China’s New Left Thinkers Embrace Nationalism And Xi

While various manifestations of China’s deepening authoritarianism have been well documented, the ideological frameworks underpinning it have tended not to receive as much attention as the thinking of those at odds with the Party. One recent spate of essays honed in on some Chinese scholars’ affinity for Carl Schmitt, a conservative jurist and one-time Nazi. A new batch of articles has further introduced the English-language public to China’s post-pandemic schools of thought by examining celebrations of China’s rise at the expense of the United States, “the barbarians at the gate” theory, and debates among the intelligentsia about Xi Jinping’s personality cult. At The New York Times, Chris Buckley surveyed China’s triumphalism and the increasingly wide-held belief that the United States is destined to fall:

“In this fight against the pandemic, there will be victorious powers and defeated ones,” Wang Xiangsui, a retired Chinese senior colonel who teaches at a university in Beijing, averred this month. “We’re a victor power, while the United States is still mired and, I think, may well become a defeated power.”

[…] “Most ordinary Chinese people previously were more admiring of the United States, but in recent years, the advantages of the Chinese system have become clearer to them,” said Jin Canrong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing who has become a popular commentator under the nickname “Commissar Jin.” “There’s greater self-confidence.”

[…] “Their triumphalism is shaping both popular nationalism and official diplomacy,” [Julian Gewirtz, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations] wrote in an email. “It is fueling ever-sharper demands for deference to China’s wishes.” [Source]

Online, much of the debate about America’s decline has centered around a theory called rùguān xué 入关学, described by Wang Xiuying in an October essay for The London Review of Books:

Their latest idea is known as ruguan xue, ‘the barbarians at the gate’. This narrative compares the current Sino-US confrontation with the overthrow of the Ming dynasty that ended in Manchu rule. During Ming rule the country grew immensely rich, thanks to the trade carried by Manila galleons, and the life enjoyed by the aristocracy reached new heights of sophistication. Ming civilisation, so the narrative goes, was the centre of the world, economically and culturally. Meanwhile, the Jianzhou branch of the Jurchens (later known as the Manchus) were leading an unenviable life on the far side of the Great Wall, surviving by catching fish and digging ginseng. No matter how much they hunkered down, the Jurchens were targeted by the hegemon, enduring repeated military repression (sometimes involving mass slaughter) and economic exploitation. The only way they could save themselves was to conquer the Ming Empire and create a new imperial order.

In the ruguan xue allegory, the United States resembles the Ming dynasty of the early 17th century: it’s the paramount power and dictates the rules, but is rotting within. China takes the place of the barbarians: hard-working, paying due tribute, but never respected, constantly smeared and demonised. ‘Catching fish’ refers to risky, low prestige work, while ‘digging ginseng’ is high-tech work that brings greater profit but also exploitation. Russia is the equivalent of the Jianzhou Jurchens’ ally (and one-time foe), Mongolia, which was also under constant attack from the Ming. Japan and South Korea map onto the Ming’s stooge Joseon dynasty in Korea. Covid-19 is the great disruptor, the peasant rebel leader Li Zicheng, who conquered Beijing and overthrew Ming rule, but lost to the Manchu in the end. In short, US hegemony has to be challenged and the barbarians have to enter the gate if we are to enjoy peaceful progress. [Source]

How, exactly, China has managed this rise is also a point of contention in Chinese intellectual circles. One of the most important philosophical sparring sessions of the year occurred between Wang Hui, a member of the New Left, a movement that formed in the 1990’s in opposition to the neoliberalism of Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington, and Rong Jian, a liberal writer, businessman, and art collector. The former held that Xi’s personality cult has strengthened China, while the latter argued that any faith in “a leader or a Führer” is inherently misplaced. Their conflict began in April, when Wang published “The Revolutionary Personality and the Philosophy of Victory: Commemorating Lenin’s 150th Birthday.” In his essay, Wang celebrated the power of individual leaders to realize socialist ideals and repeatedly used a highly political variant of the word leader, lǐngxiù (领袖). “Lingxiu was Mao Zedong’s (and his successor Hua Guofeng’s) title but was then retired until recently, when Chinese state media began to refer to Xi as lingxiu as well. In response, Rong Jian published two withering critiques of Wang’s work, “equating [him] with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger […] which of course suggests an identification of the Nazis with the Chinese Communist Party and Hitler with Xi Jinping.” Rong’s articles further accused Wang of abandoning intellectual rigor to pander to Xi and mainstream authoritarian thinking. At Lausan, Brian Hioe built upon Rong’s critiques of Wang Hui and the “left nationalists” in a follow-up essay:

Chinese left nationalists believe in an essentialist difference that separates China from Western nations. The source of this difference has been conceived of in civilizational terms—between “Chinese civilization” and “Western civilization”—or in more modern terms—such as between communism and capitalism. For these thinkers, the nature of this difference lies in a clash between the primacy of the party and the state in the Chinese context, versus the dominance of the free market or unregulated democracy in Western contexts. This is exactly why the Chinese nationalist left have gravitated toward figures like Schmitt, who vouches for a statist conception of the nation. Indeed, Schmitt’s reduction of political activity to a distinction between “friend and enemy” appeals to Chinese nationalists insofar as they continue to envision the current world order in binary terms, one that already existed under the Cold War and is revived today in US-China geopolitics. Cozying up to Schmittian ideas would allow them to enshrine the primacy of the state as sovereign and justify the desire to strengthen borders against outside threats.

[…] The analogy of Xi’s China to Stalin’s Soviet Union extends to non-Western imperial projects and present-day formations of imperialism. In the 1930s, the Japanese empire developed the “Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” which promoted cultural and economic unity among East Asian countries. Japanese intellectuals of the time justified it by claiming that this was a world-historical project that would overcome Western modernity, which was thought to have disrupted a reified notion of Japanese “tradition.” An infamous touchstone for Chinese left nationalists is the 1942 Overcoming Modernity conference in Tokyo, yet they seem to remain willfully ignorant of the uncomfortable parallels between intellectual apologism for Japanese empire and their own political project. As sharp Chinese animosity toward Japan—a central component of contemporary Chinese nationalism—illustrates, other groups hardly found Japanese imperialism to be liberatory. So too is the case for Chinese statist projects disguised as internationalism. [Source]


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