The New Left and the Old Politics of Knowledge: A Battle for Chinese Political Discourse

  • Daniel F. Vukovich
Part of the China in Transformation book series (CIT)


In the world of China after Tiananmen, 1989, after that violent and, what is more, that un-necessary crackdown in response to a large, mostly peaceful and ‘loyal’ if disorganized protest and shutdown of Beijing, most Western observers still expected—perhaps still expect—an eventual return of mass protests and demands for ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’ or political and ideological ‘liberalization.’ While I (2012) and many others have written at length on 1989, the best place to begin is with some of the collections of documents from the era, for example, Mok Chiu Yu et al., Eds., Voices from Tiananmen Square (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1990); Suzanne Ogden et al., Eds., China’s Search for Democracy: The Student and Mass Movement of 1989 (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1992); and Lu, Ping et al., Eds., A Moment of Truth: Workers’ Participation in China’s 1989 Democracy Movement, and the Emergence of Independent Unions. (Trans. Gus Mok et al. Hong Kong: HK Trade Union Education Centre, 1990). By ‘loyal’ here I mean that the sentiment of the student demands was largely patriotic and a demand for inclusion of—it must be said—their own class fraction. By unnecessary, I simply mean that the students and most protesters—even the striking workers who represented the greatest potential power and ‘threat’—were fully in retreat by June 3. The use of violence—death—was simply terror; even in its own terms of stability and so forth the state could well have resolved the ‘crisis’ by means other than that, and the later neo-liberalization of the economy. But it was Deng’s party at this point, and his politics. What was called the ‘cultural fever’ of the 1980s before that event was precisely such a ferment, the wide-ranging embrace of ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy’ (as signifiers, as translated texts, in various fora) of seemingly all things ‘Western’ (from global capitalism to popular culture). (Three notable studies of the 1980s era and culture fever remain: Jing Wang, High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Zhang Xudong, Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms: Cultural Fever, Avant-Garde Fiction, and the New Chinese Cinema (Durham: Duke UP, 1997); and Kalpana Mishra, From Post-Maoism to Post-Marxism: The Erosion of Official Ideology in Deng’s China (New York: Routledge, 1998). See also Chen Xiaomei, Occidentalism: A Theory of Counter-discourse in Post-Mao China. 2nd ed. Foreword by Dai Jinhua. (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002)). This was perhaps best represented, before the student protesters themselves (as opposed to the striking workers), by the controversial yet state-funded and thus state-sanctioned documentary series He Shang, a paean to ‘the rise of the West’ and the decline of ancient, ‘yellow,’ Confucian, ‘feudal’ China (also represented by Mao in the film). If it pathologized peasants for lacking entrepreneurial and modern spirit, and idealized the rise of the modern, capitalist West, it nonetheless expressed genuine, widely felt enthusiasm for the new era; in its concluding minutes, He Shang even trumpeted political reform (which led to its still-current ban after 1989). With the image of the murky Yellow River emptying into the Pacific, it offered a vision and ‘China dream’ of endless development, progress, and possibility, a new order of bright sunny days stemming from globalization and capitalist expansion. As if it were sublimating and not simply (not only) rejecting political, equalitarian, Maoist revolution. Clearly the China of the 1980s and the Western ‘end of history’ sentiment (Fukuyama) must have indexed something big happening. After the awful interruption of progress on the morning of June 4, 1989, surely the zeitgeist, China’s convergence with political normalcy and ‘modern’ democratic forms would return, alongside its burgeoning and increasingly privatized economy and all those millions lifted out of poverty. The velvet, or jasmine, or Tahir Square moment awaits.


Chinese Politics Tiananmen High Culture Fever Modern Chinese Maoist Discourse 
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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel F. Vukovich
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Comparative LiteratureHong Kong UniversityHong Kong SARHong Kong

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