Modern China is built on the complex dual legacy of the Chinese Revolution. During the Mao years, 1949-1976, China developed a national infrastructure that the post-Mao leadership were able to appropriate for rapid capitalist development. It also engendered a culture of social justice and class struggle that is still reflected in the language of workers and peasants when they confront egregious employers or corrupt party officials. The persistence of Maoism was clearly evident during the Tiananmen Square protests.
As the human costs of China’s neoliberal system pile up with no credible solutions, broad sections of people have increasingly begun to draw on the legacy of Maoism for both critique and radical vision. Minqi Li discusses this process among China’s New Left.
This was edited from an interview that originally appeared on The Real News Network. Go here for Pt. 1 and Pt. 2.
The New Left in China
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome back to the next segment in our interviews with Minqi Li about the current situation in China. Welcome, Minqi.
MINQI LI, PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL ECONOMY: Thank you.
JAY: The view we get, from the West, of China, we see to some extent the figures of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, we know a little bit in history, something called the democracy movement, but we know very little about it in terms of what the different trends are, and we don’t really hear about much else other than Chinese consumerism. But we know there’s a tremendously vigorous intellectual life in China. So can you talk about the intellectual and political trends as they exist today?
LI: There has been dramatic change in term of China’s intellectual life. Back through the 1980s, among most of the intellectuals who were politically conscious or politically active, among most of the university students, it was dominated by neoliberal ideas.
JAY: The ideas of open markets, independent capitalist enterprises, breaking down the sort of state-owned economy.
LI: That was also the case for, basically, virtually all of the leaders of the 1989 democratic movement. But things started to change by the mid-1990s.
JAY: Just to be clear, so you’re saying most of the leadership of the Tienanmen Square democracy type of movement were mostly connected to this neoliberal economic reform movement.
LI: Yeah. I would say probably all of them. And by the mid-1990s things started to change. You started to have some intellectuals who criticized the market-oriented reform, the neoliberal ideas, and so that by the late 1990s, early 2000s, you could say that a new trend that was referred to as the New Left emerged in China. In today’s Chinese context, this term New Left is used to refer to a very broad category that ranged from everyone from social democrat, nationalist, left nationalist, to Marxist. What they have in common is that they all are to different degrees critical of market-oriented reform, to a different degree critical of neoliberalism, and to a different degree have a generally positive view of the Maoist period, with different emphases.
JAY: They have a more positive view towards the Maoist period.
LI: Right. They are more positive. That’s right.
JAY: So you’re talking about things like there used to be more of a health care system for people than there is now and examples like that.
LI: In the Maoist period, for example, the people’s life expectancy increased from 35 years old around 1950s, and towards the end of Maoist period that’s increased to close to 70 years old. And so that’s a very dramatic change, probably the biggest increase in terms of life expectancy compared to other countries over the same length of period. And they also have developed some re-evaluation of the Cultural Revolution. So instead of the Chinese official point of view is that the Cultural Revolution has to be totally denied, it’s ten years of [inaudible] ten years of disaster, and they tend to emphasize that there have been many positive economic and social accomplishments.
JAY: For example? What are some of those positive examples? Because the picture that’s painted in the West of the Cultural Revolution is a sort of tyrannical, crazed period. That’s the way it’s painted for us.
LI: They actually cited the Chinese official statistics, population in the reform years. And so they used those statistically to argue that, in fact, China’s pace of industrialization had to be very rapid in the Cultural Revolution years. And, also, China had accomplished many technical achievements, including such as the hybridized rice. And China was not far behind the US at that time in term of computer development. And they also talk about the initial intention of Mao to start a Cultural Revolution had to do with trying to reverse the trends towards the emerging of a new, privileged bureaucratic caste, which would later lead to the development of capitalism. And they believe that has been, in fact, verified.
JAY: This trend that thinks the way you’re describing, this must be quite a small, in terms of population, a small segment of opinion. Is that true?
LI: It’s actually not true. Even among the intellectuals these days, and as well as among the politically conscious young students, I would say, you know, anywhere between one-quarter to one-third probably hold this kind of point of view. In terms of general population, not a small number of them have a quite favorable view about the Maoist period, especially, you know, for the workers, because of the negative social consequences of the market development.
JAY: What you’re calling the New Left critique of the current period, to what extent does that exist inside the party? Or is this mostly something that’s happening outside the Chinese Communist Party?
LI: Well, pretty much outside the Party. The Party itself, in terms of its view of the Cultural Revolution, its view of the Maoist period, it’s actually very close to the mainstream Western view, as well as what in China now is called a liberal approach, as opposed to a New Left.
JAY: You were talking about the left trend that makes a somewhat positive comparison about the Maoist period to the current period. But certainly we’re being told, in terms of popular opinion polls and such, that at least in the urban centers, people’s standard of living is much higher now than then. The Olympics and other indicators seems to show there’s been a tremendous leap in technology in China. Most people would kind of shake their heads at such a comparison. Can you speak to that?
LI: In terms of the rising income for the urban sector, and certainly some among urban sector has benefited a lot from the market-oriented reform, from the capitalist development. Recently it has been reported that now China has something like 100 new billionaires. So that’s very dramatic change. But on the other hand, of course, social and economic inequality has also increased a lot. And in one of the earlier segments we talked about between 1 to 5 percent of population controlled about 70 percent of China’s financial wealth—that’s in term of wealth. And there’s another set of data suggesting that the richest 10 percent of the Chinese population earn about 50 percent, half, of China’s total national income, while the poorest 10 percent only has access to about 1 percent. So despite China’s dramatic economic growth, you still have about 200 million people living on a daily income less than one purchasing-power-parity dollar a day. And if you take into account other aspects of social change, if we do not measure and adjust by material consumption, you have to also take into account access to health care, access to education, general social condition, personal safety, environmental conditions, I would say you could have the bottom 10, 20, or even 30 percent of the population, their quality of life has actually deteriorated since the beginning of the market-oriented reform.
JAY: And is this left trend pushing for a kind of European social democracy, or a return to a full-on state socialism?
LI: Well, that varies. And there are some of them who are in favor of social democracy, more or less in line with the official slogan of the current Chinese administration, the Harmonious Society, and there are some others who argue that for China to further develop, China must manage to upgrade China’s technology, must pursue high-tech development, and for that purpose you need a greater role of the state. And so you need to develop something like state capitalism. There are also some people who are in favor of the return to socialism. And so, in addition to intellectual development, another new development that is interesting is that in addition to the New Left intellectual trend I just talked about, you also have, outside of intellectuals, various Maoist activists, who are in favor of a kind of return to Maoist-style socialism.
JAY: I remember about ten years ago there was a small rural village that had refused to give up its Maoist economics, and it was telling the market reformers to stay out of the village. Is that a real trend that’s existing?
LI: Well, I would not say that’s a real trend right now in the countryside, although it’s not just one; in fact, you have several thousands of village that refused to privatize at the beginning of the reform period and continue to maintain some kind of collective form of organization or community ownership. And some of them continue to be prosperous until today. But I’m talking about separate trend. I’m talking about some Maoist activists who have been active in workers movement, who have been active in workers resistance to privatization. And that’s another quite challenging trend for China’s current regime.