Wang Hui on China’s Twentieth Century

Daily: Daily Times
Date: 04.01.17

China carries its own understanding of society and the politico-economic system. This is the
central idea of Wang Hui’s book, “China’s Twentieth Century: Revolution, Retreat and the
Road to Equality,” edited by Saul Thomas and published by Verso in 2016. Hui was named
one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world in 2008 by the US magazine Foreign
Policy. This opinion piece intends to discuss Hui’s certain ideas expressed in the book.

Whereas nowhere in the book does Hui give the meaning of Asia, he gives a boundary of
Asia on page 8: “The Russian Revolution of 1905, the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of
1905-7, the Turkish Revolution of 1908-9, and the Chinese Revolution of 1911 were central
to the ‘awakening of Asia’.” This description reflects Chinese understanding of Asia in the
twentieth century.

Hui affirms that the concept of individual’s sovereignty and inalienable rights were
bequeathed by the West, as he writes on page 92: “The spread of the concept of individual
rights in the eighteenth century resulted in American Independence [1775-1783] and the
French Revolution [1789-1799] ...This surge of ideas travelled from the Pacific and Indian
Oceans to East Asia reached our country and resulted in the 1911 Revolution [i.e. the
Xinhai Revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644 to
1911), and established the Republic of China]. Our nation’s war of ideas has its root in this
phenomenon.” Further, Hui writes on page 9: “The ‘awakening of Asia’ [expressed through
the string of revolutions] and the outbreak of the First World War [in 1914] signified the age
of the collapse of empires.” In this way, Hui acknowledges two points. First, the inspirational
pedigree of Asia’s awakening, including the Chinese (Xinhai) Revolution, was not local but
foreign. Secondly, Asia was not immune to the changes affecting the West: China captured
and treasured zeitgeist.

Within the context of Asia, Hui claims that it was the Chinese revolution which inspired
Russians to borrow something from it, as hewrites on page 10: “The October Revolution of
Russia [in 1917, by revolutionaries of the left led by Bolshevik Party leader Vladimir Lenin
who launched a bloodless coup with the help of the working class against the provisional
government] was a product of European wars, but it echoed the Asian revolutions, and
particularly the 1911 Chinese Revolution, in its combining of national revolution with a
socialist economic program and state-building project.”Later on, in 1922, the Bolsheviks (or
Reds) founded the Soviet Union. This point reflects the existence of an important learning
process between Chinese and Russians from the experience of each other; certainly, 1991
was no exception.

Hui asserts that, before 1905, China was inclined toward Japan under the rubric of pan-
Asianism, the mainstay of which was the yellow race, as he writes on page 70: “After 1905,
the pan-Asianism that centred on the yellow race and was predicated on a Sino-Japanese
alliance receded. In its place came an expansionist strategy by autocratic countries,
including Japan, which modelled itself after the Western imperialists [to construct Japanese
pan-Asianism]. Along with this trajectory, it was only natural that a political nationalism
based on the defence of national interests would follow suit”. Here, Hui makes three points.
First, Japanese imperialism undermined the unity of the yellow race. Secondly, Japanese
imperialism pushed China toward political nationalism. Thirdly, Chinese abhorred
imperialism coming from whichever quarters.

Hui justifies Chinese aversion to Japanese imperialism, as he writes on page 72: “Japanese
‘pan-Asianism’ was ‘greater Japanism’ derived from an Asian form of the Monroe Doctrine;
its nature was ‘not pacifism but aggression; not national self-determination, but imperialism
that conquers the weak, not Asian democracy, but Japanese militarism, not an institution
that adapts to world institutions, but one which subverts international institutions’.” That
isChinese valued pacifism, national self-determination, Asian democracy and amenability to
international institutions.

Hui has not mentioned his understanding of Asian democracy, but a clue can be obtained
from what he writes about an Asian society on page 73: “The influence of religion on
Western civilisation is minimal, but religion forms the basis of all Asian civilisation. As a
result, the pragmatic white men use economic concerns [i.e. the accumulation of wealth] as
a foundation while the coloured men set the foundation for morality. In my opinion, white
men do not understand contentment. In terms of filial relations, coloured people have
stronger filial relations than the irresponsible white men. Consequently, the sense of society
is acuter in Asia and individuals suffer less.” This point may broach a debate, especially
when seen against Hui’s earlier acknowledging the flow of ideas and changes coming from
the West. It seems that Hui bifurcates China into a political half receptive to western political
ideals and a social half resistant to western social models. Nevertheless, within the former
half, China sees individual’s sovereignty and inalienable rights strictly in the socialist

Hui says that China also cherished to see itself in the framework of a civilizational nation, as
he writes on page 87: “[D]istinct from the competition among the European nation-states,
the competition between China and the West was one between civilizational nations…[T]he
nation-state was not the universal form of statehood, but a product of a particular
civilisation ... [‘P]olitics’ must be founded on a unique national civilisation and its way of life.”
This point also introduces a debate, especially when seen against Hui’s earlier
admittingChina’s embrace of political nationalism. Nevertheless, the difference may lie in
the context (i.e. Japan or the West) in which China is equated.

Hui promotes social democracy, as he writes on page 222, 229 and 234 respectively: “[T]he
end of the Cold War gave the capitalist side a discursive monopoly over ‘democracy,’
rendering other conceptions of democracy hostile to it. Understood as a political system,
democracy embraces such concepts as the franchise, protection of individual rights,
freedom of expression and pluralism, whereas the core meaning of democracy at the level
of society is equality, embodied in social security, the availability of public goods to all of the
society, redistribution and so forth. Together, these two levels constitute what we mean by
social democracy. Distributive justice and equality [of opportunity and outcome] are part of
the heritage of socialist movement.” Here, Hui makes two points. First, social democracy is
essentially a post-1991 concept. Secondly, China prefers to find solutions for its modern
problems strictly within the socialist context.

In short, China’s experiment with socialism in the twentieth century has allowed it to enter
the twenty-first century with elegance.

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