The New York Times

January 2, 2004


A Lonely Voice in China Is Critical on Rights and Reform

By Wang Hui
Edited by Theodore Huters. 239 pages. Harvard University Press. $22.95.

''China's New Order,'' three essays on recent development in that country by Wang Hui, is an interesting and comprehensive critique of China's Promethean reform movement and its unique form of Leninist capitalism.

Mr. Wang, editor of the journal Dushu (Reading) and a research professor at Qinghua University in Beijing, is one of the few Chinese intellectuals to have openly challenged the presumption that economic reform is sufficient without political reform. But be warned. As bold and as path breaking as Mr. Wang's critical voice is, his overly academic and theoretical approach makes this a tough read.

Unlike most other contemporary critics of China's reforms (started by Deng Xiaoping in late 1978 and continued by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao), Mr. Wang does not limit himself to economics. He dissects the big picture, calling on reformers to include culture, values and democratic governance in their assessments of success and failure. Such a critique is long overdue and a reminder that intellectuals have not fallen completely silent, even though there has been little public debate about the nature of China's economic reforms, much less how China might politically reinvent itself.

But because the party still does not let critics amplify their ideas in major media outlets, essays like Mr. Wang's remain relegated to relatively obscure niche journals. (As one Shanghai writer of avant-guard fiction told me several years ago when I asked why the party allowed him to publish his politically iconoclastic stories, ''As long as no one reads them, they don't care.'')

As a participant in the 1989 pro-democracy movement, Mr. Wang worries that intellectuals who remain primarily rooted in what he calls the New Enlightenment (those humanistic values that grew out of the May 4 Movement in the 1920's) will be defenseless against the brute commercial power of China's recent marketization. He now counts himself as part of the ''new left,'' a nascent group of Chinese intellectuals who, even as they often get bogged down in post-modern and deconstructionist theory and polemics, are nonetheless deeply critical of the blind way that their ''people's republic'' has consigned itself for salvation to the undemocratic forces of global markets.

''Even as these plans for a free market foster ecological crises and polarization between wealth and poverty,'' Mr. Wang writes, ''they also create various sorts of colonial relationships both within nation-states and on a world scale, rendering impossible democratic control of society.''

He views the uncritical allegiance of party reformers to the ''neoliberal'' paradigm of ''market totalization'' -- where free markets are presumed to do almost everything better than governments -- as part of a flawed model of modernization. For him, establishing the ''preconditions for democracy'' should not be shunted aside by concerns with economic growth rates. And he rejects those who mistake ''the workings of uneven markets as the natural course leading to democracy.'' What he calls for instead is the inclusion of considerations like social justice, equality and democracy -- a quotient of what he calls ''the spirit of humanism'' -- in China's reform agenda. His goal is ''a path of reform that is more fair, more democratic and more humanitarian.''

Although he would not deny that open markets can foster liberalization, Mr. Wang challenges the common wisdom that they lead automatically to open societies. He points out that the creation of China's booming new economy is ''not the result of a sequence of spontaneous events but rather of state interference and violence,'' and he views China's new crypto-capitalism as statism of the highest order. China, he says, has vaulted from a distorted form of socialism to an equally mutant and unbalanced form of capitalism that ''envisions the workings of the economy, markets and capital as replacing the political and social spheres.''

Mr. Wang laments that China is being led by its own version of market fundamentalists, neoliberals and neocons who have a very narrow concept of what constitutes ''the good life'' and who ''are in charge of implementing the last will and testament of the revolution'' by ''substituting one tyranny for another.''

He warns against allowing an infatuation with markets, consumerism and economic growth to become so all encompassing as ''putting politics in command'' became during the Cultural Revolution. Candidly acknowledging China's destructive penchant for extremism, for lurching from one form of totalism to another, Mr. Wang has become one of the first indigenous voices to critique China's ''economic miracle'' fully and publicly and to find it a deficient remedy for the failures of socialism. He says his role as a progressive critic is to look beyond economics to the need for a ''broader democracy and freedom in both China and the world.''

''As far as I am concerned,'' he says, ''any proposition that devalues political freedom as being of secondary importance or a sham should be rejected.''

This is subversive stuff, and it is not clear whether China's new leaders will prove any more receptive than their predecessors to such arguments, especially if they begin to escape their academic confines and reach ordinary people through the media.

As long as China's ''economic miracle'' retains its momentum and almost mythic status, and as long as grievances against China's errant Communist Party remain under control, essays like Mr. Wang's will probably remain interesting but largely inconsequential. But should economic cycles turn, as they so often do, voices of intellectuals like Mr. Wang could acquire new power by helping to explain what is going wrong. It was Mao himself who, way back in 1930 when he was a peasant revolutionary, spoke of how ''a single spark can start a prairie fire.''

Orville Schell, the author of many books and articles on China, is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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