As I have said before, the modern Chinese thinker I admire most – both on an ideological level and on a personal level – would probably be the late great Fei Xiaotong, who is not without reason sometimes considered the Alexis de Tocqueville of China. Not only was the good sociologist remarkably profound in his compassionate understanding of the social outlook, the capacities, the desires, the fears and even the shortcomings of his fellow Chinese, but he actually went to bat for his writings, and (imperfectly, as so many did during the Cultural Revolution) stood up with personal integrity for his colleagues, his discipline, and the peasants for whom he had so often been the ‘plaintiff’. To his credit, even though he clearly belonged to China and to the Chinese people, he never neatly fit into any contemporary political category. Dr Fei was a fierce and unrelenting critic of the Nationalists, whom he regarded as hopelessly corrupt and brutal, and indifferent to the plight of the peasantry. Moreover, he was far too collectivist in his psychology, far too sceptical of rapid Western-modelled modernisation, far too vocal an advocate for the poorest and most downtrodden in Chinese society, to fit in well with the Nationalists – and the Nationalists in kind regarded him as a Red. And yet, even though formally among their number, he was also an explicit critic of the blinkered, narrow economism of the Communists, and a defender both of the rural peasant way of thinking and of the need for a Chinese sociology – and Mao’s Communists in kind regarded him as a rightist. He suffered for his principled stand throughout the Cultural Revolution. And yet, in one of the ironies of history, the late 20th-century economic successes of Taiwan can be attributed in part to the land reform and household industry policies Fei Xiaotong had advocated on the mainland, even though his books were formally banned by the Nationalists.
It is Fei Xiaotong whom I keep in mind, and whose opinion on such matters I wonder about, whenever reading essays, whether in the Diplomat or in the Atlantic or in the Wall Street Journal or in the New York Times, on China’s ongoing struggle to articulate for itself a role in the international community independent of American and Western European leads. Even at this late date, to my frustration and no doubt to the frustration of many other old hand China-watchers, too much of the Western journalistic conversation presumes a very narrow range of concerns and opinions. It seems de rigueur in Western circles to paint President Xi Jinping in the ominous hues of a rising Chairman Mao redux, even though Xi’s homages to Confucius and calls for public displays of filial virtue don’t match up at all neatly to the Great Helmsman’s hostility to the lao shehui – the ‘old society’. Likewise, many of the neoleftist activists and academics who nowadays use the language of the ‘mass line’ – Dr Wang Hui of Tsinghua University, for example – are committed democrats and constitutionalists who hold no truck with the tired old saws about the dictatorship of the proletariat. Clearly something much more interesting is happening than the usual angle taken by corporate media, of China’s ominous government pitted against its plucky-but-beleaguered civil libertarians, internet users and ethnoreligious minorities.
One of these interesting trends is that China’s left is beginning to take on shades of cultural conservatism, as has been demonstrated by the online survey conducted last year by Jennifer Pan and Xu Yiqing of Harvard University. In some ways, this trend was presaged by Fei Xiaotong himself, who was a committed social reformer and democrat on political matters, but whose cultural instincts were deeply, passionately conservative and even traditionalist. Even as he advocated for the uplift of the rural population from poverty and misery, he took strong issue with the reformers (even if they happened to be Communist) who would seek to geometrically change their very way of thinking, or who would univocally impose rules presuming an individualist, rights-based mindset foreign to the people they claimed to be helping. He was convinced that any useful, healthy and lasting reform would be locally-based and locally-overseen, and that it would have to pattern itself on the chaxugeju 差序格局, the ‘differential mode of association’, which is so deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. True, in his own time Fei Xiaotong did consider himself a democrat and a constitutionalist. But in the civil war he lambasted the Guomindang for their callousness toward rural people in the pursuit of political modernisation. And he sacrificed his career and reputation to an insane and brutal cultural-revolutionary régime when he delivered his pleas for caution and sociological awareness in rural reform. It’s highly unlikely he would be impressed by the modern liberals who naïvely and shortsightedly advocate for China’s adoption of Western ideals of civil society and constitutionalism.
Given the trend of the left in the same direction now, I tend to be sceptical of the recently-vented fears (on the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, conveniently enough) that China is returning to a cultural-revolutionary frame of mind under Xi Jinping. If Pan and Xu’s data are anything to go by, the folks in China who tend to be the most concerned about inland poverty and income inequality, and who tend to look on China’s socialist past with rose-tinted specs, are also the folks who trust in Chinese medicine (once reviled as a ‘feudal superstition’ by doctrinaire Communists) and who would never dream of raising their hands against their parents. The Chinese left has been preoccupied since the 1990’s with fighting: the erosion of the public sector; the entrenchment of corrupt business élites; the degradation of the environment; and the rich-poor, coastal-inland and urban-rural disparities that have arisen as a result of China’s ‘reform and opening up’ and integration into global finance capitalism. This has understandably given way to a more positive re-evaluation of China’s local and particular assets, including the cultural assets once devalued as ‘feudal’. To give just one example, Gan Yang, a Hangzhou-native American-educated intellectual and former Tian’anmen activist, and one of the pre-eminent scholars of the New Left, has emerged as a champion of Confucian learning. Likewise, Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang, both traditionalist advocates of what might be called ‘institutional Confucianism’, actually began with concerns about environmental protection and the plight of workers and farmers, in an era where both concerns are systematically overlooked by governmental and business leaders.
The intellectual landscape of modern China is therefore much more interesting than many of us tend to think – if only because we are stuck in Nixon-era habits of thinking when discussing the topic. Both the old models we’re used to dealing with: of a brutal, authoritarian ideological government arrayed against the people; and of a government and society equally obsessed with short-term state-led capitalist GDP growth – are rapidly becoming defunct, if indeed they aren’t defunct already. If there was ever a time to start paying greater attention to Fei Xiaotong, and start treating seriously a collective, differential-associative sociology of China – now would be it.
Matthew Cooper graduated University of Pittsburgh (International Development and Asian studies). He is the contributing editor at Solidarity Hall thinkerspace.