Dreaming in Chinese

By Richard WolinMarch 1, 2012

Dreaming in Chinese

In Search of Modern China by Jonathan Spence
The Wind From the East by Richard Wolin
No Enemies, No Hatred by Liu Xiaobo

“THIS PLACE IS MORE AMERICAN than America,” I observe candidly to my student minder on the taxi ride toward downtown Shanghai, sorely sleep-deprived following my 13-hour flight from New York. “It makes Manhattan look provincial.” One’s first sighting of Shanghai is unforgettable. Perhaps nowhere else in the world today does one find such a massive concentration of concrete high-rise structures, stretching as far as the eye can see. Most of these distinctly unsightly edifices have been built over the last 20 years. With its 20 million-plus inhabitants, Shanghai is the metropolis of the future — and it is already here. Along with it come all the joys of the 21st-century urban experience: smog, pollution, overcrowding, and epic traffic jams. Whatever one’s destination, one always needs to depart an hour early to account for traffic.


As it turns out, my unscripted initial words would return to haunt me. Two days later, I unthinkingly repeat them in the course of an interview with a journalist from the Oriental Morning Post. To my chagrin, he and his editor decide to use them as the interview’s headline.


China and the Chinese display a profound ambivalence toward modernity and all that it entails. On the one hand, they are extraordinarily proud of all that their nation has accomplished over the last 30 years. At the time of Mao’s death in 1976, China was still a predominantly rural-agrarian society. The post-Maoist leadership is credited with lifting 400 million peasants out of poverty. By the same token, most Chinese I spoke with had strong reservations about the accelerated pace of modernization, which allows little time to savor the virtues of traditional of Chinese life: family, community, and nature.


In preparation for the 2010 World Expo (a massive international trade show; in its waning days, prospective visitors waited up to five hours to be admitted), Shanghai underwent a major facelift. The subway line was extended, roadways improved, and taxi drivers encouraged to learn a smattering of English. (Or so I am told. I see no first-hand evidence of this during my four-day stay in the city.) According to my student guide, Jing-jing, one of the most welcome repercussions of the civic renewal campaign is having dissuaded Shanghai’s less affluent denizens from making their daily rounds in their pajamas — a traditional Chinese habitude that, in major cities, is rapidly disappearing.


I ask Jing-jing how the remarkable Shanghai construction boom was accomplished. The crews work 12-hour days, she informs me, weekends included. I then ask how she spends her weekends. “We don’t have any weekends,” she responds matter-of-factly. I don’t doubt her for a minute, so keen is the national will to modernize, to catch up with and surpass the West.


In Shanghai, I reside at East China Normal University, just south of downtown. The campus is a miniature Shangri-La. The grounds are traversed by brooks and streams. Lotus trees line the campus walkways. Their blossoms and fragrances abound.


Jing-jing gives me a campus tour. Adjacent to my residence, where most foreigners are housed, is a distinctly unbeautiful 15-story administration building. “Number two jumping-off building in Shanghai,” Jing-jing remarks wryly. Sensing my befuddlement, she explains that, so great are the pressures to succeed in contemporary China, students who fail their exams have been known, with some regularity, to utilize the building as a suicide platform.


Jian Feng, the journalist from the Oriental Morning Post, informs me that a year earlier he had interviewed the French philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva. Kristeva had not returned to China since a rather infamous episode of “revolutionary tourism” — the time-honored Potemkin village routine — in 1974, at the height of Tel Quel’s “pro-Chinese” phase. It was, of course, an era of fervent “third worldism” and global revolutionary struggle. The idols of Western youth — as well as a growing contingent of French intellectuals — were Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, and the Great Helmsman, who, like Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, had recently been immortalized by Andy Warhol (“Art is what you can get away with”) silk screens. “Political power grows at the end of the barrel of a gun,” Mao had famously quipped (“Problems of War and Strategy,” November 6, 1938). It was a slogan that played especially well among Western leftists — the “gauche caviar,” as they are pejoratively known in France — who were repulsed by democracy’s depredations and readily seduced by the aesthetics of political militancy. Thus, among a wide swath of French intellectuals, Mao’s China — “the other half of the sky” — became a projection screen, a Rorschach test for their otherwise frustrated fantasies of revolutionary redemption. In this way, Cultural Revolutionary China was avidly embraced as a political promised land, the land of a “radiant utopian future.”


Kristeva and her confreres Philippe Sollers and Roland Barthes returned to France to pen lengthy and fulsome odes to the joys of communism à la Chinoise. Barthes observed that, since communism had cured “alienation,” psychoanalysis had been rendered superfluous in China. (In his recently published Carnets du voyage en Chine, though, Barthes avows his frustrations with his Chinese handlers, showing himself to have been bored to the point of distraction by the mind-numbing sloganeering and ideological dogmatics to which he and his fellow Tel Quelians were subjected during the course of their three week sojourn.) In Les Chinoises (Chinese Women), Kristeva went so far as to justify the traditional Chinese practice of foot-binding as merely a harmless, female variant of male circumcision. In any event, remarked Kristeva, Chinese habitudes and mores could not be judged by Western standards, since the latter were pervaded by petty bourgeois biases and prejudices.


Whatever she might think of these misapprehensions and misjudgments from 36 years earlier, Kristeva confides to Jian Feng that she much preferred the China of the Cultural Revolutionary era, that she finds the sauve-qui-peut (every man for himself) freneticism of post-Mao China off-putting and distasteful — a 21st-century dystopia.




“Sustain harmony!” This is a CCP (Chinese Communist Party) mantra that is omnipresent in Shanghai and other major Chinese cities. Chinese society is and has always been haunted by the paralyzing fear of luan: chaos or anarchy. The so-called “century of humiliation” from 1850 to 1950 — first at the hands of Western imperialism, then at the hands of Japanese militarism — remains keenly engraved in the Chinese cultural psyche. Of course, it is in the government’s interest to stress the communitarian values of collective belonging over the perils of Western-style possessive individualism.


The communitarian dimension of Chinese life has its distinctly attractive side. Wherever one goes, one senses the importance of group belonging: that it behooves individuals to maintain loyalties and commitments that transcend the self qua isolated ego or monad. But the sinister political use to which this slogan can be, and often is, put manifested itself in the vigorous crackdown on dissidents that occurred prior to the 2008 Olympics — a major feather in the regime’s cap — and again the following year, with the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations.


Since the Arab Spring, the repression has become even more severe. The words “Egypt” and “Tahrir Square” have been banned from internet searches. Since “jasmine” has become a code word for collective dissent or resistance (the Tunisian revolt was originally labeled the “Jasmine Revolution”), today — in a scenario worthy of George Orwell — the flower stands under a semi-official government ban. Florists cannot peddle them to prospective buyers. To use the word in text messages is to risk an interrogation by state security services.


Two weeks prior to my October 2010 arrival in Shanghai, the imprisoned democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Upon arriving, I scour the internet for updates regarding his status as well as the state of international public opinion. Within minutes, my computer crashes, and, shortly thereafter, my internet access is totally blocked. Nada; zilch. I can’t even access my university email account. One of the problems is that I am staying on campus. Given the government’s apprehensions about student activism — the Tiananmen Square uprising is a bogey that incessantly haunts the regime — internet usage at universities is minutely scrutinized. According to reliable estimates, there are some 50,000 to 60,000 security personnel whose sole responsibility is to monitor civilian internet usage.


Remarkably, during my three-week sojourn in the People’s Republic, Liu’s name never arises. Of course, the government’s initial reaction to his receipt of the prize was a total news blackout, followed by vigorous denunciations. Neither Liu nor his wife, Liu Xia, was permitted to attend the ceremony, and Chinese authorities forcibly disrupted private celebrations of his receipt of the prize. In Stockholm that month, the actress Liv Ullmann read a statement on his behalf, while his absence was signified by an empty chair. Immediately, the phrase “empty chair” was banned from China’s main internet search engine, Baidu.


When I make a few casual inquiries among my Chinese hosts about Liu’s status, the entire Nobel episode is viewed with enormous suspicion. Most of the professors and students I encounter accept the CCP line that the peace prize is a Trojan horse intended by the West to undermine Chinese political stability.


During the Tiananmen Square protests, Liu played a pivotal and heroic role, convincing the student demonstrators to ditch their arms, thereby avoiding an even greater bloodbath. (Unofficial estimates place the total number of dead at 300 to 1,000, although some estimates place the death toll as high as 7,000.) For his efforts as a peacemaker and negotiator, Liu was branded a “counterrevolutionary” and handed a draconian, 18-month prison sentence. At the time, the democracy movement’s epicenter was Beijing University, China’s most prestigious. In an act of political retribution reminiscent of the Mao era, the CCP banished many Beijing University students to arduous work in the provinces for a year, or, in some cases, even longer.


Liu was arrested after the Tiananmen Square protests and then again in the mid-1990s. His most recent arrest, in 2008, was for lending his support to the Charter 08, a pro-democracy movement. Charter 08 was modeled on Czechoslovakia’s fabled Charter 77 movement. Its signatories realized that, since there were no reformers of Mikhail Gorbachev caliber on the horizon in China, democratization would be a painstaking, long-term process. Inspired by the Eastern European dissident movements of the 1980s, the Charter 08 activists argued that political change must be incremental and must come from below. The objective was to create an independent civil society: a “parallel polis” or spaces of freedom that would rival — if only gradually and in piecemeal fashion — the official bastions of state power. In this way, “living with dignity” — a variation on the late Václav Havel’s memorable call for “living in truth” in “The Power of the Powerless” — could become a reality. In support of his claims, Liu, who was steeped in the intricacies of Western thought, invoked St. Thomas Aquinas’s notion that the end of politics was not merely the preservation of order but the nurturing of human dignity.


In his declaration of support for the Chartist movement, “To Change a Regime by Changing Society” (now available in No Enemies, No Hatred, recently published by Harvard University Press), Liu placed particular emphasis on the defendants’ rights movement, which had blossomed throughout China during the 2000s as a way of forcing the regime to live up to the legal precepts that, heretofore, it had only honored in the breach. Ideally, these discrete juridical struggles would serve to catalyze a more general and widespread politicization. In Liu’s estimation, the time was ripe for such a movement insofar as China, having recently emerged from the throes of despotism, was now a post-totalitarian society:


The hope [for a free China] has a realistic basis because it is plain that in post-Mao China it is no longer possible, as it once was, for a single great dictator to block the entire Chinese sky. The sky now bears a distinct pattern of two shades, darkness and light, and both are always present. The relation between rulers and ruled is no longer one in which the people are held in regimented silence except when permitted, on cue, to shout “Long Live Somebody!” Today, the ossified language of the regime and the people’s rising awareness of their rights exist side by side; oppression from the authorities above and resistance from the people below also exist side by side … In parallel with these changes, a global trend toward freedom and democracy has been steadily gaining strength after the collapse of autocratic rule in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Human rights diplomacy in the world community and pressure from international human rights organizations have made the cost of maintaining a dictatorial system and a politics of terror increasingly high even as the effectiveness of such repression continues to decline.


In 1988, Liu committed a faux pas that, in the eyes of many Chinese, remains unpardonable. During his first trip to Hong Kong, he spoke of the benefits of “100 years of colonialism,” going on to observe that, because of its size, it would require 300 years of foreign occupation for conditions on the mainland to improve. Given China’s bitter history of foreign domination, Liu’s remarks were widely viewed as having traversed an unacceptable political threshold. He is serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.”




The occasion for my visit to China is a series of lectures related to my book on the French Left’s enthusiastic reception of Maoism during the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s. Since several of my previous books, on more obscure topics, had been translated into Mandarin, I assume that, given its Chinese theme, my current offering might be of interest to a Chinese readership. Little did I realize how controversial this assumption would prove.


Although Mao remains the father of modern China, his legacy is, to say the least, far from unblemished. Recent estimates suggest that the Great Leap Forward — Mao’s attempt, from 1958 to 1961, to reconfigure agricultural production along collectivist lines — resulted in approximately 30 million deaths, mostly from famine. This unparalleled social catastrophe — to go by numbers alone, the greatest in human history — cost Mao the presidency of the People’s Republic, which was then assumed by his rival, Liu Shaoqi. In May 1966, Mao launched the nearly equally disastrous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in part in order to regain the prestige he had lost during the Great Leap Forward. In August of that year, Mao described the Cultural Revolution’s political aims as follows:


Our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic “authorities” and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all the other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art … Trust the masses, rely on them and respect their initiative. Cast out fear. Don’t be afraid of disorder … firmly rely on the revolutionary Left … Hold aloft the great red banner of Mao Tse-tung’s thought.


For three years, radical students, outfitted as Red Guards, roamed the country in search of reactionary elements and “bourgeois-roaders.” Often, vicious fighting broke out between various Red Guard factions vying for regional supremacy. On other occasions, pitched battles were waged between Red Guard units and detachments of the People’s Liberation Army.


Soon, the Cultural Revolution devolved into a state of total anarchy, with Red Guard groupings, People’s Liberation Army brigades, and party officials vying haplessly for control. Mao wished to save Chinese communism from a fate of bureaucratic stagnation. He succeeded at the cost of unleashing unprecedented social chaos. The Communist Party, in principle China’s guarantor of political stability, had metamorphosed into an unpredictable and erratic overlord. As Jonathan Spence observes in In Search of Modern China:


With the euphoria, fear, excitement, and tension that gripped the country, violence grew apace. Thousands of intellectuals and others were beaten to death or died of their injuries. Countless others committed suicide … Many of the suicides killed themselves only after futile attempts to avoid Red Guard harassment by destroying their own libraries and art collections. Thousands more were imprisoned, often in solitary confinement, for years. Millions were relocated to purify themselves through labor in the countryside.


Soon, the People’s Liberation Army, under the leadership of Lin Biao (who died in 1971, in a plane crash over Mongolia following an aborted coup attempt), had to be summoned to quell the unmanageable social turmoil. The official history of the Chinese Communist Party acknowledges that the attendant political chaos set Chinese economic development back by 20 years. Of course, this is to say nothing of the millions of lives that were ruined in an ill-conceived attempt to attain a condition of total ideological rectitude; here I refer to those who were “sent down” to the provinces in order to undergo the invasive and humiliating rituals of political reeducation. Little wonder that, in The Year of the Heroic Guerrilla, historian Robert Daniels refers to the Cultural Revolution as “one of the most extraordinary instances of mass hysteria in modern history.”


For these reasons, the Cultural Revolution is generally not discussed at Chinese universities. Along with the Great Leap Forward, it stands as one of the yawning “black holes” of post-revolutionary Chinese history. The wounds that it caused remain traumatic; the dislocations it set in motion have not yet fully subsided. Since the Cultural Revolution is rarely discussed in public, the idea of an American declaiming on this theme is quasi-heretical. The only thing that saves me is that, in my lectures, which I am required to submit in advance, I treat the Cultural Revolution indirectly, through the oblique prism of its reception among students and intellectuals in France.


Prior to my arrival, I am advised by my hosts that I should avoid saying anything negative about Chairman Mao. This is less a question of censorship than one of decorum or politesse. It is unbecoming to have a guest — especially an emissary of China’s main economic rival and geopolitical rival — insult or defame the host nation’s founding patriarch. Chinese society is acutely sensitive to considerations of honor or “saving face.”


One of the fundamental contradictions of the People’s Republic is that its legitimacy is tied to the acts of a tyrant whose ideological zealotry resulted in the loss of millions of lives. As a result, “ideology” — which, during Mao’s reign, was responsible for so many historical and political traumas — today plays an almost negligible role. One is tempted to say that the regime is communist in name only. Here, the paradox is that, despite the obligatory references to Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao, contemporary China remains one of the most successful capitalist nations on earth. Where else in the world does one find economic growth rates that have consistently averaged close to 10 percent per annum?


Thus, today, communist precepts live on as a type of ideological window-dressing, veiling the CCP’s authoritarian political rule. Ironically, whereas formerly “Mao Zedong Thought” was utilized to foment revolution, today, as the bedrock of CCP orthodoxy, it is used to deter the prospect of contestation from below as well as political radicalism of any and every stripe. As such, Maoist doctrine has been reduced to a conservative vehicle of state legitimation.


At lunch one day, my gregarious Beijing student guides, Zhang Xian and Yimeng, confide that they are Communist Party members. Am I disappointed in them, they would like to know? The very fact that they feel the need to solicit my approval indicates that they are aware of the CCP’s basic political unsavoriness. Yet it is clear that neither one has joined the Party for ideological reasons. Their motivations are not in the least political. Instead, like millions of other young Chinese, they have become Party members for the purely instrumental purpose of career advancement: a real concern in China where, like other industrializing societies, those with advanced degrees often fail to find employment that matches their sophisticated educational backgrounds.




Despite Mao’s tyrannical proclivities and well-chronicled political excesses, his achievements remain the key to Chinese communism’s political legitimacy. One could go so far as to say that the CCP has inherited China’s traditional imperial “mandate of heaven.” As the journalist Martin Jacques explains:


The key to the support enjoyed by the Communist regime after 1949 — and indeed, even until this day — lies in the fact that it restored the independence and unity of China. It was Mao Zedong’s greatest single achievement … Notwithstanding his colossal abuses of power, which resulted in the death of millions, as the architect of the revolution and the founder of an independent and united China, Mao … remains, even today a venerated figure in the eyes of many Chinese.


During my stay in China, I am constantly searching for residues and traces of Mao’s influence. Used bookstores teem with dog-eared copies of the “Little Red Book” and other Maoist writings. Clearly, these days the classic texts of Maoism are not in great demand. And although Mao’s oversize portrait still adorns Tiananmen Square in the heart of central Beijing, there are other signs and portents suggesting that the obligatory obeisance to his eminence and prowess have become more or less perfunctory, something of an empty ritual.


On the southern edge of Tiananmen Square stands the Mao mausoleum, where the Chairman’s embalmed body lies in state for permanent viewing. Although Mao’s place is secure for the moment, my tour guide explains that, on the mausoleum’s second level, the government is now installing a second memorial in honor of Deng Xiaoping — the architect of China’s economic modernization, who is widely credited with restoring the political and economic stability that was jeopardized by Mao’s pursuit of unbending revolutionary purity.


My student guides gleefully point out another telling Tiananmen Square anomaly: Mao’s portrait must now share the plaza with an imposing, 30-foot-tall statue of Confucius. This is a heretical development, since one of the Cultural Revolution’s ideological linchpins was the assault on the “four olds”: old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. During this period, remnants of Confucianism were often a favored and primary target. Following Lin Biao’s failed 1971 coup attempt, Mao launched a concerted anti-Lin, anti-Confucius propaganda campaign. One may construe the CCP’s rehabilitation of Confucius — which is visible today throughout China — as an emphatic rejection of political radicalism and a sign of the yearning for cultural stability.


In Beijing, I tour the National Museum, which features a new wing glorifying the history of the People’s Republic. The museum had reopened in time for the 90th anniversary of the CCP’s founding in 1921. From an aesthetic point of view, the exhibition stands as a crude endorsement of the values of socialist realism. In the voluminous exhibition space, neither the Great Leap Forward nor the Cultural Revolution is so much as mentioned. Just as in the former Soviet Union, where Trotsky had become an “unperson,” in today’s China the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution live on as “nonevents.” Yet, as one meanders through the hall devoted to China during the 1960s, amid the preponderance of triumphal imagery, one finds a faint allusion to unspecified “problems” and “errors”: the growing pangs of a nascent revolutionary political culture, one is left to surmise.


I turn to Zhong Xian, my devoted student guide, to ask her opinion of these stark omissions. “These are events of recent Chinese history,” she replies, in the manner of a good cultural ambassador; “they are still too close to us. Perhaps in another 10 to 20 years we can begin to address them.” Although Zhong Xian’s judgment is not entirely false, her Party training has also served her well.




It is in Shanghai that I first hear tell of the ideological controversy that, for nearly two decades, has riven China’s leading intellectuals: the opposition between “Liberals” and the “New Left Wing.” The Liberals are the heirs to the New Enlightenment movement of the 1980s, a trend that was launched by activists and intellectuals who were repulsed by the ideological excesses of the Cultural Revolution and Maoist orthodoxy. Its proponents were, for the most part, Westernizers who valued civic freedom and were inspired by the Democracy Wall movement of the late 1970s. The advocates of New Enlightenment realized that, if China were to recover economically from the Maoist era, centralized planning would have to be dismantled and markets introduced. As such, one of the Liberals’ central convictions was that free markets and economic laissez-faire were necessary preconditions for democratization. During the 1980s, the Liberals’ rise to prominence coincided with Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatism and the success of the Eastern European dissident movement.


The New Left Wing emerged during the 1990s in diametrical opposition to the credo of Deng and the New Enlightenment Liberals. The New Left recognized that, as Deng’s reforms succeeded and China began to prosper economically, new social problems arose, catalyzed by accelerated modernization and social inequality. New Left intellectuals feared that, under the stewardship of Deng and his associates, China had rashly jettisoned the positive aspects of the Communist Ideal. As a result, in their view, during the 1990s China lost its moral and political compass. By rejecting Mao’s policies, China had thoughtlessly discarded both its revolutionary heritage as well as its cultural-political distinctiveness. They argued that by prematurely abandoning the Chinese road to socialism, the People’s Republic risked becoming a pale imitation of the West.


One of the New Left Wing’s leading proponents, Xue Yi, has summarized the group’s tenets as follows:


Since the 1980s, the Chinese intellectual world has tended to see capitalist countries through rose-tinted spectacles. There’s even been a general reevaluation of the expansion of international capital. Under traditional socialism, international capital was depicted as being bloody, violent, rapacious, and murderous as it extended its reach around the globe. However in the China of the 1980s, the globalization of capital came to be seen by many thinkers as constituting a clash between civilization and ignorance, a contest between the forces of modernization, on the one hand, and those of backwardness on the other.


What the debate between the Liberals and the New Left Wing really concerns is the question of what it means, in light of the challenges of modernization, to be authentically Chinese. New Left proponents feel that the New Enlightenment Liberals have capitulated to the West: They are playing a game of servile cultural imitation which China, an ancient and venerable Asian civilization, can never win. They view Maoist ideology as consistent with the communitarian orientation of traditional Chinese culture. Putatively, the two fit one another like hand in glove.


The debate between Liberals and the New Left Wing is replete with ironies. Many New Left intellectuals are persona non grata with the regime, since they openly fault it for having betrayed Marxism, its original ideological basis. Thus New Left intellectuals seek to outflank the CCP on the left, which the Party finds distinctly discomfiting. Conversely, despite being nominally communist, the regime seems to tolerate the Liberals quite well — as long as they stop short of advocating a multiparty democracy or related political heresies. Thus in today’s China one confronts the paradox of a communist regime that is at ideological loggerheads with left-leaning intellectuals, but which finds pro-Western, liberal intellectuals on the whole quite congenial.




My first lecture takes place at East China Normal University in Shanghai. There are about 100 students and faculty present, plus a video crew that seeks to make the lecture available for future educational use. I have the advantage of an excellent translator, Wu Guanjun, a graduate student in philosophy at neighboring Fudan University. (This is the last time I will have an oral translator; and although written translations of my lectures will be subsequently provided, the students, whose English language ability is no more than passable, will generally miss out on 20 to 30 percent of what I have to say.) The students seem eager, since it affords them an opportunity to engage and discuss the Cultural Revolution, an otherwise taboo theme. In order for contemporary Chinese youth to sort out their conflicted feelings about the regime, to adequately weigh its pros and cons, they must confront Chairman Mao’s legacy head-on. The denizens of Shanghai strike me as more independent-minded and nonconformist than the inhabitants of the other Chinese cities I tour. For one, the city is a relatively safe, 800-mile remove from Beijing, the capital and seat of power. Shanghai’s history of colonial influence allows a more cosmopolitan mentalité to flourish.


The lecture goes smoothly. I conclude by praising the French left for having politically evolved: for having ultimately abandoned their pro-Chinese ideological blinders and transformed themselves into civil society and human rights activists. Thus, in one of the ironies of French intellectual politics, it was former Maoists and China-sympathizers who, during the mid-1970s, as a way of atoning for their earlier political credulity, would catalyze the incipient antitotalitarian movement. Paradoxically, many ex-Maoists also metamorphosed into the leading proponents of the so-called “new social movements”: feminism, ecology, immigrant rights, and homosexual liberation.


During the question session, I am cut to the quick when one rather agitated older professor asks me quite pointedly what Maoism and gay rights could possibly have in common. I try to explain that, at a certain point, French radicals, abandoning their prior subservience to the Chinese model, deciding that each nation must be free to conceive and implement its own cultural revolutionary ideals. Hence, homosexual liberation was one of the manifestations of the Cultural Revolution à la française. The students appear befuddled, and my well-meaning questioner remains visibly unconvinced.


Yet on the whole I am surprised by how well informed the questions are. It’s the final query that stands out as the evening’s distinct highlight. One fearless and precocious student asks me point-blank what the role of the intellectual in contemporary China should be. I respond that the intellectual’s first responsibility should be to embrace a type of Socratic modesty: to remain keenly aware of his or her own fallibility as a writer and a political actor. Then I mention that I regularly teach a course on “Intellectuals and Politics in 20th-Century Europe” that concludes with a treatment of leading Eastern European dissidents such as Václav Havel and Adam Michnik. I suggest that an analogous strategy of establishing an independent civil society, or “parallel polis,” might be appropriate in today’s China. Most of the students smile or nod with approval. To judge by their reactions, it seems that my political message has not fallen upon deaf ears.




In Nanjing, the sightseeing highlights are the Nanjing Massacre museum and the sprawling Sun Yat-sen memorial. The sheer scale of Chinese monuments defies comparison with the West. One must constantly keep in mind that one is dealing with a population of 1.2 billion — four times the size of the U.S. population — and calibrate one’s expectations accordingly.


At Nanjing University, I deliver more or less the same lecture — a précis of my book — before 120 students and faculty. The audience has no idea how influential Mao’s doctrines were in the West during the nineteen-sixties and seventies, and not merely in France. The 1971 Baader-Meinhof manifesto “The Urban Guerrilla Concept” contains some 20 references or allusions to aspects of Maoist ideology. Closer to home, the Black Panther Party’s daily newspaper was equally reliant on the precepts of “Mao Zedong Thought.” As a theoretician, Mao’s singular contribution to Marxist doctrine was to have broadened the notion of the revolutionary class to include the peasantry. Of course, from the standpoint of communist orthodoxy this extension was sheer heresy. According to the Marxist catechism, the proletariat was a strictly urban phenomenon. Marx himself viewed the peasantry negatively, as a backward-looking, well-nigh reactionary social grouping. Nevertheless, Mao’s recalibration of the ABCs of Marxism seemed tailor-made to suit an era of decolonization, as the downtrodden masses of the developing world rose up to overthrow their former oppressors.


My Nanjing audience regards my presentation with an admixture of bemusement and national pride. On the one hand, they are well aware of Mao’s penchant for political overreach and the resultant landmark policy disasters. How quaint that political zealots in the West would embrace a form of ideological extremism that, in China, wreaked such lasting havoc! On the other hand, China remains a venerable, ancient civilization. The Chinese are convinced that, having reacquired their economic and political clout, they are now regaining their lost global geopolitical centrality, as befits their historical self-understanding as the “Middle Kingdom” — the pivotal realm around which all other, lesser polities revolve. Thus they also interpret my narrative as a testament to the potency and global reach of Chinese ideas — even the fairly retrograde ideas that emerged from the dizzying political maelstrom that was the Cultural Revolution.


At the lecture’s end, my host, a mild-mannered professor of theater studies, underlines the latter point for the students’ benefit. The “moral” of the lecture, he insists, is that China is no longer a sleeping giant but a world power to be reckoned with in the here and now.


With one exception, no one in the lecture hall has a positive word to say about the Cultural Revolution. Ironically, the lone dissenting voice is that of an American Sinophile — a visiting professor of American studies — who remains convinced, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that the Cultural Revolution was the high-water mark of 20th-century political radicalism. In his estimation, its achievements should be retrieved from the dustbin of history and vigorously celebrated. My interlocutor is more Chinese than the natives — plus royaliste que le roi. I have yet to learn how to debate someone who is impervious to all countervailing facts and arguments. (Just give him enough rope to hang himself, perhaps…) My compatriot concludes by praising the achievements of the Shining Path, Peru’s misguided Maoist insurgents who flourished during the 1980s, spawning an undeclared civil war that resulted in some 70,000 deaths. At this point, the preponderantly Chinese audience begins to visibly fidget.




My last lectures are in Beijing, at the gritty campus of Beijing Normal University. As I tour the city for the first time, I am fascinated by the hutong: the city’s narrow backstreets and alleyways that have traditionally functioned as robust sites of everyday life. The hutong are busy, informal marketplaces, where one can buy everything from cutlery to boiled dumplings (a Beijing specialty). But they are also vibrant loci of sociability, the Chinese equivalent of the “neighborhood hangout” described so well by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.


For the Chinese authorities, however, the hutong are representative of “old China.” As such, they are viewed as obstacles that stand in the way of the current modernization mania and have been targeted for removal. Surprisingly, few Beijingers I meet mourn their passing. Since the government realizes that the hutong are attractive to foreign visitors, it has begun fabricating sanitized imitations — outfitted with the familiar logos of Western designer boutiques — in the tourist districts adjacent to Tiananmen Square.


My host in Beijing is Professor Cao, an authority on German philosophy. Although he has been kind enough to invite me, he is slightly unnerved by my topic. Soon, it is clear that it is not the Maoist theme per se that disconcerts him. Instead, it is the fact that, before an audience of Chinese students, I treat the phenomenon of 1960s French student activism in a positive way. Professor Cao’s concern is that my presentation might serve as an incitement to the otherwise docile and placid Chinese students who have filled the lecture hall. (I later discover that lectures by foreign visitors are routinely monitored by party officials — another source of disquietude for Professor Cao.) As I approach the lectern, Professor Cao cautions me sotto voce to keep the lecture “scholarly, not political.” Fifteen minutes into my presentation, he abruptly excuses himself and leaves.


Despite Professor Cao’s trepidations (or, perhaps, confirming them), the lecture goes over quite well. For the current generation of Chinese students, the Cultural Revolution is a nonthreatening, distant occurrence that might as well have occurred in feudal times. They are fascinated to learn of the Revolution’s sizeable impact in the West: the way in which Mao’s ideas were grafted onto Western circumstances, leading to results that were both disconcerting and innovative. But the topic also opens a window for them onto the possibilities of grassroots politics — possibilities that, for two decades, have been officially taboo. To be sure, the students, whom I find to be refreshingly guileless and genuine, are not about to metamorphose into committed social activists. Yet, under the right circumstances, should the government lose their trust, they can be counted on to stand up and be counted — to frankly speak their minds.


Later, I discover the reason for Professor Cao’s apprehensions. In 1989, he was a 22-year-old student at Beijing University, the epicenter of China’s incipient pro-democracy movement. According to one of my student minders, Professor Cao was one of the students banished for reeducation purposes, sent to work in a coal mine for two years — an experience that, understandably, he does not in the least care to repeat.




During my stay in Beijing, one of my student minders, Zeng Yimeng, who works as an editor at Beijing Normal University Press, implores me to grant the press translation rights for my book. Nothing would please me more, I tell her. The following day, Yimeng returns with some disappointing news. She has proposed the translation project to the director of the press, but the resident CCP official has summarily vetoed it: The idea of translating a book by an American scholar on a subject that bears on the legitimacy of Chinese communism remains, in his opinion, much too fraught and controversial.


However, a few months later I receive some more encouraging news. A Shanghai publisher, Shanghai Sanhui and Cultural Press Ltd., has acquired the translation rights. Nevertheless, the press appends a cautionary note indicating that, since my book treats the politically sensitive theme of Mao’s legacy, the ultimate decision concerning whether the translation can go forward lies with the CCP. My friends in Beijing and Shanghai console me by informing me that Shanghai Sanhui publishers have strong ties with Taiwan, which should allow for greater flexibility as far as the decision whether or not to translate is concerned.


Whither China? A bustling nation of irreconcilable cultural antagonisms, a land that is wholly caught up in the frenzy of entrepreneurial advancement, yet dominated by an oppressive one-party dictatorship that continues to invoke the ideological lineage of Marxism-Leninism to justify its autocratic rigidity. There are reasons to hope and, equally, reasons to despair. The age of totalitarian political fury has subsided. As Deng Xiaoping is reputed to have said, epitomizing China’s “new pragmatism”: “black or white, a cat that catches a mouse is a good cat.” Although politicians seeking to make a name for themselves episodically invoke Mao’s legacy — whatever his deficiencies may have been, no one doubts that Mao was a strong leader who rescued China from its fealty to foreign domination and spurred its rise to global prominence — neither party officials nor contemporary Chinese youth desire a return to this political path.


Today in China, individualism and pluralism thrive as never before. But, all in all, it is an opportunistic and self-regarding individualism, one suited to doing what is necessary to get ahead in life. As Liu Xiaobo observes in No Enemies, No Hatred, a new cynicism, along with a schizophrenic split between the nature of private and public political utterances, pervades contemporary Chinese culture. Thus, while in private gatherings people make the Party a target of unending mockery, in public the same individuals fall all over themselves with effusive avowals of undying political loyalty. Ultimately, the great mass of Chinese citizens realize that the surest route to professional success lies with Party membership, and that to run afoul of the party is to court rejection, marginalization, and worse. By throwing the doors to party membership wide-open in the years following the Tiananmen Square uprising — to the point where, today, the CCP can boast of a robust 30 million members — the Party took a significant step toward ensuring the loyalty of a new, highly educated generation of cadres and professionals. The individualism and pluralism that thrive in contemporary China are of an impoverished, pliable mold, resembling in many ways the mentality of other-directed conformity of the American 1950s. Contemporary Chinese youth have been co-opted by the blandishments and seductions of a burgeoning consumer society, and by bucking the system, they stand to lose too much. The end result has been the proliferation of the “soft individualism” that Tocqueville lamented in Democracy in America, minus the civic institutions — federalism, the jury system, and local democracy — that prevented America from degenerating into the majoritarian tyranny that is modern democracy’s constant menace.


If, at times, I am slightly disappointed by what I have experienced in China, perhaps this has more to do with the eminently Western romantic illusions I was seeking to confirm than with the realities of contemporary Chinese life. I had hoped to find residues and traces of traditional China. But today, especially in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the remnants of tradition — unwanted and unmourned — are rapidly dwindling. They are perceived as atavisms of underdevelopment that must be extirpated in the name of progress, in the service of catching up with, and ultimately surpassing, the West. I traveled to China in search of otherness and cultural difference, only to discover how homogenous and uniform the world has become. Modern civilization has created an endless hall of mirrors; wherever we turn, we find only ourselves. As Claude Lévi-Strauss observed appositely in Tristes Tropiques:


Civilization is no longer a fragile flower, to be carefully preserved and reared with great difficulty here and there in sheltered corners of a territory rich in natural resources … Instead, humanity has erected a monoculture, once and for all, and is preparing to produce civilization in bulk, as if it were sugar-beet. The same dish will be served to us every day.

LARB Contributor

Richard Wolin teaches history, political science, and comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse (2001), The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (2006), and The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (2012), all with Princeton University Press. His new book, Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology, was published by Yale University Press in 2023. His articles and reviews have appeared in Dissent, The Nation, and The New Republic.


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