Interview. We spoke with the Chinese intellectual Mobo Gao, professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia and author of the new book ‘Constructing China.’

China can still be the alternative to capitalism

Originally from Jiangxi, now a professor of Chinese studies in Australia at the University of Adelaide, Mobo Gao is one of the many figures of the so-called Chinese “New Left,” a term which names a line of thought, internally very diverse, which is attempting, through a multidisciplinary approach, to re-read recent Chinese history in context, going beyond Western categories. Moreover, some authors within this current have specifically dedicated their work to the topic of the Cultural Revolution and its initial transformative impulse.

While Wang Hui and others have focused on the concept of modernity, offering a response to those who believe that China only became “modern” with the arrival of capitalism and Deng’s reforms, Mobo Gao focuses on a reading of Chinese history that is meant to reveal in explicit terms the intellectual short-circuit created by the field of “Asian studies,” of US origin and established mostly during the time of the Cold War (while, of course, this remains able to affect other countries even nowadays, as well as the entire media system).

Gao’s recent Constructing China, Clashing Views of the People’s Republic (Pluto Press, 288 pages, $26.99, 2018) offers an excellent overview of the Mobo Gao method (his previous book, also published by Pluto Press in 2008, was entitled The Battle for China’s Past), concentrated on giving China back its “knowledge,” which Western historiography, according to Gao, had denied it. At the same time, Mobo Gao also offers extraordinary interpretative insights of contemporary China.

Let’s start with Hong Kong and what is happening now. Your view is that both Hong Kong and Taiwan are connected to the Chinese sense of identity and nation. So, is Hong Kong nowadays making us ask ourselves all over again, “What is China?”

Yes, I think Deng Xiaoping hoped that 50 years after the handover, there would no longer be “two systems,” because China would become something in many ways similar, if not identical, to Hong Kong. With the arrival of Xi Jinping to the presidency, however, things have changed significantly. His anti-corruption campaign threatened the capitalists on both sides. However, collaborating in effect with the capitalists in Hong Kong has meant not taking care of the lower classes, with the result that many citizens of the former British colony have felt neglected. We need to figure out whether Xi will want to do something about that.

In Constructing China, you highlight the weighty role played by the media and many Western studies in the demonization of the Cultural Revolution. However, 70 years after the birth of the PRC, even the CCP’s verdict about it is negative (and Xi Jinping recently published a speech in which the current president reiterated this verdict by the party). Is this happening because, as you write, “what was done by Deng after the death of Mao showed just how real the fear of Mao was: the Chinese road to capitalism started off with the dismantling of the commons”?

Yes, and much more besides. Certainly, the Cultural Revolution was destructive in many ways. There were many victims among officials and intellectuals, and it is really hard for them and their families to adopt less personal and more historically informed attitudes toward the Cultural Revolution; this is understandable. But the fact is that capitalism is a global system that is swallowing everyone, including the members of the Chinese Communist Party, even its principal leaders. If we read the opinions of Zhao Ziyang [the Secretary of the CCP in 1989, removed because of his reformist positions and dialogue with the students] which he expressed during his house arrest [published in Prisoner of State, Simon & Schuster, 2010], we can realize the full extent of it. This is why the argument that socialism cannot possibly succeed in any particular country is so reasonable. As for Xi, his speech is more complex than that, because I still have the belief that the real logic of the CCP is aimed at getting something better for the people. To be fair, Xi also said that we should not use the last three decades of the People’s Republic to denigrate its first 30 years.

Today, according to your argument in your latest book, China seems to be able to tell “what is right” and “what is wrong,” at least with respect to its past. But what image of China is the Communist Party ready to reveal to the world?

There is no consensus on this matter. Most of the CCP leaders are without ideas and without ideals these days. They are there just to make a career. Wang Qishan, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang might perhaps have some ideas on how to answer this question. The most explicit articulation is Xi’s own: to pursue the common destiny of humanity (renlei gongtong mingyun), finding a common ground, setting aside differences for coexistence and peaceful development—the origin of the idea of the New Silk Road. This is assumed to hold (allowing for the relevant differences) both at the international level and at the domestic political level.

In the case of China, what is the difference between what you call “knowledge” and “attitude”?

Mankind’s production of knowledge is currently dominated by the West and capitalism. The Chinese intellectual elite is largely subsumed within this production system. The attitude towards China is a particularly harsh one, because neither the left nor the right finds China interesting. The left believes that China is too capitalist, and the right thinks it’s too communist. Furthermore, there are also racist attitudes towards China. Knowledge strengthens attitude, and attitude leads to a certain type of knowledge production. They feed off each other.

During the decade of Hu Jintao’s rule, there was the feeling that China could change—I mean, not in a democratic sense, but in the sense of a greater focus on redistribution and on the distortions brought about by development. Then, everything seemed to stop. Why?

There was a very positive change that was introduced: the abolition of all types of agricultural taxes. It was the first time this was done in China’s entire history of over 2000 years. Hu probably wanted to do more, but he was too weak. We do not know much about the political goals that remained hidden behind the red wall of the Zhongnanhai (the headquarters of the Communist Party— n.ed.), but I guess the main reason for this can be found in the vested interest brought to bear by many sectors: a self-protective interest, which meant that the political objectives did not end up making it out of the Zhongnanhai complex at that time. I suspect that this was the reason why Xi wanted to create many small political groups under his leadership. I think this is his solution to get around the various ministerial obstacles to the implementation of policies. What I call “vested interest” is the world of state-owned enterprises, of “princelings” (a faction within the CCP made up of the children and relatives of CCP officials) and of the “comprador elite.”

What do you think of Xi Jinping’s use of Mao?

He has the conviction that the CCP should, and could, serve China and the Chinese people better. His insistence on the concept of chuxin (“the original aspiration”) is not mere rhetoric, but a real attempt to restore the spirit and the legitimacy of the Communist Party.

Partly because of the New Silk Road, a debate about the concept of Tianxia has been reignited in China. What do you think about it? How can this concept help China propose a global governance system?

I can understand the intention of the debate, but I don’t think it is a useful concept in this world. I think “common destiny through peaceful development” is a more acceptable concept outside of China. Tianxia implies a center and a hierarchy. This is not a concept that is acceptable in the modern world.

Daniel A. Bell’s “The Chinese Model” has just been published in Italy. First of all, what do you think about this book? Don’t you agree that the conflict between democracy and meritocracy is limiting because it is inserted into a capitalist logic, without imagining other possibilities? To go further: might a Chinese model be able to differentiate itself from the evolution of Western capitalism?

Bell has the merit of showing that elections should not be the only criterion for legitimacy with which to assess a country. So far, Bell is the only voice willing to fight against the dominant political discourse in the West who has also been taken seriously. This is a huge accomplishment. But it has its limitations when looking at the particulars. Then, regarding whether or not there is a Chinese model that can provide an alternative—this is not an argument that has led to a definitive answer so far, and perhaps there cannot be one at all. It will depend on two main factors: whether China will be able to resolve its internal contradictions and perplexities, and the extent to which the West is willing to strangle China before China becomes successful.

For some time now, China has been undertaking an extraordinary technological commitment—we are talking about Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, a social credit system. And it seems that China is on the same path as Western countries towards a “surveillance state,” in a world characterized by “surveillance capitalism.” What do you think about this? And how important is Chinese history in this social control scenario (I am thinking, for example, of the baojia, or the more recent organization of neighborhoods)?

Yes, this is worrying for people like us, who are individualistic and autonomous. But it might not be so threatening—at least not yet—form many in China. In their view, if they obey the rules and laws, there will be no problems, no matter how much they are under surveillance. For some, this is a net positive in terms of personal safety. This is the attitude adopted by many in China about the so-called social credit experiment. It is currently difficult to enforce any rules and regulations in China, even those which have the best intentions. In traditional China, invading personal freedom and privacy in general was not a social problem, because the tradition stressed social obligation, mutual responsibility and mutual relations. Now, China has changed too much, because people do not care about personal space anymore. As a result, I think this may be a problem in the future.

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