The neoconservative turn in China

Image: Zhang Kaiyv


Today, the tragedy of the Great Leap Forward is being repeated as comedy in the modernizing capitalist Great Leap Forward.

The Chinese campaign against big corporations and the opening of a new stock exchange in Beijing dedicated to promoting small companies can be seen as recent movements against neo-feudal corporatism, that is, as attempts to bring back a “normal” capitalism. The irony of the situation is evident: a strong communist regime whose power is threatened by large corporations seeks allies among “normal” small capitalists… This is why I follow with great interest the writings of Wang Huning, member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China and director of the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization.

Wang calls himself a neoconservative. Now what does that mean? If we trust our mainstream media, Wang is the mind behind this new direction in Chinese policy. When I read that one of the measures recently imposed by the Chinese government was the ban on “996”, I must admit that my first association was sexual. For good connoisseurs, “69” refers to a well-known position in which a couple performs oral sex simultaneously. Thus, I immediately associated “996” with some more perverted practice that is said to be spreading in China involving two men and a woman (since there is a shortage of women there). I later learned that “996” actually refers to a brutal work schedule imposed by many corporations in China (a 9 am to 21 pm workday, 6 days a week). In a sense, however, I wasn't entirely wrong. The ongoing campaign in China has a dual aim: to promote more economic equality, including better working conditions, and to eliminate Westernized popular culture of sex and consumerism.

What does it mean, then, to be a neoconservative under current conditions? In mid-October 2019, Chinese media launched an offensive promoting the claim that “the demonstrations in Europe and South America were a direct result of the West’s tolerance of the Hong Kong demonstrations”. In a comment posted on Beijing News, the former Chinese diplomat Wang Zhen wrote that “the disastrous impact of a 'chaotic Hong Kong' has begun to influence the western world”, that is, that the protesters in Chile and Spain are somehow following the example of Hong Kong . In more or less the same vein, an editorial by Global Times accused Hong Kong protesters of “export revolution to the world”:

The West is paying the price for supporting the Hong Kong riots, which quickly sparked violence in other parts of the world – a harbinger of political risks the West cannot manage. […] There are many problems in the West and there are all kinds of undercurrents of latent dissatisfaction. Many of them will eventually manifest themselves in the same way as the Hong Kong protests. […] Catalonia is probably just the beginning.

Although the idea that the demonstrations in Barcelona and Chile were being guided by Hong Kong is a bit far-fetched, these explosions brought to light a general discontent that was obviously already there, lurking, just waiting for any contingent trigger to break out – either that even when the particular law or measure was revoked by the authorities, the protests continued. Communist China quietly plays on the solidarity of those in power around the world against rebellious populations, warning the West not to underestimate popular discontent latent within its own borders – as if, beneath all the ideological and geopolitical tensions , all these powers share the same basic interest in maintaining power… But will this defense work?

Wang is an authentic thinker. This is definitely not a Chinese version of an Aleksandr Dugin, and we shouldn't dismiss his moves as a mere excuse to impose total Communist Party control over the country's social life. Wang is responding to a real problem. Thirty years ago he wrote a book entitled america against america, which didactically listed the antagonisms present in the American way of life, including its darker sides: social disintegration, lack of solidarity and shared values, nihilistic consumerism and individualism... it is a climax of social disintegration because it introduces obscenity into public discourse, thus depriving it of its dignity – something not only forbidden but totally unimaginable in China. We will definitely never see a senior Chinese politician doing what Trump does publicly: bragging about the size of his penis, imitating the orgasmic sounds of a woman... Wang's fear was that the same disease could spread to China. Now, this is exactly what appears to be happening now at the popular level of mass culture, so the current reforms are a desperate attempt to combat this trend.

Again: will this work? I'm a bit skeptical.

In the first place, I see in the way in which the current campaign is being carried out a tension between content and form: the content (the promotion of stable values ​​that hold a society together) is imposed on crafts of a mobilization that is experienced as a kind of state of emergency imposed by the state apparatus. Although the objective is the opposite of that of the Cultural Revolution, there are similarities with regard to the form of the campaign. The danger I see is that such tensions could end up producing cynical disbelief in the population. More generally, the ongoing campaign in China seems to me to be very close to the old conservative procedure of wanting to enjoy the benefits of capitalist dynamism, but seeking to control its destructive aspects through a strong nation-state responsible for promoting patriotic values.

Carlo Ginzburg proposed the idea that it is the feeling of shame of one's own country, and not the love for it, which is perhaps the true mark of national belonging. A supreme example of this kind of shaming occurred in 2014 when hundreds of Holocaust survivors and descendants of survivors purchased ad space in the Saturday edition of the New York Times condemning what they called the "massacre of Palestinians in Gaza and the ongoing occupation and colonization of historic Palestine". “We are appalled by the extreme racist dehumanization against Palestinians in Israeli society, which has reached an absolutely intolerable point,” the statement read. Perhaps, today, some Israelis muster up the courage to feel ashamed of what Israel is doing in the West Bank and even within the State of Israel itself – not, of course, in the sense of being ashamed of being Jewish, but, on the contrary, of feel ashamed of what Israeli policy in the West Bank is doing to the most precious legacy of Judaism itself. “My country, right or wrong” is one of the most disgusting slogans and perfectly illustrates what is wrong with unconditional patriotism. The same goes for China today. The space in which we can develop this critical thinking is the space of the public use of reason. In the famous passage of his “What is Enlightenment?”, Immanuel Kant opposes the “public” and “private” uses of reason: “private” does not refer to one's individual space as opposed to communal ties, but to one's own institutional-communal order of one's particular identification; while “public” concerns the transnational universality of one’s exercise of reason:

The public use of one's reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men. The private use of reason can, however, often be very narrowly limited, without however notably hindering the progress of enlightenment. I understand, however, by the name of the public use of his own reason that which any man, as a sage, makes of it before the great public of the literate world. I call the private use that the wise man can make of his reason in a certain public office or function entrusted to him (KANT, 1985, p. 104-105)

That is why Kant's Enlightenment formula is not "Don't obey, think freely!" nor "Don't obey, think and rebel!" but rather: "Think freely, expose your thoughts publicly, and obey!” The same goes for those who doubt vaccines: debate, publish your doubts, but obey the regulations as soon as the public authorities impose them. Without such a practical consensus, the tendency is for us to become a society composed of tribal factions – which is already happening in many Western countries today. Furthermore, without the space for the public use of reason, the State itself flirts with the danger of becoming just another instance of the private use of reason.

There is a deep structural homology between Maoist permanent self-revolution, the permanent struggle against the ossification of state structures, and the inherent dynamics of capitalism. I think Wang is silently aware of this. I am tempted to paraphrase here the insight of Bertolt Brecht who compares the robbery of a bank to the founding of a bank: after all, what are the violent and destructive outbursts of a Red Guardist enmeshed in the Cultural Revolution compared to the real Revolution? Cultural, the permanent dissolution of all forms of life demanded by capitalist reproduction? Today, the tragedy of the Great Leap Forward is being repeated as comedy in the modernizing capitalist Great Leap: in place of the old slogan “a steel furnace in every village”, we have “a skyscraper on every corner”.

Some naïve leftists claim the legacy of the Cultural Revolution and Maoism in general still acts as a counter force to unbridled capitalism, curbing its worst excesses while maintaining a modicum of social solidarity. But what if it's actually the exact opposite? What if, in an unintentional and therefore even more cruelly ironic way, the Cultural Revolution, with its brutal erasure of the traditions of the past, was in fact the shock that created the conditions for the ongoing capitalist explosion? What if China has to be added to Naomi Klein's list of states in which a natural, military or social catastrophe paved the way for a new capitalist upsurge?

The supreme irony of history is therefore that it was Mao himself who created the ideological conditions for rapid capitalist development by tearing apart the fabric of traditional society. Now, what was his appeal to the people, especially the young, in the Cultural Revolution? “Don't wait for someone to tell you what to do, you have the right to rebel! Therefore, think and act for yourselves, destroy cultural relics, denounce and attack not only your elders, but government and party officials as well! Get rid of the repressive mechanisms of the State and organize into communes!” And Mao's plea was indeed heard: what followed was an outburst of unbridled passion to delegitimize all forms of authority, to the point where the army eventually had to be called in to intervene to restore order.

With the neoconservative turn in China, a whole cycle of emancipatory politics was closed. In Notes for the definition of culture, the celebrated English conservative TS Eliot observed that there are times when the only choice left is between heresy and unbelief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to effect a sectarian split of its main corpse. Lenin did this in relation to traditional Marxism. Mao did it his way. Both failed. For the left to still have a chance, this sectarian split must be achieved.

*Slavoj Žižek is a professor at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Author, among other books, of The year we dreamed dangerously (Boitempo).

Translation: Arthur Renzo protocols for Boitempo's blog .



Immanuel Kant. “Answer to the question: what is 'enlightenment'?”. In: Immanuel Kant: selected texts. Trans. Floriano de Sousa Fernandes. Petropolis, Voices, 1985.


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