by our adversaries. Partly this is because we have no wish to be associated with the Cultural Revolution, or for that matter with what might be called the ‘Old Left' of the reform-era CCP. But it is also because the term New Left is a Western one, with a very distinct set of connotations – generational and political – in Europe and America . Our historical context is Chinese, not Western, and it is doubtful whether a category imported so explicitly from the West could be helpful in today's China ”. (p.62)

Hui says that the characteristic focus of what the liberals call the New Left is the nexus between the market and the state. According to Hui, “Liberals support marketisation of the economy as the only correct road for China . In their eyes, it is only the absence of political reform that warps the workings of the market – but if the constitution were revised to protect the rights of the citizen, then we would have a reasonably equal society and a satisfactory degree of social justice. In my view, this is an illusion. Political democracy will not come from a legally impartial market, secured by constitutional amendments, but from the strength of social movements against the existing order. This point is central to the genealogy of the critical intellectual work that is now identified as a New Left”. (p.64)

Earlier he says that, “a good many of our liberals represent a contemporary Chinese Right. This is especially true of the economists who advocate privatization and marketization without any reservations or limits, without the slightest critical distance. They have taken the idea from Hayek that the market is a spontaneous economic order”. (P.63)… “After various debates, some liberals decided that China still lacked the social base for a civil society, and therefore the priority was to unleash the market to create one. Turning to the right, they made it clear their concern was not democracy as such, but the market at whatever cost. A liberal economist once said to me: ‘Attacks on corruption are an attack on the market – we have to tolerate the one to develop the other',” says Hui. (p.68)

The radical critics unlike liberals find it difficult to tolerate the new consumerism sweeping China and they are also critical about reckless globalisation.

Zhu Xueqin, in his interview ( For a Chinese Liberalism) gives the following description of liberalism in the Chinese context: “Philosophically it stands for empiricism, in contrast to transcendentalism. Its historical ideas are based on a fallibilistic evolutionary theory, and reject any kind of historical determinism. Its concepts of evolution involve gradual improvement and progress, and a refusal of the voluntarism that is characteristic of radicalism. Its economic theory requires a market system, and rejection of a planned economy. Its political theory requires a representative democracy, a constitutional government and a legal system, proof not only against an individual tyranny or an oligarchy, but also against a mass dictatorship exercised in the name of the ‘general will' exercised by a majority”. (p.105)

But Wang Hui, in the process of criticizing the liberals, argues that the Chinese state has ceased to be socialist: “The country cannot be described as socialist any longer, and the state itself has changed a lot. Today the state is itself part of the market system.” (p.68)

This seems to be a premature conclusion. The Chinese leadership is claiming that they are following Lenin's NEP (New Economic Policies) for a whole historical course. In addition they have provided for a huge domestic private sector and market mechanism. Just as a huge public sector did not make India a quasi-socialist state, existence of a huge private sector in itself does not make the Chinese state a capitalist one. In China , even under Mao Tse Tung, for a decade after liberation, there was a sizable component of private sector and the CPC preferred to call China a people's republic rather than a socialist society.

Moreover, there is no point in accusing the CPC of building capitalism. By their own admission, the CPC themselves are claiming that they are building only capitalism, state-capitalism under people's democratic state.

Even at the time of Marx and Engels they expected that the colonial and backward semi-feudal countries would advance along the path of industrialisation with the capital and technology given by the victorious proletariat in the European countries. Since revolutions did not take place in those advanced countries, the victorious proletariat in semi-feudal, semi-colonial countries are forced to take capital and technology from the bourgeoisie of the advanced countries. This perspective should be kept in mind while assessing the developments in China .

Chen Pingyuan, in his interview Scholarship, Ideas, Politics , deals at length with the problems of Chinese scholarship. Regarding the complex relationship between popular culture and elite culture he says, “The year 1992 seems to have been a crucial turning point here. The swell of a commercial economy, which had been building up for some time, finally gained political recognition, when the Fourteenth Congress of the CCP formally proclaimed the goal of establishing a socialist market economy in China. The official ideology thereby finally gave a green light to the market as field of cultural choice. Even the Party's Propaganda Minister now explained that popular music, disco dancing, martial arts novels and other forms of popular culture were worth our attention – something completely unthinkable in the past. In adopting the line of ‘heeding, supporting and guiding' popular culture – ‘broadening the horizon of the masses', a faint echo of past ‘worker-peasant-soldier arts' – the Party's main concern was to promote the market economy and industrialization. With the wind of both market demand and government leadership in its sails, how could popular culture not ride high?” (pp.124-125) …

Qin Hui ( Dividing the Big Family Assets: On Liberty and Justice) specializes on Marxist study of the Chinese peasantry. Hui praises the reforms where people's communes were dissolved and household-responsibility system was established among the peasantry, which returned economic initiative back to the farmers, as ‘casting away of the bonds of community in search of individual freedom.' In China some people advocate privatisation of land and Hui doesn't believe privatization of land is the best way of increasing the efficiency of land use or solving peasant problems in general but supports privatization only in the context of protecting the peasantry from state appropriation. Hui is highly critical of state expropriation of the peasantry. He cites an example from Jiangxi . There the local government recently forced peasants off some 8000 acres, capable of supporting 20,000 people, to lease the land to a company supposedly engaged in ecologically enlightened agriculture. The only compensation the peasants received was a tax concession. In the end, the peasants did not get anything from the deal. When they protested, the government ordered the police to quell them. Had the land been the private property of peasants, the company would have found it very difficult to annex an area as large as this by market exchange. However Hui seems to be unmindful of the prospect of polarization of the peasantry into kulaks and agricultural labourers if land is privatized.

According to Hui, “The crisis of welfare services in the countryside is acute. The most publicly visible disaster is in rural education. Under the ‘Law of Compulsory Education', the government should have the obligation to provide free education to all its citizens. But in China , this law is now often interpreted just as the duty of peasants to send their children to school, without any corresponding duty for the state to provide schooling for them. So in recent years rural authorities have often arrested peasants who do not want to send their children to school, accusing them of violating the law – ignoring the fact that they cannot afford to pay the fees for their children to be educated”. (p.148)

In Hui's opinion, entry into the WTO will be a big blow to Chinese agriculture, as cheap imports come into the country, lowering peasant incomes.

Hui categorises Chinese intellectuals in the following manner: “From the fifties to the seventies, China could be thought of as a great patriarchal family – the state controlled everything, under the rule of the Party. In the eighties, the ‘family' could no longer be held together and a division of its patrimony became inevitable. Today, everyone agrees that the ‘family' must be split up, but there is hot disagreement about how it should be divided. This is the issue that now defines the different camps in China . I would define them like this. Firstly, there are those who want to revive collective traditions to resist the spread of Western-style individualism. They look to what they consider China 's socialist legacy as the antidote to the disease of liberalism…A second camp are the Stolypin-style oligarchs. Their outlook is very simple: state assets are booty to be plundered, according to the principle, ‘to each according to their power'. People usually term the first group the Chinese New Left and the second group Liberals”. (p.155)

In Part II of the book, He Quinglian, in his article, A Listing Social Structure says, “The class structure of Chinese society has undergone a profound transformation since the beginnings of the reform-policy period in 1978. The elite, previously selected on a political basis, is now also being recruited on the basis of ‘wealth' and ‘merit' – profoundly affecting the underlying social structure. These new sections of the elite are now beginning to form their own interest groups, social organizations and lobbying channels, beyond the already established political ones. The working class, hitherto the constitutionally decreed ‘leading class', and the peasantry, the ‘semi-leading class', have both been marginalized; intermediate social organizations, although still prone to political control, are developing apace. All these processes have led to thoroughgoing changes in relations between the state, society and the individual.” (p.163)

Arguing that the thrust of Chinese reforms has been gradually to reallocate the possession of social resources, Quinglian says that the principal form this has taken has been a process of privatization of juridical public assets by the power-holding stratum. In his opinion, corruption has turned from an individual affair to an organized affair to an institutional or systemic stage. But he misses the point that such changes are not unexpected in the course of state-capitalist transition from a backward agrarian economy to a developed industrial economy where some sections will make greater social progress than others and some old institutions will decay even as new vibrant ones are born. However, the disturbing fact is that while corruption, prostitution and begging are on the rise, a powerful ideological-political mobilization of the people from below to counter the evil effects of capitalism is lacking. One expects the CCP will address these problems more seriously than at present.

The Crisis in the Countryside by Li Changping paints a grim picture of tax burden on the Chinese peasantry and the simmering rural crisis. The rapid strides in rural transformation ushered in by the Household Responsibility System at the beginning of the reforms seem to have been exhausted and the Chinese countryside is once again stagnating, with a large number of peasants abandoning independent farming and fleeing to the towns.

Industrialising Education? by Xiao Xuchui deals with the ills of the Chinese education system. According to Xiao, “As early as the late 1980s, it became clear that many Chinese children either had no schools to which they could go, or were dropping out of schools to which they did go. From my own personal experience, I know how expensive it is for even a college teacher in a city to get an only child through elementary and secondary education – let alone for peasants in the countryside or urban workers without stable employment. The government has talked for years about solving this problem. But year after year, there is no improvement. Instead, the situation is getting steadily worse, as reports that a million children have either abandoned their schools, or have no school to go, reappear annually in the press.” (p.237) However Xiao is all praise of the early years of reforms: “There was a short-lived movement for intellectual liberation following 1978. In many a ground-breaking debate, college faculty and students demonstrated unusual courage and enthusiasm in exploring the historical and socio-political problems facing our nation. This was a time when we saw an eagerness to learn, a thirst for truth, and demonstrated a capacity to invent and create. I believe it was exactly this energy that brought a long-lost honour and prestige back to our campuses, though after a decade in which research had been completely stalled, the levels of instruction were not very high.” (p.242)

In her article, Tales of Gender , Wang Anyi captures the decline of women during the reforms: “Making themselves so spirited and vivacious, women slip into the era of the market economy unawares. The fruits of their new-found theory and practice are traded more or less as objects of consumption. Advertisements for every kind of commodity restore the tradition that ‘women make themselves pretty for those who love them'. Newspaper supplements and columnists expose their private lives to the public”. (p.252)

The tone of most of the articles in this collection is ultra-left in nature though they offer a wealth of factual material.

Part IV of the book is A Dialogue on the Future of China , a group discussion between Wang Dan, Li Minqi and the editor Wang Chaohua. First the discussants deal with the student movement for democracy in 1989 and come to the general conclusion that the main weakness of the movement was its lack of coordination with the working class. Regarding the future of China , Wang Dan guesses that within five to eight years Chinese society would undergo a big change. According to him, one possibility is that of a peaceful extinction of the communist dictatorship, as progressive groups within the Party unite with democratic forces outside it to form a new political front capable of gradually taking power. Or the present regime would stubbornly cling to power, intensifying its suppression of the social contradictions in the country, which would unleash major instability. Li Minqi, on the other hand, feels that reforms have brought relative prosperity and stability to the country. One important result of the capitalist development is to increase the size of the working class. This development, according to him, will have a fundamental impact of the future of the Chinese society. Wang Chaohua feels that the status quo could last for another twenty years, or even longer. All of them feel that there would be greater democratization but share a consensus that European-style parliamentary system is good for China . But none of them are ready to consider further socialist transformation of China with greater democracy.

The Chinese Communist Party has said that the present course, “Primary stage of socialism,” would continue for 50 years. But it doesn't mean that measures towards socialist transformation would have to wait for these 50 years. Even during this period the factors of socialism presently existing in Chinese society can be given greater play. But the Chinese leadership does not seem to be too eager for that.

While we wait and observe the extremely complex experiments going on in China , we need to pay particular attention to the following:

At what degree of industrialization would the public sector become the main engine of growth and employment and not the FDI?

At what level of economic development would they attain full employment under ‘market socialism'?

When would they introduce social welfare and unemployment schemes comparable to those in the West?

At what level of per capita income would they shift to socialist transformation as the primary thing?

The “Socialist Spiritual Civilisation” only remains in words. When will they introduce political reforms?

Do they have any idea of introducing workers' control and greater workplace democracy and direct participation of workers in the management of the industries?

At what level of development do they hope to overcome social and regional inequalities?

At what level of development will China shift primarily to self-reliance than on imported capital and technology for its industrialisation?

Can China maintain the same degree of GDP growth in an eco-friendly manner? Can it overcome the accumulated environmental problems?

These and other similar questions are central to understand the unfolding implications of the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping and to assessing the future course of China .