The hard truth about the expanded neoliberal world order
Table Of Contents
- About the author(s)/editor(s)
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Introduction: A blow to our collective conscience
- Part I: The Hard Truth about the Massacre in Beijing
- Chapter 1: Background and Rise of the Movement
- Chapter 2: Rifts, Escalation and Crackdown
- Part II: The Hard Truth of Silence and Market Momentum
- Chapter 3: Global Amnesia and June Fourth
- Chapter 4: The Silencing of Civil Society and Deng Xiaoping’s Pivot to Capitalism
- Part III: Authoritarian Convergence and Moral Costs
- Chapter 5: Capitalist Convergence and Rising Inequality
- Chapter 6: The Global Expansion of Authoritarianism and Democracy Under Threat
- Epilogue: Two phone calls
- List of important names
Funding for the work that resulted in this book came from the Swedish Research Council in support of my research project “Challenging state power in China: The formation of new citizen norms in emerging civil society”. The Swedish Institute of International Affairs generously also contributed financial support for the publication of this book. An earlier version was first published by Albert Bonniers Förlag in Sweden. It has been translated from Swedish into English by Agnes Broomé. I am indebted to Rachel Hanneman for her excellent proofreading of the manuscript. Heartfelt thanks for their very valuable comments offered on various parts of this book go to Jens Stilhoff Sörensen and Amanda Lagerkvist.
Introduction: A blow to our collective conscience
Every year, the south of China is beset by the monsoon. For Hong Kong, Guangdong province and the coastline all the way up to Shanghai, summertime means constant buffeting by typhoon-force winds. Long into autumn, thunderstorms continue to roll in across the south, forcing the unprepared to hurriedly hail a taxi or buy themselves yet another umbrella from the vendors that suddenly emerge out of every nook and cranny. On Thursday 13 October 2011, the monsoon swept in across the city of Foshan in Guangdong. Qu Feifei, mother of two-year old Yueyue, rushed out to rescue her drying laundry. It was late afternoon and as her mother’s back was turned, the little girl toddled off. Suddenly, Yueyue found herself on a narrow street crowded with hardware shops selling construction material. The leaden storm clouds looming overhead had plunged the cramped alley into twilight. It was the kind of commercial road that can be found in millions of villages and cities across China. Hustle. Bustle. Rushing.
Yueyue was hit by a white van and ended up under one of the vehicle’s front wheels. The driver paused for a second, then immediately pushed on. The back wheel slowly rolled over the little girl, and the white van was gone. The girl lay prone, feebly moving her arms and legs ever so slightly. Crying, she clutched her bleeding head. Eighteen people passed the seriously injured child without attempting to help her, without calling an ambulance. Eighteen people.
Some stopped to look, only to rush on. A mother walked by with her own child, a five-year old girl. While the indifferent passers-by ignored her, a second, even larger vehicle, a lorry, ran over Yueyue. Finally, an older female street cleaner, Chen Xianmei, approached the injured girl to see how she was. She made sure Yueyue got to a hospital. The doctors did everything they could but were unable to save her life. A week after the little girl was admitted to the intensive care unit, Yueyue’s inconsolable parents watched as her heart stopped beating. They blamed themselves – their own failure to stay alert and vigilant – for what had befallen them. ← 9 | 10 →
A horrible accident; a family tragedy; two brazen hit-and-runs. But also a tragedy of a higher order: The nineteenth person to pass was the first to help Yueyue.1 Is only one in nineteen people in China today a Good Samaritan? That would suggest that of China’s population of 1367 million people, just over 70 million feel compassion, while the rest are cold-hearted brutes. That clearly cannot be the case. And yet the incident remains incomprehensible. It conceals within it something more profound, something that can explain the reactions of the people who chose to leave an injured child in the gutter. Could this incident have happened anywhere in the world? Maybe. But the risk is lower in societies and groups where the bonds between people are strong than in environments, such as China, where trust levels are very low.2 Does the story of Yueyue reveal something about Foshan? About Chinese people more generally? Canadian China correspondent Mark MacKinnon thinks not. Writing in The Globe and Mail after Yueyue’s death, he sought a more nuanced approach to the topic of widespread moral decline in China.3 Rather than blaming individuals guilty of walking past a person in need with seeming indifference, he pointed to China’s authoritarian institutions in general and the inadequate justice system in particular. People, he claimed, are afraid to offer assistance because they worry about being blamed for any injury caused. On occasion, victims have been known to blame the people who helped them in order to secure financial compensation. There is something to this argument, but the problem needs further elaboration. The fact that Chinese people value so much in life according to its inherent earning potential is the result of broader developments in society. Corrupt courts kowtowing to the moneyed elite outside or inside the Chinese Communist Party is not the only phenomenon that affects the level of trust between individuals. Huge migration to cities has increased ← 10 | 11 → the social distance between people, and led to intense competition on the job market and in schools, but more importantly the economic reforms and state-sanctioned pursuit of materialist values have had a negative impact on the trust people place in one another.
Many Chinese reacted strongly and emotionally to the story of Yueyue, which illustrates the fundamental existential and moral conditions of a rapidly modernising China. Many more pieces must, however, be added to a jigsaw that is oftentimes a very contradictory research puzzle, before a more comprehensive picture of China’s troubled moral and social landscape can emerge. The transformation of the ideology, strategy and vision of the Communist Party under the reigns of the leaders who succeeded Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976 – Deng Xiaoping in particular – are clearly of great importance. But when and how did this still ongoing monumental transformation assume distinctively new properties, turning human energies onto the specific track that has generated the Chinese society of today? What are the results of economic inequality, social discrimination, stressful competition, and widespread official corruption? Sweeping social changes, generation gaps, the politics of collective memory, how meaning is created and existing community ties? To construct a more persuasive account, a more thorough investigation is required. Where to start? The long durée explanation can be found in a series of traumatic catastrophes that befell China in the twentieth century, which the Communist Party has deliberately guided the Chinese people to forget. Above all, and this is the central argument of this book, the sociopolitical and moral landscape of China today originates from the repression of the Chinese student and democracy movement in 1989.
Many Chinese were shocked by the story of Yueyue. Four and a half million people considered what happened a blow to China’s collective conscience. That is the number of people estimated to have posted a comment online within a week of Yueyue being run over.4 One person criticised both modern Chinese culture and the practice of insincere commenting on the microblog Sina Weibo. ← 11 | 12 →
Yueyue was consumed for a week by the fake kindness of netizens… All the well-wishes are fake and only the 18 passers-by are real. Farewell, and do not be born in China in your next life.5
Many of those who commented on Weibo probably did so with a heavy heart. But in a society where competition and stress have become the dominant forces, the question is how quickly they put the incident behind them and hurried back to work and school. Government and public institutions as well as far-reaching economic and social reforms help shape the political culture, the norms we share and the glue that binds individuals together in a society-wide community, which is to say trust, solidarity and concern for one’s neighbour, outside of one’s immediate family context.
This book is about June Fourth 1989. A day that changed China in roughly the same way as the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon irrevocably changed the United States. But there is a big difference. Few conceptualise and comprehend the global significance of the Beijing massacre, whereas it is widely understood that Osama bin Laden’s coordinated aerial attack on Manhattan and the Pentagon in 2001 altered both the international position of the United States and world politics in one fell swoop. According to conventional wisdom, the student movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was a parenthesis rather than a site of rupture in the modern history of China;6 the calls for democratisation raised at the time were exceptional in the sense that they were non-consequential and yielded no sociopolitical changes. But was that really the case? Could not the Beijing massacre and the social, economic, and educational policies that were implemented in its wake instead be viewed as the start of the political and economic program of modern-day China, i.e. the origin of a neoliberalising, re-kindled and reinvigorated authoritarian party-state? The answers to these questions may demonstrate just how much the massacre on June Fourth 1989 was, in fact, a site of pivotal rupture in Chinese history. If not for that day, China’s economic, ← 12 | 13 → social and mental landscape would not have undergone the kind of dramatic and breakneck social and economic transformation that has made China rich but unequal, open but hyper-nationalist, moralistic but immoral. As historian Perry Anderson argues: “The depth and scale of the upheaval of 1989 in China was far larger than anything in Eastern Europe in that year, let alone in Russia, then or later.”7
Liusi, as the massacre is called in unofficial Chinese parlance, liu for “June” and si for “Fourth”, was as formative as it was brutal. That day was China’s Ground Zero and paramount leader Deng Xiaoping exploited it as a springboard, launching China and the world into an era referred to by foreign admirers as China’s century. But the story of the crushing of the student movement has not yet been told in a way that enables us to understand the conditions underpinning the national and international politics of today. Our own time and current affairs are so difficult to understand because the misinterpretation of our near past has left many contemporary developments indecipherable. The British Conservative Party under Prime Minister David Cameron has argued that the Conservatives are “the party of working people”;8 in order to adapt to a ubiquitous neoliberal logic, even the Swedish Social Democratic Party has a “business plan for Sweden”; a young American responsible for the leaking of information about his country’s intelligence services’ mass surveillance of the country’s citizens flees into exile and seeks political asylum – in authoritarian Russia. Furthermore, many outsiders and quite a few seasoned China-hands stubbornly hold the belief that China is still communist or that a socialist model prevails there – because the Chinese Communist Party claims it is managing a “socialist market economy” and has not seen fit to change the political affiliation on its business cards. Thus, it is high time to clarify what type of social model and political system China has created since Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reforms in 1978.9 The events of June Fourth 1989 meant that a new type ← 13 | 14 → of hope and optimism about democratic nation building was abandoned in favour of a different state-orchestrated dream of individual pursuit of economic success. Today, this manifests itself, more clearly than ever in Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s slogan, “The Chinese Dream”, which has been heavily marketed by the country’s state-owned broadcasters and sleekly packaged on billboards in the street, at bus stops and in airports. Today, flag-waving nationalism is the only discernible collective expression that transcends the materialist and consumerist level of the individual in China.
There is a link between Xi Jinping and Foshan, where Yueyue lost her life. Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun pioneered the Special Economic Zones that were established in southern and southeastern China in 1979. Capitalist enclaves were peacefully to coexist with the country’s socialist political system. Foshan was one such free zone for new industrial estates. It was a particularly suitable region for research and development on account of its geographical proximity to Hong Kong, which at that time was one of the crown jewels of the Royal British Empire. Foshan underwent rapid transformation in the 1980s, as it became a city of settlers, when migrants seeking a better life arrived with their families from every corner of China.
Much like during the early stages of industrialisation in the United Kingdom and Germany, the rural Chinese population abandoned their fields and raced to fill monotonous workstations in cramped urban milieus where they worked and lived in dreadful conditions. Having once been a place whose inhabitants shared a common history, local culture and distinctive southern dialect, where everyone knew everyone, Foshan turned into a melting pot where everyone was surrounded by strangers.10 This portrayal calls to mind the image conjured of what economist and sociologist Karl Polanyi in his classic work The Great Transformation termed Needhamland, which denoted the English countryside, whose farmers were swayed to move to industrial cities by promises of higher living standards and fewer hardships.11 ← 14 | 15 →
The difference between Needhamland and Foshan is that the farmers of southern England were reasonably content with their small plots of land and their village communities, and thus had no urgent desire to abandon their demesnes, while the farmers in southern China, having been constricted by the country’s planned economy, were more easily lured and enticed by the policies of industrialism. They were escaping lives that still entailed extreme privation and miniscule incomes, despite the fact that the cultivation of private land and the selling of crops had been allowed since the early 1970s. During the reign of Mao Zedong, farmers had not been allowed to travel to their region’s capital without seeking special permission to do so. They had been physically shackled to their land for generations. Paradoxically, Mao’s Communist revolution in 1949 tied farmers even more closely to their place of birth through the introduction of a rigid household registration system. Therefore, it was the policies of Deng Xiaoping that first entailed truly Polanyian effects. Although there is no reference to Polanyi in Ezra Vogel’s biography on Deng, its title, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, indicates the magnitude of the socioeconomic changes that occurred during his reign.12
The story of little Yueyue stirred up intense feelings in China. This was reflected in popular postings on the internet, but also in state-controlled media, because moral degeneration, whether perceived in the form of elite corruption or grassroots indifference, can be used for crafting authoritarian policy.13 This is not the first time the view that Chinese society is in a state of rapid moral decline has gained a broad following. But indifference to one’s neighbour, the topic of a number of powerful short stories written by modern Chinese master Lu Xun in the 1920s and 1930s as well as the works of the writers of “Scar Literature” in the 1970’s, ← 15 | 16 → after the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution, has taken on new forms today. This time, it is not the consequence of the trampling of China’s civilisation under the heels of militarily superior foreign powers such as Japan and the British Empire, as during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nor is it caused by the erosion of popular faith in messianic Maoism, as during the nearly two decades between 1957 and 1976, a period marked by recurring crises, the cult of personality, and continual class struggle.
Writers and critics of the Chinese New Left believe that the degeneracy and moral crisis of post-Mao China are inextricably linked to the pursuit of material happiness and abandonment of socialist values and the Chinese revolution.14 In this atmosphere, corruption has become endemic at every level of the political system as well as the civil service.15 Among new leftists such as economist Hu Angang and political scientist Cui Zhiyuan, historian Wang Hui is held to be one of their most prominent members. Apart from Wang, few Chinese intellectuals, whether new leftists or liberals, link the decline of public morality to the 1989 Beijing Massacre and the economic policies that the political leadership were able to implement in the context of the political apathy that followed in its wake. Few foreign scholars have examined this linkage in-depth.16 I would contend, however, that the death of political idealism in the Chinese mainstream and among most ordinary people has contributed to a pervasive sense that there are no alternatives to the status quo,17 despite ← 16 | 17 → the prevalence of social protests against environmental degradation, land grabs, and various kinds of power abuse by government officials. This feeling of inevitability is exacerbated by the quasi-scientific jargon employed by the country’s leaders to justify great sacrifice in the name of development and economic growth. Knuckle down. Roll up your sleeves. Of all political slogans uttered since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, there are two slogans coined by Deng Xiaoping that more than any others in China’s political lexicon explain the fundamental condition that governs state-society relations to this day. The first is fazhan shi ying daoli, i.e., “development is a hard truth”, which he coined in 1992 during his “Southern tour” to Shenzhen, which aimed to re-launch economic reform in the face of resistance from more orthodox Party leaders.18 The other all-defining message was wending yadao yiqie – “the overriding need is for stability” – which he expounded on to President of the United States George Bush Sr. in February 1989, before the democracy movement had gained maximum momentum.19 As Deng argued at the first Politburo Standing Committee meeting after the crushing of the democracy movement on June 6: “Of all China’s problems, the one that trumps everything is the need for stability. We have to jump on anything that might bring instability; we can’t give ground on this point, can’t bend at all.”20 The thrust of Deng’s two axiomatic “truths” was that there was no alternative to market reform and social stability, without which the future rule of the Communist Party could not be ensured. Thus, it constituted a hard and indisputable logic for both the party-state and the Chinese people. Everybody had to adapt and submit to that which could ← 17 | 18 → stimulate economic production, the difference between terming the system capitalist or socialist was purely semantic.
Thus, any discussion about China’s perceived current moral vacuum is incomplete without an analysis of its historical causes. Two explanations for China’s moral bankruptcy permeate every chapter in author Yu Hua’s book China in Ten Words, each of which is headed by a political buzzword. The first of these explanations is the breakneck speed of China’s economic development. The other is the absence of political reforms and the tangible presence of taboos and lack of freedom. Together, these factors have made opportunistic fraud among the country’s citizens and corruption among Party members and civil servants the norm. People who do not engage in graft, plagiarism and swindling are considered backward.21 Beyond the domestic logic, however, there are also international influences, bridgeheads to intellectual communities from around the world, which directly link efficiency and material welfare with the ability to compete economically. Ideas, norms and perceived truths spread without regard for great walls, bamboo curtains or electronic firewalls. It cannot be ruled out, furthermore, that such ideas, norms and perceived truths may in turn be reshaped in local contexts only to bounce back, altered and hybridised, into international arenas such as, to take but one example, the World Economic Forum in Davos. Under the neoliberal paradigm of global capitalism, China has already become the world’s largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity, and is headed to claim that honour in terms of exchange rates as well, in, perhaps, another decade. In light of this, it is ironic that the trajectory of the country’s inclusion into the global neoliberal project remains poorly understood, especially given the self-congratulatory scholarly western ethnocentrism often expressed regarding the strength of global economic governance, the liberal international order, and an American superpower said to be merely in “relative decline.”22 Furthermore, the remarkable “non-death” of capitalism and ← 18 | 19 → the resilience of the international market order in the wake of the great recession that commenced with the credit crunch of 2008 is a puzzle that continues to bewilder observers.23 So far, scholars within the field of international political economy who theorise the resilience of neoliberalism have been calling for, and slowly working to achieve, the inclusion of China in their analyses.24 In these projects, there is a real sense that the China piece of the global puzzle does not quite fit with the other pieces. Scholars continue to grope in the dark, unfamiliar with the phenomenon that often goes by the name of Chinese state capitalism. What they seek is an in-depth account of the political rationale that underpins China’s growing role in the evolving capitalist global economy. Jamie Peck revealingly put it thus: “Business as almost-usual is apparently being restored, albeit with Washington and Wall Street sutured together as never before, and with Beijing, of all places, being amongst the new capitals calling the shots on global market integration.”25 However, as conveyed by the phrase “of all places,” knowledge about Chinese capitalism and the rationale that underpins it remains in short supply, since the call of Peck and others to pinpoint “the different national configurations of neoliberalism” has not been produced sufficiently detailed analyses.
In this book I contend that the events of the Beijing Spring of 1989, which culminated around Tiananmen Square on the night of June Fourth have contributed significantly to the neoliberalisation of both the developing and developed world. The effect on China was, naturally, profound. But the change of course initiated by Deng Xiaoping’s authoritarian yet market-friendly regime also consolidated and extended the global neoliberal economic paradigm that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher never neglected to hold up as “the only alternative” during the 1980s. ← 19 | 20 →
After the Tiananmen crackdown, the longstanding Chinese anxiety about the position and status of the Chinese nation and civilisation was given a material solution. Thus, the anxiety that had been collective and shared became an individual problem. These days, the anxiety is of a material kind. How successful is my career plan? Does my child’s life, education and career prospects tally with the plans I have made? Can this self-help book assist me when state institutions never will? Focus has shifted to fretting over individual life projects, material matters and the successes and progress of the personal world.
And then there is the leap from the individual level to the level of building a strong and respected nation. Who should be included in an emerging superpower narrative? Can ethnic minorities, religious groups and “deviant” identities be included in nation-state communities in a world where economic, social and environmental interdependency cause some to experience claustrophobia and turn to populist ideologues? Arguably, what remains of collective ambition in China today has been reduced to a virulent brand of Chinese nationalism, but it can no longer be characterised as only anxious since it draws more on the concept of honour than on humiliation, and concerns itself more with China’s rightful position in a global hierarchy of great powers than about the demise of a formerly vigorous civilisation.
The events in Beijing in 1989 consolidated China’s market reforms once and for all, and made it possible to rush through a liberal economic programme in a country that still calls itself a people’s republic, a country that is still ruled by a Party organised according to the principles drawn up by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin for the Soviet Communist Party. The result was the acceleration of China’s economic integration into the world economy and the inhibition of the country’s democratisation. These developments coincided with the global victory march of neoliberalism, particularly palpable in the old command economies of Eastern Europe. This so-called shock therapy was particularly brusquely introduced in Russia, where its significant repercussions continue to impede what little still, under President Vladimir Putin, remains of democratising impulses.
Flinty Dengism, with its contained political reform project and simultaneous market reforms, global integration and membership in the World Trade Organisation in 2001, favoured a pairing of western ← 20 | 21 → companies with Chinese production and markets. One outcome was that enormous swaths of agricultural land in southern China, around the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong province, were transformed into an industrial site so vast it earned the nickname the “world’s workshop”. But this development gradually turned into a challenge for western nations and their economically liberal societies. Tough competition led to profound structural shifts and social cutbacks in the welfare states of the West. An authoritarian brand of capitalism, technocrat politicians far removed from the average voter, and a diminishing pool of Party members have been the consequences, contributing to a crisis for the liberal democratic state.26
Over the last three decades, many in the West have put great store in the notion that China’s political system would change and grow to be more like our own, given enough time. One must ask, however, how much time is enough? Hardly anyone would have dared to joke that the reverse would in fact occur, that liberal democracies would slowly assume characteristics normally associated with authoritarian states, such as online mass surveillance. But the massacre in Beijing has made possible one of the most striking ironies of modern history: the shift that has occurred has been in China’s direction, not “ours”. There are still crucial political differences, thankfully. We live in constitutional democracies. They do not. We can vote in a multi-party system, they cannot. But due to the ongoing bipartisan gridlock in the political system of the United States and economic, political, and social crises in Southern and Eastern Europe as well as within the European Union, a growing chorus of analysts is voicing concern about the durability and quality of the democratic system, even in the oldest democracies of the West.27 At the same time, according to a plethora of both Western and Asian surveys, the Chinese people rate their central government and leaders highly.28 In a study from 2014, 94.8 percent of respondents felt strongly confident ← 21 | 22 → about China’s General Secretary Xi Jinping’s “handling of domestic affairs”. More surprisingly, the study also revealed that respondents across all 30 countries surveyed rated Xi Jinping at 78.5 percent, just below German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who topped the list with 79.7 percent. President of the United States Barack Obama came in fifth with 64.5 percent.29 China’s authoritarian model of governance, though likely best suited for the Chinese context, is admired abroad – and not only by businessmen and policymakers in decidedly authoritarian contexts – for its toughness and undeniable economic success. Thus, it would be imprudent to ignore the fact that the world may indeed become more authoritarian and parochially nationalistic despite, or precisely because of, the effects of neoliberal globalisation.
The economic success of the market reforms introduced by the authoritarian Chinese regime haunts cabinet offices and finance ministries the world over. Student test results are, according to the international Pisa survey, abysmal in most Western countries and stellar in Shanghai – a phenomenon that weighs on ministries of education. Again, in the words of Deng Xiaoping, “development is a hard truth.” Perhaps a firmer hand is needed in the West to improve results? Could it be that Western countries need to roll up their sleeves and put their noses to the grindstone to avoid being left behind in the globalised economy? Even though the differences between us and the Leninist-capitalist regime that rules from Beijing are considerable, a certain degree of standardisation can be discerned in the political economy that spans world regions and political systems, and this development would not have been possible without the violent and bloody events in Beijing in 1989: the almost forgotten massacre on the night of June Fourth. Few people in the West understand its significance. Few people in China even know about it.
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- 2016 (May)
- Capitalism democracy civil society China neoliberalism
- Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 364 pp.