China at a crossroad: Right or left?
By Jian Junbo
SHANGHAI - As China feels the pinch of the economic downturn, its government is under increased pressure from the "neo-leftist" and "rightist" camps. The rightists want Beijing to speed up democratization, while neo-leftists demand the restoration of some sort of socialism. The two camps have recently intensified their criticism of each other to compete for public influence.
The conflict shows the crossroads China is at after 30 years of economic reform and opening up. If it has learned from the past, then the Chinese Communist Party will reject both extremes and seek a middle path.
The neo-leftists first became active a few years ago, but their influence remained limited until recently. Amid the economic downturn, social injustice issues such as official corruption and the widening wealth gap have risen in importance, and this offered them a golden political opportunity. Recent surveys have showed that social injustice is the public's top source of discontent.
The neo-leftists are made up of young or middle-aged intellectuals such as Zuo Dapei from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan from Tsinghua University, Wang Shaoguang from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Gan Yang at the Hong Kong University, and Wen Tiejun from Renmin University of China.
They are called neo-leftists to separate them from the old leftists from the 1980s, who staunchly opposed late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms of the time. The neo-leftists do not oppose a market economy but do advocate a stronger role for the government in the economy and wealth distribution.
The rightists are a much larger group, mostly made up of liberal intellectuals, party veterans and economists. This group supports capitalist-style economic reforms and China's "opening up". It is often regarded as pro-West.
The global financial crisis has been seen in China as the failure of a laissez-faire economy, and neo-leftists have seized on this opportunity to intensify their attacks on the somewhat crestfallen rightists. Through such attacks they can press the government for fundamental changes in economic policy, and by highlighting social issue the group has attracted public attention.
Several days ago, at Wu You Hometown Bookshop, a well-know neo-leftist center in Beijing, a lecture session on social problems was so full that latecomers had to stand in its passageways. This was not a one-off, as the bookshop regularly attracts neo-leftist crowds to lectures and seminars. The name of the bookshop, Wu You Hometown, is symbolic of neo-leftist idealism, as in Chinese literature it refers to a visionary world similar to utopia.
Generally speaking, neo-leftists believe they represent the interests of the grassroots, especially in rural areas. Pointing to the widening gaps between the rich and the poor, and between cities and the countryside, neo-leftists have questioned the Chinese road toward modernization. They claim this road has been based on the Western values that rightists advocate, such as a free market economy and "small government".
The rightists have pinned the blame for the downturn on political reform lagging behind economic reform, and not on the free market economy. They advocate political reforms that would implement what they call "universal values", such as democracy, human rights and liberty.
For a long time, the rightists were in favor as their views were in line with the government's policy of reform and opening up, which many say has led to China's economic rise. This has led many rightists to think they are on the "right" side of history, and that China's rise occurred due to its integration into the "civilized" world dominated by Western countries, especially the United States.
Because of this, the rightists sneer at the neo-leftists claiming they know nothing about economic realities. They criticize them for their lack of "moral sense", as they do not believe in the rightists' "universal values" of liberty and democracy.
Both camps have made false accusations against each other. The rightists have said neo-leftists want to restore Maoist-style authoritarianism, but neo-leftists are different from the traditional leftists that advocated this.
Neo-leftists on the other hand have said that rightist's proposals for integration with the West will damage China's sovereignty. Yet not all rightists think Western values should be adopted by China.
Common ground has been found in the groups' criticism of the government. The neo-leftists are not satisfied with the fast development of the capitalist economy, as they claim it has caused social injustice. While the rightists have criticized the government for the slow place of political reform leading to democratization.
It is hard to predict how long the dispute will last. But it is certain that China's success cannot be based solely on only one of the groups, as neither wants to attain a balance between social justice and national development.
The social justice advocated by neo-leftists cannot automatically lead to national growth, while the rightists' support for a free market economy will affect inevitably affect equality levels.
Neo-leftists' emotional criticism of the rightists often stimulates nationalistic sentiments like those expressed in the new best-selling book China Is Unhappy. (See The Chinese are not happy, Asia Times Online, Apr 22] Meanwhile, the rightists' claim to the moral high ground is a myth. If they consider themselves to be universalists, they should ask why they are considered by neo-leftists to be the accomplices of "villainous" capitalists from China and abroad.
The dispute between neo-leftist and rightists reflects contradictions facing Chinese society. When more and more issues arise, deeper or even more radical reforms will be needed to resolve them. Both of the groups claim to be on the right side of history and truth, but especially in this time of global economic crisis, they should be thinking more about China's future.
The balance between these economic success and social justice is important both for Chinese people's lives and for the government's legitimacy. From this perspective, the current leadership is most likely to follow Deng's wisdom and take a middle road between the left and the right. No doubt, this task will be easier said than done.
Dr Jian Junbo is assistant professor of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.