Saturday, April 17, 2010

Did Capitalism Destroy China's Democratic Stirrings?

Back in 1989, the world was captivated by media images of hundreds of thousands of Chinese students and workers camped out in Tienanmen Square in Beijing. Most were horrified as they watched elements of the Chinese People's Army attack and kill hundreds of these protesters. The series of protests that are now summed up in the words Tienanmen Square were but the most public presentation of the struggle between the Maoist legacy and the move towards capitalism that has been going on in China since the 1970s. For many Chinese, it represented the end of a popular democratic urge for greater political freedom and its replacement with an authoritarian capitalist paradise (for the capitalists and their government facilitators). In other words, the result of the protests and the government reaction was that the only freedom that would be allowed in the post-Mao China was the freedom of global capitalists to exploit the Chinese people and reform its society to their benefit.
Chinese writer and Professor of Chinese Literature Wang Hui was one of those hundreds of thousands in Tienanmen Square in 1989. He is a critical observer of Chinese culture and politics and is a member of what various western media call the Chinese New Left. His newest English release, titled The End of the Revolution is a collection of essays mostly dealing with the effects of China's pugnacious pursuit of an essential role in the global capitalist order on its people and politics. Academic in its approach, Wang Hui's text details the demise of Maoism and its replacement by a political structure and culture that is socialist in name only. He discusses the separation of the democratic impulse from the pursuit of profit, the resulting curtailment of political freedom and an explosion of what passes for personal freedom in the capitalist nations of the West--the freedom to consume.
The End of the Revolution is more than a study of the new China. It is also a captivating study of the effects of global capital on a nation. Many of the situations described by Wang Hui could easily be describing the situation in almost any nation that is part of the neoliberal world of the twenty-first century. In addition, it is a discussion of the meaning of modernity in the world of capitalism and a convincing argument that the world of neoliberal economics is a world whose mechanics thrive best under authoritarian governments. According to Wang Hui, democracy is not a beneficiary of this economic system, but a hindrance that the financial world believes it must undermine to survive. Furthermore, it is Wang 's contention that China is the ultimate laboratory for hypothesis.
What about that protest in Tienanmen Square? Did it represent a true desire for democracy? Wang says yes, it did. However, like so many grassroots popular uprisings around the world, the symbolism of the moment was appropriated by some of the same powers that the original protest opposed for other purposes. The impulse for freedom and democracy mutated into a free market that ends up only freeing the pocketbooks and wallets of the managerial class while relegating the workers on the shop floor to poverty and in some cases a life of near slavery. The peasants, meanwhile, are forced by economic conditions to leave their villages for a life that cycles between low paying wage slavery and unemployment. When the work ends they are left to find their way back home or fend for themselves in urban streets. Tragically, the modern worker's plight often resembles the industrial workplaces of Charles Dickens' England. This is the nightmare of modernity Mr. Wang boldly questions.

Can the phenomenon Wang calls modernity exist together with democracy? What about political freedom and personal freedoms not defined by the marketplace? It is the opinion of the author and millions of others that they can but will require a fight by those opposed to the domination of the market. The global capitalists will tell us that it already does, but the truth contradicts that. In fact, the global capitalists have little taste for democracy when it gets in the way of their profits, which they believe it often does.. In China, this goes so far as censoring the Google search engine and forbidding Bob Dylan from performing. It also means that certain municipalities (Shenzhen being the best known) have become surveillance states on a par with the most fantastic of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's most paranoid tales.
The discussions Wang Hui presents are discussions that all of us should be having. They do not apply only to China. Indeed, it is easy to conceive that the aforementioned Philip K. Dick surveillance states that exist in China are mere test runs for the future US metropolis. The march of corporate capitalism is not a benevolent one. As any observer who has not bought the myths of the capitalist faith can see, those who sit in the boardrooms of finance and industry seem intent on expanding their ever-growing control of the planet, no matter what the cost to human freedom, life or the environment.

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