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A Manifesto for Cultural Studies

2019.03.19 22:38
关键词:Cultural Studies China
In the winter of 1927 Lu Xun wrote: China is on the brink of a momentous era But that does not necessarily mean a time that will give life It could also bring death. In terms Lu Xun used later, this was an era akin to the critical period in medicine, when death or recovery are in the balance One would scarcely have thought that, seventy years later, this was still the most accurate description of contemporary life .Since Lu Xun, people have so often believed that China was on a new path, leaving behind the uncanny sensations of upheaval, collapse, an inscrutable future.

A  Manifesto for Cultural Studies

WANG Xiaoming

Translated by Robin Visser

In the winter of 1927 Lu Xun wrote: 'China is on the brink of a momentous era. But that does not necessarily mean a time that will give life. It could also bring death'. [1] In terms Lu Xun used later, this was an era akin to the 'critical period' in medicine, when death or recovery are in the balance.[2] One would scarcely have thought that, seventy years later, this was still the most accurate description of contemporary life. Since Lu Xun, people have so often believed that China was on a new path, leaving behind the uncanny sensations of upheaval, collapse, an inscrutable future. In the late seventies I felt such optimism myself. Today, however, after two decades of twists and turns in the 'Reform Era', sentiments all too familiar to Chinese in the past – a sense that society has been corrupted, that the daily scene is conflicting and ambiguous, that the fate of the nation and the self are impenetrable; even an unpleasant premonition that a massive upheaval is approaching - have returned. Where is China going? The question, which seemed so academic not seven or eight years ago, has suddenly become actual again. It cascades into a series of more detailed questions. What kind of society is China today anyway? Is it still a socialist country?  What is the relationship between China's modernization and capitalism? What changes have been occurring in the State, its system of organization, social order, totalitarian ideology?  Who are the major beneficiaries of these changes, and who are its major victims? Is society in the midst of a crisis -  if so, what sort of crisis? What are the forces that could mitigate or accelerate one? If sudden turbulence were to break out, would there be sunshine after the storm, or a long period of haze? Those who look with open eyes at the reality of their own lives are likely to ask themselves many questions such as these, and to feel their pressing weight. I believe Chinese intellectuals must take the responsibility of offering some clear answers to them.[3]

That is not easy. The continual changes of the past twenty years have transformed the face of Chinese society, especially in the coastal regions of the South-East, now altered beyond recognition. The gulf between different parts of China today is so great it is almost shocking. There are even tremendous differences among cities - between the silent rust-belt of the recession-stricken North-East and the crackling consumer culture of cities like Hangzhou and Wenzhou, or among major centres like Guangzhou and Tianjin, or Shanghai and Beijing -  not to mention the extreme contrasts beween the coastline of the South-East and interior of the North-West.  These differences are not only economic and ecological, they are also cultural and political. Deng Lijun's gentle music still fills dance halls in Taiyuan, while nearly every high school student in Shanghai owns the latest Westlife CD. A touring group of county officials from Ningxia will still be debating whether it is politically incorrect to visit Chiang Kai-shek's birthplace near Ningbo, while the 'professional achievement' of officials in Xiamen, long allied with criminal gangs, is to milk the public of billions of yuan. On the same day that a party newspaper in Chengdu Party publishes a social commentary sharply criticizing the corrosive effects of capitalism, a government representative in Shanghai will be hosting the CEO of a multinational corporation. A book censored in Beijing can be placed in full view on the shelves of a private bookshop in Foshan, where no one even asks about it.


Thus almost every generalization about China – that it is a communist-led socialist society as before, that at its core it is a society of traditionally centralized power, that it has virtually become capitalist, that it is a full-fledged consumer society, or even that it is already post-modern[4] – can be supported with examples, as can its opposite.  This causes people to reflect. Could it be that the longstanding query 'Whither China?' lacks purchase on the complexity of contemporary society? Perhaps all that we can grasp are several, or even only one, of the many dissimilar 'Chinas' that now exist. Of course, any country with so vast a territory and long a history is bound to contain a multitude of internal differences. Normally, such differences do not mean that other commonalities and unifying characteristics are so absent as to prevent more than a limited glimpse of the whole - it could even be argued that they make an overview of it all the more necessary. But in our circumstances today, I am more inclined to urge full attention to the internal differences within our society. We need to pay closer attention to the details of daily life, not only because every level of society is already divided into many disparate parts, but also because comprehensive theories fail to convey the textures of current experience. The most pressing task for intellectuals is to reconstruct a broad understanding of contemporary China that acknowledges the extent of its structural discrepancies. The first step in this direction can only be a sober realization that the social system established in the fifties and sixties is collapsing, so that it is now extremely difficult to give any general answer to the question where China is heading.


If we consider the new divisions in society, someone like myself, accustomed from youth to terms like 'class', 'exploitation' and 'economic structure', thinks first of the tremendous changes in social class in the past ten years. Indeed, the most obvious result of market economic reform is the complete breakdown of thirty continuous years of socialist class formation. On the one hand, original classes such as workers, peasants, government cadres, soldiers and intellectuals[5] still exist, although each has undergone changes. On the other hand, many new social classes, first springing up in coastal areas and large and mid-sized cities, have proliferated so fast that society has yet to find any consistent names for them. Take Shanghai. In the past fifteen years or so of market reforms at least four new classes have already emerged: the new rich with average personal assets of ten million yuan ($1.25 million); hard-working white-collar strata hunched in their efficient cubicles, the unemployed, laid-off, and early retirement class of former workers now living at home; and the migrant workers from the countryside who perform the bulk of Shanghai's unskilled manual labour.


All of these continue to multiply and alter Shanghai's economic, political, and cultural landscape. For example, advertising and the media project white-collar workers as emblems of China's modernization and vectors of its new purchasing power. So Shanghai's consumer goods, fashion and real estate sectors target this class as their key market, without registering what it really is: exhausted young or middle-aged men and women who make up only a fraction of the population, by contrast with European or American middle classes. The situation of migrant workers is just the opposite. They do not have Shanghai residence cards, so according to government statistics they are not part of the city's population. Planners of Shanghai's municipal development often ignore them as if they did not exist. Yet migrant workers, a class that already exceeds two million in Shanghai, are clearly frequent customers in its video and movie theatres. At the bookstands their preference for martial arts novels and romances, and low-brow popular magazines, influences many publishers. In these ways migrant workers are quietly shaping, among other things, a significant portion of the city's cultural output.


On the broad streets and narrow alleys of Shanghai, these new classes live and mix with the old ones. Often they share the same apartment complexes. While a father worries about not being able to make ends meet on the meagre wage he earns from a state-owned factory, his son is secretly scheming to save for a new car, as he returns from his job at a foreign-owned enterprise. From this family's window, they can see makeshift shacks of migrant workers, and beyond then opulent villas  protected by high walls. Anyone who sees these great disparities in social orders, legal regulations, moral codes, and economic interests coexisting in a single small area is bound to react strongly to them. 


Consider, for example, the economic distribution system. If one merely observes people riding their bicycles to work each day, it would seem that the 'second distribution' system of socialism is still operating smoothly.[6] In fact, when a laid-off worker applies for relief from the social security office, he can still grumble confidently that 'at least the communist party ought to give me bite to eat', in the belief that he has the right to a 'second distribution' even though he has now lost his qualifications for receiving a 'first distribution'. But if we consider the continual increases in the cost of public services (transportation, utilities, medical coverage, telecommunications, housing), the gradual 'marketization' of education from senior high school upwards, [7] the expanding range of taxes and charges at every level of government,[8] not to mention the large numbers of defunct government enterprises that have laid off tens of millions of workers in the first place, it becomes clear several completely different types of economic system are replacing the 'second distribution' economy.


Suppose we then stroll along the stretch of exclusive clubs on Huaihai and Hengshan Roads in Shanghai, and observe their ostentation. What we can observe here is the results of the operations of the new rich, as they deploy 'red' [political], 'yellow' [sexual], and 'black' [criminal] methods to accumulate capital, in the firm conviction that they are helping to craft a superbly efficient new order. The extent to which the social wealth that was to fund the 'second distribution' has found its way into the pockets of these new rich become clear.


In this complex situation virtually any political programme, theoretical agenda or even administrative measure can be circumstantially exploited, and deviate so far from its original goal that it yields results diametrically opposite to those intended. The 'institutional reform' of state-owned enterprises has frequently evolved into a violent tide swallowing up public assets altogether. The Ministry of Education calls for an easing of student workloads, yet assists teachers to tutor privately on the side - the corruption of a whole professional sector. Appeals for 'modernization' swept the nation in the mid-1980s [9] - anyone over thirty today will remember the slogans of that time: 'separate politics and business', 'stop price-fixing', 'destroy the common pot', 'smash the iron rice bowl', and the posters declaring 'efficiency is money'. Scholars were especially keen on the maxims 'change systems of ownership', 'the market economy is the height of efficiency', and 'the market economy is modernization'. The model of modernity, naturally, was Western Europe and America. The logic that informed these appeals seemed rational to all, for there was a deep historical basis for the consensus they achieved. The twenty years of economic stagnation after the Great Leap Forward had indeed oppressed people far too long. The implications seemed obvious: to liberate social forces of production, the bloated and inefficient planned economy had to be eliminated. Economic reform would be the first step in reforming the entire system of centralized political power.


Who could have imagined that a decade later all of these rousing slogans would lose virtually all their revolutionary charge, and become mere grandiloquent excuses for those in power to pillage society? The government uses them to rid itself of the responsibility of carrying out any 'second distribution',[10] while many officials are freely embezzling public funds. In the name of marketization, the state continues to reduce its investment in education,[11] while public utilities boldly continue to raise prices. In the name of efficiency, large numbers of workers can be sent packing, and residents in Beijing, Shanghai, and other city centres are forced to relocate to the suburbs. Nearly every such change is for the worse. As if every social ill were due to the government affording the people providing too much 'welfare', or simply the fact the Chinese population is too large.


In the face of these absurd, bitter realities, I am ashamed to recall the enthusiastic clamour of intellectuals in the eighties. How could we have engaged in such wishful thinking  - imagining that our idealized market economy was the only one possible, and that once a market economy was in place, the whole society would gradually be emancipated? Why did we fail to foresee that an arbitrary and corrupt power could create a completely different kind of market economy and use it to perpetuate even greater deceit and more ramified sorts of exploitation? It is difficult not to feel that if the intellectual community had been less naïve in the first place, and emphasized justice and democracy as much as competition and efficiency - giving proper attention to social goals like ecological balance, public probity, cultural vitality and overall quality of life -  we would not be in our present situation. Had we taken a different course in the eighties, perhaps Chinese society would not have been so lacking in resistance, so easy to toy with, in the nineties.


Of course, regrets like these overstate the influence of intellectuals. In the face of such complex social developments, the capacity of scholars to intervene truly appears weak: their naïvete and confusion was certainly not the primary reason for the panorama we witness today. If we want to unlock the door to the confused reality of present-day China, it is perhaps to the emergent class of the new rich that we should look for the key. The history of their rise is very brief, less than two decades, and very rapid. From the 'ten thousand yuan' household of the early eighties, their standard of wealth had exploded to ten million and even a hundred million yuan by the late nineties. Today you see the presence of the new rich in all the coastal areas and large and mid-sized cities, not only with every conceivable luxury automobile and four or five star hotels, not only with golf courses and exclusive gyms and clubs, but in many places such as Shanghai there are luxury complexes surrounded by forbidding gates shielding them from ordinary society, that rival the residences of top government officials. This class makes up less than one percent of the population, but controls half or more of the gross national income![12]


Along with its rapid increase in wealth, the composition of the new rich has changed. Its earliest members were marginals, rejected by society for lacking any respectable background, who had nothing to lose by risky business ventures,[13] and most quickly went under. But they were gradually replaced by recruits middle and upper strata, and even government officials themselves, who had access to all kinds of social resources. Since the mid 1990s this type of replacement has accelerated. Although a few of the original marginals managed to survive, they could no longer distance themselves from those with power. A few young entrepreneurs in information technology have also entered the ranks of the new rich by virtue of their talent and energy.[14] But as a whole, the close ties between this class and the operations of the bureaucracy are now ever more clearly exposed. The rich no longer even use the back door to gain access to official circles; they directly occupy the front stage of political power. In the smaller cities and countryside, the mutual support and cooperation between the new rich and officials has reached such an extreme that they do not even bother to conceal it. How could people devoid of any special intelligence or knowledge acquire so much money overnight, if they were not backed by corrupt power? [15]


The most important secret of contemporary China lies in the rise of the new rich. Since that October day in 1976 when crowds poured into the streets to celebrate the destruction of the Gang of Four, the Chinese people sensed that society was changing. In time those changes affected nearly everyone's life, and people increasingly wondered to assess them -  how to deal with ever newer and stranger realities. In the mid eighties the extremely optimistic outlook of the academic community was widely diffused through society. The history of feudal authority had come to an end: China had moved from a closed to an open, a traditional to modern society. China's long and distinctive historical legacy would no longer hamper its progress; even if people wanted to shift into reverse, nothing could now ultimately thwart the dynamic of modernization, as we were finally leaping into the new world of telephones, refrigerators, cars, and skyscrapers.


Such beliefs were very widespread and deeply held, and no matter how many immediate difficulties presented themselves, many preferred to look away. Even after the terrible, bloody shock of June 1989, as soon as the top leaders proclaimed that economic reform would continue, people quickly recovered from their depression, as if nothing much had happened, at worst a slight detour. The tune of 'modernization' struck up again, and the rhythm of 'reform' beat even faster, as if China had more hope than ever. Even today I can clearly remember how loud the clamour for modernization was in 1992, when the slogan was launched once again, drowning out all other sounds, filling everyone's ears with one ringing call: 'This is modernization - hHurry up and hop on the bandwagon or you'll miss it!'.


In some ways, the cacophony was not unpersuasive. In the past twenty years, Chinese society has become much more open and the economy very robust. In Shanghai, so many tall buildings have gone up, so many gleaming stores have opened, so many Westerners can be seen, that walking down Huaihai Road feels not that  different from being in Tokyo or Hong Kong. In comparison with the seventies, personal space has also grown considerably. The woman from the Street Committee no longer comes to your door to ask for the name of your guests, and you are unlikely to worry that a friend will report you, if you grumble while drinking tea with him. Residence certificates, government quotas, official permits: these once inescapable features of daily life have all been de-emphasized - if you ignore one or two of them, you can now survive. The government has signed the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and entered the World Trade Organization, and 'unofficial' voices call for a constitutional amendment to guarantee that 'private property may under no circumstances be infringed'. Thus the theoretical framework underlying the popularity of modernization would actually seem to explain the social reality of contemporary China – at least one part of it.


Unaccounted for, however, is the sudden ascent of the new rich. The intimidating arrogance of this class, high above the  the poor, confused, and angry crowds who emerged at the same time, is ground for suspecting that the modernization paradigm contains serious flaws. When a traditional society moves towards modernity, its original class structure will naturally undergo changes, as wealth and privilege are redistributed. However, when a country like China seems to be breeding out of the existing system a completely new class that becomes instantly rich class, it is bound to seem strange. It might be thought that a new social class that gains power as a result of a modernizing transition should be eager to continue reforms. However this is not the case with the new rich in China today. They appear unwilling to see society reformed in any profound way; instead they prefer the status quo. Are they at least those most confident in the future? Just the opposite. The new rich are for the most part very pessimistic about China’s future.[16] Almost every one of them has a foreign passport in his or her pocket, as if preparing to escape a dangerous situation.[17]


Why is the class that has profited the most from the Reform Era so pessimistic about its future? Unlike those scholars who sit in their studies, humming the high-pitched tune of 'modernization', the new rich understand the new reality. They know what they have done, know what results from their kind of activity, and are extremely clear about what it is that allows them to do such things. The pessimism of these people thus has especially profound implications. In my opinion, it is precisely the strange existence of this new rich class – its miraculously rapid ascent, its stark contrast with other social classes, its characteristic short-term psychology -  that should prompt us to put aside the modernization paradigm and look at the past twenty years of social change from another perspective.


Looking back, the impetus behind the past twenty years of reforms came from many quarters: those who were dissatisfied with the instability and confusion of the Cultural Revolution; those who desired democracy, intellectual freedom and a cultural opening;, those who wanted to rebuild the legitimacy of the Party's rule;[18] and those who wanted to rise out of poverty and achieve a better material life, who gave the whole movement its mass push. When these various aspirations converged in the late 1970s, the stage for reform was set. As that grand curtain was slowly raised, it looked as if the people were as one, every member of society participating in the will to change it. But actually, in a country like China with a highly centralized system of power, the various forces behind calls for reform were differently situated on the social hierarchy, and their goals were far from common, some being even mutually opposed.


By the end of the eighties, it was already very clear that there were two main forces behind reform in the Party. One sought a move toward socialist democracy and the other a Western-style market economy, yet both were ousted from the ranks of the rulers in quick succession.[19] In the past ten years the voices of those in the scholarly community who had supported these two factions have been silenced along with them.[20]  As for the public, its aspirations for political reform were severely curtailed by government officials already in the late seventies. The Xidan Democracy Wall incident of late 1978 signified the formal beginning of this kind of suppression. So when the ideological and political changes sought by the party reformers and the scholarly community met with repeated setbacks, public attention naturally turned to economic reform, almost exclusively focusing on improving the material welfare of the individual. In the 1990s an attitude of disappointment, apathy and even dread of politics and public life spread rapidly, and a narrow utilitarian mentality - 'after all, the country isn't doing too well, so I'd better earn some extra money!' - permeated every level of society.


On the other hand, when protest demonstrations spread from Tiananmen Square throughout the entire nation in the spring of 1989, one communist party after another was tottering in Eastern Europe - seeming to confirm Mao Zedong's dark prediction in the mid 1950s, that if the ruling party in a socialist country embarked on political self-reform, it would lead to the collapse of its political power, and the fall of all associated with it. In China, it was because those who accepted this axiom gained the upper hand at the top levels of the government and party, that machine-gun fire crackled in the early hours of June 3 1989, and tanks rumbled toward the student tents on Tiananmen Square. Once officials at every level heeded this warning, debates over 'internal party reforms' to save socialism ceased, and all factions closed ranks  around the principle of utility. The entire ruling class immediately welcomed Deng Xiaoping's call in 1992 for renewed 'market economic reform'. At its core this new round of reform of the 1990s differed greatly from the contract-based land reform ('household responsibility system') of the early 1980s, and still more so from the political and cultural reforms envisaged by the 'ideological liberation movement' of the mid to late 1980s. The direction of reform had clearly changed, and so each social condition it interacted with changed greatly as well.


In the 1990s, reform seemed merely to mean the creation of an economic system whose only standard would be profit. All it now aimed for was efficiency, competition and wealth, and all it promised was improvement of material welfare. Nothing else - not political democracy, environmental care, ethical norms, cultural education – lay within its scope.[21] In the 1990s, any resistance to this new cycle of top-down reform was muted: the gunshots of 1989 still rang loudly enough to curtail any social opinion critical of government initiatives. Public enthusiasm for demanding or questioning reforms of a cultural or political character faded away. When people rolled up their activist banners and set up their mahjong tables instead, turning to private concerns of clothing, food, housing and transportation, a new reform with the aroma of money was widely welcomed. Once it was made clear that reform affected only economic processes, and power became a great material resource, officials jettisoned the tentative attitude they had toward reform in the 1980s, and eagerly plunged into the market economy.[22]  Market reform promoted in these circumstances made the sudden ascent of a new rich class only natural.


Once this type of reform pushed society onto the twisted path of 'efficiency', anything that was not easily converted into cash – poetry, love, philosophy, conscience, dignity, or solving Goldbach’s Conjecture,[23] popular national pursuits in the early 1980s – was written off, and all human balance lost. Government and individuals alike started to base their actions on calculations of short-term profit, making it very difficult to defend long-term interests. Efficiency is a criterion pertinent to both short and long time-spans, requiring calculations specific to each.  Once people forget there is a vast world beyond efficiency, they naturally focus only on the most immediate aspects of any economic decision. From each level of government regional planning, for a city, a rural district, or even larger areas, to specific plans by ordinary people for their families, children, and private life, from the investment projects of business people and professionals, to hundreds of thousands of exposed cases of corruption, in almost every corner of society we see the swell of short-term goals, and the way these gradually overwhelm and destroy any rational concern for the longer-term interests of individuals, organizations, and regions. [24]


Not only in the closure of factories and the growing number of unemployed, but even more in the undermining of education, the deterioration of the environment, the corruption of law enforcement, the crumbling of social trust, and the general decline of cultural and moral standards, it is clear that public confidence in the ability of government to hold society together is waning.[25]  Once these maladies are combined, they begin to infect each other, and the destruction of an entire fabric of life is not far off. What is truly worrying is that in many places in China today – not only in the countryside – these diseases are indeed interacting. The number of such regions is growing day by day.


To complicate matters further, the past century saw the triumph of globalization across every aspect of human life. Since the collapse of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the substance of that globalization has become ever more uniform, as the power of capitalism expands around the world as never before. China today is caught in the whirlpool of this globalization. On the one hand, international capital urgently seeks to prise open the Chinese market, on the other domestic enthusiasm for modernization continues unabated. The government needs foreign capital to maintain continuous growth, so Chinese society is being obliged willy-nilly to 'join the mainstream'. [26] Thus China's new cycle of reform in the 1990s necessarily went hand in hand with economic openness. From the Shenzhen to the Pudong Special Economic Zones, from service industries adopting Western management practices to branches of government competing to install Microsoft in their offices, or the PLA donning American-style uniforms, if anything has been carried over from the 1980s, it is the Open Door. Producing obvious changes in everyday life, this strongly encourages the optimism that the country is moving toward modernization. In South-Eastern coastal cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai, where there are obvious improvements in the material welfare of many urban residents, this sentiment is quite widespread. As long as openness is not viewed as a paradise, and modernization is seen as a necessary process that brings both gains and losses, [27] we can say that China is not only being modernized, but is already halfway down the road of globalization.


But it is difficult to avoid thinking here of Krylov's fable of the cart pulled simultaneously in three different directions by a swan, a pike, and a cray-fish.[28] China is undergoing completely different sorts of change at the same time. The sudden rise of 'power plus capital' consumes and pillages society ever more ruthlessly, causing a growing number of ordinary citizens to become victims of reform. The economic transitions to greater openness and modernization continue as before, but now under the growing pressures of globalization. The economy of some areas will show a marked improvement, while others deteriorate, even to insolvency. Such changes are interrelated, but do not move in the same direction, indeed are often in conflict with each other. Their coexistence in contemporary China puts society at odds with itself, and pulls it to pieces. Are there other features of the current scene that can be viewed more optimistically? There are,  but for the moment they remain lesser. [29] What we can mainly see of China's future are the vicissitudes and collisions of these larger changes. The more uncertain it is which of them will topple the other, the more opaque and indeterminate that future appears.


The confusion pervading every level of society today is a natural reaction to this lack of certainty. When set in sharp relief against this complex reality, the extraordinary persistence of intellectuals in thinking in terms of such dichotomies as traditional/modern, closed/open, conservative/reformer, market/planned, socialism/capitalism, communist/anti-communist, seems simple-minded. What do these explain of the landscape of contemporary China? It obviously is not a capitalist country, yet it is also clearly not a socialist society of the kind it used to be. It is nominally controlled by a Communist Party, but in reality the mighty CCP of 'revolutionary ideals' (ideology) that once moulded, organized, and controlled society so tightly, disappeared long ago. It is still a totalitarian regime with a highly centralized system of power, but its rationale, operating principles and social base are changing; to put it at a minimum, they are completely different from those of the Cultural Revolution. It is presiding over a market rather than a planned economy, but large areas of this market have little to do with a freely competitive capitalism. China is currently importing many Western technologies, management practices, cultural products and values, but it is doubtful that she will easily change systems to become a Western-style modern society like Korea or Japan; rather, she will probably become something unique, that we do not expect.  It seems impossible to define contemporary China. In almost every respect she fails to fit existing theoretical models, whether familiar or novel. She seems to be an unwieldy behemoth, the most difficult and unprecedented case of social change in the twentieth century history.


Faced with this challenge, it seems urgent to expand contemporary cultural studies. For in the past twenty years, each great change in society, be it the rapid rise of the new rich, the increasing number of depressed regions, or the widening of the Open Door, has been not only an economic, political, or ecological phenomenon, but also a cultural one. For example, the explosion of the new rich signifies not only signifies a transfer of wealth and a new power structure, it also means the salience of a novel set of fashionable ideals encased in an entirely new ideology. The image of the 'successful man' (rarely woman) that first appeared in the media and its advertisements, spreading from the coastal and metropolitan regions throughout the nation, with his various accoutrements - lifestyle, values, personal history and philosophy - is one illustration of this. [30] Modern man lives in a cultural cage, his sense of reality shaped by tastes and preferences selected by what it lets through. The components of illusion that result are all too familiar: sinking breathlessly into quicksand, while imagining that one is flying at ease in the boundless heavens. The more existence is mediatized, the less significant the tangible elements of life become. Rather, what jumps off the screen is a group of young men, their foreheads branded with the word 'virtual'. Rises and falls on the NASDAQ index immediately change many countenances.


When virtual realities so easily unsettle people, can they still be called virtual? In this mixture of true and false, where the virtual and the actual interchange, how is culture to be distinguished from absence of culture?  The popular image of the 'successful man', for example, does not depend on the existence of a large group of new rich, although strictly speaking, the social class of the new rich and the cultural markers of 'success' came into being together and go hand in hand: the latter forms part of the construction of the former. There are many difficulties in arriving at a sober analysis of economic and political realities in China today: the vastness of the nation, limited communication channels, government monopolization of statistical collection and publication, unreliable data of many sorts. These make all the more urgent what is a feasible task: to take the socio-cultural scene of the nineties - especially popular culture in the coastal and urban areas - as the starting-point for describing and understanding contemporary Chinese society, perhaps even diagnosing its nature and future.  


In China this type of cultural study has started only recently, and remains in outline form: its full scope and possibilitiues have yet to be determined. But if the above analysis is basically correct, Chinese cultural studies should in the first instance focus on a number of key questions. The most pressing of these is the new ideology that conceals or glosses the realities of our society today.[31]  Since the nineties, what was originally an official  Maoist ideology dating from the Cultural Revolution has lost its hold over the public, and except for a few empty phrases in the editorials of party newspapers and speeches by leaders, has essentially vanished from the scene. But the spiritual arena of a society cannot remain empty; if the old retreats, something new must take its place. What filled this void in China? The reformist idealism of the 1980s was discredited long ago, by domestic and internatiomal events. The gloom generated by the June Fourth massacre was dispersed by the promise of further reforms in 1992. It was effectively at this time that a new 'thought' took shape.


Announcing that China was once again moving down the path of modernization, this ideology drew on the longings and ignorances of the eighties to explain that there was no longer any cause for mourning, but rather celebration. Appealing to common aspirations to rise out of poverty, it suggested that other than immediate material gains all else was useless, mere fabrications by a cultural elite who should just 'fuck off'.[32] Strenuously lauding a 'market economy with Chinese characteristics', it touted ensuing arrangements as the last word in rational progress and development. Proclaiming that everyone was working together to achieve a 'decent living' [xiao kang], and all had a chance of success, it worked especially to minimize the profound differences between classes and regions, and within politics and culture in China. Deploying a range of 'modernizing' buzzwords - 'market', 'popular', 'consumer era' - it made every effort to distance itself from the empty shell of the old ideology, whose strength it intentionally exaggerated, so that it could side with the 'folk', or those on the 'margins', or describe itself as 'avant garde' or 'alternative'. But it very carefully avoided  every issue that might displease those in power: intellectual freedom, civil rights, the protection of the average citizen's livelihood, the responsibilities of the state to society, the plunder of society by new systems of 'power plus capital'.



It is difficult, in all honesty, to know how best to characterize this new 'thought' since it hardly qualifies as a system, jumbling together paradoxical propositions that are impossible to validate. Even though it pervades the majority of advertisements, it is not merely a capitalist product. It features so insistently in the media that it could be a set of official slogans,[33] but there is no clear evidence that it was ever intentionally designed by the government. It has no generally recognized spokesmen, and  though it often surfaces in cultural and theoretical debates, no one is willing to stand up and take credit for it. But it is precisely this sort of ideology, of indeterminate origin and indistinct contours, that feeds the appetite of influential powers in China - and not just the government. 


The effect of its themes is to narrow perception of public problems, luring people into a mere concern with personal consumption, blind to the damage and suffering around them. This is an ideology that can even assuage the desires of those without power or influence: life is already so difficult, and as an individual you have so little means of escape – if every day is fraught with tension, you might as well take a sedative to fool yourself for a bit. The new 'thought' covered over the chaotic, grim realities of the nineties, and served at least  temporarily to relieve anxieties. It is little wonder it could emerge and spread so easily in China – green lights all the way – where ideological channels are otherwise so restricted and closely monitored, filling hundreds of thousands of minds, and shaping everyday sentiments, fantasies and judgments. Even Internet chat rooms now produce group after group of devotees. This is the most popular and influential way of looking at the world – at least in the cities – today.


The more one understands the operations of various political and economic powers behind this new ideology, and the ways it responds to and constructs mass desires and public imagination, numbing and postponing any social awareness of crises, the more cultural studies should take the new 'thought' as its most important object of criticism. Such criticism should eschew simplistic accusations for a careful description and thorough analysis of the phenomenon. For example, we need to identify those aspects of reality the ideology evades, simplifies or conceals, and those which it exaggerates, embellishes or fabricates. In doing so, we can stimulate a sense of substantial life that has been numbed, and help people comprehend and call in question the influences at work on them.


Special attention should also be paid to the ways in which this ideology enriches itself from economic and cultural exchanges between China and foreign countries, as restricted by the current pattern of globalization, and to the warm relationships between the new 'thought', state power and the new rich. Another important area for research is the complex relationship between the new ideology and the official ideology of the Cultural Revolution, and the ways in which the former has been able to draw on the widespread social disgust toward the latter to create a unique dual identity, as a mainstream ideology that  simultaneously poses as a bold heterodoxy. This dual identity allows it at once to whitewash existing reality and to inhibit any other outlook that might question it. Here we would also need to clarify the extent to which the intellectual community itself has  in some respects become an unwitting assistant of the new ideology,[34] and what critical resources the last two decades years of literature, art and theory have bequeathed us to resist it. This type of housecleaning and self-reflection can help remedy the misconception that all is lost, and encourage intellectuals to assume their responsibilities toward society, and recover a fighting spirit towards its evils.


Today the new ideology has seeped into every pore of social life. There cultural studies must track it, without undue respect for disciplinary restrictions or specialized fields. Above all, cultural studies must not, in the name of becoming modern, let itself be trapped in the compartmentalization of life and regulation of knowledge operative in increasingly detailed academic-administrative systems, that are themselves one of the conditions nurturing the new ideology.[35] Not only must we scan literature, music, painting, sculpture, and film. We must also pay special attention to commercial advertisements, entertainment magazines, popular music, soap operas, newspapers, tv shows, window displays and public decorations. We need to look not only at concrete cultural products, but also at abstract theoretical discourses, and the relationship between these two dissimilar cultural activities. Paper, canvas, screen; buildings, publishers, government bureaux;  bars, dance halls, and coffee shops - all should be our province. Where necessary, each must be recalled to its social context: cultural studies in China should neither rigidly adhere to existing disciplinary confines, and nor strive to become a new discipline itself. Its hope should be simply to grapple with the more disturbing  questions of contemporary life in China, in conditions of globalization, and perhaps to suggest some timely and vigorous responses to them.


Human history possesses no immovable laws. To adapt Lu Xun’s words, what kind of 'momentous era' might China be entering? The answer is best sought in the contemporary culture that is the texture of life for millions of ordinary Chinese. Its vulgar, crass, dark features will not last forever. But they will require the light of a better culture to be dispelled. It is worth fighting for that. Perhaps seventy years ago, when Lu Xun wondered about China's future, he secretly harboured this same hope.


[1] Lu Xun, 'Chenying 'tici' [Forward to 'Shadows of Dust'], in Eryi ji [That's It], Beijing 1958, p. 107.

[2] Lu Xun, 'Xiaopin wenxue de weiji' [The Crisis of the Essay Form], Beijing 1958, p. 133.

[3] It is my firm conviction that in China today, those who combine a warm concern for society, independence of mind, and basic (often university) training in ideas and theory, continue to make up a group of 'intellectuals' (zhishi fenzi) who continue to exert influence in society, even though this influence has waned in the past decade. This is the community best equipped to address the questions raised above. I have never agreed with the view that has become popular since the 1990s, that intellectuals should 'step down'. Rather, I  believe that self-reflection by intellectuals, far from withdrawing them from social responsibility, is now the condition of renewing it. 

[4] This gap has not just appeared in the past twenty years. The priority given heavy industry by the state in the 1950s exacerbated rather than reduced the inherited disparities between the cities and the countryside. But it is only since the mid 1980s the widening of this gap has become truly shocking. 

[5] In the official classification, the term refers to those who received an education in the middle-level technical or professional schools, and entered government service, without administrative power. From the 1950s to the 1980s they were often referred to as “intellectuals,” and some still persist in calling them such out of habit. Needless to say, the connotation of this usage of the term is virtually the opposite of that employed in this essay, as set out in note 3 above. 

[6] This term refers to the historic system in the PRC whereby the government instituted a low wage structure - the 'first distribution' - to guarantee full employment, and then provided free health-care and education, and inexpensive housing, transport, utilities, consumer goods, transportation and cultural activities - the 'second distribution' - to return the wealth produced by the people to the people. Currently, the relevant legal provisions of the constitution and labour laws of the Peoples Republic of China, still take the 'second distribution' as one of the legitimating bases of the state.

[7] Since the spring of 1999 the government has openly used education to 'create needs' (ie: stimulate spending), by ordering every college to increase enrollments and strongly pushing the marketization of education. By September 2000, most universities in China were charging between four and six thousand yuan per semester.

[8]  Prior to the 'market economic reform', individual citizens were not generally required to pay taxes. In the mid 1980s, the government imposed proportional income taxes on individuals, gradually increasing their share of total revenue over the years. In many places, especially in the countryside, where the rates are high relative to low farming incomes, the result can only be described as an exorbitant fiscal burden. Total tax revenues were 900 billion yuan in 1998, and one trillion in 1999.

[9] In the course of the 1980s, there was a marked shift in emphasis in the quest for reform and modernization among intellectuals. In the first half of the decade, they focussed primarily on ideas, politics, and culture, and rarely considered economics or everyday life. It was only after this original agenda suffered repeated setbacks, while the government's agricultural reforms registered initial success, that the academic community, eager to gain a foothold for enacting comprehensive societal reform, gradually placed its hopes in a market economy.

[10] In the past few years, some have started to criticize  this. See, for example, Pei Jianguo, 'Ye tan woguo xiaofei buzu de chengyin' [Reasons for our nation's insatiable consumption], Hainan Shifan Daxue xueyuan bao, No 1, Haikou 2000.

[11] In the 1990s nominal government investment in education, expressed in yuan, has not visibly decreased and sometimes even increased. But if one considers rising prices, personnel increases, and the actual amount spent on opening new schools, building libraries or laboratories, repairing facilities, providing research stipends, and so on, real investment has actually declined. The lack of educational resources in the countryside, interior provinces and border regions became especially marked in the late 1990s, after the government poured funds into a few top schools in Beijing, Shanghai, and coastal regions.

[12] See Li Peilin (ed.), Zhongguo xinshiqi jieji jieceng baogao [Report on Social Classes in China in the New Era], Liaoning 1995, especially 221-291, 334-374; Sun Liping et al, ‘Zhongguo shehui jiegou zhuanxing de zhongjinqi qushi yu yinhuan’ [Recent Trends and Latent Dangers in the Transformation of China's Social Structure], Zhanlue yu guanli, No 5, 1998; Li Qiang, 'Shichang zhuanxing yu Zhongguo zhongjian jieceng de daiji gengti' [Market Changes and the Generational Replacement of the Chinese Middle Class], Zhanlue yu guanli, No 3, 1999.

[13] For example, poor farmers, urban unemployed (including some who lost their jobs due to punishment or incarceration), and needy clerks. Those who went into private business in the early 1980s and struck it rich as a 'ten thousand yuan household' include many in these categories.

[14] As with the stock market or real estate a decade ago, as soon as the internet was seen as a honey-pot, officials immediately got involved, so that by the year 2000 many branches of the central and local government had started internet companies, both openly and secretly, to monopolize the market. Once this happened, the space for young people without powerful backgrounds to start up enterprises has obviously shrank. 

[15] There are, of course, a few genuinely talented figures among the new rich, but as a class they are far from exceptional.

[16] The 'future' here is not fifty, a hundred, or several hundred years, but five, ten or twenty. Longer time-spans in speaking of the future, no matter how impressive they may sound, are meaningless.

[17]  For the pessimism of the new rich, see Li Qiang's fascinating description in 'Dangdai Zhongguo shehui de sige liyi qunti' [Four Groups of Beneficiaries in Contemporary Chinese Society]. The complete text of this article was first circulated on the Internet, and was later published in considerably edited form in Xueshujie No 3, 2000.

[18] From the 1950s through to the 1970s, the political legitimacy of CCP rule was largely based on Mao Zedong Thought, whose myth of revolution derived from the notion of 'proletarian dictatorship' was generally believed by the masses. This myth was shattered by a series of events during the Cultural Revolution, including the mysterious death of Lin Biao in 1971, the campaign against Deng Xiaoping in 1976, and especially the suppression of the April Fifth movement on Tiananmen Square of that year. Thus after the Gang of Four was put down, the CCP needed to re-establish a legal mandate for its rule. The important Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the CCP, launched in 1979, announced that 'liberation of thought' would be the 'basic path for the Party in the New Era', and that the focus of its work would shift from 'class struggle' (revolution) to 'economic construction' ('earning a decent living'- xiao kang), in a clear attempt to find a new basis of legitimacy for its rule.

[19] The first was led by Hu Yaobang, whose primary focus was cultural opening and reform of the political system and cultural openness, with no intention of embracing capitalism wholesale. The second was represented by Zhao Ziyang and his economic advisors, who wanted to use comparatively radical methods to establish a capitalist market prior to reforming other aspects of society.

[20] After the mid 1950s,  every cultural worker became a 'government cadre', and an intellectual world that had previously been independent of the political system disappeared. Nor has China really had an intellectual community independent of the state since that time.

From the late 1970s onward