by Benoît Bréville
[This article posted in Le Monde diplomatique – March 2023 is translated from the German on the Internet, Kriegspoker.]
Arms aid to Ukraine must be limited to “defensive weapons,” he said. A “direct confrontation between NATO and Russia” must be prevented, because that would be tantamount to a “Third World War” – warned Joe Biden on March 12, 2022.
Once upon a time. A year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the West is supplying Mi-17 helicopters, self-propelled howitzers, kamikaze drones, long-range missile launchers, and Abrams and Leopard main battle tanks. The red lines formulated today will be crossed tomorrow. When Biden now assured on January 31 that the U.S. will not deliver the fighter jets demanded by Kiev, one could already guess what will come next. In any case, military circles are already discussing the merits of the Swedish Gripen fighters over the U.S. F-16s.
Apparently, nothing can stop the military escalation that has taken the place of initial negotiations. On Feb. 8, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: “If we change the course of the war in Ukraine’s favor, that’s the best way to create a prospect for real diplomacy.” And President Biden throws the full weight of the U.S. into the mix when he declares that Ukraine will win. The country will be supported “for as long as it takes,” he said.
After the fiasco in Afghanistan, any retreat would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. It would also be a strategic humiliation for the EU, which is also heavily involved. On the other hand, Putin is mobilizing all available forces to win a conflict that he sees as being about the fate and survival of the Russian nation. The notion that a cornered Russia will acknowledge defeat rather than use even more destructive weapons is a poker game.
So soon, the question may be whether to send Western troops to Ukraine. So far, Washington has declined to do so. However, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson had also declared in October 1964: “We’re not going to deploy American boys 9,000 or 10,000 miles from home to do what Asian boys should do themselves.” Shortly thereafter, he changed his mind. Starting in 1965, 3 million “American boys” were sent to Vietnam. 58,300 of them never returned.
An impossible victory, a predictable stalemate, insisting on an aberration just to save face. But is this a historical aberration only for Putin and Russia? The U.S. has shown in Iraq and Afghanistan that it is incapable of learning lessons from the Vietnam War. Nguyen Chi Vinh, the former Vietnamese deputy defense minister, opined in mid-March 2022 to Kiev: “We should tell our Ukrainian friends that they are not well advised to let their country become an arena of power politics, to rely on military strength to oppose their big neighbor and to take sides in the competition of great powers.”
Kiev, with backing and massive weapons assistance from NATO, has set its mind on exaggerated war aims such as the reconquest of Crimea. Those who support this fight to the bitter end are helping to ensure that the war continues, expands, and grows ever fiercer.
China and its unknown thinkers
Le Monde diplomatique – January 2023
The lively – and quite intentional – debates of Chinese academics take place largely under the radar of the international public. Yet they are by no means aimed solely at a Chinese audience, and offer interesting insights into intra-party power struggles.
by David Ownby
[This article posted in January 2023 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.woz.ch/lmd/23-01/china-und-seine-unbekannten-denker/!QTQ81E29Q3AJ.]
Chinese New Year image with Confucius, Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
At the 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October 2022, it became clear: President Xi Jinping wants to become like Mao Tse-tung, preferably to surpass him. Some even call him the “new Stalin”.1
For years, tensions have been growing between one of the world’s most powerful autocracies and the West. If the West’s main ideological adversary used to be the USSR, today it is China. Chinese intellectuals are equated with Soviet refuseniks, who were threatened with the gulag even for possessing banned books. From the perspective of the new Cold Warriors, the case is clear: there is no real intellectual life in China, except in private (or in prison). And so, in the West, only a few Chinese dissidents are really known – such as the artist Ai Weiwei or the jurist Xu Zhangrun.
If a historical comparison is to be made, however, today’s China, since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, has less in common with Stalin’s empire than with Japan during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Both regimes opened their countries to the outside world and broke away from their feudal and Maoist traditions, respectively. In both nations, a flourishing, and to a certain point even pluralistic, intellectual scene emerged.
In China, this scene was very much alive in the years leading up to Xi’s term (as of March 2013). Despite all his efforts, Xi also never managed to completely tighten the ideological control screw; he had no choice but to tolerate the intellectuals. One can even say that these debates are partly intentional and still play a role – directly or indirectly – in the struggle for power and the political program.
Is China unique?
For the past ten years, I have been leading a research project on the “recognized Chinese intellectuals “2 who publish in China and play by the rules set by the state party without being mere mouthpieces of the regime. They form a kind of “scholars’ republic,” which, however, is hardly perceptible in the propagandistic din of the regime. And since exchanges take place exclusively in Chinese, their international perception suffers additionally from the language barrier.
Since about 2000, the most important discussions have revolved around three fundamental, interrelated questions: Is China unique, and if so, in what ways? What is its role in the world, or what should it be? And how is its story good to tell? Storytelling has become an important tool of Chinese soft power, especially under Xi.
Two recent events have been formative in this regard: the dissolution of the Soviet Union after 1991 and the apparent decline of the West – especially the United States – after the 2008 global financial crisis. As the “Middle Kingdom” (zhong guo) rose and its great rivals failed or faltered, the notion that China is unique and always has been has almost inevitably taken hold. After a century of humiliation and several revolutionary decades, the historical sense of superiority returned.
It is precisely here, however, that the difference between the Xi era and the presidency of his predecessor Hu Jintao (2003-2013) becomes apparent: Under Hu, a kind of historians’ dispute arose over the thesis of “national humiliation.” Many concluded that the buzzword had been put into circulation by the dynastic elite in the empire and later adopted and instrumentalized by Sun Yat-sen and Mao Tse-tung.3 This narrative has completely faded into the background since Xi took office in early 2013.
Among the proud defenders of the theory that China is superior to all other countries4 is, for example, the political scientist Zhang Weiwei, who published a trilogy on China between 2008 and 2016.5
For Zhang Weiwei, other countries are just “nation-states,” while China is both “civilization” and “nation-state,” which makes the country “unique.” The author is especially popular among the CCP top brass, and his books are bestsellers only because party members and government cadres are encouraged to buy them.
In the Chinese social sciences, on the other hand, he is not really considered a serious author: Firstly, he is a mouthpiece for Xi, and secondly, there are accusations of plagiarism. His last two books bear a striking resemblance to the book “When China Rules the World. The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order” by the British author Martin Jacques, published in 2009 and translated into 15 languages. A Chinese work about the uniqueness of China that cribs from a foreign book raises certain doubts.
Outstanding scholars such as Jiang Quing6 , a representative of classical Confucianism, or Chen Ming7 , who calls for an instrumental adaptation of Confucianism to the requirements of the present, are also enthusiastic about the idea of China’s uniqueness. But their conclusions are controversial. For example, Chen declares, “The republican revolution of 1911 was an unnecessary mistake because China was already on its way to becoming a constitutional monarchy.” Or, “Much of the 20th century was a tragic mistake because the government kept looking for Western solutions to Chinese problems.”
However artfully these new Confucians may compare the CCP to “benevolent monarchs” of the past, it will not have escaped the Communists’ notice that they condemn Marxism as something foreign-a highly sensitive point, since Xi is an apologist for the “Communist Manifesto.”
The Chinese New Left, which in the 2000s advocated tamed capitalism and the fight against inequality, is also convinced of China’s uniqueness. According to Wang Hui8 or Wang Shaoguang9 , China’s rise has proven that the supposedly “universal values” of the West are not so universal. Rather, the country owes its success to political innovations such as “reactive democracy” (the state party responds to the needs of the people), which is superior to the West’s “representative democracy,” crippled by clientelism, feminism, and multiculturalism. In contrast, China has further developed the “role of the state.”
This “reactive democracy” bears a striking resemblance to Mao Tse-tung’s “mass line,” counter liberals like the historian Xu Jinlin, warning that before World War II, Japan and Germany had also developed a very similar cult of the state, and that this had ended in war and defeat. But liberals also think that China must develop its own vision of modernity and thus contribute to the diversity of universal values. “China’s civilization tradition is not nationalistic, but rather based on universal and humanistic values,” Xu writes.10
The second related and much discussed issue concerns China’s international role. Having regained its status as a great power, he argues, it should resume its historical position in the “center of the world.” In this sense, the philosopher Zhao Tingyang has taken the 11th-century tianxia concept and jazzed it up.11 Translated, it means something like “all that is under heaven” – universalist thinking, in other words, that emerged long before the Western Enlightenment.
According to it, the center of civilization was in China. Its power diminished with distance from that center, but even the “barbarians” on the margins were able to civilize themselves by learning to “be Chinese.” Zhao’s recourse to the tianxia principle is also about a moral world order that is not primarily based on interests and power.
Many intellectuals concerned with China’s foreign policy and parroting Xi Jinping’s slogans of the “community of destiny” and “win-win agreements” are concerned with various concepts of what a multipolar world might look like. For example, Jiang Shigong,12 a legal theorist who teaches at Peking University, envisions a Chinese empire whose regions would be “united” by the New Silk Road (Belt and Road Initiative, BRI). In general, however, much more time and effort is spent criticizing various manifestations of U.S. hegemony than discussing China’s current behavior on the international stage.
Some in the debate believe the world was even better off when China was a minor player in a U.S.-dominated world – when it was “keeping a low profile,” as they like to say. They also challenge the widely held notion that high growth rates will be enough to overtake the United States. Sociologist Sun Liping even considers this fixation dangerous: “We need to understand that we face extremely difficult existential problems, the biggest being our extremely low birth rate. “13 He is not the only warner (see box following this text).
The young political scientist Shi Zhan has written an entire book14 on why “populist nationalism” should not be indulged and that the leadership must finally face the fact that China will never rule the seas. Even the nature of power is changing, Shi writes: Internet platforms and artificial intelligence, which will determine the economy of the future, are largely and everywhere beyond state control.
Let’s move on to the third question: how to tell the country’s story well? This is a topic that many are concerned with; and they do it not so much because the party is extremely interested in it for propaganda purposes, but in the hope of arriving at a true understanding of what their country means to locals as well as to foreigners.
Most of the topics of discussion among the intellectuals are obvious, because they are also issues for the general public, be it the desire for “prosperity for all” – a horror idea in the eyes of the rich -, the New Silk Road or the controversial Zero Covid policy (see the text on page 4 below). One strange-seeming question sparked particularly lively debate: Should we explain the history of the People’s Republic of China as “two periods of 30 years” or “one period of 60 years”? At the heart of these considerations is the big question of whether or not the Mao era was an aberration and whether Deng Xiaoping merely took corrective action when he unideologically and pragmatically opened China to international markets.
There are still communists who think it was a mistake that Maoism was abandoned, while many liberals think Deng did not turn decisively enough to the market economy. The majority is somewhere in between. The party has unsurprisingly decided that the history of the People’s Republic of China must be viewed as a whole. This worries some intellectuals, because Xi seems to be sticking too faithfully to the Maoist script for their taste.
Many liberals tell the story this way: The 1949 revolution was necessary to awaken the people from their thousand-year hibernation and generate the energy needed for change. Maoist China made many mistakes, they say, but the planned economy and forced modernization laid the groundwork for the upswing in the reform period beginning in 1979. These policies unleashed entrepreneurial skills, he said.
China is currently a rather rich country in a globalized world. And the message of class struggle preached during the revolution and under Mao has long been out of date. For radical liberals like Yuan Weishi, formerly a key adviser to Hu Jintao, it was nothing but an outdated legacy of Stalinism anyway.
Even intellectuals who defend the one-party state are now really embarrassed by the old-fashioned Marxist-Leninist-Maoist language that the CCP still uses. You can’t score points with it abroad anyway, but even at home, people go into overdrive when they hear this terminology. It is clear that Xi’s “Little Red App “5 will not help if the Chinese real estate market collapses as feared.
But there are exceptions: Jiang Shigong, for example, published a long essay16 in 2019 in which he portrays the president as a hero who saved China at the last minute and prevented it from suffering the same fate as the Soviet Union – chaos, relative poverty and irrelevance. Instead, thanks to Xi, China is the guiding star for the rest of the world to free itself from the clutches of U.S. neoliberalism. Jiang’s text is very ambitious; he wants to clarify all the current issues and reverse the de facto intellectual pluralism in China.
More recently, economist Yao Yang made an impressive effort to develop a “Confucian liberalism “17 as a solution to the country’s and the world’s problems. He argues that Western democratic systems, caught between the overvaluation of individualism and the demand for absolute equality, are dysfunctional and unsuitable as a source of inspiration.
In China, in turn, he says, there is a deadlock in economic and political reforms. Never before has the danger been so great, Yao Yang feared, that so-called leftist measures that harm entrepreneurs threaten the country’s wealth and power. At the same time, he said, the West’s refusal to recognize the legitimacy of China’s rise is prodding Beijing’s leadership to become even more “communist.”
Yao Yang’s Confucian liberalism tolerates a degree of social inequality deemed inevitable and a certain meritocratic elite. In such a system, he argues, a consensual government is able to “manage the affairs of the people properly.” Western states, Yao says, are too weak and infiltrated by populist currents, while in China, he says, they are too strong and pay too little attention to the needs of the people.
He knows, of course, that the Western world is not listening to him. He appeals mainly to Chinese liberals – and he has influence on society. That’s why he could afford to publish a long article on “The Challenges for the Chinese Communist Party and the Reshaping of Political Philosophy” in the prestigious Beijing Cultural Review on July 2, 2021, the day after the pompous celebrations of the CCP’s 100th birthday.
In it, he not only ignored the major themes of the anniversary and insisted on making Marxism more Chinese through Confucianism. He even managed not to mention the President or his famous “Thoughts” (in the little red app). This is unusual in such a journal. For Yao and numerous other well-known intellectuals, “telling China’s story well” also means integrating it with that of others. They consider themselves citizens of the world, able and responsible to stay in conversation with their peers everywhere.
1 Chloé Froissart, “Chine: la crispation totalitaire,” Esprit, Paris, no. 491, November 2022.
2 See Reading the China Dream, http://www.readingthechinadream.com.
3 See “It is entirely possible to tell the story of chinese politics in a more accurate and exciting way,” Reading the China Dream, June 20, 2021.
4 See Jean-Louis Rocca, “One Party, One Nation,” LMd, July 2021.
5 The titles translated into German are “China reaches the world” (2008), “The Chinese wave: the rise of a civilization state” (2011), and “The Chinese horizon: the glory and the dream of a civilization state” (2016); volumes 2 and 3 translated into English are “China Wave,” Shanghai (World Century Publishing Corporation) 2012 and “The China Horizon,” Shanghai (World Century Publishing Corporation) 2016.
6 See Jiang Qing, “A Confucian Constitutional Order,” Princeton (Princeton University Press) 2012.
7 See Chen Ming, “Transcend left and right, unite the three traditions, renew the party-State: A Confucian interpretation of the China dream,” Reading the China Dream, March 17, 2015.
8 See also Wang Hui, “China’s Twentieth Century: Revolution, Retreat and the Road to Equality,” London (Verso) 2016; “The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought,” Cambridge (Harvard University Press) forthcoming July 2023. cf. “The Absolute East,” LMd, February 2005.
9 Especially Wang Shaoguang, “China’s Rise and its Global Implications,” London (Palgrave Macmillan) 2021.
10 Xu Jilin, “The new tianxia: Rebuilding China’s internal and external order,” Reading the China Dream, 2015.
11 See Zhao Tingyang, “Everything under the sky: past and future of world order,” Berlin (suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft) 2020.
12 Jiang Shigong, “The internal logic of super-sized political entities: ‘Empire’ and world order,” Reading the China Dream, April 6, 2019.
13 See Sun Liping, “2021: What Kind of World Will We Face?” Reading the China Dream, January 23, 2021.
14 Shi Zhan, “Leaving the Cocoon: Isolation, Trust, and the Future,” Hunan Wenyi Chubanshe, Changsha, 2021 (in Chinese).
15 The Xi variant of Mao’s Little Red Book is the “little red app” for smartphones, where Xi’s thoughts and favorite poems can be accessed, see Emilie Frenkiel, “Shaolin with Red App,” LMd, October 2015.
16 Jiang Shigong, “Philosophy and History,” Reading the China Dream, 2018.
17 SeeYao Yang, “Rebuilding China’s Political Philosophy,” Reading the China Dream, 2021.
Translated from the French by Claudia Steinitz.
David Ownby is a historian at the University of Montreal and co-author (with Timothy Cheek and Joshua A. Fogel) of Voices from the Chinese Century: Public Intellectual Debate from Contemporary China, New York (Columbia University Press) 2020.
Generation No Future
No one knows when exactly this video was taken in Shanghai, nor by whom. But that is not important. What matters is the day it went viral on social media, and that was May 11, 2022. It’s only a minute and a half long. A police officer in a white protective suit is about to lock a young couple in a quarantine camp. The young man resists. His Corona test results were all negative, he says. “If you don’t follow the instructions, you will be punished. You, your children and your grandchildren will be punished!” the policeman threatens. Before the door closes behind the young man, he can be heard saying, “Thank you, but I am already the last generation.”
This answer was shocking, because childlessness is considered the worst curse in China. “Deepest despair speaks from these words,” tweeted well-known human rights lawyer Zhang Xuezhong. He said those who voluntarily choose not to have children have no hope: “This is the harshest indictment a young person can make of their time.”
In China, the social consensus has long been that political interest only brings trouble. But now, with political intent, young Chinese are quoting a well-known phrase from a 1984 biopic about reformist politician Tan Sitong (1865-1898). Tan was executed at only 33 on the orders of Empress Dowager Cixi, who opposed modernization of the Qing dynasty. She ousted her nephew, Emperor Guangxu, who had pushed for reform. In the film, Tan’s wife, with whom he already has a son, says, “I want another child from you.” To which he replies, and this is the famous line, “In this China, another child who would be just another slave?”
The outcry of a stranger has encouraged ordinary young people in China to let out their frustrations. And their cue is a reformist politician who was executed 124 years ago: “Your rule ends with me,” the boys write on the Internet, without naming their addressee. “The suffering you inflict on us ends with me.”
China’s very efficient censorship system did, as usual, quickly ensure that the key word “last generation” was blocked on the Internet; but by then, the idea had long since entered the world. On May 12, 2022, writer Murong Xuecun, who emigrated to the U.S., quoted the tweet, “If children are born only to be subjugated, if our children must suffer the same as we do, we should all be sterilized.”
China’s birth rate is falling – even though the one-child policy was abolished in 2016 after 30 years. In 2021, there were 7.5 births per 1,000 people – the lowest figure since 1978. According to Zhang Zhiwei, chief economist at Shanghai-based investment advisor PinPoint Capital, “Chinese society is aging faster than predicted.” The oft-quoted formula “China will get old before it gets rich” may be coming true – and thwarting the goal of replacing the U.S. as the leading economic power for the foreseeable future.
There are, of course, many reasons for the demographic decline, but the pessimism of the young is accelerating this process. Their message came as a shock to everyone in China, explains sociologist Biao Xiang, who heads the “Anthropology of Economic Experimentation” department at the Max Planck Institute in Halle. The starting point for the uproar, however, was not politics in general, but “the administrative intervention in everyday life.” When Shanghai, a metropolis of 25 million people, was under strict quarantine between March and May 2022, many people suffered from shortages and even downright starved.
by Serge Halimi
[This article posted in December 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.woz.ch/lmd/22-12/imperialer-moralismus/!Z91R6N5SQ3YG.]
U.S. foreign policy will not change fundamentally just because the majority in the Senate now belongs to Democrats, while in the House of Representatives it belongs to Republicans. Rather, the election results of November 8 demonstrate the extent to which the neoconservative militarism of many Republican congressmen and the moral neo-imperialism of many Democrats overlap.
To be sure, this is nothing new. Already the Democrat Woodrow Wilson had dragged the U.S. into the First World War, marked by imperial rivalries, ostensibly to “secure democracy on earth.” Which didn’t stop him from praising the Ku Klux Klan. In Cold War times, Republican and Democratic presidents alike were determined to defend the “free world” against the “evil empire,” that is, atheistic communism.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the “war on terrorism” began, which, according to George W. Bush, would end “tyranny in the world.” Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq – the U.S. democratic crusades not only cost several million lives, they also brought the restriction of freedoms, McCarthyism, the hunt for whistleblowers. And a series of alliances with dictators and violent criminals to whom the separation of powers was a foreign word. But as long as they were on the side of the U.S., none of them – whether Suharto in Indonesia, the racists in South Africa or Pinochet in Chile – needed to fear the loss of power (or life) through military intervention by the West.
That a Democrat currently resides in the White House should even make it easier to mask the imperial claim to hegemony as a fight for democracy. Even in the face of an opponent as odious as Putin, the transatlantic left would have been hard pressed to go after a Richard Nixon, a George Bush, or a Donald Trump.
French colonialism, too, presented itself as the fulfillment of an Enlightenment-inspired mission, which won it the support of progressive intellectuals. Today, the West’s moral rearmament legitimizes itself in the fight against Russian, Iranian and Chinese authoritarianism.
On Oct. 24, 30 Democratic congressmen welcomed President Biden’s Ukraine policy but also called for negotiations to end the war. This rather banal plea triggered such a war frenzy on Twitter that almost all of the brave signatories immediately withdrew their signatures.
MP Jamie Raskin demonstrated the fine art of intellectual low-flight typical of times of intimidation: “Moscow is the global center for anti-feminist, anti-gay, and anti-trans hatred as well as the Great Exchange theory. We counter these fascist views by supporting Ukraine.”
The only thing missing from the list is the fight against global warming. Then we would have together the resourceful redefinition of U.S. war aims that the future imperialist left will pin on its chest.