I can say that while teaching in China I am enjoying the process of setting young and active minds on the correct path. To that end, I tell them:

1. The United States is a very strange country, unlike any other. For that reason, they should not generalise from the USA.

2. Europe is a very barbaric place, full of petty tribalisms.

3. Bourgeois (liberal) democracy is a dreadful system, best avoided (actually, they know this already).

4. Australia is neither a Western nor an Eastern country, since it is in the South.

5. Kangaroo meat is very good for you.

Since many of my students will be future government leaders and officials, I hope these items and more will have some effect.

However, I have also learnt a few things from them:

1. Communism is not a rational ideal that you then try to actualise.

2. Communism is not singular but multiple.

3. They work very hard and know much more about the rest of the world than the world knows about China.

4. One’s stomach is the best guide for travelling to different places.

5. Office hours mean I buy them lunch and we talk for more than four hours – about everything.

The indefatigable Dialectical Materialist Collective from Kosovo has just published the first – and bumper – issue of the new journal, Crisis and Critique. As you will see, I follow on the heels of none other than Slavoj Žižek. My contribution concerns ‘Socialist Democracy with Chinese Characteristics‘.

Less known than it should be, China actually has eight officially recognised parties apart from the Communist Party. These are non-communist parties with a total membership of 700,000 and actually provide invaluable feedback for the government in its continual efforts to gain a feel for public opinion. Members of these parties often have government posts and senior roles (more here). They are:

Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang (RCCK)
In November 1947, the sect of democrats in the Chinese Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) held its first joint meeting with patriotic democratic personages in Hong Kong. On January 1, 1948, the meeting declared that the RCCK had been officially founded.

RCCK recruits members mostly from people who have relations with the former Chinese Kuomintang, those who have historical or social relations with the RCCK and those who have ties with Taiwan. The RCCK also recruits members from other sources, especially those of the middle and upper social strata, and senior and leading intellectuals.

The successive chairpersons of the RCCK in the past were Li Jishen, He Xiangning, Zhu Yunshan, Wang Kunlun, Qu Wu, Zhu Xuefan and Li Peiyao. The present chairwoman is He Luli.

The RCCK currently has branches in 30 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government. Party membership numbers 81,000.

China Democratic League (CDL)
The China Democratic League was secretly established on March 19, 1941 in Chongqing, and was then named China Democratic Political League. On November 16, Zhang Lan officially declared the founding of the China Democratic Political League in Chongqing. In September 1944, the China Democratic Political League held a national congress in Chongqing and decided to rename itself the China Democratic League.

The CDL is mainly made up of senior and leading intellectuals in the fields of culture, education, and science and technology.

The successive chairpersons in the past were Huang Yanpei, Zhang Lan, Shen Junru, Yang Mingxuan, Shi Liang, Chu Tu’nan, Fei Xiaotong and Ding Shisun. The present chairman is Jiang Shusheng.

The CDL now has branches in 30 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government. Party membership numbers more than 181,000.

China National Democratic Construction Association (CNDCA)
The China National Democratic Construction Association was founded by a number of patriotic industrialists and business people, as well as some intellectuals in Chongqing on December 16, 1945.

The members of the association are mainly business people.

The successive leaders and chairpersons in the past were Huang Yanpei, Hu Juewen and Sun Qimeng. The present chairman is Cheng Siwei.

The CNDCA has branches in 30 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government, and more than 108,000 members.

China Association for Promoting Democracy (CAPD)
Founded in Shanghai on December 30, 1945, the original members of the China Association for Promoting Democracy were mainly intellectuals in the fields of culture, education and publishing, together with a group of patriotic personages in the fields of industry and business.

Its present members are mainly senior and leading intellectuals in the fields of culture, education and publishing.

The successive chairpersons of the past were Ma Xulun, Zhou Jianren, Ye Shengtao and Lei Jieqiong. Its present chairman is Xu Jialu.

Currently, the CAPD has branches in 29 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government, with a membership of over 103,000.

Chinese Peasants and Workers Democratic Party (CPWDP)
Deng Yanda, a leader of the left wing of the Kuomintang, held the first national cadres’ conference of the Kuomintang in Shanghai on August 9, 1930, and at the conference the Provisional Action Committee of the Kuomintang of China was founded. On November 10, 1935, it was renamed the Chinese Action Committee for National Liberation. On February 3, 1947, it was renamed the Chinese Peasants and Workers Democratic Party.

Its members are mainly senior and leading intellectuals in the medical field.

The successive leaders and chairpersons of the party were Deng Yanda, Huang Qixiang, Zhang Bojun, Ji Fang, Zhou Gucheng and Lu Jiaxi. Its present chairman is Jiang Zhenghua.

The CPWDP now has branches in 30 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government, with more than 99,000 members.

China Zhi Gong Dang (CZGD)
The China Zhi Gong Dang was founded in October 1925 in San Francisco, USA, under the sponsorship of some overseas Chinese societies. In May 1947, the party held its third congress in Hong Kong, and reorganized itself into a new democratic party.

Its members are mainly from the middle and upper social strata of returned overseas Chinese and their relatives.

The successive chairpersons of the party were Chen Qiyou, Huang Dingchen and Dong Yinchu. Its present chairman is Luo Haocai.

The CZGD now has branches in 19 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government, with more than 28,000 members.

Jiu San Society
At the end of 1944, a number of progressive scholars organized the Forum on Democracy and Science, to strive for victory in the Anti-Japanese War and political democracy, and to develop the anti-imperialist and patriotic spirit of the May 4 Movement of 1919. In commemoration of victory in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and in the world anti-Fascist war, on September 3, 1945, it adopted the name Jiu San Society (“Jiu San” means September 3 in Chinese). On May 4, 1946, the Jiu San Society was formally founded in Chongqing.

Its members are mainly senior and leading intellectuals in the fields of science and technology.

The successive chairpersons of the past were Xu Deheng, Zhou Peiyuan and Wu Jieping. Its present chairman is Han Qide.

The Jiu San Society currently has branches in 30 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government, with more than 105,000 members.

Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League (TSL)
The TSL was founded in Hong Kong on November 12, 1947 by a number of Taiwan personages engaged in patriotic campaigns after the February 28 Uprising of the Taiwan people that year.

The TSL is composed of people from Taiwan.

The successive chairpersons of the past were Xie Xuehong, Cai Xiao, Su Ziheng, Cai Zimin and Zhang Kehui. The present chairwoman is Lin Wenyi. From 1987 to 1992, the Fourth Central Committee of the TSL adopted the presidium system. The executive chairmen were Lin Shengzhong (1987-1988) and Cai Zimin (1988-1992).

The TSL now has branches in 13 provinces and municipalities directly under the central government, with a membership of over 2,100.

Personages Without Party Affiliation 
During the New Democratic Revolution (1919-1949), the famous personages without party affiliation were generally called prominent public figures. Since the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference was founded in 1949, the category of “democratic personages without party affiliation” has been set up. Currently, those who do not belong to any party but have made positive contributions to and have a positive influence on society are categorized as personages without party affiliation. They are mostly intellectuals.

The representatives of this group included Guo Moruo, Ma Yinchu, Ba Jin, Miao Yuntai and Cheng Siyuan.

(source: White Paper on China’s Political Part System)

Forget the Great Wall, hutongs in Beijing, shopping in Shanghai, the Forbidden City – the best places to visit are the key points in the Chinese Revolution. Yan’an is an absolute must, for here the Central Committee and the Red Armies established their headquarters at the end of the long march. The town of Yan’an, in the northern parts of Shaanxi Province, was the heart of the revolution from 1938 to 1947. Situated on the upper reaches of the Yellow River (yes, the river really is yellow, from the soil in those parts), the town might have grown to one million people today, but it is very much a provincial town. Expect people to photograph you, or even throw an arm around you and expect to be photographed with you; expect that possibly one person in town may speak a language you know; and expect the best Chinese food you can possibly find. The way to get there is by overnight sleeper from Beijing or Xi’an. You’ll probably have an old Chinese man snoring loudly in the bunk above you, when he is not calling his friends and telling them loudly about the laowai (foreigners) in his cabin. And you may have a woman in the other bunk, sleeping beside her daughter, who keeps on staring at the strange people down below.

The place to begin is Yangjialing village, where the leaders of the revolution lived in homes cut into the mountainside:


In case you are unsure about where to begin your exploration, a sign helpfully indicates the pace to start:


And then:


In Yangjialing is the famous meeting hall, where Mao gave his talks on literature and art:

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Yes, I’m standing where the man himself once stood:


Overlooking proceedings are the great four:

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Afterwards, saunter along the banks of the Yellow River for a while, where new bridges celebrate the revolution:

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Until you come to the Revolutionary Memorial Hall. It is a massive museum, with more than 30,000 items from that time. Out the front, the chairman both greets you:

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And watches over the town:

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But the square can be a little daunting for some:

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Inside, a welcoming committee awaits:


I was taken with the song book for soldiers in the Red Army:

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With the women soldiers:

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It is worth noting that the Guomindang, under Chiang Kai-Shek, would immediately shoot any women they captured with short hair and natural feet. Why? They assumed they must be communists. So modern Chinese women have the revolution to thank for normal feet.

I was also intrigued by the literature translated and read in Yan’an:


Lenin, of course, but also Karl Kautsky:

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That one’s actually in Russian, for they avidly learnt Russian as well. But they also read Stalin. Indeed, Stalin is probably the most cited foreign author in Mao’s works.

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Although all four of the ‘hairy grandfathers’ often make an appearance:

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Who are now outnumbered by the hairless grandfathers:

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There were also statistics on communist party membership:

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A significant section was devoted to Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor (from Montreal) and communist who practised what he preached and took himself to Yan’an and its district to organise the medical units:

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Bethune died from septicemia at the age of 49, and Mao’s famous article on Bethune is still required reading in Chinese schools. Among other things, China’s premier medical prize is named after Bethune, and he was single-handedly responsible for the close relations between China and Canada.

I was also intrigued by model of Yan’an village at the time:

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And of course the reddish artwork:

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Ethnocentrism is run of the mill stuff for the classical economists, often in virulent form. China causes them particular headaches, given its wealth, population, and sophistication. Isn’t Western Europe, especially England, the most advanced place on the globe. What do to do about China? Forget facts, just make up stuff. For instance, Adam Smith opines:

The poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpasses that of the most beggarly nations in Europe. In the neighbourhood of Canton many hundred, it is commonly said, many thousand families have no habitation on the land, but live constantly in little fishing boats upon the rivers and canals. The subsistence which they find there is so scanty that they are eager to fish up the nastiest garbage thrown overboard from any European ship. Any carrion, the carcase of a dead dog or cat, for example, though half putrid and stinking, is as welcome to them as the most wholesome food to the people of other countries. Marriage is encouraged in China, not by the profitableness of children, but by the liberty of destroying them. In all great towns several are every night exposed in the street, or drowned like puppies in the water. The performance of this horrid office is even said to be the avowed business by which some people earn their subsistence. ( Wealth of Nations, I.viii.24)

And these fantasies are by no means original to him, since they are standard fare in these woeful works. Come to think of it, I hear comments like this today, even from Lefties who should know better,

During my recent trip to China, I was asked: ‘Do you think China’s problem is that we don’t believe?’

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘A Western religion like Christianity assumes that you must believe’, my companion said. ‘You must have an existential commitment to the cause. In China we don’t have that. Do you think that is a problem?’

His question set me thinking, wondering whether belief isn’t actually the problem. By belief I mean not a collection of doctrines, but as my friend said, the existential commitment, the giving of one’s being to a cause. Is this sense of belief the real problem? In seeking an answer, I am reminded of Burton Mack’s point that belief was a peculiar invention of Christianity, bred under the conditions of marginality in the first couple of centuries. I would extend that point to include the major Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Perhaps Mack was onto something, indicating the oddness, the peculiarity of belief.

But we should not rest with Western religions, for long ago that notion of belief was extended to politics. Thus, one believes in liberalism, or anarchism, or communism. One becomes a true believer of a political party, one ‘keeps the faith’. One commits to the cause, heart and soul and mind, and fights for it by whatever means. But is this not the problem? Is it perhaps the case that the truly dangerous person is the one who really believes, who is thoroughly committed to the cause? I suspect so.

This is why the recent lecture given by Graham Ward, who now calls himself the Reverend Professor, was so deeply mistaken. Its title was ‘Why Believe?’ and it was given at Christ Church Cathedral in Newcastle, Australia. In a chronic example of ethnocentrism, he extrapolated from the particularity of Christianity and asserted that belief is part of human nature, that it is characteristic of being human, even an anthropological condition. So you can find it everywhere, from prehistory to modern neuroscience. Yet he failed to ask whether belief itself is the problem, whether its claim to universal status is then a false universal.

What’s the alternative? In his earlier and more interesting days, before he began believing in communism, Žižek made an interesting observation concerning communism in Eastern Europe. Everyone was critical of the government, thought a better world existed outside their own country (especially in the West), and no one actually believed in communism. Rather than a sign of the failure of communism, he argued that this was precisely the sign of its success. Of course, Žižek suggested this as one of his dialectical jokes, but he may have spoken more truly than he realised.

All of which makes sense of what I once thought was a curious answer to the question, ‘Are you a believer?’ It was asked of a visitor from China to north-western Europe. His answer was, ‘I am a believer without belief’. Most present laughed, thinking it a clever answer, a way of avoiding answering the question. But now I suspect that he spoke directly: yes, I am a believer, but not in the sense that you understand it, for I do not have belief.

(originally posted on Political Theology)

Some people may already know that I have accepted a position at Renmin University of China, in Beijing. For those interested in fancy titles, I will be the Xin Ao Professor of Literature there. It entails one semester a year in China. But why? Why would I take up a position in China?

To begin with, Renmin (the ‘People’s’) University itself has excellent revolutionary credentials. It was founded in 1937 in the Yan’an soviet (northern Shaanxi province), after the Long March. People were originally taught in the open, in huts, in village houses typically cut into the mountain sides there. Whoever had some experience in a topic would teach it – from literacy through drama to military theory. After the success of the revolution in 1949, Renmin moved to Beijing.

Further, there seems to be still a genuine interest in intellectual life, an immense desire for knowledge. I don’t mean this in some idealistic sense, but rather that knowledge is not seen as part of the ‘innovation industry’, as it has been called elsewhere. The universities aren’t being corporatized, academics are not expected to run around like little businessmen and businesswomen, and your worth is not measured by the latest pay deal you’ve managed to wrangle from the bean-counters.Appropriately, pay for professors is quite modest.

Third, their main desire is for me to be there as a scholar. That’s a teaching load of 3 hours per week, with no administration (that’s only if you head up some big unit). This also is a result of that tradition in which the scholar is one of the highest callings.

Fourth, Marxism is a discipline in its own right. Whole university programs and research centres are devoted to teaching and researching in all aspects of Marxism – as it should be everywhere in the world. Even in everyday conversations, it is still refreshing for me to find that people know what Marxism means, that it’s normal to talk about it. That alone should be enough to recommend the place.

The reason is of course that China is a communist country. I’ve always been immensely interested and somewhat jealous of those places in the world that have had communist revolutions. And in China the government is the Chinese Communist Party. Of course, there are plenty of those outside China – on the left as well as the right – who suggest that China is a communist country only in name. It’s really capitalist, they say, and conveniently dismiss the revolution and the government. I have written enough on that elsewhere and will probably return to it again at some point. But from what I have seen – and that’s a fair bit – it’s far more communist than many realise.

To follow on from that point: China is also at a unique and rare time for any country. Most people I talk to say that the way things are going cannot continue. They feel that the government has taken on too many elements of capitalist economics in order to gain economic strength, and therefore appropriated the problems as well. But these people certainly don’t want a bourgeois democracy, since they can see that it is largely a joke. So there is immense energy in exploring a new way forward, with deep searches in the Chinese classics, in contemporary global thought, and so on. I’ve found that political debate there is far wider and freer than in any place with a bourgeois democracy, where nearly everyone agrees on the general path. They are, as Yermakov once said concerning the Russian Revolution, searching for the correct path to the unknown. I want to be there during this time.

Seventh, Chinese people tend to be a critical bunch. If you mention that whatever university you are at is a great university, they are quick to say it isn’t so. If you say that China is now a world power, they’ll say it’s not. They are not afraid to point out the government’s failings. And they are very good at making sure you don’t get too misty-eyed about the place.

Finally, they have the best rail network in the world (a big plus for me) and some truly great food. Again and again I meet people who say I should travel to such and such a place, since the local food is worth the trip. So far I’ve found that is indeed the case.


I’ve been told that one way to gain some understanding of China is to read the massive four-volume ‘novel’, Journey to the West. A very enjoyable read, despite initially baulking at the prospect. So I stumble across a poem, of which there are many in this work, called ‘The Way of Chess’:

The best place is in the middle of the board,

The worst is the side,

And the corners are neither good nor bad.

This is the eternal law of chess.

The law says:

‘It is better to lose a piece

Than to lose the initiative.

When you are struck on the left, look to the right,

When attacked in the rear, keep an eye on your front.

Sometimes the leader is really behind,

sometimes the laggard is really ahead.

If you have two “live” areas do not let them be severed;

If you can survive as you are, do not link up.

Do not spread yourself out too thinly,

Do not crowd your pieces too closely.

Rather than being niggardly with your pieces,

Lose them and win the game.

Rather than moving for no reason,

It is better to strengthen your position.

When he has many and you have few,

Concentrate on survival.

When you have many and he has few,

Extend your positions.

The one who is good at winning does not have to struggle;

The one who draws up a good position does not have to fight;

The one who fights well does not lose;

The one who loses well is not thrown into confusion.

Open your game with conventional gambits,

And end by winning with surprise attacks.

When the enemy strengthens himself for no apparent reason,

He is planning to attack and cut you off.

When he abandons small areas and does not rescue them

His ambitions are great.

The one who places his pieces at random

Has no plans;

The one who responds without thinking

Is heading for defeat.

The Book of Songs says:

“Be cautious and careful

As if you were walking on the edge of a precipice.”

This is what it means’.

The board is the Earth, the chessmen Heaven.

Journey to the West, vol. 1, pp.228-29.

Sometimes you stumble on a real piece of tripe – to wit, this supposedly challenging piece from the ‘Open Democracy’ bunch called ‘Is China More Democratic than Russia‘. They trot out some stunners, such as: if an alien landed on earth today with a political science degree (as aliens do), they would mistakenly assume Russia is democratic and China not. Ah yes, the universality of ‘democracy’. Always dangerous when the qualifier drops away – bourgeois democracy. I also like this one: the Russians are faking democracy while the Chinese are faking communism …

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, the five points suggested, but replace ‘Russia’ with USA, as in ‘Is China more democratic than the USA’.

1. Rotation of power: The United States (or Australia, or Germany …) clearly has elections, but no rotation of power … the role of the elections are not to secure the rotation of power, but to avoid it.

2. Listening to the people: The United States’ rigged elections are a much weaker test to judge the mood of the people and the ability of the regional leaders to deal with them.

3. Tolerance of opposition, tolerance of dissent. Democratic decision-making depends upon both diversity of views and the acceptability of disagreement … If you compare the USA and China, you will see that in USA there is certainly much more tolerance for organised opposition. The process is completely screwed up, but you can register a party, you can go on the street to protest, you can even ask the president to resign. But while Capitol Hill broadly tolerates the opposition, it does not listen to it.

4. Recruitment of elites. First, the great majority of the American elites went to a few Universities. Second, the most important factor influencing membership of this elite circle is to have known a leading politician. In short, the United States is governed by a circle of friends. This is not a meritocratic system in any sense: most of these people have not had proper careers, but have simply ended in this ruling group.

5. Experimentation. My last point comparing these two systems is to emphasise the way in which the Chinese and Americans  totally differ in their view of the experimental nature of politics. Chinese political and economic reforms are organised around the experimentation of different models in the different regions and try to figure out what works from the point of view of the leadership. This is emphatically not the case in the United States: experiment is, basically, a dirty word there. They are not experimenting in the process of trying to build a governable state.

Then again, honour to whom honour is due: when read in this way, in China the government rotates power, listens to the people, tolerates opposition, recruits not merely elites but across the board, and experiments. That makes it a whole lot more democratic than the USA, or Australia, or Germany …

One of the most tantalising comments from Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China concerns Christian hymn tunes. The book is, of course, the result of the first visit by a non-Chinese journalist to the soviets of the Red districts in China’s northwest in the 1930s. Not being particularly interested in matters religious, he notes in passing that the Communist youth organisations led mass singing every day. They were largely revolutionary songs, but then he comments that many of the tunes were from Christian hymns (p. 382).

Such a juicy tidbit leaves one wondering. Did they appropriate some catchy tunes from the many missionaries who plied their trade? If so, then those missionaries sowed an unexpected seed. Did they borrow them from the Russians, who inspired many a revolutionary movement? Or did those tunes themselves embody some elements from that intermittent revolutionary tradition at the core of Christianity? That would mean it was no coincidence that Chinese revolutionary songs were put to Christian hymn tunes.

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