Wang Hui (Saul Thomas ed.), China’s Twentieth Century: Revolution, Retreat and the Road to Equality

(London and New York: Verso, 2016), 368 pp., $29.95.

China’s Twentieth Century is a new collection of Wang Hui’s essays edited by Saul Thomas and translated by a diverse group of scholars. Wang is a prominent figure in “the New Left” – an intellectual formation in post-Mao China dedicated to the renewal of socialist thought and practice in the contemporary Chinese context. A literary scholar by training and a frequent speaker at numerous institutions around the world, Wang has published widely in the areas of intellectual history and political economy. The English-speaking world has seen a number of translations of his work, most notably The Politics of Imagining Asia (2011), The End of Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity (2010), and China’s New Order: Society, Politics, and Economy in Transition (2003).

This new Verso volume brings together several strands of Wang’s ongoing scholarship to highlight the tensions and contradictions that prevailed in what he calls China’s “short twentieth century” (from 1911 – the onset of the Republican revolution – to 1976, the end of the Cultural Revolution). While inspired by Eric Hobsbawn’s The Age of Extremes, Wang’s conception is grounded in China’s concrete historical experiences. This century not only saw the transition of China from an empire to a nation-state, it also witnessed the rise of a distinct form of politics unique to China – a process that Wang describes as politicization.

Wang characterizes politicization as a sustained mobilization of politics by cultural means. Culture, understood as a dynamic process of self-cultivation, is bound up with the modern state – as in the Marxian concept of “superstructure” – but is also separable from it. In twentieth-century China, culture has been deployed simultaneously to forge a political subject from the ground up and to revitalize a form of politics that is not limited to the struggles between the state and political parties.

Wang traces the making of such a political subjectivity grounded in “the people” to the debate over national culture during the “May Fourth cultural movement” from 1910s to 1920s. He then uses the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea” (1950-1953) as a case of “people’s war” to illustrate the historical formation of a new revolutionary subjectivity that aligned the peasantry, the workers, the army, and the Party. What legitimized China’s engagement in an anti-imperialist struggle immediately after the founding of the new nation in 1949, Wang reminds us, was the widely shared support for establishing a united front within China and among the oppressed nations in Asia. Mao’s conception of Third-World solidarity during this time indeed heralded the spirit of the 1955 Bandung Conference.

Politicization is thus bound up with the internationalist outlook of a proletarian revolution that presupposes the nation-state as a basis for political subjectivity. As the revolutionary century drew to a close, however, a different process has come to disrupt the hard-won unity between the “the people” and the state. Wang calls this process depoliticization and treats it as a symptom of a global decline of politics. In the Chinese context, this depoliticization has manifested itself in the subsumption of party politics into the state structure, the colonization of the public sphere by an increasingly corporatized media sector, and the crisis of legal representation.

In Wang’s diagnosis, these transformations in Chinese politics stem in large part from the intensified contradictions of global capitalism after the Cold War. For one thing, the making of the working class now extends beyond the framework of the nation-state, thanks to the transnational movement of capital and globalized division of labor. In China, this has helped shape such new class formations as rural-to-urban migrant workers, who are often unprotected by labor law while restricted by their peasant status under the system of household registration (hukou). It also gave rise to an urban, educated “New Poor” unable to participate fully in globalized consumer culture. At the same time, the ideological forces of market rationality, along with the projection of a “post-class” society, have rendered it more difficult to develop a genuinely political class culture in China as well as elsewhere.

At issue, then, is how we might conjure a critical horizon to generate re-politicization. This effort to rethink the meanings of political justice is reflected in Wang’s subsequent discussion of equality and difference. For him, the “equality of opportunity” concept, as developed from the social contract theory of John Rawls, is predicated upon the capitalist mode of commodity exchange and is therefore no more than a formal arrangement for maintaining the status quo. In reality, it has often come into conflict with the principle of distributive justice, as it does not sufficiently account for the systemic class inequality perpetuated by capitalism.

Wang then appraises Indian thinker Amartya Sen’s notion of “equality of capabilities,” which more carefully considers the material conditions of people living in the Third World. Yet he believes this model also fails to engage the limitation that commoditification – of labor and things – exerts on the building of a democratic society (which he distinguishes from mere procedural democracy). Invoking China’s socialist experience, Wang argues that the struggle against workers’ alienation by way of overturning the ownership structure of capitalist enterprises remains fundamental for achieving a genuinely democratic form of social organization. Socialism and democracy, in other words, are not antithetical to each other, but quite the contrary.

Wang has earlier discerned a historical continuity between the multiethnic arrangement of imperial China and the policy of “minority autonomous regions” in modern China. Today, Wang believes these territories are undergoing a crisis whereby the notion of “autonomy” is emptied out of concrete application and “minority region” is reified as “ethnicity.”

Wang’s own intersectional analysis of ethnic tensions in places like Xinjiang highlights the complex formation of new class divisions that cut across ethnic groups under rampant marketization and urbanization. He proposes to rethink the “autonomous regions” concept not through an identity-based cultural lens but from an ecological perspective that is more sensitive to the natural environment from which specific cultural and economic practices emerge.

Ultimately, Wang suggests that given the multi-directional flows and dynamic interactions between geography, culture, economics and politics, all societies must be rethought as “trans-systemic.” Modern or Western democracy, established within the nation-state framework, has proven inadequate in resolving the problems of international inequality, as manifested in colonial conquests, imperialist invasions, systemic exploitations, and increased volumes of transnational migration. While the nation-state is likely to retain its relevance in an ostensibly supranational order, Wang suggests that the conjoined decline in socialism and internationalism has presented a need to rethink the changing character of the state beyond the nation.

Wang invokes China’s presence in Africa as a new kind of South-South alliance that is poised to disrupt the uneven power relations between North and South. He points to the socialist continuity between China’s anti-colonial aid to Africa in the Maoist-internationalist past and the expansion of trade and infrastructure in the supranational present. The strategic (self-)positioning of China in the Third World, once re-figured through the lens of “equality in difference,” presents alternative visions for nurturing a new kind of political culture.

Although Wang does not tell us exactly what this re-politicization of the (Chinese) state might look like, his dialectical approach exemplifies the kinds of theoretical nuance necessary for grasping China’s place in the 21st-century world order. Mobilizing lessons from a non-Western context to unpack the contested meanings of socialism and democracy, China’s Twentieth Century may be usefully read alongside works like Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff’s Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America Is Evolving Toward Africa (2011). Amid the unfolding crises of neoliberal globalization, Wang reminds us that China’s socialist legacy, much like its long-standing participation in anti-imperialist struggles in the Global South, is not to be forgotten. Instead, it should be rigorously analyzed and critically re-appropriated as a means to reshape the contours of global justice.

Reviewed by Fan Yang
Author, Faked in China
Department of Media and Communication Studies

University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)
fanyang@umbc.edu

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