Contradiction, Systemic Crisis and the Direction for Change: An Interview with Wang Hui
Wang Hui is one of China's foremost critical intellectuals. A leading figure of the "Chinese New Left", his work has attempted to chart the intellectual and political conditions of contemporary China. Against the neoliberal restructuring of China, and its official propagandists, Wang's work has remained committed to a left-wing project whose aim has been to take-stock of both the history and the consequences of Chinese modernity.
In this interview with the journal Foreign Theoretical Trends, originally published in Chinese and included as an appendix to the recently published China's Twentieth Century, Wang discusses the discourses of development in China and across the Global South, the intellectual and political heritage of Maoism, and the hopes for a new anti-capitalist movement globally.
Foreign Theoretical Trends (hereafter, “Trends”): The current severe crisis in global capitalism is a historical turning point for China and the world. What changes do you think this will bring to the international order? Regarding China’s options in the new world order, some think that, as the scale of China’s manufacturing keeps growing, continuing on the current path can lead China into the club of developed capitalist states. Others think that, due to contradictions both inside China and globally, China cannot possibly squeeze itself into the club and might instead encounter a great crisis. Therefore, they think it best for China to adhere to the “Three Worlds” theory of the 1970s and promote the construction of a new world order. What kind of international strategy do you think China should adopt in the aftermath of the global financial crisis? What kinds of old and new theoretical resources should we combine so that we can find a new possibility and direction for China’s relationship with the world?
Wang Hui: Your questions are centered on “China” rather than on different regions, classes and their relationships in China. There is a relationship between the two, but posing the question as you do assumes a possibility for China to pursue an autonomous development, or assumes that the question is how China might pursue an autonomous development. China’s financial institutions and market institutions have encountered grave difficulties, which are forcing us to rethink the current development model. Rethinking this development model began some time ago, but it has not been fruitful. The problem does not lie at the intellectual level, but rather the entanglement of interests is such that there is no way to turn this rethinking into public policy. Some have proposed further globalization, marketization and privatization; others have proposed democratic socialism. In my view, the critical question today is whether there can be a reform in a socialist direction, and whether it is possible to move in this direction. If the issue is one of direction rather than a mere technical adjustment, then the question will emerge as to what kinds of experiences and practices can be mobilized for creating a new development model.
But this is not only a question for China. For example, many people criticize the Occupy Wall Street movement for lacking a concrete program, but this precisely demonstrates that this movement is attempting to address fundamental questions of direction rather than simply questions of tactics. The movement recognizes that the problems of today are systemic, not individual problems that can be solved by technical adjustments. The movement states that we are now the 99 percent struggling against the 1 percent. It has brought forth the question of the relation between ourselves and our adversaries, posited a united front and outlined a political strategy. This is surely not to say that the movement can quickly achieve results, because first, if a society has created a system in which it is 99 percent against 1 percent, changing the system would necessarily imply a revolution; second, even if one does consider revolution, after the transformations that took place at the end of the twentieth century, the conditions, forms and premises of revolution have all completely changed. Absent a long period of buildup and the emergence of a new situation, achieving fundamental change will be extremely difficult. With regard to the revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we now live in a post-revolutionary period. How should we analyze our situation and what actions should we take in light of the systemic crisis of the present? This is a real question with which many people are struggling. In spite of this, this is the first time since the end of the Cold War that the question has been raised in this form and on such a scale. Even if the movement is somewhat immature and preliminary, it’s very much worth thinking through.
The transition in China’s form of development is currently framed in terms of “upgrading and updating” and industrial transfer. From the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, many people—from the standpoint of very different political aspirations—have predicted that a similar situation would occur and even encouraged one to occur in China. But, disappointingly for these people, this expected “revolution” has not yet appeared in China, while street revolution is already widespread in Euro-America. Why? It is not because social contradictions and conflicts do not exist in China or because there are no problems with China’s mode of development. It is rather due to two reasons: First, the fact that China is vast and regions are unevenly developed has ironically acted as a buffer in the context of the financial crisis. Regional disparity, rural–urban disparity, disparity between the rich and poor and so forth have all provided room for adjustment in China. Second, China has actually been in a constant process of adjustment during the past ten years. This adjustment results from a range of social practices, including internal jockeying, social struggle, public discussion, policy changes, local experiments and so forth. Social experiments and debates about different modes of development still continue in Chinese society. This indicates that there is still the possibility of self-directed, autonomous reform. But because the situation is changing so quickly, if action in this direction is not taken immediately, this possibility may be fleeting and quickly disappear. But introducing something resembling a “color revolution” from the outside, it seems to me, can only induce turmoil and can hardly produce a positive result.
Resolute actions are necessary, but without a clear sociopolitical vision, the question of what direction macroadjustments should take will become increasingly pressing. The debates surrounding the “Chongqing model” and the “Guangdong model” have gone beyond these specific experiments and their technical details. Even debates about technical adjustment have risen to the political level. Within these debates, people’s interest in theorizing and fully developing different reform models is not rooted in an attempt to exaggerate the degree to which they can be implemented in the present conditions, but rather in the need to consciously reestablish the social goals that the reforms aim to achieve. With regard to strategies of development, different objectives will lead to social struggles. If we want analyze China’s options for the future, we need to analyze the primary and to secondary contradictions China faces today, the primary and secondary aspects of these contradictions, how these contradictions figure differently in domestic settings and internationally and the dynamics and possibilities for their transformation.
The current relationship between regions, between the city and the countryside, and the general uneven distribution of wealth mean that there is still much room for industrial transfer and upgrading, and urbanization and industrialization will continue in a relatively long process. With the financial crisis, a great amount of excess capacity appeared in China’s productive industries, and as international markets have shrunk, the internal market is being cultivated. All in all I believe that the process of industrialization will not cease. I also think that China is in the process of ascending within the capitalist world system, not only in the immediate present, but for the next twenty years. Crises, setbacks and the intensification of social contradictions have not changed this trajectory within the system, but are, rather, its by-products.
Therefore I disagree with the prediction that China will collapse. I think China is in the process of rising. But this is not to agree with the developmentalist proposition that economic growth will resolve social contradictions—I believe that China’s process of ascent will bring about the intensification of social contradictions. Although there have been discussions of and experiments with various development models and some partial policy adjustments, the basic mode of development will not change. The massive social transition brought about by urbanization, the development of manufacturing and the consequent conflicts and contra- dictions—especially with respect to regional relations and rural–urban relations—will not decrease.
In short, China will continue to rise within the world capitalist system, but economic development does not mean that contradictions will disappear on their own. The situation of social disparity will be around for a long time. Continued industrialization and the massive expansion of urban areas will increase demand for energy and other resources, and this will also lead to the sharpening of international conflicts. In fact, the integral relationship between economic growth and the accumulation of social contradictions has continually been a feature of capitalism. The period of rapid development of capitalism in the nineteenth and earlier half of the twentieth century was precisely a time of fierce class struggle in Europe, and a time of the worst international conflicts.
We need to study the respective characteristics of social conflict during periods of both rise and decline, and the difference between China and other newly emerging economies and Euro-American countries in terms of trajectories of change. Social conflict in China may intensify, not because the country is about to collapse, but because it is moving up in the world system. The sharpening of social conflict is precisely the result of this process.
This has been my view for some time. More than a decade ago, I stated this view when some raised the argument that China would collapse in the near future. Because China is rising, though there may be adjustments in some areas, its basic mode of development will not fundamentally change, and therefore it is inevitable that social and class contradictions will intensify. If we want to change this situation, then we need to discuss the question of how to change the mode of development. Without a change in orientation, the current situation cannot change. When discussing economic development, some people say that I’m optimistic; when discussing social conflicts and contradictions, some people say that I’m pessimistic. But actually, it is meaningless to employ “optimism” and “pessimism” this way. So-called “optimism” may well amount to “pessimism,” and vice versa. Capital is powerful and the relationships between different interests are entangled in a complex web. Even if you point out the crises inherent in this model, without the emergence of a new situation a change in the structure is still quite far off.
On the other hand, global capitalism is characterized by uneven development, which gives the growth of certain regions special significance. For example, development in China, India, Brazil and some African countries has altered the unequal relationships in the international system and decreased the hegemonic status of Europe and the United States. Countries in Africa and Latin America have, up to this day, on the whole rather welcomed the new role played by China for the very reason that the rise of China has destabilized the old hegemonic structure. By the same logic, the development of peripheral regions within China facilitates more equal relationships between the countryside and the city and between regions. The current challenge is that the development of peripheral regions has a close relationship with industrial transfer. While this changes the old structure of uneven development, it does not necessitate a change in the mode of development.
Mao Zedong grasped the characteristics of twentieth-century imperial- ism—the contradiction between the First and Third World had risen to become the main contradiction, and the international division of labor brought about a change in the nature of class in the international field. With the international division of labor, disparity between classes and within the society as a whole has worsened in China. But these disparities are products of the international division of labor and, as such, aspects of larger systemic contradictions. Uneven development on both the international and domes- tic scales requires that we carefully analyze the main contradictions and their transformation.
A short time ago, in preparation for a discussion on political changes in China after the 1911 Revolution, I reread Mao Zedong’s 1926 article on the peasant question and his 1936 article on the anti-Japanese war, and found that there was an important difference between the two. In the 1920s, the mainstream view was that the significance of war between states far over- shadowed the significance of internal civil wars—that is, class struggle. Today some people continue to hold this nationalist view. Mao Zedong disagreed with this and thought that the First World War proved that war between states paled in significance compared to internal domestic struggles. The October Revolution was the best example demonstrating that domestic struggles could determine international events. Mao thus emphasized the importance of class struggle when he was engaged in the peasant movement in 1926. In the 1930s, in the midst of a global situation in which Japan’s all-out invasion of China was imminent and the threat of international fascism much more serious, Mao’s view changed. He came to believe that the contradiction had shifted from class struggle to conflicts between nations, and that therefore the Communist Party should engage not only in class struggle but also in building a united front. Thus, domestically, the national bourgeoisie and the landlord class were to be included in the united front. Internationally, capitalist countries engaged in fighting fascism also came to be included in the united front. Mao did not give up on class analysis but thought that the main contradiction had undergone a major shift within those particular historical conditions.
It is not this strategic analysis per se but this methodology that is still useful for explaining the rise of the Chinese economy. Chinese intellectuals, on both the left and the right, have not successfully explained this issue. You asked the question of whether China could squeeze its way into the club of developed countries by following the old path of development. This is not an easy question to answer. First, the club of advanced capitalist countries is premised on the unequal relationship between the global North and South. Why would China, which long suffered under the oppression of colonialism and imperialism and has traveled a socialist path for some time, want to squeeze into the club of the global ruling class? This should not be the goal of China’s development. Instead, China’s development should create an opportunity to change the unequal relation- ship between the North and the South.
Furthermore, the club of developed capitalist countries is an economic club, but also a political club. To enter this club, there is a “political test.”
The political system in Russia has already undergone a transformation in accordance with the Western model, but it has yet to pass the bar according to Western standards and thus hasn’t been able to join the club. China is different from the West in terms of its political and social system, and it is also an Asian country. No Western country really thinks that China could be a member of their club. Second, whether China can join the club depends not only on the situation in China, but also on the international situation. At the International North South Media Forum in Geneva (October 10 to 14, 2011), Indian economist Gopalan Balachandran argued that the scale of economic development of the BRIC countries is much smaller than that of developed countries. The West, however, has begun to greatly exaggerate the significance of the BRIC economies, with the goal of shirking the inter- national obligations that Western countries should bear. While globalization has changed the earlier world structure such that the Three Worlds theory is no longer entirely adequate, the struggle between the First World and Third World countries or between the North and the South is still the major contradiction when it comes to issues of climate change, the energy problem and other negotiations regarding international obligations.
Of course, unlike before, this major contradiction unfolds around the issue of how to change the mode of development globally. The crisis of inequality in the world today has its roots in the North-South relationship and the structural inequality inherent in that relationship. There is not much doubt that China will become the world’s largest economy in the next twenty to thirty years, but we must seriously consider the implications of this. There have been great changes in the international division of labor and the global economic structure. For example, the United States has the largest economy but is a debtor country. China is poor but a creditor country. Even if China’s economy becomes the largest, the larger structural changes entailed with this shift might not be entirely beneficial to China.
The International North South Media Forum held this year in Geneva’s International Conference Center focused on the BRICS countries. The first day focused on China, the second on Brazil, the third on India and the fourth on Russia and South Africa. (I participated during the first three.) Each country was linked with a theme according to this sequence. The theme for China was “the world’s factory,” the theme for Brazil was “the world’s food basket” and the theme for India was “the world’s office.” These themes describe a new trend in the global division of labor, and China’s industrialization really does fit into it in this fashion. Unlike other late-developing countries, China never experienced complete colonization, has a long agrarian tradition and has experience with autonomous development in the post–World War II period. Its economic structure is much more diverse than that of many developing countries. After independence, many former colonies still have economies with single-commodity specialization, based, for example, on coffee, sugar or oil. Some countries originally had a more diverse economy but have grown specialized with a speed exceeding that of the colonial period; Brazil and Argentina, for example, have become agriculture exporters within a very short period of time. Their agriculture is controlled by monopolistic seed companies and has become part of the global division of labor and subject to the global market. China’s economy is comparatively diverse and a bit more stable and therefore would not immediately collapse during a crisis of the global market. But the moniker “world’s factory” indicates a trend that is not necessarily beneficial to China.
Industrialization is necessary. But if this industrialization is connected with the new global division of labor, China will bear a greater cost compared with traditional industrialization in terms of the exhaustion of energy resources, the exploitation of cheap labor, damage to the environment and the loss of labor protections.
In the West, many people understand China’s energy consumption, environmental problems, issues with migrant workers and the exploitation of cheap labor in the context of human rights and other international proto- cols but have never probed the relationship between these issues and the relocation of international industry. The relationship between China becoming the world’s factory and the deindustrialization of the West should be obvious. Climate change, the energy issue, cheap labor and even the mechanisms of state oppression are all integral aspects of the new international division of labor. The transfer of global industry also entails the transfer of social contradictions to developing countries.
The international shift in industry and the change in international class relations are also very important for explaining social conflicts in China. Class struggle in the past was concentrated in labor-capital relations within each country. But transnational capital is very flexible and states have become its agents and committees. The increased mobility of capital and the transnationalization of production have brought about this change in the form of a contradiction between labor and capital. The relationship between the two is heavily shaped by the efforts of states to attract capital, and the conflict between them as such becomes a conflict between labor and the state. For example, labor unions are normally a product of labor-capital relations. But in China, it has become an issue between labor and the state. Under the conditions of global capitalism, analyzing social conflicts brought about by the international shift in class relations entails a new examination of the mechanisms of state repression. That is, unlike before, state repression is inextricably linked to shifts in industry and the new international division of labor. There is continuity in the form of state repression, but its content has undergone a major shift. Under these circumstances, analyzing the space of politics and the question of democracy becomes a new problem.
Let us return to the question of economic growth and the accumulation of social contradictions. China’s ascendancy has strengthened the capacity of the state for controlling the intensity of social conflicts. The growth of the scale of the economy has also infused the entire society with a measure of confidence that the current situation will continue, thereby providing an element of stability. But if stability is increasingly linked with growth, it also implies a dangerous logic: Once the economy stops growing or if some new situation were to arise, the eruption of a political crisis would become unavoidable. Because of this, the more the state depends on growth for stability, the more difficult it is to change the growth model. In this sense, I think the aforementioned question concerning the direction of social change in China is a very urgent one.
What kind of international strategy should China adopt in the context of the international financial crisis? My own view is that we should search for an autonomous development strategy and break away from the division of labor imposed by capitalist hegemony. Without autonomy, there can be no strategy. But what constitutes “autonomy” under conditions of globalization has become a complicated question. Production, consumption, labor are all being internationalized. The type of autonomy nation-states could carve out under conditions associated with the Cold War is no longer possible. Therefore, there is a need to explore new forms of autonomy.
International strategy implies the methods for maintaining relations with the United States, Europe, Latin America and Africa as well as China’s neighboring countries, and the maintenance of political capacity in a world dominated by capital. Theories of global justice from social democratic and liberal perspectives are quite vacuous and unable to provide substantial programs for action. Dependency theory and the theory of Three Worlds have also lost their explanatory power as general methods for analyzing the global situation. For example, China-Africa relations and China’s relation- ship with Southeast Asian countries can no longer be explained within the framework of the Bandung Conference. Mao Zedong’s Three Worlds theory was formed in the circumstances of the Cold War. Only with the opposition of two major camps could there be a middle ground in which nonsocialist countries in the Third World could form an anti-imperialist and antihegemonic united front with socialist countries. This situation no longer exists. But we should not ignore the inspiration that this theory can give us today.
Political cynicism and opportunism can only lead to the loss of autonomy. It is in the relationship between China and developed and developing countries that the issue of autonomy is most manifest. The weakening of autonomy has led to China’s lack of a strong and flexible international strategy. In the past thirty years, the West has been at the center of all concerns, from the state to the field of knowledge. Sometimes the ensuing outlook has been pessimistic, at other times self-inflating; sometimes China is said to be a basket case, at other times it is said to be booming. After the beginning of the new century, there has been more of an air of self-congratulation, with some claiming that China is the creditor country and that therefore the United States would not dare to do us harm.
Now, with the United States making moves in the South China Sea, proponents of this view have discovered that China not only has a conflict of interest with the United States, but that there are also tensions in its relationships with neighboring countries. China’s opportunism and self-interestedness has already produced a rather critical view toward China among various Third World countries. On the other hand, China’s economic behavior has retained the influence of some practices from the earlier period. For example, unlike either Western companies or quick- profit-seeking private companies, Chinese state-owned enterprises in general have a long-term perspective and are usually welcome in Africa and Latin America. Not long ago an English director produced the documentary film When China Met Africa about Chinese relations with Zambia. I had a discussion with the director, and he agreed that Chinese state-owned enterprises are willing to invest in the local infrastructure, which has been long neglected by Europe and the United States, and that Chinese SOEs usually have long-term plans for returns. This is impossible for Western countries and their companies. The West already decided in the 1970s that investing in infrastructure in these areas is not feasible because the risks are too high. In these circumstances, the strategic relationship that China can forge with developing countries is a question worth thinking about.
Trends: Before the current international crisis, you had already discussed in some depth how contemporary capitalism is prone to crisis—for example, you have written about the contradictions inherent in globalization and neoliberalism.1 You have pointed out in particular that the trend toward depoliticization created in these processes has led to an increasing crisis in equality.2 Is there an internal logical connection between the crises that you previously discussed and the current financial, economic and even social and political crises faced by capitalism today?
Wang Hui: Neoliberal globalization and China’s trend toward depoliticization have a logical relationship with the current financial and political crises of capitalism. First, in terms of the economic dimension, the entire capitalist system began its neoliberal turn in the late 1970s while the same trend began to appear in China in the mid-1980s, particularly after the launch of the urban reforms, deepened after 1989 and continued until the current global financial crisis. Second, in terms of the political sphere, neoliberalism has led to an important change in the meaning of politics and has broken down the earlier political situation. Almost without exception, politics in both socialist countries and in liberal democratic systems, particularly with regard to the kind of politics that centers on the state and the party, are undergoing crises. In the political sphere, these crises are mainly characterized by a breakdown of representation. Because of this, different political party systems are all experiencing political crises.
A lack of representation is now a common feature in the political sphere. On November 18, 2011, I participated in a public dialogue and debate with the chairman of the German Social Democratic Party, Sigmar Gabriel, at the party’s main office. I pointed out that, in spite of the great difference between China and the countries of Europe in terms of political systems, all of these countries not only face the same economic crisis, they also face a similar political crisis due to a breakdown in their political parties’ capacity to represent the people. My basic viewpoint is that we must change the way in which we examine crises experienced by political institutions today.
The earlier type of political analysis is premised on an opposition between the two political systems—that is, an understanding of one systemis premised on the other system. But in looking at the roots of the crisis of legitimacy, today’s situation cannot be diagnosed in terms of the difference between one system and another. A diagnosis must be conducted within the context that different political systems are facing the shared problem of a breakdown in representation. The fact that the breakdown in representation is common to all political systems does not mean that the older opposition between the two social systems has disappeared, but rather that the global transformation has led to a change in the meaning of this opposition. At its root, the crisis in representation is a product of neoliberalism in the political sphere, in that it is a consequence of depoliticization. It has to do with the fundamental change in the structure of politics within the context of capitalism as a whole. Gabriel remarked that my placing Europe and China on the same platform for critique has surprised a lot of people, but this critique touched on the intellectual and political crisis in Europe.
Trends: Capitalism is facing a serious crisis, but it appears that the anticapitalist movement has lost its sense of direction since the 1970s and 1980s. After the radical changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, there has not been serious and comprehensive theoretical work on how to treat the history of traditional socialism, or how to treat the capitalist democratic system and its market system. As you said, the role of theory is extremely important. However, it seems that anticapitalist forces, from the movement against the Iraq War to today’s Occupy Wall Street, do not know what they are opposed to and what they are struggling for. They are in a predicament in which they no longer believe in traditional socialism and yet their resistance is weak and ineffective within capitalist democracy and the market. You have been reflecting on these serious theoretical challenges faced by the left. How do you think anticapitalist movements can escape this predicament, and what is the alternative?
Wang Hui: It is impossible for the anticapitalist movement to fall into the model of traditional socialism based on the nation-state as a unit. We should have a clear understanding of this. This round of globalization, particularly the transnationalization of production, has made the possibility of reverting to the logic of the older state very small. The state is a space in which struggles unfold, and the issue of autonomy is manifested at the state level. If one observes the situation of countries in North Africa and the Middle East suffering from external interference, one can understand that the state issue is not at all inconsequential, contrary to what many have claimed. It is because of this that I have said we need to explore the issue of autonomy under the conditions of globalization.
Some changes have recently taken place in the anticapitalist movement. The Occupy Wall Street movement has truly raised the question of the systemic nature of the crisis, while at the same time it has displayed the weakness of lacking an effective strategy. We can sum up a few characteristics: First, after a series of movements aimed at reforming neoliberalism have been frustrated, a protest movement has emerged that opposes the system as such, a movement that has shown itself to be global and uneven. The globality is manifest in the fact that movements have appeared in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, Asia, the United States and Europe. The unevenness refers to the fact that these movements are related but are various in their forms, reflecting unevenness in their respective social, regional and economic-political-cultural conditions. For example, the movement in Egypt took place under the conditions of a high unemployment rate brought on by the global financial crisis, long-term and large-scale poverty and a high degree of corruption. These are long-standing and widespread phenomena common to many regions. But apart from these, Egypt’s movement was also aimed at a political system that included decades of police dictatorship and the U.S.-Israeli order, as well as the existence of the Islamic movement. Its antisystemic nature has centered around these aspects. In Muslim regions, this antisystemic movement stimulated or released a religious energy, which, although not a new political force, contains the possibility of becoming a new political energy.
The reentrance of religion into the political sphere is found not only in the Arab world, but in all of Africa and Europe as well. China also faces a complex problem of religions, but the chief social contradiction is still economic and political. Through its long process of revolution and construction, China has forged a relatively independent and autonomous national economic system, and even after reforms aimed at opening the system have resulted in its becoming highly globalized, its relative independence (and internal unevenness) is still distinctly apparent. A few days ago, the Occupy Wall Street movement mobilized twenty to thirty thou- sand people to walk from New York to Washington, DC. This movement seems to be attempting to make explicit the relationship between capital- ism’s economic and political institutions. The rhetoric of opposition between the 99 percent and the 1 percent also implies a class element, but obviously the older model of class movements is not suitable for analyzing this movement. My own view is that we need to raise a conceptual question concerning the general direction in which the movement seeks to take its analysis of the systemic problem. At the same time, we must pay serious attention to the unevenness across the globe, between regions and within countries.
China is in the process of a large-scale industrialization and urbanization; rural–urban and class contradictions remain very important characteristics of the nation’s social and economic landscape. To truly achieve the “five coordinations”3 we must change the model of development, adjust the direction of reform and strengthen the ability of the society and state to shape a development strategy for China. With large-scale urbanization connected to industrialization and rural–urban relations linked to the formation of the new working class, it is crucial to consider how the rural–urban contradiction under the condition of massive urbanization can be resolved. As mentioned before, the expansion of the scale of China’s economy is connected with the new global division of labor. Its profound dependence on energy consumption and on cheap labor cannot be explained singularly within China’s own context but will undoubtedly lead to increasing internal conflicts. If China’s position in the global division of labor does not change, the problems of social conflict and lack of equality cannot fundamentally be solved.
How can one forge an independent development strategy within a globalized system? Under the conditions of global capitalism and the global division of labor, we cannot have a breakthrough strategy if we forget the unique conditions pertaining to each society and its international positioning. In “On Protracted War,” Mao states that victory in war entails three situations: that of the enemy, that of the self and that of the field. What is the situation of the enemy, what is our own situation and what is the objective condition of the field of struggle?4 Only by comprehending the answers to these questions can we analyze what strategy should be adopted.
From this perspective, we first should analyze financial capitalism and the new global division of labor, and the international relations, regional relations, class relations and social relations that are produced by the new division of labor. Speaking of the competitors, are developed states able to reindustrialize themselves? If yes, what does that mean for us? If not, what kind of situation will emerge? Under conditions of crisis, what changes in political and military relations will occur? China is a developing country with very uneven development, and its regional relations are complex. What is the relationship between this unevenness and the sustainability of its development? China’s coastal areas are more deeply impacted by the international crisis. Many industries have been moving inland. It is true that inland growth has helped in alleviating the crisis. The growth rates of Inner Mongolia and other regions now exceed that of coastal areas. This is an effect of uneven development. But with the transfer of industry, crisis has also reached these areas. The internal unevenness in China makes it more able to weather economic crisis than other smaller economies. The vast countryside and large rural population provide a space for crisis alleviation.
Philip Huang’s analysis of Chongqing’s land values highlights this. According to his analysis, there is little doubt that Chongqing’s land prices will increase more quickly than wages. Many on the left may not like this analysis and may consider it supportive of a development model based on urbanization. But this analysis is based on China’s developmental uneven- ness and has some significance for our methodology. This does not mean that regional imbalances can naturally ensure sustainability. I think we should undertake our analysis as Mao analyzed the war situation many years ago: Examine the scale and sustainability of China’s development within the context of global capitalism and investigate the tendencies and development of its class and social contradictions. In this way, we can explain China’s national situation and its development strategy.
Trends: You once mentioned a basic paradox regarding China’s state capacity. On the one hand, compared with the governments of other countries, there is a wide recognition of the Chinese government’s capacity. It has been demonstrated in the mobilization for disaster relief after the Wenchuan earthquake (on May 12, 2008), in the quick rollout of crisis relief plans after the financial crisis, in the successful hosting of the 2008 Olympics and in local governments’ organizing capacity for development and for crisis management. These phenomena highlight the advantages of China’s state capacity. On the other hand, various polls show that the public’s level of satisfaction with the government is rather low. At times, government-citizen conflicts have become heated. People also have doubts about executive competence and corruption at various levels of government. The most critical question is whether these conflicts indicate a crisis in the government’s legitimacy. What do you think?
Wang Hui: This is a question of legitimacy. Under the conditions of global capitalism, the core problem of the legitimacy crisis of a political system lies in the crisis of representation in party politics. In the global context, the danger facing political systems today is a change from one system in that there is no representation to another that also has no representation, with such an empty change serving only to legitimate a social process which in fact increases inequality. The so-called color revolutions present such a case. Superficially they entail democratization, but substantively they legitimate the most unreasonable social redistribution and wealth expropriation.
To overcome this political crisis, the real challenge is how to avoid the change from one system lacking representation to another. The essential requirement is re-politicization. This is a very acute and complex challenge. I think it is urgent that we articulate this problem theoretically, because many still do not understand how broadly and deeply the crisis of representation reaches and may believe that this problem does not exist in the West. To forge a space for real public discussion and to open up real political and theoretical debate is very important for China’s political transformation. It is very difficult to have serious political discussions in the mass media. This situation is dangerous. The key is to let people understand the true nature and characteristics of the political crisis in global capitalism through discus- sions of autonomy.
Many observers have discussed the issue of China’s state capacity. The real question is why, despite China’s strong state capacity, the state is unable to overcome its crisis of legitimacy. State capacity is, first of all, the capacity of the state to respond to social needs. In this regard, China’s state capacity is double-sided: It is very strong in certain exceptional circumstances and very tardy and slow in other circumstances. Recently Francis Fukuyama wrote that China’s ability to respond to problems is not only stronger than that of its neighboring countries, but also that of many developed countries, including Japan, South Korea and many countries in Europe. In my debate with Gabriel, I noted that if a state’s political system has a strong capacity to respond to problems, it indicates that the society contains elements of and a potential for democracy. But because our theories on democracy focus so intently on its political form, they have neglected these substantive potentials. However, how to develop these potentials into more institutionalized practices is unclear. If we can clearly delineate the theoretical and institutional conditions for the uncovering of these potentials, we may find a path toward democratic change. If a government can quickly respond to the demands of society, the political system has a potential for substantive democracy. The questions of how and to what degree to formulate and develop this potential, however, require concrete analysis.
Another aspect of state capacity is its ability to conduct political coordination—that is, its ability to coordinate various social interests and demands via public and administrative policies. Fukuyama, in his latest article, addressed the crisis in Western democracy by proposing a “democratic dictatorship, not a vetocracy.”5 Fukuyama and I are certainly different in terms of our views of history, but what he is actually pointing to in this piece has something in common with the points on political integration that I discussed in “Revolution, compromise and continuous innovation.”6 Conventionally, administrative power in the executive institution and the institutions of parliament and political parties are instruments for political coordination and integration. But when political representation breaks down, a state’s capacity to engage in political coordination and integration is greatly reduced. Power is typically divided between the parliament, the judicial system and the administration, but with political parties’ capacity to represent the people breaking down and with the increasing bureaucratization of governments and the crises within the judicial systems, states’ ability to respond to social crisis declines. This is the basic characteristic of the contemporary political crisis.
Wang Hui: This is an issue very relevant to your journal. Mao Zedong’s work is one of the most important legacies of twentieth-century China. In terms of its influence on the West and the Third World movement, China has no other legacy that can surpass it. The well-known contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou is a noted example of intellectual admiration for Mao’s work. He has undertaken an in-depth analysis of Mao’s texts, and his overall explication of the history of European philosophy accords with his explication of Mao’s thought. In the late 1970s, Badiou wrote a booklet of commentary and response to a text on Hegel by the Beijing University professor Zhang Shiying, in which he developed his reading of Maoist dialectics.7 According to the Italian scholar Alessandro Russo, that book marked an important turn in Badiou’s intellectual trajectory and reflected the influence of the era on him. Due to the defeat of progressive forces after 1968, the entire theoretical scene, particularly leftist theory, has been characterized by political pessimism. But Alain Badiou’s theory is marked by a kind of Maoist revolutionary optimism. That is, even at the time of the low tide, he still constructs a theory of history based on what Mao called “the enemy’s logic”—“disruption, failure, more disruption, more failure”— and the logic of people’s revolution that is “from victory to victory.”
At the Twentieth-Century China Conference in Bologna in 2007, Badiou submitted a paper that gave a close reading of Mao Zedong’s 1928 article “Why Is It That Red Political Power Can Exist in China?”8 I was quite encouraged and inspired by the paper. In such difficult conditions, Mao had the unique insight to analyze how red political power could exist in China and propose that a single spark could start a prairie fire. His method of analysis concerning the existence of red political power is, in fact, exactly the same as his later analysis of how China would win the final victory in the war against Japan. He integrated three dimensions of analysis: military, philosophy and politics. Mao’s military thought was never based purely on military strategy and tactics but was an integration of politics, philosophy and military strategy. The strategic thought expressed in “On Protracted War” represents both his philosophy expressed in the political field and his political thinking applied to the field of military strategy and tactics. How the two kinds of united front could come to be formed, whether they could be formed, whether a revolution within the imperialist world would break out—all of these are questions of strategy and analysis in the broadest sense, not merely questions of ordinary military tactics. All of these are combined. The important characteristic of Mao’s thought is its orientation toward practice; it is always concerned with analyzing reality. Reality is not passive or static but a field where agency and objective conditions interact. In the analysis of reality, what we see is pulsing and shifting tendencies of various historical forces in interaction.
His proposition that a single spark could start a prairie fire has important methodological implications. Mao at that time was facing the “white terror” and a sharp disparity of power between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces. But within this situation, he developed an analysis of how Chinese red political power could exist in the revolutionary base areas of the countryside. This is an outstanding political analysis, and also some- thing like a strategy manual for war. Mao upheld the righteousness of the revolution but was not blinded by this righteousness. Rather, he combined his sense of righteousness with strategic analysis. The small Red Army force later expanded rapidly within a short period of time. When the Red Army arrived in Northern Shaanxi, it numbered no more than a few thousand. But as early as 1936, Mao foresaw that Japan’s aggression would inevitably lead to war, the coming of the world war and the basic trajectory of the War of Resistance against Japan. It would not have been possible to reach this height if Mao had not possessed a high degree of theoretical ability for abstraction and a holistic insight into the reality of social relations writ large.
When we initiated the new intellectual discussion just over ten years ago, it was purely academic. It was a lonely fight, and we were without political power, media power or even our own popular supporters. We aimed for intellectual discussion. Yet, even without having our own media platform, our critical standpoint still gained an audience. All manner of attacks, including media slander, did not prevent our critical outlook from spreading. Why is this? We need to form an objective but dynamic analysis concerning China’s internal and external situation and draw theoretical and strategic lessons from this.
A number of Mao’s concepts, such as building a united front in the time of war, the philosophy of “one dividing into two” and his explication of people’s democracy, have all exerted a huge influence. Foucault’s conceptualization of politics and power and Jameson’s discussion of the Third World have both been influenced by Mao. On the right, Carl Schmitt’s theory of the partisan and his political conceptualization of the enemy-friend distinction have this or that connection with Mao’s military and political thought. The recent Occupy Wall Street movement is related to the Occupy University movement of the previous few years. With the development of the Internet, many have proposed anew the idea of an open university and have criticized the current university system. It is not clear whether these practices have any direct relationship to Mao’s thought, but it is necessary to compare and analyze them. Mao provided explanations and proposed a set of analytical methods with which we can analyze the relationship between knowledge, power, politics and the capitalist economy, as well as its main social contradictions and principal social subjects.
In his response to me, Gabriel stated that the Western left has not really faced the questions I raised about equality and the breakdown of political representation. He said that when he had visited factories in the past, workers introduced him as a socialist; when he goes to factories now, workers introduce him only as a politician. A young social democrat told me that after the Cold War, the idea of socialism can no longer be mentioned. But if not toward socialism, then in what direction is social democracy aimed? In my discussion, I have pointed out two problematic tendencies: The first is to equate socialism and communism with the practices of state socialism in the past; the second is to treat the socialist practices of the past as a single entity and refuse to engage in a real political and historical analysis of these practices. In the European context, socialism is immediately equated with despotism and violent totalitarian rule. The whole tenor is negative. But socialism’s legacy is rich and complex, and we must carry out a critical summation of it. The legacy of Mao Zedong’s thought is both the object of our thinking and also a method we can use to reflect on his own political practices. It ought to be from this perspective that we revive his legacy.