With its soaring glass towers and giant neon signs, Beijing looks like the new mecca of global capitalism. But behind the glitz there’s growing disenchantment with relentless market reforms that have shrunk social services and thrown at least 20 million people out of work. Within intellectual circles, the echo of this disillusionment has become the rallying cry of a group known as China’s New Left. This loose coalition comprises leading academics, many of whom have studied in the West and are disenchanted by it. They’re challenging China’s current market reforms with a simple message: China’s failed twentieth-century experiment with Communism cannot be undone in the twenty-first century by embracing nineteenth-century-style laissez-faire capitalism. China is “caught between the two extremes of misguided socialism and crony capitalism, and suffering from the worst of both systems,” says Wang Hui, a professor of literature at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. His passionate denunciations of China’s market reforms in Du Shu, a magazine he edits, are partly credited with energizing China’s New Left intellectuals. “We have to find an alternate way. This is the great mission of our generation.”
Such grand visions notwithstanding, the New Left’s adherents don’t have a unified ideology beyond the broad brush strokes, or a coherent set of alternate policies. Some are hard-liners who find common cause with China’s “old” leftists, who remain faithful to Mao’s radical “Communism with Chinese characteristics.” Though they say they rue the violence of the Maoist years, they remain enchanted with the sociopolitical initiatives of that period, such as collectivization. But the majority of New Left intellectuals are moderates who recognize that old Communist dogma lies discredited, and who simply want to rein in the excesses of China’s market reforms. Their main complaint is that China’s export-led growth strategy skews society and allows the fruits of reform to be harvested by urban residents and by government and Communist Party officials.
That criticism resonates increasingly with both discontented workers and peasants. “This is now an unjust society,” says Lu She Zhong, 55, a village leader in central Henan province, who’s been battling local authorities for six years over unpaid compensation after his entire village was resettled to make way for the giant Xiao Langdi dam on the Yellow River. “I know such projects are important, but why were we cheated in the bargain?” Public anger over illegal demolitions, withheld pensions and corruption led to more than 50,000 protests in 2003, seven times the number from a decade before, according to official reports, including those from the Ministry of Public Security.
But significantly, public security officials and police who used to crack down hard on such protests and blame external forces for trying to destabilize China now apply New Left thinking to explain the causes of the unrest and urge a kinder, gentler response. “Surprising numbers of analysts in the public security system display an undisguised sympathy for the very worker and peasant protestors the police are supposed to suppress,” wrote Murray Scot Tanner, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation in Washington, DC, in an article in the Summer 2004 issue of Washington Quarterly. “In their writings, they characterize laid-off demonstrators as ‘exploited,’ ‘marginalized,’ ‘socially disadvantaged,’ ‘victims’ and ‘losers’ in economic competition, driven to protest by social distrust and the ‘heartlessness’ of the free market. They frankly concede that many protesters are victims of crooked managers who drove their factories into bankruptcy through illicit dealings or who absconded with company assets.”