China Study Group

Inquiring after theory in China
by Arif Dirlik, et al. | originally published in: boundary 2 1 jul
Summer 2008 issue (vol. 35, no. 2) of boundary 2 w/ intro by Dirlik & contributions by Wang Shaoguang, Alex Day, Pun Ngai, Han Shaogong, and Wang Hui, among others


Arif Dirlik

The Great Transformation: The Double Movement in China
Wang Shaoguang

The End of the Peasant? New Rural Reconstruction in China
Alexander Day

The Subsumption of Class Discourse in China
Pun Ngai and Chris King–Chi Chan

Why Did the Cultural Revolution End?
Han Shaogong

Chinese Education in the Era of Capitalist Globalization
Shaobo Xie and Fengzhen Wang

Scientific Worldview, Culture Debates, and the Reclassification of Knowledge in Twentieth-century China
Wang Hui

The Developmental Logic of Chinese Culture under Modernization and Globalization
Yu Keping

The Importance of Being Chinese: Orientalism Reconfigured in the Age of Global Modernity
Chu Yiu-Wai

From the introduction:

The goal of the present collection, however, is not to "correct” these
responses, which would seem like a futile, and unnecessary, job, but to
simply display that Chinese intellectual life is much richer than narcissistic
American questions might suggest. What is crucial to grasp, the collection
here suggests, is that the PRC, empowered by a past dedicated to socialist
revolution, is in search of an alternative modernity. But what is an "alterna-
tive modernity”?

Beyond an insistence on doing things "the Chinese way,” it is not
quite clear what this alternative modernity might be. Modernity as concept
has lost much of its coherence with proliferating historical claims on it, and
the universalization of the desire for the Modern is complicated by claims
that the Modern itself appears in many guises that are not to be contained
in the forms and practices of an originary European modernity. Being Chi-
nese itself is in the process of radical transformation, as populations of
Chinese origin overflow the boundaries of the PRC (not to speak of the
many internal divisions and differences). Perhaps we could describe the
insistence on an "alternative modernity” as "a will to difference.” Whether
the issue is economics, politics, or social practices, tagging "Chinese char-
acteristics” on practices of modernity has almost become habitual with Chi-
nese intellectuals—even when those practices are marked by sameness
rather than difference, and their future very much in question. Much the
same may be said on the question of socialism, which is open to experi-
mentation (except for a revival of Maoist days) and represents overlapping
but different things to the Party and intellectuals. On one issue, however,
there is a reasonable degree of clarity. Much of the talk on "alternative
modernity” in China and abroad is premised on differences in history and
culture, which is seemingly reasonable, but also ignores that these alter-
natives, such as they are, are severely limited by their entrapment within a
global capitalist economy, which bears upon it all the hallmarks of its origins
in Europe and North America. There is, however, a different way of grasping
"alternative,” in terms of a socialist alternative to capitalism, which under-
stood "alternative” not in terms of different pasts but in terms of different
futures: alternative economic, political, and social forms to those prevail-
ing under capitalism. This was, of course, the way Chinese revolutionaries
conceived of alternatives in their pursuit and justification of revolution. It is
calls for reconsideration of this revolutionary past by the so-called New Left
(in my reading, inside and outside the Party) that have motivated the sup-
pression of at least some of the dissident voices in China. It is a situation
that should benefit from an extended dialogue. This, unfortunately, is open
to arbitrary silencing of some views over others in the Party's insistence
on being the arbiter of what may or may not be socialism—even when it
is openly acknowledged that neoliberals hold sway over the policies of the
Party and the government. The silencing, needless to say, also sweeps
aside the deepening of problems in Chinese society even as the new elites
(Party and non-Party) celebrate their acceptance and inclusion in global

The essays collected in this volume do not convey a single mes-
sage, nor do they conform to some structural whole. The diversity would
have been considerably enhanced had some intellectuals of different politi-
cal and aesthetic disposition responded to our request for contributions.
Even with those absences here, what we observe is a wide array of inter-
est, concerns, and involvements. As editor of the volume, I did not suggest
any kind of theme for the volume. Rather, I encouraged authors to contrib-
ute something on a subject that preoccupied them at the time. Some of the
contributors—Yu Keping, Wang Hui, Han Shaogong, Fengzhen Wang—
are active as Party members or public intellectuals in the promotion of the
issues they discuss. Others, such as Wang Shaoguang, Shaobo Xie, Pun
Ngai, Chu Yiu-Wai, Alex Day, and I are concerned analysts of Chinese
society, wishful of the success of some form of democratic socialism before
the present course of development leads at gathering speed to social and
ecological disaster. What is at stake here is not just the fate of China and
Chinese society, but a common human fate globally that is threatened by
an unbridled capitalism which has shed its inhibitions at a very moment of
crisis in global political organization and ecology.[...]

It may be no exaggeration to say that China is at a crossroads—
as we all are. The concentration of economic and political power in the
hands of a small minority that is increasingly transnational in composition
is a problem globally, including China, where a new bourgeois elite has
joined the old Party elite, producing a socialist version of a transnational
capitalist class. Like elites elsewhere, this elite finds in neoliberalism and
globalization the expression of its vision—if through the agency of a state
corporatism. While large numbers of people in China have benefited from
the "Reforms” of the last three decades, spatial and social division, as well
as ecological destruction, have made significant headway—visible not only
in polluted cities but also in the gradual destruction of rural China. Few in
China would want a return to the days of Mao Zedong, which would make
no sense under present circumstances. But the revolution is among the sig-
nificant legacies of Chinese society. It brings into relief the consequences
of capitalism in a "global factory.” It is a resource in the critique of contem-
porary society. And it continues to inspire confidence in the possibility of a
different kind of society. It is this legacy that continues to fuel serious criti-
cism in China. Theory may be one of its beneficiaries. But this is a politi-
cally loaded theory, not an academic theory, and if it is flourishing in China
today, it is not because of the enlarged freedoms but because of new forms
of repression. This is what gives contemporary theory its local coloring,
against an elitist reification of theory in slogans of globalization and the
like. The groundedness of theory in this instance is groundedness within
Chinese society, and not in some abstract cultural characteristic attributed
to China. It is, for this reason, activist theory.

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