Yuanmingyuan Revisited: The Confrontation of China and the West


In the northwest corner of Beijing lie the ruins of Yuanmingyuan, or Garden of Perfect Splendor, the “other” or OldSummerPalace. Destroyed by a British and French expeditionary force in 1860, with what little remained finished off by eight Great Powers in 1900, its lack of standing buildings makes it low on the list of tourist attractions, and few Western visitors bother to stop there. They go instead to Yiheyuan, or the Garden of Nurtured Harmony, which is commonly referred to today as the New or simply “The” Summer Palace, still standing in all of its glory with its many halls and pavilions intact, further to the west. Only a few tours for foreigners make a quick stop at Yuanmingyuan, therefore, and it is at times possible to wander its pathways for most of a day without encountering more than a handful of mainly younger Westerners. But Chinese visit its grounds by the thousands, to admire its beautiful lakes, with their fields of water lilies and marble bridges, climb among its ruins, and mourn its loss to the Western invaders.

Both of the Summer Palace compounds were destroyed by expeditionary military forces of Britain and France during the Opium Wars, which began in the 1840s, and other attacks extending to the end of the century, first over Chinese resistance to the flood of drugs coming from the British colony of India, but more fundamentally as part of the overall drive to force the country open to the entrepreneurs and missionaries of the West. All of the leading Western Powers, including the United States – which joined in the drug trade – took part in this ravaging of China, which ended with the de facto partition of much of its territory into spheres of influence by Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Japan, and the reduction of its central government to semi-colonial subordination to the imperialist powers. Yiheyuan, the SummerPalace that still stands, was first burned down by the British and French in 1860, rebuilt during the 1880s, severely damaged by them again in 1900, when eight Great Powers suppressed the Boxer Rebellion, and once more restored shortly after. The money used for its reconstruction was diverted from the finances that were meant to help arm China against further attacks. The most striking symbol of this diversion of funds is the magnificent marble boat that sits dead in its waters, a useless mimic of the real navy that the country desperately needed to repel the modern gunboats of the imperialist invaders. Yiheyuan speaks to Chinese efforts over the centuries to hold onto and restore their glorious past, yet it is also a reminder of widespread and endemic corruption, a plague that continues down to today. But the multitude of Western tourists who now flock to its grounds are largely spared any sense of either its past destruction or its corrupt rebuilding. What they see instead are the beautiful remnants of the empire that China itself once was, with the wealth of an entire continent devoted to imperial splendor.

Yuanmingyuan is different. There the vast destruction visited on the Chinese by the Western imperial powers is unavoidable. It is impossible to walk its grounds without being aware of the history still living in its ruins. The many empty platforms on which its once grand buildings stood, the walkways and bridges which speak to the life of ease and luxury of the imperial family, the model of its vast complex of halls and pavilions, each in a different style, in the museum toward the rear of the park, all make clear its former magnificence, now lost forever. Said to be the favorite retreat of the emperors of the last dynasty, the Qing, in part because its architecture was largely wooden in construction and less formal, they filled it with their favorite works of ancient art and writings stretching back for over two millennia. The very nature of its materials and its role as one, if not the greatest, of all the repositories of Chinese culture, made it all the more vulnerable to the rampage of looting and burning to which the Western Powers subjected it, leaving it not only completely destroyed, but almost entirely irreplaceable. No effort to rebuild it was ever made, though there is a debate today over whether it should now be reconstructed.

The destruction was carried out in a spirit of vandalism, meant intentionally to teach China a lesson for its resistance to the might of the Western Powers. As Charles George Gordon, then a 27-year-old captain in the Royal Engineers – later the general known as both “Chinese Gordon” and “Gordon of Khartoum” – wrote at the time,

We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property… You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.1

This savagery was inflicted under the orders of Lord James Bruce Elgin, son of Thomas Bruce, robber of the Parthenon friezes – the “Elgin Marbles” still in the British Museum, despite Greek demands for their return – as the English looted their way across the world. In 1861, Victor Hugo wrote a bitter letter, dripping with irony, protesting the destruction at Yuanmingyuan. Comparing it not only to the Parthenon, but to the Coliseum and Notre Dame, he declared it one of the “wonders of the world,” and the greatest in all of Asia.

One day two bandits entered the SummerPalace. One plundered, the other burned. Victory can be a thieving woman, or so it seems. The devastation of the SummerPalace was accomplished by the two victors acting jointly. Mixed up in all this is the name of Elgin, which inevitably calls to mind the Parthenon. What was done to the Parthenon was done to the SummerPalace, more thoroughly and better, so that nothing of it should be left. All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewelry. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits.2

The racism of the “civilized” West toward China was founded in these earliest contacts. As Hugo noted toward the end of his letter, Yuanmingyuan revealed the hypocrisy of Western claims to represent a higher morality, resting on racist pretensions of superiority.

“We Europeans are the civilized ones, and for us the Chinese are the barbarians. This is what civilization has done to barbarism.”3 This language of the “civilized” West still continues today, in its attitude toward China.

The ruins of Yuanmingyuan have a special symbolic meaning, therefore. They are perhaps the most visible sign anywhere in the country of what it meant for China to be subjected to foreign domination, humiliation and looting by the Western imperialists.

The scale of the devastation and pillage is almost incomprehensible. In the 1900 attack, the entire city of Beijing was subjected to an orgy of murder, brutality, rape and wanton destruction. Private homes, as well as state and religious institutions, were attacked and stripped, and many residents either fled or committed suicide to escape the savagery and humiliation. In the looting and robbery-like “sales” of jewelry, porcelains, furs and other valuable objects of all kinds, leading military officers, diplomats and even missionaries, as well as common soldiers, took part. Speaking of the British Minister, who was the top representative of his government, George Morrison, correspondent for the London Times, noted that in a military mess hall where he took some of his meals, “All condemned the way Sir Claude and Lady MacDonald had looted… 185 boxes at least” – though she later denied it and claimed that she had “protested when ‘burglariously-inclined people tried to loot from the Imperial palaces.’”4 While some of the Great Powers were worse than others, all participated. As Field Marshall Count von Waldersee, German commander in chief of the expedition, who arrived only after the city was taken, later wrote, “Every nationality accords the palm to some other in respect to the art of plundering, but it remains the fact that each and all of them went in hot and strong for plunder.”5

As the most powerful and visceral body of evidence remaining of such treatment and the national resistance to it, years ago, “Under the order of Premier Zhou Enlai, Yuanmingyuan became a park to remind the Chinese and the world of the destruction wrought by European colonial powers to a harmless and priceless cultural entity that rightly belongs to mankind.”6 Signs erected on the walkways, some in English, remind visitors of this history still today, along “the ‘Never Forget National Humiliation’ memorial wall. There inscribed on numerous plaques was the sordid history of European and American incursions into China, of opium dealing, and the imposition of unequal treaties that made up the ‘century of humiliation.’”7 Recent discussions of plans for eventually rebuilding the complex have raised resistance because of this special historical significance. As Ye Yanfang, researcher of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has put it, “I have always held that the Yuanmingyuan ruins are the most concrete evidence of Western atrocities and should be preserved as the scene of a crime. The lonely, desolated site is a silent accusation of the aggressive acts of foreign invaders, serving as an ideal place for ‘patriotic education.’ In this regard, no other imperial park can compare.”8

But there is an aspect of the ruins of Yuanmingyuan that adds particular irony to this historical record. At the time its construction was begun, early in the 18th century, China was most likely not only still the richest, but in many respects the most powerful country in the world. As the long dominant power over all of Eastern Asia, it saw itself as the center of “civilization,” to which all others must bear tribute. This included the Westerners who were beginning to show up on its shores and to trade along its southern coasts, who were expected to fit into this tributary relation. Curious about these newcomers, the emperors began to accept the usual gifts from them of not only sample products, but curios that illustrated the exotic nature of foreign lands, including the collection of Western clocks now housed in the Forbidden City museum. But the emperor Qianlong, who ruled during the last two-thirds of the 18th century at the height of the Qing dynasty, went even further. He commissioned at Yuanmingyuan the construction of a series of buildings in the styles of various European countries, and modeled especially after the Italian baroque and French imperial manner. The designers were two Jesuits, Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoist. The buildings, as large and magnificent as any of the hundreds in the park, were made of stone and marble, unlike those built in traditional Chinese style, and though they also collapsed in the 1860 attack, the remains did not burn. One of the great ironies of Yuanmingyuan, therefore, is that these are virtually the only remnants from its original construction – other than a maze and kiosk, also of masonry, that were rebuilt and still survive. In this greatest of all the imperial parks, the ruins over which visitors climb today resemble not anything found elsewhere in China, but rather the columns, fountains and fantastic figures that parallel those in Italy, France and other European countries of the late 18th century.

Emperor Qianlong was not trying to imitate Europe, or treat it as equal to China. His letter to the King of England in 1793 was phrased in the typical fashion in which the Chinese had for centuries addressed their own tributary neighbors, rejecting efforts of the British to open diplomatic and trade relations. Even the idea of collecting buildings in other styles at Yuanmingyuan was not unique. Qianlong had earlier built a series of temples and palaces in the manner of the Tibetans, Mongols, and other “nationalities” in the hills surrounding Chengde, a more rural retreat of the imperial family some 150 miles north of Beijing. These served a dual purpose, on the one hand to honor the cultures of non-Han peoples, on the other to reinforce their subordination to the empire. Built between 1713 and 1780, they were “so designed that their main gates face the Imperial Dwelling Palace. The significance of this is obvious – the Eight Temples symbolize the various ethnic groups from all parts of China directing their loyalty toward the center of authority.”9 Perhaps the European style buildings at Yuanmingyuan were meant to express a similar relationship to the recently discovered West, paying respect to their own cultural traditions, while expecting the usual subordinate role as new “tributaries” to the emperor.

Nevertheless, the structures in Italian and French styles that Qianlong commissioned had also represented an opening up, a reaching out, by the imperial court, to another world.

The spectacle of magnificent French architecture rising from the grounds of the Chinese emperor’s residence testifies to the cosmopolitan enthusiasm on both sides of the East-West exchange in the eighteenth century, despite growing popular belief in Europe that China was an isolated, insular nation that scoffed at the achievements of other cultures.10

Here was the beginning of a new relationship which, with time and proper adjustments on both sides, might have led to an era of global realignment and mutual respect and cultural interchange. It was to just such a possible mingling of West and East that Victor Hugo had pointed in his 1861 letter.11 Though phrased in the “Orientalism” prevalent at the time – and all too common still today – he had nevertheless hoped for a meeting ground of “the Idea, which produces European art, and the Chimera, which produces oriental art.” As he noted, many of the Western “Artists, poets and philosophers knew the Summer Palace; Voltaire talks of it. If people did not see it they imagined it. It was a kind of tremendous unknown masterpiece, glimpsed from the distance in a kind of twilight, like a silhouette of the civilization of Asia on the horizon of the civilization of Europe.” Its impact was widespread, as “Jesuit descriptions of the palace greatly influenced Chinoiserie and the development of the English style garden.”12 The discovery of the Asian arts, including the Japanese block prints that so influenced the emergence of modernism in Europe beginning around the same time, had begun to bridge the gap.

But the imperial leaders of the West were having none of it. By the mid-19th century, the power relationship had been reversed. They wanted a China suppine and subservient, lying at their feet, subject to their endless looting, not only of its cultural treasures, but of its potentially vast markets and products. So in the end, it was not the Chinese, in a fit of anti-imperialist anger, who destroyed the Western style buildings at Yuanmingyuan. It was the imperialists of the West themselves, who had no intention of allowing China to remain as an equal, much less a greater power than their own. It is the ruins of that potential equality over which the visitors now climb at Yuanmingyuan. For China, therefore, its destruction is not just an isolated tragedy. It remains a key event in the collective memory of how Chinese attempts to reach out to the West, even if in the unequal relations of the time, were not only rejected, but turned into their opposite. The destruction and looting of China unleashed by all of the Great Powers, of which the ruins of Yuanmingyuan still stand as the most potent symbol, continued unbroken until the end of World War II, and it raises suspicions, still today, as to the ultimate Western intent.


Only with the Communist victory in 1949, with Mao Zedong proclaiming that “the Chinese people have stood up,” was the century-long era of domination by Western and Japanese imperialist forces, of which Yuanmingyuan was such a searing reminder, finally brought to a definitive end, and the basis laid for a “New China,” setting its own course, and reclaiming its place on the world stage. But the revolution led by Mao did more than restore national sovereignty. In both its practical aspects and its theoretical advances, the revolutionary struggle carried out by the Communists redefined the “mix” of elements from China and those from the West. This was not the first attempt to accept foreign ideas in the face of new global threats. Already in the late 19th century, efforts had been made to preserve, and even continue to hold up as superior, traditional Chinese culture, with Confucianism at its core, while accepting that for survival it was necessary to adopt Western technology. But this combination – Zhongxue weiti, xixue weiyong (Chinese learning for substance, Western learning for practical application) – failed to bring about deep enough changes to protect the country from further imperialist attacks. A “Hundred Days’ Reforms” under emperor Guangxu in 1898 proved abortive, and in time all such attempts, including the short-lived democratic republic instituted by Sun Yat-sen after the 1911 revolution, were unable to consolidate a merging of Chinese and Western elements capable of successful resistance. China remained on the edge of the new global empire, dominated by the West and Japan, having lost any claim to be the “center” of the world, or even of East Asia, and controlled by feudal, imperialist and comprador forces.

It would require a remixing of Chinese and Western concepts, and a realignment of internal class forces, to alter this relationship. This process reached a new level with the May Fourth Movement of 1919, an anti-imperialist upsurge calling for political and cultural renewal, and a modern and independent path for China. Out of the national intellectual debate that flowed from this uprising, the leading new conceptual framework that emerged by the mid-1920s came in the form of Marxism which, though a product of the West, not only claimed a universal application not dependent on its European origins, but had already begun its global march east and south, starting with the Soviet Union under Lenin and later Stalin. The choice of Communism as the victorious organizing principle for China had the effect of profoundly realigning its class relationships, providing a basis for challenging the dominance of the Western powers, as part of a worldwide network of socialist countries and movements. But while firmly rooted in the Marxist-Leninist trajectory, based on the leading role of the proletariat and the collective ideology derived from its conditions, from the beginning there were “special Chinese characteristics” to the revolutionary struggle led by Mao. Though not entirely unique to China, these new elements adapted the theories of Marx and his successors to the special circumstances of its revolution. At first, these had been largely “practical” in nature, but they were always accompanied by newer theoretical concepts as well. Chief among these was the necessity of rooting the Chinese revolution among the peasantry in the vast hinterland of the country, after initial attempts to model it on the urban proletarian uprisings of the Bolshevik revolution proved unsustainable. In his development of a protracted “peoples’ war” carried out primarily in the rural areas, Mao both continued and extended into new territory earlier Marxist-Leninist concepts, while resisting the rote application of the Russian example to the conditions of China.

From the beginning, these new approaches strained the relation with Stalin and the Soviets. But the ties to Russia still held. The Sino-Soviet Bloc, never as monolithic as commonly portrayed in the West, nevertheless stood as an alternative center of global power. Within this alliance, China had the more recent revolutionary experience, and as such was a vanguard that broke new paths, with special resonance elsewhere in the East and South, though in time it had to share this leading role with others, notably Vietnam and Cuba. But with the rise of Nikita Khrushchev and his “de-Stalinization” program, and the turn of the Soviet Union toward a reformist path in practice and “revisionism” in theory, with its accommodating détente with the United States, earlier tensions widened into an irreconcilable gap. As Mao led a series of campaigns, not only to consolidate the revolution, but to prevent China from taking the revisionist “capitalist road” that he saw the USSR pursuing, the Soviets withdrew their cooperation, leading to a formal break. The Great Leap Forward of 1958-60 and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, exceeded in scope and objectives any earlier Soviet mass mobilizations, and were unprecedented in the revolutionary experience of the world communist movement. Despite their high cost in lives, violence and social turmoil, these struggles resulted in enormous gains for the Chinese working classes in the areas of collective production and distribution, development of infrastructure and environmental projects, and the provision of nearly universal social securities such as health care, education, housing and old age support, as well as new egalitarian and participatory democratic relationships, including cultural and artistic expressions focused primarily on the lives of workers and peasants. Accompanying these campaigns, Mao advanced a new set of theoretical positions, the core of which was the continuation of class struggle even during the extended period of the transition to socialism, and the need to confront the potential reversal of the gains of the revolution and a restoration of the old order, as was happening in the Soviet Union.

The split that resulted in the global socialist movement, with the worldwide “left” dividing broadly into Russian and Chinese camps, has persisted down to today. As a consequence of this confrontation, and of the practical and theoretical forms that it took, China emerged as a new “stand alone” center of the world revolution, a still poor country that had nevertheless become very powerful, not only providing its working classes with a high level of collective development, social security and egalitarian relationships, but able to stand up to US imperialism in the Korean War, and later over Vietnam. It was a vanguard role that inspired revolutionaries and progressives around the globe. Critical to this new leading global position was not only the independence of Mao and those around him from a search for approval from the West, but their open challenge to the imperialists on every front, including racist oppression in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and in the United States itself. China now openly proclaimed itself the center of world revolution, and leaders of movements from around the globe came there to gain support for their own struggles, and to meet with Mao. Among leftists worldwide, there was growing ferment, based on the Chinese experience, and especially the Cultural Revolution, with its goal of bottom-up working class democratization, “serve the people” ethics, and promotion of egalitarianism, reflected not only in its policies, but in its visual images and works of art.

From the students making posters during the May 1968 Paris uprising to the Black Panthers in the United States, groups outside China paid close attention to the GPCR and its artistic output… reinforcing the revolutionary spirit of numerous communities struggling for self-identification and social change.13

Among the others influenced in this way was Redstockings, a radical wing of the US women’s liberation movement, which found inspiration in statements by Mao and the struggle for equal rights in China, and modeled its innovative consciousness-raising sessions in part on the “speak bitterness” meetings there. This radicalism affected every social realm. As a result, inspired in part by the revolutionary Chinese example, both Soviet style bureaucratic politics and Western professional elitism were challenged by radical movements within innumerable organizations and institutions across the globe.

Under the impact of its revolutionary leadership and example, therefore, China emerged once more as a “center” toward which others oriented, and as an alternative pole globally to the West and its pretensions, as “it grew from being a rather underdeveloped agricultural country into an elementary industrialized one with great national strength, its own industrial and technological independence and the capacity for self-development.”14 This was reinforced by the practical aid that the Chinese extended, notably to Tanzania and other African nations, based on terms of mutual equality, respect and economic benefit.   From the beginning, however, the Western powers, led by the United States, had no intention of allowing it to reclaim its historically central position, whether regionally or globally. Despite limited cooperation against the Japanese in World War II, and the hopes of the Chinese leadership that this would lead to a new era in relations, with the coming of the Cold War, the “loss” of China in 1949, and the residual racism never far below the surface, the US-dominated postwar West had quickly reverted to its century-old attitudes. China must be “contained,” beginning with intervention in its civil war, preventing the Communists from pursuing the defeated Nationalists to Taiwan, and with CIA funding and training of the more reactionary feudal elements within Tibet, who rose against Chinese control. When the Korean War brought a direct confrontation of their forces, the specter of the “yellow peril” was revived, and “Red China” became US “enemy number one,” in some respects outranking even the Soviets in its pantheon of devils. To enforce once again exclusion of the Chinese from equal participation in the so-called “civilized” family of nations – so reminiscent of the Western Powers at the time of their attack on Yuanmingyuan – the government on the mainland was denied its seat at the UN, which remained in Nationalist hands, and all forms of exchange, including the right to travel there, were forbidden to US citizens.

But this attempt to treat China with contempt and isolation, as well as the threat of renewing military aggression against it either directly or through the reconquest of the mainland from Taiwan, could not hold. As the United   States became ever more bogged down in Southeast Asia, and as the Chinese clashed with Russians along their border, the pressure for a new alignment developed on both sides. By the 1970s, US imperialism could ill afford to treat the mainland government simply as a pariah, and with China now possessing nuclear weapons, the earlier hopes of its overthrow by the aging Nationalist leadership were rapidly fading. At the same time, the age-old dream rose once again in the West of the possibility of exploiting the vast potential of Chinese markets and goods for their own struggling economies. With the chaotic ending to the Cultural Revolution, there was growing pressure in China also to look for new opportunities to break out of the US-led political and economic blockade. Both strategic and practical considerations therefore drove each side toward the other. But the realignment of Chinese and Western attitudes rested on more than just objective changes. There was also the “mystique” of China and of Mao himself. It is difficult to remember now, when most Western opinion has turned virtually 180 degrees, but the Cultural Revolution resonated across the world, including in the United States, and not only among leftists or those out of power. Even within the ranks of the imperial leadership itself, key figures became fascinated by the political, economic and cultural renewal in China, which they found intriguing or even inspiring, especially given the malaise into which the US elite had fallen, as Vietnam turned ever more disastrous. As Tariq Ali noted, writing at the time, “Now, amusingly enough, China-worship is no longer a monopoly of the Left; both the theoretical journals and the daily newspapers of the American bourgeoisie have begun to indulge in it.”15 It was in this atmosphere that the 1972 visit to Beijing of the old Cold Warrior, Richard Nixon, restored not only relations between the two countries, but recognition by the West of the critical Chinese place on the world stage. In formal terms, the exchanges between the two nations were those of equals. But the symbolism of the leader of the “Free World” coming to the seat of power in Beijing, virtually “sitting at the feet” of Mao, could hardly have been lost on legions of observers in China or elsewhere across the globe. The spirit of the meetings, in which Nixon seemed almost to pay homage – he “sought to flatter Mao by saying that Mao’s writings had ‘moved a nation’ and ‘changed the world.’”16 – was a faint echo of the tribute-bearing relationship that Qianlong had long ago demanded of the English king. Though Mao dismissed his own importance in the casual banter, the image of the president of the United States paying respect to the aging Chinese revolutionary leader lingered. For a brief historic moment, the world had a glimpse of the power exerted by a China that knew its own mind, undeterred by claims of Western superiority, and offering to people everywhere an alternative path, based on its revolutionary socialist values. Many of the powerful and famous from numerous countries followed Nixon to Beijing to pay their respects, while for millions among the left and working classes, the revolution led by Mao became the leading example to serve as their guide. Freed from the imminent threat of attack by the West, and depending on it for neither resources, legitimacy nor approval, China was able once again to reclaim its long historic role as a global “center,” one which pursued its own direction and goals.

But the momentary spirit of goodwill could not overcome deeper contradictions. The United States remained at the center of a world empire, and would only increase its power over the coming decades, as it recovered from Vietnam. China, though immensely stronger than during its century of semi-colonial control, was still a very poor country, and in no position to end US imperial hegemony. A fundamental imbalance of forces remained, and there would be many more conflicts. The bloom was soon off, with the death of Mao in 1976 and wider recognition of the heavy costs of his last campaigns. Within a relatively short period, many of those in the West who out of sincere belief or “radical chic” had supported China would turn away again, and today those who continue to admire its revolution are few there. Yet the picture of Mao still hangs on Tiananmen, the symbolic center of the country. The current leaders have tried to reduce him to an historical figurehead, who may have led the country to freedom from foreign powers and restored its national pride, but whose concepts of revolutionary class struggle should be carefully put back into the box, or even actively suppressed. But within the working classes and among growing numbers of intellectuals, the memory remains of a time when the “whole world” came to China, not because it was rich and economically powerful as – at least for the upper strata – it increasingly is today, but as a global model that, even while founded on a universal vision, was also rooted in the uniqueness of its socialist revolution. By abandoning, shortly after his death, the revolutionary path to socialism that they had pursued under Mao, the Chinese would again have to find a new foundation for relations with the West, and renegotiate the legacy left for them at Yuanmingyuan.


If there is a single symbolic moment that best captures the revised approach toward Chinese-US relations in the immediate post-Mao period, it is the image of the diminutive new leader, Deng Xiaoping, on a 1979 visit to the United States, wearing an oversized “ten-gallon” hat, riding in a stagecoach and waving to the appreciative crowd at a rodeo in Texas, the very heartland of “cowboy capitalism.” In a mirror reversal of the trip by Nixon to China, Deng opened the new stage in this relationship by making every effort to ingratiate himself to his US hosts. Having only consolidated his hold on power a year or so earlier, his trip was meant to build on a recent renewal of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Yet the purpose on both sides had as much or more to do with economics as with diplomacy. The solicitous approach shown by Deng was meant to tie the Chinese economy to those of the United   States and other Western capitalist nations, while at the same time opening the marketplace of China to them, a mutual dependency that has not only continued, but become ever tighter, down to today. Despite the homey images of his visit, Deng – unlike Mao – had no interest in establishing ties to the working classes and oppressed groups of the United States, much less to those on the left. On the contrary, it was only the top bourgeois political brokers in Washington, the leaders of American-style corporate capitalism, and examples of US science and high technology like the Houston Space Center that were his focus. Viewing the state of Chinese economic development as backward and in disrepair, Deng had launched his rapid turn toward “marketization,” taking the “capitalist road” that Mao had warned against and had tried so hard to prevent with the Cultural Revolution. Twice purged during that campaign, Deng saw it as an unmitigated disaster, which had only served to set back the economy.  But the Dengist “reforms,” aiming at a rapid Western-style “modernization,” were not just meant to overcome its legacy. They required once again a realignment of Chinese relations with the West.

For the new policies could not be undertaken without the simultaneous “opening up” of China to the outside world, and especially to the United States, to gain access to their resources. Reports of the return visit by Ronald Reagan five years after the trip by Deng, make clear this new relation, in which economics, not politics, was the main tie.

In a briefing on May 4 at the Commerce Department, Under Secretary [Lionel] Olmer told business men and women that President Reagan’s first words to Chinese President Li Xiannian regarded trade and commerce…. Olmer said that President Reagan emphasized that theme throughout the April 26-May 1 trip.

On their part, the Chinese made it clear that they are also eager to strengthen commercial ties with the United States. Olmer told business representatives that “a dominant theme of the Chinese was their desire for a closer, continuing relationship with the United States, with some degree of dependency on American technology.”17

While Deng stressed his commitment to “modernizing,” the United   States focused on the potential of meeting “unlimited” Chinese needs. Both looked to “multi-billion dollar cooperative ventures,” as Premier Zhao Ziyang “signed a tax agreement designed to encourage private US investment in China, as well as a new cultural exchange accord.” For his part, Reagan declared that the capitalistic reform policies of China had “opened the way to a new convergence of Chinese and American interests.”18 From the beginning, therefore, this “converging” rested on an interdependency. For China, this was the desire for foreign, and in particular US investment and technology, and the opportunity to incorporate the methodologies of capitalism, while for the United States it was to be a growing reliance on Chinese goods, markets and, in time, financing.

Once more, therefore, China would be “borrowing” concepts for modernization from the West, which – unlike during the era of Mao – was again looked upon as being more “advanced.” In theory at least, this relation would resemble the 19th century idea of Zhongxue weiti, xixue weiyong, the effort to merge Chinese “substance” and Western “practical application.” But this time, it would not be mainly science and technology from the West, but increasingly capitalism as well, that would have to be studied. “The guiding idea then was for China to ‘make use’ of market mechanisms and advanced managerial and technological skills from the capitalist world for its own socialist purposes.”19 Yet the resulting ideological formulation, “market socialism with Chinese characteristics,” proved to be little more than a euphemism for moving rapidly down the road to capitalism. Under the Dengist ideology that “some must get rich before others,” and the belief that rapid growth would in time allow China to overcome all social contradictions, economic expansion became the overriding goal, regardless of the costs. To promote the capitalistic market, Deng increasingly threw the country open to imports of foreign technology, and then to multinational investment in new export zones along the coasts, complete with tax incentives, open profit repatriation, little or no environmental control, and almost complete freedom from labor unions. Drawn by such largesse, in time China became the second biggest recipient of foreign direct investment – even on a few occasions surpassing the world leader, the United States – until virtually no region or sector of its economic life remains untouched by it today. To attract such a massive flow of money from abroad, Chinese leaders had to make available to outside investors an almost unlimited supply of workers, mainly drawn from the countryside. The new realignment in external relations, therefore, had necessarily to be accompanied by radical internal transformation as well. In order to implement his program, Deng launched a deliberate policy of class polarization by which, in theory, the creation of a stratum of “rich” at the top would lead the way, raising others behind them, a Chinese version of the US “trickle down” economic approach.

But the rapid economic polarizing of society, and the enrichment of a new class of increasingly wealthy capitalists, could not be accomplished without the simultaneous exploitation and impoverishment of hundreds of millions of workers and peasants, who lost relative, or even absolute ground, in the Dengist counterrevolution. The key was the downgrading of the position of the working classes, and the creation of an exploitable and elastic “reserve army of labor.” To this end, all of the collectivized institutions and social services built up during the revolutionary socialist struggle under Mao were, one after another, systematically dismantled: the rural communes, state owned enterprises (though some of the larger and more vital ones remain), guaranteed lifelong jobs, virtually free health care, education and housing, old age security, and so on. In their place a new set of class relations was forcibly imposed, with individualized “family responsibility” contracts in the countryside, and either the outright or effective privatization of almost all economic activity, leading to the dismissal of tens of millions of factory workers, and often accompanied by a pervasive corruption at all levels. Instead of the old stable urban working class, an insecure and heavily exploited proletariat was left to labor in the factories and mines, while a new mobile workforce was created from among rural peasant migrants to the cities, now more than 200 million strong, suffering from among the lowest wages and longest hours in the world. Those who came after Deng as he gradually gave up power in the 1990s, especially President and Communist Party Secretary Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji, introduced ever more cutthroat exploitative capitalist measures. Based on such exploitation of workers and peasants, a new alliance of classes similar to pre-revolution days reemerged, combining powerful rural families and village officials with a wealthy urban bourgeoisie made up of state and party officials and their family members, private entrepreneurs, and a comprador stratum serving the multinationals.

There can be no doubt that this approach “worked” by its own narrow definition, as the sustained Chinese economic expansion over three decades – hovering close to 10 percent annually – was unprecedented. In time, China became “factory to the world,” drawing investment and replacing industrial production from across the globe, while leaving in its wake millions of lost jobs, not only in the United States and other wealthy core nations, but even in still relatively poor countries like Mexico. With remnants of its state-owned sector and central planning still intact, China was able to avoid the worst consequences of such disruptions as the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and to maximize its use of foreign capital. Nor did its economic advances accrue only to the very wealthiest.  There has also been  the growth of a large “new middle class,” a sharp reduction – at least based on official statistics – of the numbers of those living in poverty,20 and wider access to food and consumer goods, even for many in the working classes. This new “model” from China held attraction for many, therefore, especially in the global South, who hoped to imitate its rapid rise. But the appeal of its example no longer rested on offering an alternative form of society to the world, or on new levels of security and power for workers and peasants, based on their collective socialist advances and revolutionary mobilization, as had been the case under Mao. What was now admired was the ability of China to “play the game” of Western-style capitalist development with the best of them, outstripping by far the growth rates found in the US and other economies of the imperial center. Yet even here there were serious limits. Especially with the crushing of the students and, in even larger numbers, workers in the 1989 Tiananmen movement, the image of Dengist “modernization” was severely tarnished, and the brutality of its statist capitalism and its exploitative class basis were fully revealed – provoking, in turn, more than a whiff of old style “Orientalism” in the reactions, not only of mainstream media and academia in the West, but even among some former leftist admirers of China. Nevertheless, the Chinese leadership had made clear that though they might eagerly copy capitalist economic methods from abroad, they had no intention of extending such imitation into the bourgeois liberal political realm.

Under “reform” and “opening up” by Deng and his successors, it did not take long for Western capitalistic methods to begin to overwhelm the legacy of socialist revolution under Mao. But for all the rapid growth of the economy, the Chinese leadership found itself in a bind at least partially of its own creation. Having turned its back – in all but name – on its former Communist identity, and on its position as a center of global revolution, it no longer offered a set of values that inspired millions around the world. Rather the Chinese had attempted to become just another major player in the capitalist system still dominated by the West, and by the United   States in particular. As it exhibited an ever more ruthless form of capitalistic expansionism, that mimicked and tried to outflank the leading global powers, China seemed at times to want to play the Western-dominated game even while violating the rules, drawing rebukes, and leaving itself in a highly contradictory position. Responding in part to negative Western reactions, especially after Tiananmen, Deng in 1991 issued a “24 Character Strategy” for the new “laid-back” role that Chinese should take in their relationship to the rest of the world: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”21 For the rest of the decade, and even into the next millennium, this was largely the approach taken by the leaders – once again reversing the policy under Mao, which had stressed playing a leading role in advancing the worldwide revolution. Now the idea was to allow the power of China to rise quietly, without openly challenging the global capitalist system and the imperial hegemony of the United States, since to do so might lead to disruptive conflicts and hinder rapid economic growth.

Under this policy, relentless expansion of the Chinese economy did continue, and even accelerate, as Deng pushed the opening up of more areas to foreign investment and export production, and promoted a new consumerist culture, in an effort to distract the restless public from any thoughts of further political activism. Yet with each step in its rapid rise, the symbiotic economic relation of China to the West, and its vulnerability to outside forces, also expanded. Especially after joining the WTO in 2001 – over bitter opposition from within Congress, and many progressive and labor organizations in the United States – the Chinese government opened up markets to greatly increased foreign imports, making domestic producers much more vulnerable to international competition. This had devastating effects, particularly on the rural population, exacerbating a growing crisis in the countryside. At the same time, while many leading corporate, political and media strata in the West welcomed the turn of China to capitalist consumerism and their increasing ability to exploit its economy, they were wary of its rapid rise and resentful of the threat that this presented to their global preeminence. Despite Chinese determination not to upset the capitalist world system, just the potential of its challenge to US imperial supremacy – not only economic, but military and political – was enough to create new and heightened tensions. As the United States made clear, it was not prepared to allow the Chinese to threaten its dominant global role, even under a policy of “lying low.”

Accommodation to the West by China, therefore, would not protect it from the old patterns of imperialist abuse. Economically, pressure was applied on it to revalue the yuan to make its exports less competitive, backed up by threats of protectionist measures. Militarily, the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, followed by the collision of a US spy plane with a fighter jet off the coast of China in 2001, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot and the forcing down and temporary impounding of the offending aircraft, made clear once again the determination of the United States to keep China aggressively “in its place.” This was spelled out even more forcefully in the 2002 National Security Strategy which, in the aftermath of 9/11, primarily focused on terrorism and the “Bush doctrine” of preemptive war, but also declared the goal of preventing the rise of any global, or even regional challenger to US military and political supremacy, a threat widely understood to be directed above all at the Chinese. Even though it now depended on their cooperation in such areas as restraining the North Korean nuclear program, the United States made clear that it alone would remain the dominant power in East Asia and the world, and forcibly resist a rising China. Despite deep resentment by the Chinese at these moves, there was little that they could do about them. In the end, the Dengist “reforms” and the low-profile foreign policy, though finding favor in parts of the global South, did not offer the world an alternative way forward with which to rally the international opposition to US hegemony and a still powerful Western imperialism.


It is a striking consequence of this ambivalent position that the Chinese leaders felt the need in 2008 – almost exactly a century and a half after the Western destruction of Yuanmingyuan – to stage what was widely viewed, at least abroad, as a “coming out party” for the country, to win appreciation for its accomplishments and respect for its new global role. More than half a century earlier, Mao had already proclaimed that China had “stood up,” and millions around the world had looked to it for new ideas and revolutionary guidance, an alternative “center” that even the United States had been forced to honor with the 1972 Nixon visit. But having rejected the path of revolution, the post-Mao leadership had yet to gain a newer and different kind of acceptance as equals in the US-dominated global capitalist order. In effect, they had to “start over” in their attempt to reach such equality, and it is this that the leaders sought to achieve in their elaborate staging of the 2008 Olympics – ignoring reservations by many Chinese, who questioned the destruction of historic residential neighborhoods, and the spending of enormous public funds on sports venues, in a country with so many other unmet needs.

Yet even this effort proved to be marked by contradictory forces, so openly on display in the spring of that year, as China prepared to hold its Beijing extravaganza, a goal that it had pursued for almost two decades. That pursuit had itself been a traumatic example of deep tensions between Western powers, especially the United States, and the Chinese. In 1990, only a year after the crushing of the Tiananmen movement, China first raised its Olympic bid – for the 2000 games – and carried out an intense campaign over the following three years, with great official fanfare, and high expectations stirred up among much of the public that it would be selected. A month before the 1993 decision by the International Olympic Committee, however, the US House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution opposing Beijing, with its principal sponsor, Tom Lantos of California, the only Holocaust survivor in that body, comparing the prospect of the Chinese capital being chosen to the selection of Berlin under Hitler for the 1936 games – an invidious parallel, and especially egregious as applied to China, which lost some 20 million dead fighting the Japanese militarists allied to Nazi Germany. Western NGOs such as Human Rights Watch also joined in, urging rejection of the Chinese bid. When Sydney was selected instead, both officials and the public in China blamed the United States – even though it later turned out that Australians had bribed Committee members.

The Chinese government, smarting from the IOC’s rejection, didn’t compete for the 2004 games. When China won the competition to host the 2008 Olympics by a large margin, it celebrated with a huge nationally televised rally in Beijing, complete with lavish fireworks…. Although the celebration was stage-managed, the public elation and sense of vindication were genuine. Still, the earlier rejection left a lasting legacy of resentment toward the United States for trying to rob China of its Olympic glory.22

The events surrounding the 2008 games can only be understood against this background.

The Olympics were to be the big moment, when China could show the world that it was now not only a major power, but one clearly worthy of long-denied Western respect. The 2008 games were meant to showcase a “new” modern resurgence of the Chinese nation, one able to win back the role that had been denied it for almost two centuries. Yet what emerged instead were once again ambivalent Western attitudes toward China, yielding mixed results. From the start, months before the sporting events began, there were disruptions. With the 50th anniversary of the 1959 uprising in Tibet rapidly approaching, and world attention focused on the upcoming spectacular in Beijing, demonstrations in opposition to Chinese rule and policies broke out in Lhasa and other cities of the Tibetan Autonomous Region – as well as in “Greater Tibet,” areas with a Tibetan majority in neighboring provinces. Clashes with members of the Han majority, and suppression by the authorities, ended with many injuries and arrests, and several deaths on both sides. This was followed by a number of public protests by Tibetans living abroad and their supporters, especially in Paris and other cities in the West. There were even attacks on the Olympic torch relay – which China had hoped would circle the globe in a triumphal show of unity and peace – as it passed through the streets of several Western countries.

Many Chinese reacted with bitter resentment at these new displays of what they considered to be interference in their domestic affairs and signs of disrespect by the West, accompanied by the usual lectures about the need for China to behave in a “civilized” manner, so reminiscent of the actions and attitudes going back to the Opium Wars and Yuanmingyuan. They saw once again the potential of Western meddling to divide the territory of the nation and undermine its power. The resulting upsurge in China of nationalist sentiment – which had been building for over a decade, in part with government encouragement, and directed at Japan as well – was further strengthened when in May 2008 a devastating earthquake hit Sichuan province, killing tens of thousands, injuring many times more and displacing millions, leading to a spontaneous outpouring across the country of empathy, and the mobilization of volunteers in support of the survivors. Despite questions about the often corrupt construction practices that had added to the toll, especially the collapse of many schools in which thousands of young children died, Chinese rallied with national unity and pride. In the West, sympathy with China in its time of suffering, and admiration for the speed and scale of the government response – which stood in stark contrast to the deadly neglect and indifference three years earlier of the Bush administration after hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans – blunted the negative image coming out of Tibet and the Olympic torch relay fiasco, as well as the heavy-handed way in which the authorities had “cleaned up” Beijing, including the forced removal of the indigent and demolition of homes, in preparation for the expected crush of visitors. When in August the games were triumphantly carried off, showcasing Chinese culture and technology, as well as prowess in sports, there was a sense that the Western mood had shifted yet again, and that the trials of the spring had been largely overcome.

Yet China had once more been reminded that the West constantly demands that it prove itself, and is quick to exploit any sign that it does not come up to “international” standards. That the Western powers, and the United States in particular, come dripping with the blood of Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture cells of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and CIA “black sites,” and the indefinite detentions and illegal wiretaps of its global “War on Terror,” which now includes assassination by drones of anyone anywhere that a president chooses – not to mention the US incarceration rate, highest in the world, and five times that in China – makes no fundamental difference. Many in the West, in government, media and NGOs, still believe that they alone represent the “international community” or even the “civilized world,” which all others must imitate. They feel free to self-righteously lecture the Chinese on “correct” behavior, with Western norms always taken as the underlying assumption. It is this bias, with the burden put entirely on China, that turns what might otherwise be viewed as legitimate criticisms into what are instead seen by many Chinese as illegitimate attacks on their national sovereignty and values. This was reflected in a typically arrogant and hypocritical statement before the Olympics.

The West may see China as the economic and military powerhouse of the 21st century, where presidents and magnates go to find a piece of the action. Yet the ruling party has remained remarkably ignorant of the rules of the open societies with which it deals, and remarkably insecure before every Tibetan or Uighur dissident, every human-rights activist and every Western critic.23

It is such attitudes, in which China is called on to meet expectations of the West, that are so forcefully rejected. The imperial powers, with their media spokespersons and US and British based NGOs, have no more intention of letting the Chinese gain easy access to what they call “civilization” than they did 150 years ago. But though China has, more than almost any other country, protested this double standard – for example, by releasing its own annual “world human rights” summary, mimicking the United States and pointing out the abysmal racial record there and similar violations elsewhere in the West – since it no longer advances its own alternative “model” for the world, it is left in a weak position.

This lack of an alternate vision was starkly revealed at the Olympics itself, when the Mao era was entirely “skipped over” in the opening review of Chinese history, which leapt directly from ancient society to the “reform” period. By this conspicuous absence, the leaders of China robbed themselves of the chance, while they had the attention of the whole world, to highlight the truly unique experiences of its modern historical record, its decades-long Communist revolution and struggle to build an egalitarian socialist society “with special Chinese characteristics.” Instead, China was left vulnerable once again to the duality, now two centuries old, of its ambivalent relationship to the West. On the one side, its current leaders seek approval and recognition from the Western powers for what it has accomplished in recent years, with a belief that it should be accepted on an equal footing. On the other, they resent the continuing claims of superiority by the West, and its ongoing attempts to impose its values on a newly assertive and self-confident China.

This ambivalence and vulnerability extend beyond the economy to other areas. In order to be part of the world capitalist market, China is under growing pressure to adopt the Western political and cultural norms that accompany it. But this is resisted, partly in the name of its socialist past. There has been little movement by the Chinese toward US and European forms of bourgeois politics, and in his last major speech to the 18th Party Congress, before his retirement, President Hu Jintao “referred to Communist China’s founder three times with the phrase ‘Mao Zedong Thought,’ and he said that the party must ‘resolutely not follow Western political systems.’”24 Even though there is lively debate around the need for democracy and the form that it should take, here too the West is only one of many models.25 Western-style changes in other areas, however, are already being accepted voluntarily, or even eagerly embraced.

The “new” China of today relies heavily on the West for its ideas in cultural and artistic expressions. Many Chinese, particularly in the urban and younger strata, look to Western nations and Japan for guidance as to how to “get rich” and to behave in what is thought to be the most “modern” ways. Especially among the wealthy and newer middle-class elements, the consumer culture promoted by multinational corporations and media from the United States and Europe, as well as richer parts of Asia, has become a guide for what it means to be successful, or even beautiful. Around many Chinese cities today, Western style “trophy” mansions and gated villas rise as symbols of the new rich. On a more popular level, the drive to learn English takes on urgency for many, as a ticket to better jobs or as a first step toward study or work in the West. Others, influenced in part by ads for luxury goods featuring Caucasian models, have gone so far as to get plastic surgery to look more “white,” to improve their chances for marriage proposals or hiring in foreign firms. While such practices represent the extreme, in the wider society, an openness to outside influences and a growing tendency to cater to Western and other foreign elites, carries the risk of the loss of cultural uniqueness, independent values and ideological autonomy. In education, for example, among the wealthy and professional strata and even top leaders of the state and party, it is very common to send children to attend universities in the West, where some stay. Though there is now an active two-way exchange between Western and Chinese academics, and many who took jobs outside the country are returning home, attracted by new opportunities and government incentives, the outflow of skilled professionals from China has reached “record numbers. In 2010, the last year for which complete statistics are available, 508,000 Chinese left for the 34 developed countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is a 45 percent increase over 2000.”26

Such ambiguity pervades every field, not only economic and political, but social and artistic, and leads to further forms of cultural dissonance. Chinese cities, especially Beijing and Shanghai, are now notable for their many striking new buildings. Yet with only a few exceptions, the lead architectural firms for the most impressive of these monuments to the rise of “new” China have been foreigners, mainly from the United States and Europe – even when they include domestic associates, such as the artist Ai Weiwei, who helped design the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Olympics. Only lately has this begun to change, with the stunning work of Wang Shu, winner of the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the top international award in the field, whose buildings combine traditional forms and modern elements in unique designs that reflect many different aspects of both the national and regional culture.27 In music as well, influence has been largely one-way, despite some “fusion” efforts. So too, a few top Chinese visual artists now attract seven-figure prices for their work, while rich collectors on the mainland have become a major force in driving up worldwide market values for art. But in doing so, they are also increasingly entangled in the international capitalist marketplace, still largely dominated by auction houses and museums in the West, which set the overall parameters for what are acceptable as new artistic trends, just as they have for well over a century. The dilemma facing not only the leadership in China, therefore, but all those representing it in every field – intellectual, academic, artistic – is that even to the extent that they challenge Western domination, and that of the United States in particular, they do so within its system of imperialist capitalism, and all of the social and cultural aspects that accompany and maintain its global stranglehold, not by offering an alternative to it.28


This interdependence and ambivalence in relation to the West is in deepening contradiction to the renewed surge of Chinese power and nationalist sentiments. The belief that China is assuming once again its proper role as a – if not the – global “pole,” brings to the fore the question, now more than two centuries old, of how its “special characteristics” can be preserved and strengthened while at the same time absorbing Western influences. This contradiction, in turn, requires adjustments in both its internal and external relationships. Enormous growth by China has catapulted it once more into “world power” status, and is rapidly restoring it to a “central” position – at least in East Asia –  but this time only on its strength as a full participant in the global capitalist system. In this, it now surpasses all of the Western European countries and Japan in gross economic activity, and potentially challenges even the United States, an historic strategic shift in the international balance. This success at rapid development, and in particular the still significant role for the state in its economy – despite the actual or effective privatization of the bulk of its enterprises – holds an attraction for many poorer countries, as they struggle to cast off decades of neoliberal policies imposed on them by the IMF, World Bank, and other imperial financial and trade institutions dominated by the West. Often referred to as the “Washington consensus,” this US dominated system insists on an end to public ownership of enterprises and a drastic reduction in governmental welfare activities, while throwing the economy open to foreign financial intervention and capital investment. In resisting such Western demands, nations worldwide can now point to the alternate example of a more sovereign and statist capitalism in China which, whatever its other limitations, has yielded roaring economic growth for three decades. This alternative approach to capitalist development, and its attractiveness to others, has given rise to the concept of a “Beijing consensus,” based on state planning, a strong public sector, resistance to imperial economic and social dictats, rejection of bourgeois democratic norms, and greater national and regional self-reliance.

Though some Chinese leaders have tried to downplay this role as an alternative to dominance by the West, and especially US “free market” capitalism, the idea persists.

The term ‘China model’ is a Western invention, but has gained currency over the last half dozen years, both in China and overseas. Premier Wen Jiabao has actually said that China doesn’t see [its own] development as a model for anyone, saying that all countries should choose paths that suit their particular national conditions.29

This reflects a more basic Chinese position, which emphasizes a lack of any hegemonic ambitions and an insistence that what is needed is a multipolar global system, not a new dominant “center.” There is as well considerable disagreement and ambivalence, both inside and outside the country, as to what the definition of a “China model” or “Beijing consensus” is, and how much it can be successfully adopted by others.

Yet while Chinese commentators have been scathing of the United States, and keen to talk up China’s achievements, they generally concede that the China model can’t simply be copied by other countries. Zhang Weiwei of the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations, for example, describes China as a ‘civilization-state,’ a status that can be claimed by few, if any, other countries. Still, he argues that ‘as China rises, the influence of the Chinese Model on the outside world will likely be greater and greater.’30

But there are further differences that make mere copying of the experience of China difficult. Underlying its subsequent capitalist expansion were the achievements of its socialist revolution, which transformed rural landholding, nationalized industrial and urban enterprises, and gave the working classes a “head start” in health and education. These elements would be hard to repeat in most other nations of the global South. Recent events have complicated this even further, as divisions within the top leadership of China have revealed that at least two competing approaches are being advanced. One is the “Chongqing model” of the now dismissed party head of that autonomous municipality, Bo Xilai, which emphasized state enterprises, social welfare and “Red” cultural themes; the other is the “Guangdong model,” under local party secretary Wang Yang, which favors a less governmental and more individual approach, and a greater role for “free market” economics, as championed on the national level especially by Premier Wen Jiabao. This revelation of significant cracks in the unity of the leaders of China has tarnished their exemplary role for others.

Nevertheless, though it may not be directly applicable to most other countries, the Chinese example breaks the Western insistence on a “one-size-fits-all” neoliberal model. China also offers others in Asia, Africa and Latin America the chance to share in its rapid expansion, even if only as junior partners. Through interest-free grants, low-cost loans, and assistance on infrastructure projects, it has helped to reverse the old colonial pattern of all transportation lines leading to external ports, and instead to develop more integrated regional exchanges, while reducing the need for countries in the global South to bow to Western pressure. Its ever more insatiable demand for natural resources, especially oil, minerals, and agricultural products, has made it an alternate source of investments and export markets for nations worldwide, from Brazil to Kenya and even Australia, allowing them to reorient their economies away from the wealthy North, and instead toward the East and South. The Chinese even surpassed the United States recently in trade with the Brazilians, and also surged into second place in Africa, moving ahead of France.31

But as China builds horizontal trading ties and provides largely unrestricted aid that helps other countries break the links with their neocolonial masters and escape monopolistic control by US and European trading corporations, it at the same time has largely ignored the highly selective “world standards” set by Western powers in such areas as human rights, fighting corruption, and adoption of at least the formalities of a multi-party system of electoral democracy, which are often held over poor countries as leverage to force their compliance with imperial dictats. While this has made the Chinese welcome partners in many places, it creates a growing conflict with those in the West who cling to the belief that they alone set the norms for acceptable global behavior, and whose neocolonialist controls are threatened by competition from this new and less interventionist rival.

The view by some that China itself is now rapidly becoming imperialist, merely replacing the older forms of Western neocolonialism with its own new variety, only adds to such negative Western attitudes. Its role in Africa, Latin America and other parts of Asia has been the focus of growing doubts and criticisms, with claims of exploitative mistreatment of the local workforce, large-scale land buying to grow food for its rapidly rising domestic consumption, and markets flooded with its cheap imports, driving small stores and producers out of business. There have been cases of strikes and protests by workers and shop owners. Defenders of China often dispute the details of such incidents, and argue that the overall impact of its investment and labor practices abroad has been positive. But regardless of such debates, Chinese behavior in foreign lands, whether by omission or commission, has become further grist for Western rebuke. Yet even when its activities are questionable, the sordid history and hypocrisy of the West, above all in its relation with Africa, and the ongoing large-scale exploitation of land, resources and labor by US and European investors, makes such condemnation problematic and all too easily viewed as biased or dismissed, especially by those in China with a more nationalistic bent. In all of these areas, therefore, there are potential sources of conflict, as the growth in Chinese power creates ambivalence on the part of those in the West who are torn between attraction to and fear of this new global player.

This contradiction, in turn, reflects the expanding crisis in the world imperialist core, and its declining ability to control other nations. The West, and the United States in particular, are in an increasingly weak position to try to impose their “values” on the Chinese, or to keep them “contained,” either within East Asia itself or more globally. Though the US imperial center still lays claim to the dominant economic and political position, and possesses the only remaining “superpower” military, it has been weakened by its financially and politically ruinous adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and unending “War on Terror,” as well as by the worldwide “Great Recession” caused by its housing and banking crisis, followed by its deepening governmental disarray and gridlock. All of these have contributed significantly to growing dislocations in its empire, and the spreading perception that it does not even know how to manage its own affairs, much less those of the entire world, which it still has imperialist pretensions to control. With its constant negative balance of trade and low rate of savings, the United States now depends on the Chinese and other foreign investors to help finance its soaring national debt, which in turn pays for its enormous federal budget deficit, including its endless wars and increasingly militaristic foreign policy. The United States has thereby become reliant on the Chinese in the financial realm, in the same way that it long since came to depend on them for low cost goods to keep prices down and corporate profits up in its consumer driven economy. Similar contradictions now affect Europe, which despite its growing interventionist role through NATO, is in such dire economic straits that its very unity is seriously threatened. The European Union too, therefore, depends heavily on the Chinese as a source of foreign capital and cheap imports, and as a vital outlet for its products – and, given its internal financial chaos, even potentially for propping up the Euro.

The capitalist class in virtually all countries now partakes of this close mutual interrelationship with China, with some 450 of the top 500 multinational corporations active on the mainland, intertwining trade and investment, a measure of the new global role that it is playing. This gives its leaders great leverage, even over the United States – most notably if they should decide to move a significant portion of its enormous dollar holdings into other currencies. Yet by the same token, the reliance of China on the continued security of foreign debt instruments and import growth inhibits it from fully exerting its financial weight in ways that might undermine the US monetary system and consumer market, and with it the world economy. The Chinese too, therefore, are now highly dependent and vulnerable, since they have few options other than ongoing sales and lending in the United States, and elsewhere in the West. According to economist Michael P. Dooley, the Chinese “recognize that they have to lend us the money if they want to maintain those markets.”32 With the EU too there is a new interdependence, as it has recently surpassed the United States as the largest outlet for exports from China. The Chinese economy is now inseparable from the Western one, whatever the differences in their methodologies. The result is a highly contradictory mix of positive and negative relations, which despite tensions in many areas, rests on mutual dependence, limiting the actions of both the West and China.

This carries over as well into strategic relationships with the Western nations, and especially the United States. To have its economic well-being so closely tied to and even dependent on China, restrains the US “superpower” in its aggressive determination to keep any nation from challenging its supremacy. Most notably, the United States is wary of the rapid buildup in Chinese military power and its new regional assertiveness across Asia, and continues to try to “contain” it with sales of weapons to Taiwan, new alliances and joint exercises with India, South Korea, the Philippines and others in the region, and coastal spying and naval maneuvers, raising tensions between them. In 2012, the Obama administration announced a strategic “pivot” of military focus toward Asia, which was widely understood to be directed at the containment of China. Yet on issues such as the North Korean nuclear weapons program, US diplomats rely heavily on assistance from the Chinese, and as a result they have tried to keep overall relations smooth. This newfound leverage by China has been strengthened by ties with Brazil, Russia and India in the BRIC group, and through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes Central Asians. Through such linkages, the Chinese now serve as an alternate strategic “pole” for others in the region, such as Pakistan, which has turned to them for military assistance cut back by the United States. Even such old US allies as South Korea are now feeling the pull to reorient toward China, as seen at both the official and grassroots level. As a South Korean activist put it, “With the US economy in a mess, it’s just a matter of time before China dominates Northeast Asia…. We should keep neutral between the rising and declining superpower.”33 Such growing regional and global ties are conceived of by China in part as a means to resist US hegemony. As an example of this new assertiveness, the Chinese recently warned the United States to keep out of the multisided conflict over the South China Sea. Yet US naval aggressiveness there and in East Asian waters is welcomed by some other nations, who fear the growing power of the Chinese, and are in a sharpening series of contests with them for control of island chains and natural resources across the region.

Some even see in all these developments the possibility that China will soon challenge the United States for world dominance, not just as a center of resistance to its power, but as its potential replacement.34 Such a climb to global “Number One” status is nevertheless unlikely to occur for several decades, if ever. Chinese per capita income remains quite low, despite the rapid increase among certain segments of the population, a factor which is compounded by the growing polarization of society, with ever more billionaires at the top and hundreds of millions struggling for bare survival at the bottom. Other sources of weakness, such as massive environmental damage, threaten future economic expansion, and undermine the ability of China even to maintain its national sovereignty in such areas as food security. While it takes a lead in certain new fields, especially “green” technology, other entire economic sectors are increasingly dominated by foreign investors. The corrosive effects of corruption and of overly hasty and shoddy construction further undermine its economy at all levels. Even such symbols of rapid development as its new high speed rail system fall victim to such limitations, harshly revealed by a disastrous train wreck in July 2011, resulting in many deaths. Nevertheless, it is the ever closer intertwining of the Chinese economy within the US-dominated capitalist system that presents the most fundamental long-term contradiction. By making itself vulnerable to Western-controlled trade rules, and by linking its finances much more closely to the world banking system, China has become open to violent and speculative market fluctuations. The rapid rise and fall in the value of the Chinese stock market, wiping out the savings of many in the middle class, and the threat of similar effects from the overheated real estate “bubble,” show that small investors, as well as major players, are subject to swift and heavy losses, and even to threats of a wider collapse, with dire results not only for the upper and other better off strata, but also the working classes.

Such symbiotic relations and the contradictory forces that they contain were made even more apparent by the recent world economic crisis. As the United States struggled to limit the worldwide catastrophe it had unleashed, injecting over a trillion dollars into bank bailouts and a stimulus package, it was the Chinese above all who paralleled it with their own massive investments in infrastructure and services, especially in the rural areas. Even many Western officials and economists looked openly to China to “save” the world from a more complete collapse – a reliance that served to further weaken the US position as imperial hegemon. So striking is this reversal, that the Chinese now feel free to lecture the United States on its fiscal mismanagement, and to warn of dire consequences unless it gets its house in order. Yet the crisis showed that China too can no longer avoid the fallout from global financial disruptions. Though its banking system remains more insulated than most from international fluctuations, its economic health still depends on Western consumer markets and debt instruments, and attempts to escape this bind run up against the limits of its own “development” model. Raising wages, for example, to stimulate domestic consumption and internal markets, or letting the value of the yuan rise commensurate with its strength as a world currency, as the United States and others have been pushing it to do, will only undercut its global price advantage and lead to greater unemployment, a dilemma that is already emerging. In the recent worldwide downturn, some 20 million Chinese workers, mainly migrants in the coastal export industries, were laid off, most of them returning at least temporarily to their home provinces, where they only added to the already deep economic strains in rural areas. Though their protests were limited, in part because of stimulus policies directed at the countryside, the leaders of China know that any further sharp decline or major disruption could lead to widespread social instability.

Such turmoil is already reaching a new peak in coastal export regions where a shortage of labor, the result in part of reverse migration, has driven up wages, and led to a series of wildcat strikes among migrant workers in the auto and other key manufacturing industries. This comes on top of tens of thousands of protests annually over land seizures and environmental damage, mainly in the countryside, but increasingly among urban workers and even the middle class as well, many of them also focused on the corrupt practices of government officials. Chinese leaders are therefore caught in a widening dilemma, with a need to integrate more deeply and smoothly into the global capitalist system, without at the same time exacerbating economic and social dislocations, and throwing the country into further domestic turmoil, or even into a more general revolt of the working classes. The result is a highly charged and contradictory relationship with the West. For China, the return to global power is accompanied by an increase in vulnerabilities inhibiting ties to the outside world, and in particular to the capitalist system that remains under Western domination. For its part the West, and especially the United States, faces its own rapidly sharpening economic, political and environmental dislocations, as imperial structures crumble, and it is confronted with newly rising powers in the East and South. Still, past practices die hard. The more dependent on China the Western nations become, the more sharply the historic attitude reemerges: you may be rich and powerful, but that does not mean that you are one of us. Each step that the Chinese take to increase their global reach, undermining the dominant hold of the West, only tends to exacerbate this reaction and the resistance to their rise. The 2012 US presidential campaign, with both candidates competing to show how tough they are on China, exemplified this dynamic.35

Yet with each rebuff, many Chinese respond with a deeply felt anger and sense of indignation rooted in their historic experience of imperial exploitation and arrogance. When Western critics denounce flaws in the political system and foreign policies of China, it points to the hypocritical violation of these very norms by those who sit in judgment on it. When the West threatens retaliatory action for supposed abuses, the ghost of Yuanmingyuan rises once again. This mix of bitter memories, linked to a resurgent nationalist pride, yet tied to a growing mutual dependence with the West, can lead to rapidly shifting moods under differing circumstances. Many are sharply critical of the government for its lack of transparency and legal norms, endemic corruption, bloated lifestyles of top leaders and their families, and violations of rights, yet react defensively when Westerners use these issues to attack China in ways that seem one-sided or unfair. Such changeable reactions are found outside as well as within the country, as it struggles to find its new position within the global capitalist system. As a consequence, many around the world today fear, admire, or stand in awe of Chinese accomplishments, but they still do not look to these for guidance on a new path forward. Even in India, often viewed as a rival for Asian superpower status, “Government officials cite Beijing, variously as a threat, partner or role model,” but such reactions are to a competitor in the global capitalist system, not to a potential ally in building an alternative social order.36 Those in the West and elsewhere show a similar mix of attitudes. As one Chinese leftist plaintively put it, unlike in the Mao era, “we do not have any friends any more.”

Ironically, friendship is found today among Maoist revolutionaries, in India especially, where they have a major presence challenging the state in at least a third of the country, as well as in Nepal, the Philippines and elsewhere. Yet this is directed not at the capitalists now in power in China, but at the legacy of its socialist era, which still inspires many around the world. As this indicates, there remains more than one path open to the Chinese in their relations to the West and to other nations across the globe. But it would take more than just continued economic growth to alter the present equation, in which Western powers cling to the notion that they alone represent the global norm. It would require a transformation of Chinese society once again, with a radical change in its class relationships, and a reassertion of its own “characteristics,” before its confrontation with the West can move to a new stage. There are already early but growing signs of such a reorientation. The recent upsurge in popular activism, drawing not only on the working classes, but even middle strata, is helping to spur a leftist revival in China, with growing numbers looking back to the Mao era for revolutionary concepts of how to organize the society along more equitable and democratic socialist lines. Among intellectuals as well, there is a revival of interest in the experiences of the revolution, not as a simplistic blueprint for the future, but as inspiration for a different kind of social order than the corrupt and cutthroat capitalist one of today. Though still very tentative, new links are growing between leftists and the rural and urban working classes.37 These forces are becoming bolder, with open celebrations of the birthday of Mao, and similar public events, putting forth increasingly politicized messages. Study groups and websites also promote Maoist ideas. Even some party and state leaders – most notably the now purged Bo Xilai – feel a need to call for a limited, if opportunistic, “red revival,” such as singing songs from the revolutionary era and studying the works of Mao and Marx.38 Such efforts have been welcomed by many in the working classes and on the left, despite their obviously limited social impact.

The path to change will not be easy. As its class structure becomes ever more polarized, with massive corruption and ecological dislocations, China faces the potential for new severe shocks and rising social unrest, which may severely limit its future global role. Such contradictions, not only internally, but in its relationship to the West, cannot be resolved within the existing capitalist system under US imperial hegemony. Even a further decline in the power of the United States will only pass onto new global actors, including the Chinese, an economically disastrous and ecologically unsustainable world order. Faced with such critical and ever deepening contradictions, China can draw upon its revolutionary past. When Westerners seem to slight, insult or threaten it, the memory of a different time is still fresh, an era when it stood strong with its own system of values, and the world came to study and draw inspiration from it. It will require a transformation of Chinese society again to move it beyond its present ambivalence, and enter a different stage, as it once more helps to lead an international realignment of economic, political, ecological and cultural norms.

But such a new world order cannot be based on simply replacing one hegemon with another, much less by an attempt to restore the imperial reach of the “CelestialKingdom.” The Chinese have an alternative: to follow the path that they took under Mao, in which global leadership is exercised not by those with the largest economies or militaries, but by those who offer the most revolutionary concepts for the reorganizing of society, free from any imperialist “centers” or “poles,” and with the working classes and other oppressed peoples leading the way to a socialist era. Such a renewed turn toward revolution, and the socialism that it abandoned over 30 years ago, could reestablish China once again as an inspiration for people everywhere. It would free the Chinese from their historic dilemma, alter once and for all their relation with the still dominant West, and finally put to rest the ghost of Yuanmingyuan that even today haunts their memory. A new revolutionary China would help to shatter the remnants of Western dominance for all those who are fighting to end imperialism and build a socialist world.


In February 2009, Christie’s auction house in Paris offered two bronze animal heads, part of the set of twelve Zodiac figure sculptures that had adorned the water clock fountain at Yuanmingyuan, until its looting in 1860. The proposed auctioning of these stolen treasures exposed the still tenuous interactions of China and the West, for given the contradictions that mark their relationship, even a relatively small incident such as this sale could rip the cover off multifaceted layers of the historic record, provoking a complex response and the release of pent up frustrations. The two heads, a rat and a rabbit – like the others in the Zodiac set, cut off from the full animal sculptures – were only a small part of the vast art collection in the estate of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. They were put up for auction by his business and personal partner, Pierre Berge, with the proceeds to go to charity, “dedicated mainly for scientific research to fight AIDS.”39 Such a sale of the heads followed normal art world practice today. But their historic and cultural significance far outweighed that of the other pieces in the auction, and even found their way into present-day conflicts as – to add insult to injury – they were in effect held hostage in an effort to blackmail China. The Chinese reaction was swift and predictable, as put forward by a government official.

As for the report that the current owner of the bronzes Pierre Berge said he would return the two heads of the sculpture so long as China gives liberty to the Tibet people and welcomes the Dalai Lama, the spokesman said it is absurd to infringe on the Chinese people’s fundamental cultural rights under the banner of human rights.40

This arrogant attempt to use looted treasures to force changes in Chinese domestic policy came just a year after the attacks in Paris on Olympic torch runners by Tibetan advocates.

The planned auction drew widespread protests in China. The Foreign Ministry and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage objected and called for the sale to be halted. Spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu stated that “’The Western powers have plundered many Chinese cultural relics in wars, including many precious items robbed from the OldSummerPalace. All of these should be returned to China.’”41 This call echoed that of Victor Hugo in his 1861 letter, which remains strikingly relevant applied to France today.

The French empire has pocketed half of this victory, and today with a kind of proprietorial naivety it displays the splendid bric-a-brac of the Summer Palace. I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China.42

Christie’s rejected all the protests, or calls that it should simply return the heads for free, claiming that it had privately offered them for sale to China. But the government refused to pay for the treasures, to avoid lending their looting an aura of retroactive legality.

Instead, a group of 81 Chinese lawyers filed suit in France to block the proposed auction. The Yuanmingyuan Administration held back at first from participating, with many historic ironies in trying to establish who in China had legal right to the heads.

Liu Yang, a Beijing lawyer who is helping to organize the lawsuit threatened in France, said he had located a descendant of China’s royal family to serve as plaintiff in the case.

“The OldSummerPalace, which was plundered and burnt down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860, is our nation’s unhealed scar, still bleeding and aching,” Mr. Liu said. “That Christie’s and Pierre Berge would put them up for auction and refuse to return them to China deeply hurts our nation’s feelings.”43

Popular anger across China was aroused, with public protests, petitions and web hits.

A signing campaign was launched in JurongCity, east China’s JiangsuProvince, Tuesday as a protest against the auction.

“The relics belong to China. They must be returned to China for free,” said the organizer Leng Beisheng, a headmaster of a local school. “The auction severely harms our feeling.”

More than 700 tourists, residents and students have signed their names as opposition to the auction.44

Christie’s, however, stood by its claim that the two heads were legally owned and that they could be sold over Chinese protests, a position supported by several international law professors in the West, noting they had been looted almost a century and a half ago. The French court turned down the lawsuit, allowing their sale to proceed as planned.

In the end, the auction had elements of both tragedy and farce. Cai Mingchao, a well established Chinese collector and auctioneer, won the bidding for the two heads, for $18 million each. But he immediately announced that he would not pay the price, and did not even have the funds to do so. Hailed by some as a hero in China, he said that he acted on “moral and patriotic grounds. ‘I think any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment,’ he said.”45 Christie’s declared that if his bidding intentionally sabotaged the sale – the largest default in auction history, according to the Beijing Huachen Auctions manager – his action was unlawful, bringing once again to the fore the old conflict between imperial “law” and the rights of those they colonized. The outcome remains in doubt, however – the two heads are now back in the possession of Pierre Berge – and is complicated both by previous actions of China and by the demands of the current situation. Wealthy Chinese, including billionaire Macao casino operator Stanley Ho, have purchased looted art previously and returned it home. Five others of the missing Zodiac heads had been bought – three at auctions – and brought back in this way.

But Christie’s also operates in China, where a booming art market, with sales of ancient and modern works, sometimes for millions of dollars, is part of the lifestyle of the new rich. Such collectors have helped to drive up prices for both Western and Asian artists around the world. In particular, “The trade of Chinese antiquities is big business. The sale of Chinese artifacts has now surpassed the purchase of Old Master paintings…. The revenue from the sale of Chinese works now exceeds $10 billion annually.”46 Far from harming their market value, evidence that artifacts were looted from Yuanmingyuan can even add to their exotic quality and price.

The sale of an 8.5 by 5.8 centimeter Qing dynasty (late 18th- early 19th century) gold box for £490,000 ($764,694) at London auction house Wooley and Wallis has provoked an international debate. The gold box, embellished with seed pearls, enamel glass panels, and floral motifs, inscribed in 1860 “Loot from Summer Palace, Perkin [sic], October 1860, Captain James Gunter, King’s Dragoon Guards.” This engraving not only increased the box’s value by 50%, but also sparked a passionate dialogue about looting during war, the Chinese art market, and auction house responsibility.47

It is in the atmosphere of such lucrative bidding that China reacted to the Christie’s sale.

In the face of concerns that the aborted purchase by Cai would hinder Chinese bids in the future, the government acted, but it resorted only to a few limited regulatory measures.

China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage condemned the sale of the two bronzes and said it would affect Christie’s interests in the country, ordering tighter inspections of all cultural relics that the auction house seeks to bring in or out of mainland China.48

Despite anger over the sale of looted treasures, the current Chinese leaders and new rich are unwilling to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs of participation in the Western art market – one of the signs, among so many others, of their desire to be accepted as full players in the global capitalist system and to enjoy the full fruits of its imperialist wealth. The leadership of China is also pushing cultural exchanges as part of its assertion of “soft power” globally, in particular in its competition with the United   States, and is reluctant to have its reputation in this area tarnished by conflicts such as that over the Christie’s sale.

Yet even this participation is riddled with contradictions and ambiguous roles. Among the leading stars of the new art world is Ai Weiwei, who despite his often sharp criticisms of the government, “as an international celebrity was still a feather in China’s cap at a time when the country was making an all out effort to become a major cultural presence prior to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.”49 But having been urged by the government to assist in the “Bird’s Nest” design for the Olympics, he soon became a harsh critic of that extravaganza, as well as the corruption that contributed to so many unnecessary deaths from the Sichuan earthquake – opposition that he expressed both in his art and as a public commentator. Increasingly viewed as a “dissident,” he was beaten by police in 2009, suffering serious injuries, put under house arrest in 2010, imprisoned for almost three months in 2011 and later tried – on charges that the company handling his work owed $2 million in taxes and fines – and forbidden to leave the country or even to talk about his harsh treatment. This attempt at governmental suppression has only increased his celebrity status in the eyes of many in the West, who see him as one of the leading intellectual and cultural opponents of the Chinese system. Yet any Westerners who want to use Ai Weiwei as just one more tool in their campaign against China need to be careful, for he reflects a more ambiguous view of the relation. Among his most prominent recent works were a set of twelve bronze Zodiac animal heads, roughly modeled on those of Yuanmingyuan, and planted on stake-like poles – reflecting the now disembodied state of the looted originals – at a fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel in New   York. The opening ceremony for this work was presided over by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who cited the “fierce” defense of freedom of expression in the city, and attended by journalists, and art world figures who read quotes from Ai.

But the underlying implication, that those who dissent from the current economic, political, and cultural arrangements of Chinese society are also uncritical friends of the West and supporters of what are assumed to be its superior “values,” may be an illusory one. Even those who have lived in the United States, as Ai Weiwei did from 1981 to 1993, and who are deeply involved in the Western art world, cannot be expected to have forgotten the darker historical aspects of the treatment of China so painfully embodied in the ruins of Yuanmingyuan and in the ongoing struggle over its looted treasures. His Zodiac creations – four feet tall and paralleling the fountain placement of the originals – could not help but resonate with less celebratory memories of the Western imposition of its “freedoms” on the Chinese, and stand in mute testimony to the artistic masterpieces lost in that century-long process. Ai Weiwei chose not to make a point of these historical references, but art critics and reviewers have done so, drawing attention once more to the destruction of Yuanmingyuan, and the fate of the last five of the stolen animal heads, which have completely disappeared and may now be lost forever.50 Yet the damage that was inflicted on the Chinese by the West will not be salved by artistic reminders planted in front of 5-star hotels or in the galleries of its leading museums. These haunts of the wealthy are themselves among the most potent expressions of the imperialist capitalism that grew rich on the exploitation and looting of the entire world. Ever deeper enmeshment of the Chinese in this global system will not expunge the remnants of that historical record. As in all other areas, the resolution of this contradiction will depend on China returning to the revolutionary path, where it once took the leading role independent of Western approval, and drawing on its own values and culture, help the entire world in building a new and equal social order.


1. Kwame Opoku, “Is It Not Time to Fulfil Victor Hugo’s Wish? Comments on Chinese Claim to Looted Chinese Artefacts on Sale at Christie’s,”

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Diana Preston, The Boxer Rebellion (New   York: Berkley Books, 2000), 288.

5. Ibid., 285.

6. “Yuanmingyuan: The Garden of all ChineseGardens,”

7. “James Hevia on Summer Palace Relics,” The China Beat, 2/24/09,

8. “Should Yuanmingyuan be rebuilt?”, bjreview.com, 1/21/05,

9. “Emperor Qianlong expressed this concept in his poem One Hundred Rhymes from the Mountain Manor for Escaping the Summer Heat: ‘These buildings embody the successful uniting of the hearts of the people of the inner and outer lands.’ Following this belief, the palaces, halls and gardens erected under Qianlong’s direction” – one of which was a smaller, though still magnificent, replica of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, built for a command visit to the emperor by the Panchen Lama, who died in Beijing during his return trip  – “stress the use of architecture to embody the theme of national unity” (“The Temples of Chengde,” 12/31/04,

10. Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins, “Regathering some past thoughts on Yuanmingyuan,” http://zuroskijenkins.com/2012/10/10/regathering-some-past-thoughts-on-yuanmingyuan/.

11. Opoku, “Is It Not Time to Fulfil Victor Hugo’s Wish? (note 1).

12. Greg M. Thomas, “The Looting of Yuanming and the Translation of Chinese Art in Europe,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, Vol. 7, Issue 2, Autumn 2008, http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/index.php/autumn08/93-the-looting-of-yuanming-and-the-translation-of-chinese-art-in-europe.

13. Lincoln Cushing, “Revolutionary Chinese Posters and Their Impact Abroad,” Lincoln Cushing and Ann Tompkins, Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007), 17.

14. Xiaoqin Ding, “The Socialist Market Economy: China and the World,” Science & Society, Vol. 73, No. 2, April 2009, 238-9.

15. “Explosion in South Asia,” in Kathleen Gough and Hari P. Sharma, eds., Imperialism and Revolution in South Asia (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 463.

16. Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), 631.

17. Patricia Woodward, “President’s trip strengthens US-China commercial ties,” Business America, 5/14/84.

18. Ibid.

19. Chun Lin, “The Socialist Market Economy: Step Forward or Backward for China?”, Science & Society, Vol. 73, No.2, April 2009.

20. Three-plus decades of rapid economic growth is widely credited with a dramatic drop in the percent of population in deep impoverishment, but the sharp decrease registered in government data must be taken with several caveats: both the base definition and method used to enumerate the poor are problematic; even if absolute levels may have fallen, the widening polarization of classes and of the rural/urban divide mean that relative poverty has greatly increased; urban unemployment, exploitation of the migrant workforce, and a growing crisis in the countryside have worsened conditions for many; and the loss of social services and security in areas such as education, healthcare, and housing often outweigh any gains that have been made in income. See inter alia Jayati Ghosh, “Poverty reduction in China and India: Policy implications of recent trends,” Economic and Social Affairs, DESA Working Paper No. 92, January, 2010,
Mobo Gao, The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 178-179.

21. “China succeeds with 24 character policy,” http://www.merinews.com/article/china-succeeds-with-24-character-policy/15785006.shtml.

22. Susan L. Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 226-7.

23. Serge Schmemann, “Olympics Flames and Protests, Then and Now,” New York Times, 4/28/08, A26.

24. New York Times, 11/9/12, A4.

25. See China Left Review, Issue #5, Summer 2012, “Democracy: Critiques and Prospects,” http://chinaleftreview.org.

26. New York Times, 11/1/12, A1.

27. New York Times, 2/28/12, C1.

28. Within this framework there is nevertheless a drive to raise the impact abroad of Chinese culture, as part of a new assertion of “soft power.” In connection with the 18th Communist Party Congress, “China’s government extolled the fruits of 10 years of reform in its cultural sector” including “promoting industries that can spread China’s influence abroad.” President Hu “declared at the opening of the Congress that ‘culture is the lifeblood of a nation’ and that ‘the strength and international competitiveness of Chinese culture are an important indicator of China’s power and prosperity and the renewal of the Chinese nation’” (New York Times, 11/12/12, A10).

29. Frank Ching, “What if the China Model Goes Bad?,” The Diplomat blogs, 8/31/11, http://the-diplomat.com/2011/08/31/what-if-the-china-model-goes-bad/.

30. Ibid.

31. “As recently as 2006, the U.S. was the larger trading partner for 127 countries, versus just 70 for China. By last year the two had clearly traded places: 124 countries for China, 76 for the U.S.” (Joe McDonald and Youkyung Lee, “AP IMPACT: China overtaking US as global trader,” Associated Press, 12/3/12, http://news.yahoo.com/ap-impact-china-overtaking-us-global-trader-133911194–finance.html).

32. New York Times, Week in Review, 5/11/08, 4.

33. New York Times, 8/19/11, A10. Such attitudes entered into the 2012 Korean presidential contest as well, with one of the candidates, Moon Jae-in, stating that “South Korea cannot postpone ‘balanced diplomacy’ between the region’s two biggest powers anymore… ‘Our alliance with the United States is being steadily maintained and developing maturely,’ he said, adding ‘The economic relationship between China and us is rapidly growing’” – the Chinese recently surpassed the United States as the largest trading partner for South Korea (New York Times, 11/24/12, A8).

34. This includes influential voices within China itself, such as Col. Liu Mingfu, a former professor at the National Defense University.  “Colonel Liu first became prominent in 2010 with the publication of his book ‘The China Dream,’ an ultranationalist tract arguing that China should build the world’s strongest military and move swiftly to supplant the United States as the global ‘champion’” (New York Times, 11/15/12, A 17).

35. So too did statements by President Obama during his November 2012 trip to Asia, where he was explicit both about his strategy of surrounding and containing Chinese economic power, and his belief that the United States and its allies still represent the global norm. “‘We’re organizing trade relations with countries other than China so that China starts feeling more pressure about meeting basic international standards,’ Mr. Obama said.” His efforts were in part an attempt to counter Asian moves to create a new trade bloc that includes China but not the United States (Jane Perlez, “Asian Nations Plan Trade Bloc That, Unlike U.S.’s, Invites China,” New York Times, 11/21/12).

36. New York Times, 9/1/11, B1.

37. Minqi Li, “The Rise of the Working Class and the Future of the Chinese Revolution,” Monthly Review, Vol. 63, No. 2, June 2011, 38-51.

38. Edward Wong, “Repackaging the Revolutionary Classics of China,” New York Times, 6/30/11, A4.

39. New York Times, 2/17/09, C7.

40. “Auction of looted sculptures will seriously hurt Chinese national sentiment,” www.chinaconsulatechicago.org, 2/24/09.

41. Li Xinran, “China slams Saint Laurent auction,” ShanghaiDaily.com, 2/25/09.

42. Opoku, “Is It Not Time to Fulfil Victor Hugo’s Wish?” (note 1).

43. New York Times, 2/17/09, C7.

44. Xinhua New Agency, 2/18/09.

45. New York Times, 3/3/09, A10.

46. Mary Elizabeth Williams, “Captain Gunter’s ‘loot’: Antiquities from China’s Summer Palace continue to sell at auction,” posted 1/31/12, Saving Antiquities for Everyone, http://www.savingantiquities.org/captain-gunters-loot-antiquities-from-chinas-summer-palace-continue-to-sell-at-auction/, accessed on 11/26/12.

47. Ibid.

48. Gillian Wong, “China punishes Christie’s for auction of relics,” The Seattle Times, 2/26/09.

49. New York Times, 4/6/11

50. New York Times,4/6/11, 5/5/11.

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