China's New Red Guards (or Red Confucians?)

The killer line from Jude Blanchette’s excellent new book China’s New Red Guards comes from the satisfied lips of Wang Xiaodong, contributor to the nationalist best-seller Unhappy China (2009), the follow-up to the infamous China Can Say No (1996):

“We won…I mean, our ideas won.”

Let that sink in. Back in the day those books were dismissed as toxic calls from a marginalized, angry left. The contributors criticized the failures of market reforms in China just as the majority were enjoying lives beyond the imagination of their elders’ generation, threw their hands up to the heavens in horror at crumbling, domineering SOEs being downsized, and got extremely angry at what they saw as China’s prostrate pose at the feet of the great hegemon, the United States. Just as Washington bent over backwards to open its enormous markets to China’s factories.

The books were full of fervent, conspiratorial story-telling, wrapped up in the red flag and it was swallowed whole by hundreds of thousands of readers, those who looked back fondly on the iron rice bowl, those of a certain age who found the new world bewildering. And this populism seeped into the minds of much of China’s red ruling class like nuclear waste, toxic but with potential. (The books were not banned.) And in contrast to the shrinking experience of the Western middle class, this happened at a time of maximum economic success. So when times got tougher, it was probably ordained that this nurtured unhappiness would rise.

These are seductive stories to tell the masses. Bo Xilai figured out how to weave nationalism with Party rule in Chongqing, and Xi took that baton and ran with it. Thus the ‘robust’ foreign policy (Xi said “No” to Washington’s trade demands), SOEs being defined as pillars of the economic structure and reinforced (who talks openly about SOE privatization these days?), the massive anti-poverty programs (in which billions are probably being wasted, but that’s not the point). No wonder Comrade Wang is happy.

Jude Blanchette, now a big cheese at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), does many of the things that make up a very decent China book. First, he actually gets to know some Chinese people, and reads their stuff. (You may laugh, or cry, but it’s amazing how many don’t clear that elementary hurdle.)

Second, he can tell a story; the chapter on the evolution of the Utopia community, from a critical, left-leaning group with ideals into a nationalist attack-dog is especially good. He gets the fights between them and the liberals like Zhang Weiying and He Weifeng during the 1990/2000s really well. I did not know, for instance, how actively Utopia promoted Lang Xianping, the former US finance professor and alleged shake-down artist who lambasted corrupt SOE privatizations on Shanghai TV in the early 2000s. For a time there, Lang and his ego were everywhere, including in the Shanghai nightclubs (I hear). Gu Chujun (here), the boss of Kelon, the former-SOE which Lang was famous for attacking, has been out of jail since 2012, and had one sentence commuted recently (here), but is still angry. Lang is apparently overseas and not commenting (here) - in fact, he’s been very quiet in recent years. He made his money from his one-sided, silver-tongued critique, and scarpered.

So the question is what status do these ‘New Red Guards’ have in China today? Clearly, they’re not on the streets, with sticks, ropes and guns like in 1966-68. They represent not the chaos of Mao’s Red Guards, but left-leaning, nationalist-leaning one-party control. In this, the Utopia lot seem to have won the battle of ideas. Blanchette quotes Li Shuguang at a big meeting of “rightists” (i.e. liberals) near Beijing in 2006 as saying “The economic reform period has ended”, which has to go down as the second best quote in the book. That’s quite the insight all the way back then.

But politically, what do these people do now? Well, as Blanchette points out, the nationalist left is still useful to the Party as attack dogs, keeping the liberals quiet and afraid. Their website still operates, while Yanhuang Chunqiu, the magazine, a liberal bastion, has been ‘rectified’, and Unirule, a liberal think tank, shut down. (I just checked; there’s plenty of Mao, 70th anniversary and ‘strong China’ stories on Utopia today - it’s kind of feels just like Xinhua, which tells you something. I assume that they don’t push critical pieces now.)

But there are strict limits to their influence; the Utopia crowd supported the striking Jasic workers, and their student allies at Peking University. But that was all shut down. (These Red Guards are extremely easy to manage.) It is extremely telling that the Peking students got classes in what I think we can call ‘Red Confucian’ values after that, as T.H. Jiang and S. O’Dwyer discussed in this excellent essay which I highlighted in my last post.

I’d love to have heard Blanchette dig more into what degree their policy suggestions are being taken up, and how much influence they exert as Guoshi (“state teachers”) behind the scenes. My sense is that they do not exercise much practical power. Blanchette also discusses the new-statists a bit - as regular readers will know, I think they’re probably taken more seriously in Zhongnanhai these days, though both groups share a belief in an energised Party and ‘robust’ foreign policy.

The other thing I would loved to hear a bit more on is how Xi fits in. Blanchette has that insighful line that Xi wanted to “re-reform” rather than “reform” (towards liberalism), to strengthen the Party state, and thus took up some of the neo-Maoists’ agenda. What dangers does Xi’s choice open China, and the rest of us, up to? Preying over his Party now is Deng Xiaoping’s warning - that the Left (represented by such figures as Chen Yun and Deng Liqun back in the 1980s) has the ‘deeper roots’, and present the greatest danger to China’s future. Xi has made the opposite judgement. With what consequence?