Why China’s “left” finds favor in the West

Why China’s “left” finds favor in the West
Why China’s “left” finds favor in the West
Posted on 2010-08-04

The plagiarism case involving the well-known “left” scholar Wang Hui (汪晖) has made ripples in the press lately, and some academics in the West have stepped up to defend Mr. Wang. My own readers have written to me about this. Why, they ask, do Western academics rush to defend such a scholar?

I’ve read only a number of essays by Wang Hui. Nevertheless, I do have some understanding of scholars of Wang’s ilk. Scholars in China who have, like Mr. Wang, been branded with the label “left” tend to criticize Western democratic systems and universal values with an aptitude not greatly unlike that of Western academics. Their scholarship and pronouncements on such matters as “Chinese characteristics” and Chinese models have found some favor among Western academics [for whom such material provides fresh fodder]. As a result, many Western academics enjoy and “respect” these scholars on China’s “left”, and not without their reasons.

It only makes sense that Web users should have trouble separating truth from fact in the Wang Hui case, and that they should end up turning some things on their heads.

I want to use this Wang Hui affair as an opportunity to talk about the academic environment in the West. Allow me, if you will, to approach this topic in a roundabout sort of way. Friends who have read my piece called “Why I do not criticize America” will perhaps remember my experience as a young man being a visiting fellow in the United States. Looking back now, I realize that my academic abilities at that time were almost nonexistent. I was simply a combination of an “educated youth” and a “political angry youth.” Owing to my educational background and my work experience, my head was at the time stuffed full of the idea that “China can say no,” and with various articulations of “unhappy China,” and I was most certainly no less influenced by these ideas than the authors of the two books [dealing principally with these issues], China Can Say No and Unhappy China.

At that time I was avidly pursuing “academic” opportunities in order to seek out opportunities personally, and I would simply cobble together things I recalled from my textbooks and from Chinese newspapers and spill these out cathartically to American scholars and experts. But it was in exactly this way that I earned the “respect” of Americans. Americans listened to me eagerly, and many scholars were quite willing to engage in discussion with me. Some research centers even invited me to give talks, and these were all Washington, D.C., think tanks. How’s that for villainy?

Even more villainous was what came later. When my ideas and attitude later underwent change, when I began to feel that democracy and freedom were pretty decent after all, and also quite suited to us Chinese, when I finally awakened to the realization that being a Chinese person was not about going to great ends to criticize America for the benefit of America’s improvement, and that I would better serve China’s progress by criticizing China, I found that my points of commonality with Western academics were fewer and fewer, up to the point where I ultimately had no interest at all in conversing with them.

The reason for this was simple — they cared about their country and I cared about mine. Many times, when I invited them to talk about their criticisms of China, they were far more interested in talking about my criticisms of America. Humph. What time do I have to criticize your country? I am no traitor, devising strategies for the benefit of your country.

If you don’t get what I’m talking about, just indulge me while I address this issue by talking a bit about the role of intellectuals. The greatest utility of intellectuals lies in their capacity to “sing against” those who hold power, to monitor power, to improve government performance, to encourage national change and promote social progress.

Once we understand this fact, we are ready to ask another question: what constitutes the mainstream of political power in Western nations? What I mean is, would you best characterize the ideas of those holding power as “left” or “right”? Without a doubt, the “right” holds sway – particularly when measured by China’s academic establishment, where all those who advocate democracy and universal values are labeled as “right.”

And if the ideas of those who exercise public power tend to the “right,” when the political establishment is in the hands of the “right,” what should the natural attitude of intellectuals be? Should they like me, Yang Hengjun, spend all day praising universal values, democracy and freedom? Of course not. If this were the case, they would appear as co-opted intellectuals, even lackeys one might say. What we see as a result is a very interesting phenomenon in which the mainstream in Western academia, and most scholars of note, are principally of the “left.” They do not focus particularly on democracy, freedom and universal values, but rather nitpick from within democracy, freedom and universal values, singing songs of opposition to power. Only this kind of scholar earns any respect.

This trend has invited another phenomenon in China, and that is the species of the Chinese “left.” These are scholars who have a rich experience with China, who understand the experiences of China in recent years, and also understand so-called Chinese models (which Western scholars do not adequately understand). Capitalizing on these advantages they find a great deal of welcome in the West.

Let me tell you about an experience I personally found very discouraging. I once told a number of Western professors (not particularly renowned ones) about four well-known mainland liberal intellectuals whose work I particularly enjoyed, and they knew nothing about any of them. When I muttered the names of a couple of Chinese scholars who advocate the “China Model” and attack universal values, however, they were immediately on familiar ground, and they eventually added: you know, Vietnam and Ukraine also have strong scholars like this, who like Western scholars recognize the shortcomings of Western democracy.

How do we explain this phenomenon? First of all, these scholars on China’s “left” cater to the dominant trend in Western academia. After the end of the Cold War, the principal task of Western scholars was no longer exposing the shortcomings of authoritarian and non-democratic systems, but rather “exposing” the failings of democracy. Everyone must work in common to improve the weak points in democratic systems. Naturally, everyone is working for common improvement, and no Western nation is advocating wholesale adoption of Chinese models. From this vantage point, it seems that the ones who are truly helping Westerners improve their democratic systems are not those of us so-called “Western traitors” of the right, but rather those scholars of China’s left who, with a Bethune-like spirit of devotion, praise China’s “experiences” for the benefit of the West even as China is behind by several decades and the quality of life of the Chinese people falls far short.

At the same time, we cannot deny that in the same way the achievements of China’s leftist scholars for humankind are far greater than that of their counterparts on the right in China. Why? Because America points the direction of progress for all of mankind, and helping America improve itself means by extension assisting with the constant progress of humankind’s most advanced social and political system.

Poor scholars of China’s “right,” meanwhile, like this Yang Hengjun, spend too much energy worrying about China in isolation, and rehashing experiences with democracy and universal values that the West finished with long ago.

I’m not at all exaggerating when I make this argument. A number of Chinese on the “left” are in vogue in the West, but if bona fide rightists find their way to American or European universities and lecture there, they will get very little reaction [Wang Hui at NYU]. Just imagine me going to the United States to lecture about democracy, freedom and human rights. Let’s just search our own souls for a moment. Their thinking on democracy and freedom has developed for hundreds or even thousands of years, and their books and essays and works of literature probably couldn’t be stacked up in all the libraries of Beijing. And here’s me, a Chinese who only a few years ago came to know what democracy and freedom really are, coming from a place where just over ten years ago the word “human rights” itself was banned. What can I possibly talk about to my American audience?

If I were a “leftist” it would be completely different. According to my own experiences and observations, I would stand on stage and use stories to show what a mess democracy is, and to show up the glories of all things with Chinese characteristics, so that everyone was teary-eyed and wanted to shout: democracy has bottomed out, and socialism with Chinese characteristics is here to save us all! . . . This really is like hearing the thunderous sounds of silence! Just think, Western scholars have rattled around for centuries in democratic systems, and just when they’re at their wits end, the cannon fire of socialism with Chinese characteristics sounds out, giving them a “post-modern”
experience and theory to sink their teeth into. How could they not welcome this?

When I see on the Internet that those of us who promote democracy and freedom have been broad-brushed as running dogs of the West, that we have been clumped in a “clique of traitors for the West,” I feel the resistance rise in my chest. In fact, if you really want to win favor in the West, the best way is to viciously attack democracy, freedom and universal values without any thought whatsoever to the welfare of the Chinese people, and to paint a portrait of China’s imperial past as an otherworldly paradise. Of course, you can’t forget to secretly send your wife and kids off to live in a Western country [as many of these thinkers on China's "left" have done].

As we talk about Western academia, there is another thing worthy of note. When a number of us [who do sympathize with democracy] see that Chinese scholars who have lived in the West disapprove of some aspect of democracy, freedom and universal values, we are unhappy and agitated. We think these Chinese have forgotten their brethren back in China and are merely looking after their own interests. This is actually unfair. When someone lives overseas, they must naturally accommodate customs overseas. Scholars living in the West, if they are true intellectuals, can’t merely cozy up to those in power. That they don’t do so doesn’t at all mean they oppose democracy or universal values outright, nor does it mean their consciences have been eaten by the dogs. Quite the opposite, it means they are behaving like professional Western academics. They live in the West, but this doesn’t mean they have to sing songs of praise for the West day in and day out. If they do, even I would have contempt for them . . .

In American politics there is a tendency toward the “right,” and there is much fear of the left. But more relevant for Chinese scholars is the fact that American academia dwarfs the American political establishment. How many Chinese scholars could enter American politics? It’s in academia that scholars spend most of their time, and its in academia that you can make a name for yourself and make a bit of money. Most grants in the United States also come from academia, not from the political establishment. And there is no way whatsoever that the political establishment can control academia. These factors means that the situation is very different from what we see in China, perhaps even diametrically opposite.

This might be the difference that has created confusion for some Internet users who believe that China’s “right” has taken money from the U.S. government. Don’t forget — the money that any three universities in the United States provide to the Chinese side to fund research probably equals what the American government spends on Chinese scholars to carry out so-called “peaceful evolution.” The United States is a very different country from China, where perhaps all university expenditures come from money directly or indirectly provided by the government.

I might have left the impression at this point that Chinese scholars on the left are the true “clique of traitors of the West.” Actually, so long as what you do is true scholarship, you can support or oppose whatever you wish. The world, after all, needs diversity. So long as scholars are not working for any clear interest, so long as they are doing real academic work, they are scholars and should be respected as such. When I look back I think that, had I stayed in the West and really become an overseas Chinese academic, I would definitely have focused my research on criticizing weaknesses in democratic systems and universal values.

But I did return to China after all, and no matter what benefits and honors you shower me with, I won’t live by criticizing and attacking democracy and universal values. The reason is simple. Democracy and universal values have never come to this land, and they have naturally therefore never caused any harm to the people of this country. However, as times change a day might come when democracy and universal values do finally visit us here. Perhaps then I will change colors just like a chameleon, and crawl over to the “left.”

I sincerely hope that day comes quickly when I have the opportunity to really attack democracy, freedom and universal values against my conscience!

This essay originally appeared in Chinese at Yang Hengjun’s Blog.

One Comment to “Why China’s “left” finds favor in the West”

  1. King Tubby says:

    This follow- the-dots piece makes okay points about academic fashions in a bi-polar world, but it is based on old twentieth century discourses organised around the left-right continium and their associated conceptual baggage trains. Cute, but not helpful when thinking about different systems of govt, the manner in which political power is exercised, the formation of values and rights, etc.

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